For the first time, since our arrival in England, I had the feeling that I'd stumbled into an episode of EastEnders. Leaving the Upton Park tube station near Rob and Avedon's house in East Ham was like stepping directly into a version of London life that I'd seen only on television.
Unlike the idyllic suburbia of Stevenage, East Ham was the Real Thing. There were no shiny, modern supermarkets here; no hotels or parking garages, either. Instead, the sidewalks outside the station were crowded with stalls selling fruits and vegetables to the passing parade of little brown women and their little brown children. Cramped shops lined the street selling everything from ugly shoes to ugly fish and chips. Minicars jammed themselves into unlikely parking places in between the street vendors, while others honked angrily as they whizzed past us, heading down Green Street in the wrong direction.
I stared in amazement at the wild mixture of ethnicity. African women in Dashikis and Hindu men in Turbans stood elbow-to-elbow with pale Punkers and roasted Rastas. It was an exotic stew of different accents, attitudes and aromas. Television had prepared me for the first two ingredients, but I was not prepared for the third. The way the air smelled that afternoon was unforgettable. It was like inhaling next to an incontinent camel standing in the middle of a field of rotting papayas -- subtly sweet, yet urine-like. It brings a tear to my eye just thinking about it.
We'd traveled from Stevenage in the company of Andy Hooper and Carrie Root (who also had reservations at the Hotel Hansen for that evening), and Ted and Lynda White, who'd come into London for the day (but were staying with John and Eve Harvey before the worldcon). We'd sent most of our luggage to Rob and Avedon's the previous evening in Jack Heneghan's car, which made the train ride a lot easier and the walk down Plashet Grove to 144 a breeze. Ted led the way. He'd stayed there on a couple of previous visits to Britain and felt confident in his role as Wagon Master. "Fanboys Ho!"
Rob met us at the door and said something about being surprised to actually see me up before Noon. "Ordinarily I don't like to be seen in the daylight," I replied. "It's bad for my tattoos."
"Well, then you've come to the right place," Rob chuckled. But before I could get him to explain himself I heard an impatient whine from over my shoulder.
"Are you two going to stand there trading bon mots all day," asked Andy, "or can the rest of us come in the house, too?"
Rob and Avedon's house sits at the end of a long, curving street lined with identical row houses. Built near the end of the 1800s, the houses have a quaint Victorian charm, marred only by bad paint jobs and needless decay. Like most of the houses we visited in Britain, their house was remarkably narrow. A narrow sitting room, narrow stairs, a narrow dining room, and, as it turned out, a very narrow entrance hall.
"Step aside or I'm going over the top of you," growled Andy.
A glance over my shoulder was met by the sight of five sweaty and frustrated faces -- one of which looked a lot like a shaved Polar bear in a baseball cap. Without realizing it, I had stopped the flow of fannish bodies into the narrow hallway by simply pausing to chat with our host. With an apologetic shrug I stepped out of the way and into the dining room; my embarrassment having had the desired laxative effect. The flow of non-TAFF winners had been restored and soon everybody was able to get inside out of the heat.
We found Avedon sitting at the dining table with a deck of cards in her hand. Smoke from her ever-present cigarette curled lazily through the sunlight that poured through the dining room windows (the advantage of being in the end house) and made me think -- just for a nanosecond, mind you -- that she had just materialized out of nowhere. She reminded me of a gypsy fortune teller on her day off.
Sitting at the table with her was a friend of Avedon's, a co-conspirator from Women Against Censorship, named Cherie Matrix. Cherie was the reason Rob had told me that I'd "come to the right place." Cherie is, to put it mildly, a strikingly beautiful woman who just happens to be a tattooing and piercing enthusiast. In fact, within minutes of meeting her I realized that I recognized some of her tattoos from books and magazines. The artwork on her body is by some of the best tattoo artists in the world and we immediately fell into a conversation about body art.
"This one is by Alex Binnie," Cherie told me.
"I love his work," I told her nonchalantly, trying not to stare. "I'm hoping to get an appointment with him while I'm in London."
"Oh, he's a friend of mine," Cherie replied, flashing the jewelled stud in her tongue. "Maybe I can get you in to see him."
"Hey, Dan!" Avedon broke in, having apparently noticed that I was standing there with my mouth hanging open. "Cherie's got seven rings in her pussy."
"That would be really great," I told her, trying to ignore Avedon's taunts. "Anything you could do would be really -- um -- great." I was losing my ability to speak.
"He's always booked up for months ahead of time. You'd never get in to see him otherwise," Cherie said, picking up on Avedon's game and tugging on her Labret absentmindedly.
"She's got nipples the size of your thumb, Dan," my hostess cackled, lighting a fresh cigarette. "Her nipple rings actually make 'em bend in the middle."
"Great," I groaned, my knees growing weak. "Grate. Grape. Grphh."
I knew I was through. These two women had reduced me to Jerry Lewis in less than ten minutes. Avedon really knows how to make her old friends feel at home. Sigh. I quickly found a nearby chair and sat down to lick my wounds. The next hour was spent quietly playing Fan Tan with the evil (and definitely still rude) Ms. Carol and Cherie's adolescent daughter, Raven Isis.
Naturally, I lost.
Martin Smith arrived soon after my defeat and it was, thankfully, time to venture off for Rob's world famous Fannish Landmarks and Pub Crawl. Avedon and Cherie stayed behind to continue their brainstorming for ways to make the world safe for pornography. The rest of us -- including Ted, Lynda, Rob, Martin, Lynn, and Carrie -- took the Underground into London to the Forbidden Planet bookstore, where we'd arranged to meet Andy.
He had decided earlier that day to go into London ahead of us to tour a military museum he wanted to see and then join us for the Pub Crawl. We picked Forbidden Planet because it was centrally located (on Oxford Street) and offered lots of distractions to occupy us while we waited for him. But Andy never showed up. Even after ample browsing and generous milling about on the sidewalk, he was still nowhere to be found.
Finally, we decided not to wait any longer. Rob reckoned that Andy would show up eventually and convinced Martin to stay behind to wait for him. Being the only other Native, Martin knew the tour and where to meet up with us when Hapless Hooper finally made an appearance. As we walked away, I looked back in Martin's direction and saw him waving, a brave smile stretched across his little face.
Despite the unseasonable heat, we covered a lot of ground that afternoon. Rob had given this tour on a number of occasions and showed us sights and sites heretofore unknown to most of us -- though Ted had gone along in 1987. We saw the Bonnington Hotel, birthplace of TAFF, and the once legendary One Tun. We walked by a nondescript modern building that had been the site of most pre-war English fan meetings, until it was levelled by a buzz bomb, and saw the windows of the top floor apartment where Arthur C. Clarke and Ted Carnell once held court.
Along the way, Lynn stepped into an open utility hole in the sidewalk and tumbled to the pavement, breaking our camera (though we didn't know it until the next day) and scuffing up her shoes. Fortunately, she didn't hurt herself.
We ended up at the Yorkshire Grey, a pub that is the current home to London fandom's weekly gatherings. Moments after our arrival Andy and Martin showed up, having traced our steps from Forbidden Planet. "What the hell happened to you?" I asked a very sweaty Andy, in between gulps of a lovely cold beer. "Did you get lost?"
"No," replied everyone's favorite Shrimp Brother, "it just took a lot longer than I expected to get here from the museum."
"Why didn't you hop on the subway?" I inquired.
"I didn't think it was going to be that far," Andy sheepishly replied. "It was only about two inches on the map."
We got back to Hotel Hansen around dusk, having said goodbye to Martin and sent Ted and Lynda back to the Harvey's along the way. Cherie and her daughter were still sitting at the dining table with Avedon when we walked in, as was another guest, Neil Rest. Neil had just arrived in London from Amsterdam and was full of stories about the city where All Old Hippies Go To Die. (His anecdotes made me miss my bong.) Naturally, this led to a discussion of dinner and where one could obtain it. The locals compared notes and suggested we go to a nearby Indian and Sri Lankan restaurant that they'd enjoyed in the past. Andy was excited about the prospect of food, as were the rest of us, but the logistics of the situation proved troublesome.
The restaurant was too far away for the nine of us to walk to, but not far away enough to take the Underground. Rob had the only car among us and there was no way we were going to all fit into it at the same time. Hell, Andy and I couldn't fit into it together -- forget about an additional six others. We were stymied. Andy sweated, Cherie played with her lip ring, I drooled. Finally Avedon stood up from the table -- proving to me for the first time since my arrival that she did indeed still have legs -- and solved our problem. "You're just gonna have to make three trips, Hansen," she declared. Which is exactly what happened. She has Rob well trained.
I was part of the last batch of passengers to reach The Yaal, a small eatery located in nearby Barking (home of "Barking Car Sales"). There was only one other couple in the place when we arrived and the rest of our party already had their heads buried in the menu. A couple of employees stood around waiting to take our order. This was going to be good.
Two hours later, our dinners had yet to arrive.
In the meantime, chaos had broken out at our table. Every scrap of Poori and Chapati had been consumed. Every drop of Raita licked from the bowls, and a few napkins were missing, too. Andy's blood sugar was dropping like the New Year's ball in Times Square. Small talk had been exhausted and we were beginning to learn way too much about each other.
Avedon admitted that she had recently shaved her legs for the first time in more than a decade. Neil talked about being AWOL from the Army and trying to levitate the Pentagon. Cherie talked about ex-boyfriends and bemoaned her one-time choice of Axl Rose over Kurt Cobain. And Andy mentioned something about deep frying rodents during his tenure with Taco Bell. I, on the other hand, had nothing to add to the conversation, preferring to do my impression of The Ugly American by screaming at the waiters.
When the food finally did arrive it was delicious, but by then nobody really seemed to care. Dinner was consumed quickly and silently in an effort to Just Get It Over With.
Outside the restaurant we started to walk, en masse, back to Rob and Avedon's. We'd agreed that Rob should drive Cherie and Isis to the Tube station directly from the restaurant, so they could get home before the Underground shut down for the night. Afterwards, he intercepted us about halfway home and shuttled a second carload back to the house. By the time he came back and got Lynn and I, it was almost Midnight.
Once back at Hotel Hansen, we all just sort of sat around in a daze for a while and then, one by one, took turns standing under the shower. The day's heat had lingered into the evening and had left us all a bit wilted. Nevertheless, fannish responsibility reared its ugly head and, to everyone's amazement, actual fanac took place. Andy had vowed to commit the events of the weekend to paper for an issue of Apparatchik he planned to publish when we reached Glasgow and nothing I said could dissuade him. This was his only opportunity, he explained, because he and Carrie would be gone in the morning -- off on a trip to visit relatives. He was going to pub his ish and nobody was going to stop him. I felt so guilty I volunteered to draw a comic strip for him on the spot. The bastard accepted.
About an hour later, I looked in on him to check up on his progress. When I walked into Avedon's office I felt like I had stepped into an outtake from Apocalypse Now. Andy was sitting at the computer like a fannish version of Colonel Kurtz, a white towel wrapped around his head to catch the rivulets of sweat that ran down his face. The room was like an oven and I think I spotted a small lizard clinging to one of the walls. Andy was mumbling to himself. "The horror," he said. "Oh, the horror." I decided not to disturb him after all, figuring that he'd get finished a lot sooner without any interruptions from me.
The evening ended about an hour later. Andy had finished his fit of compulsive fanning and had taken his turn in the shower. Carrie had gone to sleep -- she had to get up with the birds the next morning to go get their rental car -- followed soon by Rob, who actually had to go to work the next day. Lynn, Neil and Avedon sat around the dining table talking and smoking. I had stepped, half-dressed, out into Rob's backyard to enjoy the slight breeze that I hoped would cool me down enough to go to sleep myself. After a few minutes, Andy joined me.
We talked about the day's events and the fun we'd had at Precursor. We talked about the prospects for the upcoming worldcon and remarked about how weird it was to find ourselves standing around barefoot in Rob and Avedon's driveway, instead of sitting at home in front of the TV wondering how to pay next month's rent.
"It sounds corny," I told Andy, "but we owe it all to Fandom."
"I hate living in a clichè," he chuckled.
"But it's true," I replied. "I literally would not be here if it weren't for Fandom. I already feel the pressure to live up to my responsibilities. It's scary."
"You know what's really scary?" asked my friend.
"Darrell Schweitzer in the nude?" I replied, half-kidding.
"Naw," Andy answered. "What's really scary is the thought of Carrie driving on the left side of he road. That's what's really scary."
I could see his point, but assured him that everything would be fine. "Just tell her to hug the curb and I'm sure you'll get to Glasgow in one piece," I told him. "Ghu will protect you, at least until you pub your ish."
"You're right, of course," he answered, heading back into the house. The sweat had finally evaporated from his forehead and he was off to sleep.
I followed a short time later. The last thing I remember as I drifted off to sleep that night was a vision of Cherie's lovely tattooed body mutating into the naked form of Darrell Schweitzer, and the sound of Andy Hooper's voice screaming, "Hug the curb! Hug the curb!"