Digger has more homes than pairs of pants - two - an impressive portfolio for a tramp. The skip is his favourite pad, his holiday home away from the piss-stained squalor of his doorway on Victoria Street. When the stress of begging for a living grows too much, he often takes the leisurely stroll south to relax his aching bones.
Occasionally blagger Bill tails him through the streets, shouting expletives at the workers on their lunch breaks. They stare at him for a moment as if his contorted face might be familiar, but the shock of his condition forces them to look away. His dying eyes are blood-shot recesses where the devil lurks, ready to jump out and catch the weak.
Bill is drunk before he gets to Digger's pad, triggering some unpleasant storytelling. Tales of limbless prostitutes and casino brawls rise up from the skip, but the details are sketchy. Memories have evaporated from their minds so that brain cells contain only traces of what went before. Their skulls are silted up with fragments that have been washed and eroded by the years of alcohol abuse.
The skip is a sanctuary for Digger. He escapes his miserable life whenever he heaves himself over the rusty yellow walls. The skip changes him. It is like an abandoned industrial baby amongst the derelict warehouses that line this stretch of the Thames. Someone somewhere owns the skip for sure, but for now it is Digger's. It is his baby: it gives him life.
Scraggs & Son is stencilled on the sides with black spray paint, but they have not been here for years. The telephone number on the side still has the old 071 prefix. The skip will be moved on or reclaimed soon though, such is the pace of redevelopment around here. These old Bermondsey wharfs are fast becoming the homes of bankers from across the river. The twenty first century spreads like a forest fire through here, claiming the redundant warehouses where hard men unloaded goods brought by ship from distant parts of the empire. Some of their names have survived, evoking images of past use; China wharf, Spice Quay Heights, Free Trade wharf. Sometimes Digger hears the clanking and grinding of machinery over the ghostly shouts of men toiling through the day. And not far from here lies the Jamaica Road. Digger says it to himself, slowly, and an exotic flavour is welded to the grime of SE1 in a lazy instant. The Jah-may-kah Road.
Digger rests on a mouldy mattress with a soft, gaping orifice, catching the warmth of the sun when the clouds of south London sail east and let a little Jamaica into the day. Bill has abandoned his meandering stories and passed out among the other junk that rests in the skip. A threadbare carpet props him up - shit-brown - just like his tangled beard. He grunts and whimpers in his sleep. He is fucking the dirty hole in the mattress, because dreams are all they have left now. Only in them can they hope to relive experiences and moments that have disappeared. So Digger listens to a distant police siren fade into the depthless sky, and drifts into his beautiful world of fantasy.
Jay Burbridge - rich, handsome TV presenter - brings his Lotus Esprit to a standstill outside his heavily guarded apartment block in the old Anchor Brewhouse on Shad Thames. The engine winds down with a reluctant growl. He presses a button and the window pulls down. He leans out and peers up to his opulent penthouse suite, with its walk-around roof terrace that surrounds his home like a moat. He feels protected living up there, amongst the clouds and the vistas. He can see Parliament Hill and Hampstead Heath on a clear day. Tower Bridge looms over the Thames a few hundred yards upriver.
He sits back against the luxury leather seat and presses his head hard on the headrest. He takes a piece of paper out of his inside jacket pocket and unfolds it. He looks back at the jacket's label and gives it a little rub, as if it is a genie. A genie called Gucci. He reads the letter again and wonders if they are up there now, in his home, telling his actress fiance everything. He wonders if they will kidnap her. They would do worse to him if he went up there now. Dwelling on this thought too long, he starts the engine up again and accelerates quickly away in the direction of Jamaica Road.
Despite the air-conditioned comfort of the car's interior, Jay begins to sweat. His hands become clammy on the tan leather steering wheel. The back of his neck becomes sticky, as if he is suddenly secreting gum like a tropical tree. He turns the temperature in the car right down to 10 degrees Celsius. Driving east down the Jamaica Road he wonders where it will take him. Despite living here for two years, he has rarely ventured into Bermondsey and Rotherhithe. The shops and bars of Soho and Chelsea are where he hangs out.
He stops at a set of traffic lights where a group of black youths stand with their hoods up by a video shop. They turn round and stare at the flash car. Jay revs the engine up in anticipation of the lights changing. They think this is for them, and nod their heads approvingly at the macho noise, as if following a beat. Jay soon realises that he won't find what he's looking for on this road, so he takes the next left turn into a quiet street dominated by grey low-rise council flats. It is a one-way system, so he follows the road round. He takes another turn, not knowing where it will take him because he has succumbed to the auspices of auto-pilot. Soon he finds himself heading up a dead-end, but instead of turning around, something catches Jay's eye. Beside a derelict warehouse with broken panes of glass and white graffiti slashed onto the dirty red brick walls sits a disused skip. Scraggs & Son is stencilled onto the side with black spray paint.
Jay looks around him furtively. Nothing seems to exist in this street. It is the quietest place Jay has ever been to in this sprawling, 24-hour city. Everything around him seems to be decomposing. An old, wooden wharf juts out into the Thames at the end of the street. It is rotten and leans sideways into the water. A building site flanks the other side of the street, but it is all boarded up with sheets of corrugated iron. Plastic notices are fixed onto the sheets urging trespassers to keep out or else be prosecuted, and the wind blows through here like the mistral. It is an oasis of decay and desolation within the vast, eternal pulse of the city, and Jay realises its potential. He knows that it offers him his best chance of success.
Digger opens his eyes and immediately forgets the contents of his dream. The sun shines onto his face, but his eyeballs are still sensitive from their period of rest, so they sting as if a caustic liquid has been poured into them. He lifts a hand up to shield his eyes from the light, and detects something moving alongside the skip. He hears an engine, a refined engine at very low revs, edging its way up the street. The tyres crunch several stones and windswept pools of grit into the asphalt below. It is a mildly unsettling sound, as if attack is imminent. Maybe torture too: imagine fingers for stones.
Digger listens intently as the car comes to a halt and backs up behind the skip. He glances at Bill, who is still asleep, breathing heavily through his mouth, because his nose is clogged with grime and snot. The can of Special Brew that he was drinking is still in his hand, but has tipped over, and steadily leaked onto his black wool overcoat, adding yet more fragrance to the garment. The engine suddenly dies leaving an eerie silence surrounding the skip. Digger hears a car door open with a sharp click and then close with a dull thud. He lies on the mattress and listens to the person walk to the rear of the car, the grit crunching under their weight. Digger feels strange - guilty even - in his hidden location. For a moment, he considers shouting out to the person, but the unexpected nature of the situation conjures up a frisson of excitement within Digger that is preferable to his otherwise empty day. He is curious of the events taking place on the doorstep of his home, so he lies back and listens. He concludes two things; that the person is somewhat anxious, because they moved in a brisk manner, and that the person is standing alone, at the rear of the car, not more than two metres from the skip.
Jay plunges a hand into his trouser pocket and takes out his lighter. He retrieves a pack of Marlboro lights from his jacket pocket and lights a cigarette. Digger hears the flint grate against the metal wheel and the gas flare into flame. He listens to Jay suck on the cigarette and open the car boot. Jay draws harder and harder on the cigarette as he stares into the dimly lit cavity. Behind him, Digger's curiosity gets the better of him. He quietly turns over onto his front and peers over the wall of the skip. The mattress is propped high enough up in the skip for Digger to be able to see over the edge by only lifting his head up a fraction. He notices Jay first, facing away from him, but is then distracted by the contents of the boot. Simultaneously, they both stare into the murky space. It contains a briefcase, a roll of red insulation tape, and a length of wound hosepipe.
Jay waits for a moment, then moves forward tentatively and lays his hands on the briefcase, as if he is blessing it. He flicks both catches open and lifts the lid up. Digger strains to one side to get a view of the contents, but Jay's body is in the way. Digger is reluctant to move because the contents of the skip are unstable and likely to give way with even a subtle shift of weight.
Jay lifts something out of the briefcase - papers maybe - and stares at them. He holds them in front of him, and then lifts one hand up to massage his forehead. This one small movement gives Digger a brief glimpse at the object. They are photos, but of what, Digger is not sure. He thinks they are of happy people standing together - smiling - for he can detect white flashes where teeth are bared and eyes are open and shining. Maybe they were taken at a cocktail party, a TV bash to celebrate the opening of a show. Something is amiss though. He detects an aura of anxiety radiating from Jay.
Suddenly Jay moves into action. He flings the photos back into the briefcase and slams it shut. He then takes the tape and the hosepipe out and drops them carelessly onto the street. The tape lands awkwardly and rolls underneath the car. Jay swears and gets on his hands and knees to retrieve it. Digger sees the hosepipe, and the roll of tape escaping, and then the chrome exhaust pipe, gleaming in the sunlight. Now he realises the reason for Jay's strange behaviour. He is climbing to the top of the do-it-yourself mountain, taking on the big one, and Digger has seen it all before. Like the tenuous correlation between occasional marijuana use and the all-consuming heroin addict, Digger views the dangers of DIY in a similar light. He has his suspicions that the mere erection of shelves can lead one onto the thorny path whose only signpost is: TEMPTED?...then please step this way ladies and gents for the ultimate do-it-yourself rush. Life makes a junky of us all.
Jay manages to retrieve the tape from under the car, and throws himself into attaching the hose to the exhaust. Digger watches Jay wrap insulation tape round and round both pipes with such speed and desperation that he fails to hear Bill grunt in his sleep.
Despite the impending tragedy of the situation, Digger cannot help but chuckle quietly to himself. For him, it is a farce, the tragi-comic scene of what is surely the most monumental fall from grace. The irony of the situation is not lost on him either: this is a good day for the tramp.
After his peculiar wave of humour passes, Digger concludes that the man is utterly serious about gassing himself into oblivion, and that he must intervene in some way. Jay has now finished constructing his own coffin, and jumped back into the car. The hosepipe runs from the back of the car into the sunroof. In his cloud of desperation, Jay clumsily tries to tape over the gaps that are produced by the hosepipe being thrust into the car. He manages to make a complete mess of the job. In the absence of any scissors, he has to tear the tape with his teeth, but even this seems beyond him.
Digger heaves himself out of the skip and hobbles over to the passenger side window. He knocks on the glass and peers inwards. Jay is so shocked by this interruption that he jumps out of his seat as if Digger had just pressed the ejector button.
"What the fuck do you want?" says Jay, still trying to tape up the gap.
"Can I join you?"
"No! I'm busy."
"So I noticed. Never mind eh? We all have our bad days."
Digger motions to the passenger seat in an attempt to get in the car, but Jay just stares at him in utter disbelief. Digger then tries the door, and finds that it is open. With a series of groans and awkward sideways shifts, he manoeuvres himself into the luxury leather seat. Jay's stare has now metamorphosed into a look of utter indignation at what is happening, but he has become paralysed by the surreal nature of the situation, so he does nothing. Digger's soap-dodging lifestyle has brought a foul stench into the car.
"Don't mind if I join you, do you?"
"Yes I fucking well do...can't you see that I'm busy?"
"That's why I thought I'd get in...we don't have to talk about it if you don't want, but if it helps."
"Jesus you stink!"
"It's not my fault we're in a drought."
"You're going to ruin the leather seats with your stench, no-one will want to sit there after you...get out, get out! Please leave me alone! I don't have any money on me...here, look."
Jay becomes hysterical. He is almost out of control as he rifles through his pockets looking for his wallet. He talks incessantly to himself.
"To tell you truth mate, I've been thinking about doing this for a while now," says Digger, calm as you like.
"It's not much fun on the streets you know...it's alright in the summer, but I don't want to have another winter on the street, and it's October soon."
"What are you talking about?"
"Doing this together."
"No fucking way."
"Give me one good reason."
"I...I don't know you."
Digger quickly thrusts out a hand towards Jay. He introduces himself in a friendly manner but Jay just looks at the hand as if it holds a hand grenade. He slowly reaches out to Digger's hand and shakes it softly.
"There...friends now aren't we?"
"Oh God! What have I done to deserve this?"
"I was wondering that myself...I mean you look fairly rich and all...so what's gone wrong?"
Jay looks at Digger and studies him closely. The ensemble of his unkempt hair, cracked, bloody lips and raggedy clothes are surpassed for the first time, and he allows a chink of his own humanity to accept that Digger is in fact from the same species. The initial fear has subsided and been replaced by a sliver of tolerance. He decides to confess.
"I went to bed with two girls."
"Strange reason to kill yourself."
"They were 14."
Digger tries his hardest to suppress the swell of laughter within him. He gags himself as best he can, but the spasm of muscle and sinew is too much to control. He lets out a short chuckle, but Jay doesn't respond; he is deep in his ménage-a-trois dream turned nightmare. He stares way out into the distance, beyond the windscreen.
"And they taped the whole thing."
"Mmmm...doesn't look good."
"And I'm a TV personality with a clean-living image."
"Not any more."
"So how famous are you?"
"Do you know Posh 'n Becks?"
"I've seen them at parties."
"Fantastic," says Digger ecstatically, "real A-list association. When they find me here with you, my name will finally be out the gutter. Whenever they mention your death in the papers or on the telly, they'll mention me as well. I'll be famous...a celebrity tramp...bigger than Alan Titchmarsh."
Jay looks uneasy. His normally clean, tanned face is now red and sweaty, as if he has been crying. His hair is damp and messy too. Doubts are creeping into his mind and he doesn't know how to deal with them. The unquenchable will to live is rising up against his moment of reckless whimsy. Silence inhabits the car as they both stare at the set of keys dangling from the ignition switch.
"What are we waiting for?" asks Digger.
"I'll do it when I'm ready."
"Well don't take too long, I might change my mind."
"Hey, no-one forced you to get into my car old man...so you can piss off if you haven't got the bottle," says Jay, raising his voice.
"You think I haven't got the bottle, huh? Look at me? What have I got to live for...nothing. But you on the other hand, when I look at you I see a different story."
"You don't know the half of it alright," says Jay, smashing his fist on the steering wheel. "I'm a dead man walking...one of those girls I was with has a very, very dangerous father. It's great isn't it? Out of all the girls on offer, I had to choose the one with the psychotic, gangster Dad. All my life I've had easy choices...which TV show to present, which Michelin-starred restaurant to eat at, which high-performance car would you like Sir? But now I've hit a brick wall...I've got no choice now...I'm dead in here and I'm dead out there."
Jay speaks as if resigned to his fate, as if he really believes that there is no way out except the DIY option. Digger listens with a mixture of sympathy and incredulity. For the first time since meeting Jay, he is envious of the rich man's lifestyle and the choices he had. But that sliver of jealousy soon recedes when he realises the gravity of Jay's situation.
Suddenly Jay springs to life. He reaches down and finds the keys. He grips them, ready to turn the ignition, having found one last choice that really did exist: the choice of how to die. He looks at Digger.
"The only choice I have left is to die peacefully and without pain. If I don't do this, then I'll be cut to pieces with a blunt knife or fed to pigs. Call me a coward, but it's a better way out."
"When you're ready then," says Digger, bracing himself for the beginning of the end.
They wait in silence for the urge to hit Jay. When that little twitch in his fingers strikes, the end will be upon them. They will dream away the last moments of their lives together, rich man and poor man in the same coffin.
"Wait!" shouts Digger, turning to Jay. "When they find us in here, they'll think you murdered me."
"Because you're sitting there, and you'll have turned the key."
"Who cares...I'll be dead."
"But you don't want to be branded a murderer as well as a paedophile do you? That kind of reputation can be pretty hard to shake off."
"They looked at least 18 alright?"
"I don't doubt that, but you know what the press are like?"
Jay thinks about it. "Well, you'd better come up with an idea soon or else I'm gonna have to take my chances and do it like this. C'mon old man, don't dick me around, I haven't got all day."
Jay sighs long and hard. Digger's stalling tactics are beginning to annoy him. He sweeps his sweaty hair back off his face and waits.
"OK," says Digger, "what if we swap seats, and I turn the key...that way I'll be held responsible for your death."
Jay pauses to think. "OK...no funny business though?"
Digger nods and starts the lengthy process of exiting the car. Jay is out of the car in a flash. The wind buffets him as he flits around the car to the passenger side door. The wind feels good on his face, cooling his boiling blood. For a moment he stands by the door, waiting for Digger to get out, his face turned to the wind and his eyes shut. But he enjoys the moment too much and jumps into the car as soon as Digger has completed the arduous process.
Digger hobbles around to the driver's side door, his back still bent forward by his age and condition. On a cold day, it sometimes takes him two or three minutes to stand fully upright. He uses this physical defect to indulge himself in the angelic skulduggery he has been planning. When he reaches the rear of the car, he bends down further, and with one sharp thrust, pulls the hosepipe out of the exhaust. He leaves it to dangle down on the ground below the car, and continues on his way to the driver's side door. He gets in with a crescendo of grunts and sits smiling at Jay.
"OK," says Jay, "that's enough fucking around...turn the damn key...and stop grinning at me like that, we're about to die!"
Digger fiddles with the keys and eventually finds the one in the ignition. He holds it and clicks it twice to the right, which brings the radio bursting to life. The velvety voice of the DJ drips out of the speakers, and a reminder of life outside the car burrows into Jay's head.
"DO IT NOW!" he shouts at Digger.
Digger obeys his master and flicks the key another click to the right. He holds it there momentarily and the engine fires up. Then he releases the key and sits back against the leather seats, leaving the engine to chug along smoothly.
Time expands in the car like a detonated air bag, and suddenly Jay begins to breath harder and harder, consciously gulping in mouthfuls of air like a fish grabbing pieces of fish food suspended in its bowl. Digger sits there calm and emotionless except for the thinnest traces of a smile on his grubby, greying features.
Jay looks at the end of the hosepipe that hangs down from the sunroof and imagines the poisonous carbon monoxide bounding down its length, spurting continuously into the car. He mumbles on and on about not wanting to die, and how badly he has treated certain people, and how sorry he is for all the mistakes he has made. It is the rampant stream of consciousness of a man rendered almost unconscious by his perception of circumstances in the car.
Digger's smile widens as he listens to Jay confess. He feels like a Catholic Priest sitting in an incense-stained confession box. What a coincidence it is that Jay should choose this moment to exorcise all the demons from his mind, but Digger knows that the grim reaper's slashing sickle ignores no man.
When Jay stops mumbling, something in his head clicks. He suddenly erupts and starts to scream at Digger. "WHAT IS GOING ON YOU BASTARD? NOTHING'S HAPPENING!"
The wind blows hard into the corrugated iron fence on the other side of the street from the skip and dislodges one of the keep-out signs. It hits the asphalt with a loud clanging noise that reverberates around the empty warehouses and the skip. The sound wakes Digger from his sleep, so that he momentarily inhabits the no-man's land between dream and reality. He remembers Jay shouting at him that nothing was happening, and then a crash.
He lifts his head up and feels the fresh wind on his face. It brings him quickly back to reality, but he looks around for the car anyway. He finds nothing though: no car, no hosepipe, and no Jay Burbridge. Then he turns around, sees Bill sleeping, and remembers that blagger Bill is only his street name.