The first time I saw Brentford by John Saul


The first time I saw Brentford I was thinking about the Roman invasion. Yet within the year the same forces were back in Gaul, taking no good memories with them; they would have done better to have high-tailed it back across the Channel before then, after the terrible scrimmage in the shallows just outside what today is Dover; yet Brentford had been something of a bright spot, with a glimmer of success, glimmer being an appropriate word, as on the river bank Severus, his gladius drawn back at the ready, leapt into the middle of the fray, stabbing, extracting the said gladius immediately to thrust into the guts of the next Briton, downing all around him, leaving the disembowelled hardly time to clutch their stomachs before pitching into the mud—Severus, the general, the only true Roman besides Caesar, the invader, his imperial self looking on from the southern bank.

I wanted to pass this on to Maria, listen, Caesar was—here, I told Maria as we leaned into a corner, me the stiffer of the two, her with elbows pumping, hair bobbing, on the end of a faster section she calls the threshold. Here—I gasped—maybe—not just him—the route is paved, with celebrities—who came this way, there was Humph—rey—Bogart—filming—so I’m told, at which moment it struck me I had no idea why Maria called this stretch the threshold; but whatever, again we were out of breath, leaning on railings by a silvery wall, its wavy surface etched with fish, where a scrawny fifty-year-old was reflected in metal shards, alongside flashes of pink and lime, there was no confusing who was which, who more the amateur and who professional, who was scrawn and who the real, athletic thing; as if to underline the point Maria checked the data at her wrist, as we gladly breathed in what oxygen west London had to offer, thank the skies our breaths were slowing, when she stretched a leg in lycra along a rail: That was then, she said, now Brentford is the HQ of Brompton Bikes, to which my reply was to nod, a small nod, as the last of my energy allowed, after which I immediately put my head in my hands, resting, hiding from any further unanswerable remarks, during which my picture of the Roman struggle remained, it was astonishing it would persist so easily, for what with the wall with fish, not to mention the canals and docks, Humphrey Bogart and Brompton Bikes, Brentford is a cluttered place, more wind blowing than in most places, gusts and swirls. But the skirmishing, the routing scene continued: a clash of wood and metal, oddly wordless, on the muddy bank, wordless but with vowels of pain, wordless because the one side, soldiers with names like Severus, or Raguel or Leo, had no common language with the other, who I imagined interrupted from games of dice or hastily dropping bowls of gruel, only to receive the infamous Roman stabbing sword between the ribs or, just in time, to manage to drop-kick a jaw or crack a groin with a well-aimed knee—but jogging was activity enough, especially with Maria factored in, adding a kind of social stress to the physical, the exhaustion, so I was more than glad to fish out my bottle and be drinking water, to have no more to cope with than that sucking feeling on my tongue, indeed I was almost refreshed, even able to point out to Maria the canal, and say: Underwater stakes were found there. Even as I spoke I sensed it was a mistake, it wouldn’t lead to anything, I wished I could uncouple myself from the remark, so not wanting to join Maria in her stretching I looked around, to be blinded by the sunlight off the GlaxoSmithKlein tower to the north, just as Maria continuing with the other leg said, Stakes? after which she turned all advisory, saying I should roll my shoulders. Don’t you want to roll your shoulders? she’d say a dozen times, so that a dozen times I’d be reflecting, for the dozenth time, that most talks I start with Maria end very close to where they begin, either that or she takes over, either way there was no harm in holding out my bottle as I said again about the stupid stakes, Yes stakes, remarkably like those Julius Caesar freaked out about, probably in that very water, although even more remarkable finds have been made—drink? whereupon she just looked at me, eyes greyer than ever, Your shoulders creak, she said. —And? —They shouldn’t. —Tell them that. Maria’s face made a Huh? without a sound emerging, effectively ending the exchange, until I resumed the same foolish blabbing, I don’t know what had got into me, well I do, a little, I wanted Maria to at least acknowledge there was such a thing as history, as poetry, so I was saying, And, even more remarkably, lines of Virgil—poetry—have been discovered in digs up north, Up north? she said, adding Digs? At Vindolanda, I answered, delighting in the internal rhythm of the name, whereupon she said Vindaloo? I might have guessed she’d say something of the sort, but I suppose I asked for it, to the occupation of half an island that lasted centuries Maria devoted one second of her existence, but that’s how it is nowadays, don’t be hard on her I told myself, those may have been centuries of toil, deaths and mud, but what can she do about that, nothing, and it was really long ago; despite which, in the here and now of Brentford, the Roman presence lingered; such is power.

Not once looking back, not even for cyclists, let alone for legionaries, we headed off, passing the sheds along the towpath, then the surprising sight for a Sunday of boat repairs, the flash of acetylene flaring; as we zigzagged through the docks, our destination Richmond, I told myself: with Maria, stick to basics, she’s not out for the conversations, we should simply run together, companions of the urban track, she calls us, so it was best not to try and deal with Brentford, present or past, best I tried losing every thought of the Roman invasion, deciding like her not to devote more time to that half millennium of sweat, the baths and drains, the plagues and rapes and poetry readings; so to help dispel those spirits, to stop them closing in on me, I would change tack, I did change tack, I mentioned the local connection to the 1951 Bogart and Hepburn film The African Queen—the canal was used very briefly as a location, as were some studios in Isleworth—The African Queen was a film Maria recollected having seen on TV, as it happened, and she was away, if something had been on TV she would always be away, anything that appeared on a screen was like an injection of a drug for her, already she was asking, addressing me or the world I’m not entirely clear, how she would clamber back into a boat like the African Queen half-naked, in front of a strange man, which was a problem for Audrey Hepburn—Katherine, I corrected her—but rather than tackle how own question Maria, now a busy bee under the influence (ask something, and she will glance off the subject, slip onto another) to point out how I could improve my running style by not thudding so, there was too much heel on the ground, and how much better everything was now she had flexible working hours, uh-oh, she was off on a major dance around her brain, I sensed it, rightly, as she flitted on, to how some houses closed their upstairs rooms for parties and others didn’t, and how she loved sex, from where she slid on—don’t be hard on her—went on to some sighting of Ringo Starr in Brentford, and how little Ringo Starr meant to most people nowadays, her best friend Fiona had never heard of him, to her too he was just a name, but the man shouldn’t be bitter, she was sure he wasn’t, Fiona had moved anyway to Brighton, she missed her being around; and if I might sum up rather than recount such details, I can say that listening to all this was to be caught up in other gusts and swirls, the up and down winds of Maria, leading me to shake off the Romans, if not The African Queen—I still saw the leeches on Humphrey Bogart, one last time I told myself, the leeches one last time, then no more, no more African Queen for now, if I could put this film decisively behind me then Maria, who so to speak almost never flits back to the same flower, would put it behind her too; for she does not do depth or details, she does flight, a covering of distance, to boot in neon pink kit and upwards of 30,000 steps a day as measured by her phone, her hair would bob 30,000 times, or is it half that, so I gladly let her step ahead, already the street signs were saying Richmond, it was a moment I sensed appropriate for summing up, it would help expunge the soldiers and Humphrey Bogart who in my mind was no longer allowed to have anything to do with leeches, they would have been made of rubber anyway, that helped too; I could run with her and I talk to myself, unfortunately I have to think of something when we’re running; anything, so keeping the thoughts to myself as we pounded the local paving stones, I mulled over a different aspect of the Bogart connection, turning to the person himself, as I know from a biographical source I’ve no reason to doubt: Humphrey Bogart had been here, hereabouts, he was assigned a first floor flat on the Goldhawk Road, he may have been a star in the days of double-breasted suits but not everything was glamorous, in the evening gloom he would kick about Shepherds Bush Green, largely unrecognised, and it was there, standing on benches, he practised his hippo imitations; these were in the script, as a means of wooing Katherine Hepburn; on screen he also did monkey imitations, which one critic said could not have been hard for him, but that’s by the by, more pertinently it has been further suggested west London edginess rubbed off on him, creating the hint of grit to go along with the neckscarf and general on-screen softiness, as they drifted in an old torpedo boat down the Congo, a combination which somehow led to his one and only Oscar, these were the thoughts I’d had while running, until now, as we shuffled on the spot waiting at a light to cross, as it went to amber then to green I glimpsed again those stakes protruding from the mud; I visualised a line of troops, assembled in the aftermath, awaiting orders—were they to march upriver?—it was easy enough to imagine that tramp, tramp—OK, interrupted Maria, we’ve passed the threshold, Good I said, yet again passing up the opportunity to discover what this threshold meant, Yes she said, at which I had a funny feeling, something had altered now, in the air, was it them I heard, behind us? I listened for more, wondering how exactly I might tell a cohort of tramping soldiers from, say, far-off hammers swinging in a boatyard, in any event we had to move on, me feeling I had underestimated Maria for a moment, since she too had noticed something, she was asking What’s the matter? to which I simply said I was thinking of the stakes again, the stabbing swords, So how many were there? she said, How many what, stakes, soldiers? Invasions, she said unexpectedly, Well, a couple, more if you count Caligula—the things I could tell you, Tell me what? said Maria, reaching at her headphones: Wait, let me lose the music she said, moving them to her neck, as heat hit us from a large passing vehicle and a 237 bus rattled by.

Down an alleyway we found a wall to lean on, offering respite, the opportunity to reflect that even if the route through the docks hadn’t been enough to confuse the cohorts, I could be reasonably confident Severus and the rest would clatter past here without seeing us, after all they would be duty-bound, they could hardly pause for a Roman smoke, smoke incidentally was not a word to use before Maria, who now shut her eyes, I’ll do another threshold on Friday, she said with her eyes still shut, I heard her but was distracted by other sounds, a commotion, Did you those voices? Maria? What voices? Agitated voices, I said, feet. I’ll do Friday on my own, she said, you can run with your Caligula then—a curt dismissal of history again, enough for me to react, to press her by saying Caligula made his horse a Senator, her reply to which was Sounds nuts, I then came back with But don’t worry, he never even got here. How close did he get then? she said without real interest, but a question is a question and I said The other side of the Channel, adding the fictive claim that he sat, enthroned, gazing towards the same thin line of white chalk cliffs, the same troublesome coast Caesar had gazed at, which he fooled himself into thinking he could see despite the rain, as winds lashed the imperial tent … How do you know? said Maria, was it on TV? Something like that, I said. We’ve stopped long enough, she said slapping her thighs, I don’t like it here, That’s too bad, I said, you won’t get to hear how the seas off Calais heaved, so much that he ordered his troops to attack the waves, Let’s go, Maria countered—I wasn’t finished but on we went in silence, until another opportunity arrived, as we marked time at another light, At Calais it stayed stormy, I said, so he told his troops to collect seashells, this only made Maria remark that it was too bad he never got this far, he would have added colour to the streets of Brentford; just as well he never got this far, I thought, it was enough to have the first wave of troops after us, behind them Ringo Starr, and there could be a horde of fans, after him, after us, after him Humphrey with another entourage, just as Humphrey the hippo lolloped back along the Goldhawk Road, hangers-on trailing him on account of the gin in his coat pocket, while on another rung of the Hollywood hierarchy Katherine Hepburn was housed in the grounds of Chiswick House—assigned the biggest room, because, as she had warned the director in advance, an actress had to have a place to pace up and down while learning her lines; in The African Queen she has the shorter lines, lines like Could you make a torpedo? and Breakfast can wait, making, if I’m brutally frank, a moot point of the need for a large room for learning lines, but there she was, I was resurrecting her so as to have something other than corpses in the mud to think about. Could you make a—torpedo? she says to a Hogarth cartoon on the wall; to the maid bringing tea she says, Could you make a torpedo? You mean one of those American sandwiches miss, you’d need to show me how. And if you’ll pardon me saying so miss, I wouldn’t have the ingredients together until breakfast. Oh never mind, says Katherine, breakfast can wait. Mn, no, let me say it this way: Breakfast can wait, how did that sound? Well, if you say so miss. Alone again, she summons her concentration before running across the room and collapsing into a pile of fabrics on an armchair—to practise her fits of laughter at Humph’s animal antics, but all is not well, she hates the script, she telephones across the Atlantic to object to several lines, notably, after Humph is to say We might find somewhere quiet behind an island, then we could talk, she insists she must stay out of shot for a long time, Pan to some giraffes, she says, pan onto an island, on his hairy arms, anything but me, Somewhere behind an island was just the kind of thing to rile the critics, they could hardly wait for the opportunity to call that ‘tough’ guy a marshmallow—and you know how scared he is they’ll think he’s a pansy, so cut that line or leave me out of it, clear? and tell him to quit that drinking, are you there? Operator? Hello?

It occurred to me fresh galleyfuls of Romans could have swanned up the Kent beaches, saying oh don’t worry this is a film, we’ll just do the one take and we’ll be gone, they were already above the cliffs, setting a solid marching rhythm, their destination the Thames, in no time they would be striking water at Lambeth before making light of Battersea: now, after shearing a way through the docks, bearing down on Isleworth, I reckoned any serious pursuers would have hands ready on swords as they marched, a gladius worked best if the pursued turned to face the pursuer, I reckoned, I was getting all the eventualities covered, it was best to run and not to turn, run, faster, here we are, Maria and I, obviously with no military experience, not even a martial art between us, just feet out of step, eyes ahead; we passed a sign welcoming us to Richmond, where I glanced for the umpteenth time at Maria’s bobbing hair, as her steps seemed to pass through the paving stones and up into mine, as we dodged shoppers, our minds now set on Richmond station, but not entirely, as mine was still back with Caesar’s troops and their later generations, wondering at their solidarity, they might shake Twickenham bridge with the rhythm of their steps, to a beat Ringo knew how to drum, making the bridge tremble, the same bridge which the hippo would reach at any moment, so with luck they might all tumble into the Thames, into mud and crabs and crayfish, whereupon I pictured the leeches on Humphrey Bogart, maybe one or two were real after all, I saw him remove them with Katherine Hepburn’s help, not tugging them off until she dabbed them first with powder, it was a reason to feel shivery, a reason to run faster, until on the road to Richmond station there came the last echoes of the time I first saw Brentford: crowds that seemed to scatter, the vestiges of the stories the place had summoned, like in the breaks in the making of The African Queen, with Katherine saying There are two kinds of actor, those who act only for the screen and those who exploit their skills in real life, Oh yeah, said Humphrey, which one am I? You tell me, said Katherine, You kidding? he said, I never told you nothing, nuttin, except that I’m gonna take a stroll to the Bush, you coming? She laughed: a stroll to a bush, what’s that?—a riposte which prompted him to leave grabbing his hat, only for it to be stolen from him as he stopped at a local stall, where he was busy, too busy to watch out, haggling over buying a bottle opener, following which he returned in anger, You there? he called out to nobody, What the hell, he said flopping on the bed, I’m not going to be missing no one when I’m gone; much as I don’t miss Maria when she isn’t there, once she’s waved goodbye, indeed she had a ticket for the train and waved goodbye, farewell until the next time, assuming there would be one, and I raised an arm to her, I faced the ticket barriers and didn’t once turn around, I understood that for the fleeing Britons that could have been fatal, I didn’t turn, I did what anybody would have done, I snatched the swiftest of looks, there, over my shoulder.


John provided the contribution from England to Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2018. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies including Best British Short Stories 2016. He is a member of the European Literature Network and lives in London. More information can be found at his website,

13 December 2021