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The Transport for London Lost and Found on Baker Street resides, I believe, in another plane of existence. Much of it lurks behind closed doors; I imagine endless crates of lost Victorian hats, toys, books and top-secret documents piled up for years and years, eroding patiently for their owners to one day make the effort to collect them.
I had lost a book, a much-loved, much thumbed paperback of David Copperfield on an off-peak eastbound Central Line train, and were it not for its sentimental value would have considered it lost to the abyss and in the hands of an unruly illiterate scoundrel burning it to fuel their crackpipe. An underground worker had directed me to his colleague, who had directed me to a website which had directed me to the Baker Street Lost and Found department, where all abandoned trinkets supposedly end up if they are not stolen or destroyed in a contained explosion.
The website read: Please bear in mind, the likelihood of recovering your lost item is unlikely.
I bore this optimistic attitude as I entered the derelict shop front, a series of oddities displayed in the brown-faded window: a lost, multi-coloured patchwork teddy with a button-eye missing, a point-toed forest green elfish boot, an entire typewriter, all coated in a thick layer of dust. I briefly scanned for my book, hopeful I might point it out and save myself the hassle of form-filling, but was left wanting and moderately, internally embarrassed.
The interior design, if you could call it that, was far duller than its mysterious name insinuated, and felt like a third-party representative: a bored, aged solicitor representing a realm where lost items literally went to die. It resembled a size possibly twice as large as the key-cutters or cobblers one might find lodged in a tube station alcove, a liminal space starved of anything worth recovering, filled prominently with the bulk of a man stuffed behind a small counter who was at this moment scrolling his phone. Before the smell of disappointment had hit me, he had pushed forward a form on scratchily thin paper.
“Fill the form.” He dropped a biro down, akin to a mic drop.
I filled it: name, address, email address, phone number, date of birth, item lost, description of item lost, approximate value of item lost, time of loss, time of train on which loss occurred, my designated stop, time of which train arrived at my designated stop, my mother’s maiden name, my neighbour’s dog’s favourite flavour of dog food, (if you cannot remember, please give an estimate,); all estimated, all sincere. I pushed it back, dropping the pen from ten inches.
“We’ll contact you if we find your lost item.”
He returned to his phone, and I returned to the room, and my sorry life, as if one might not now go on without the other, at least in the absence of my lost Dickens. Since the death of my wife and the death of our son – both lost to a blaze which also took our house and almost all things worth living for – I had failed to shrug off the impending doom that I could only exist in whatever space I found myself in, and to leave might result in further loss.
I cleared my throat and tapped a nail on the desk. His eyes darted briefly to the burn on my right hand – he thought I hadn’t seen, but I had.
“Could I have an estimated time?”
“If you don’t hear from us within two months then consider it gone, mate.”
His curt response reminded me of the receptionist at the hospital, as did his triple chin.
“So if I return in two months and it isn’t here, I should abandon all hope?”
He looked at me with bloodshot eyes, within which I detected a smug twinkle.
“I’d abandon all hope right now.”
The four and a half minutes I’d spent inside the room had aged the day beyond recovery. The winter sun above was waning, holding onto life under the layers of muggy cloud as haplessly as I was, and I found myself once again staring through the filthy window, at the collection of lost crap. A limbless cloth bust adorned with a military jacket, a threadbare maroon scarf and a seafood restaurant embroidered cap (Billy Guy’s Scampi and Fries) sat in the darkened corner, a fucked-up smackhead second cousin mannequin turning up at the Topshop family dinner party expecting to be fed. A card label hung down from the cap, Found on Bakerloo Line between Waterloo and Embankment, 1998, £1. I couldn’t decide if I felt better or worse that such ugly garments already abandoned by their owners were being thrifted by this nasty establishment at such low prices, a half-hearted attempt at rehoming, like Timmy the orphaned child with a gammy leg. I couldn’t fucking bear it, so I went back in.
The man looked up at me over his chins.
“I’d like to buy the scampi cap in the window.”
“Not for sale.”
“It says one pound.”
“And I say not for sale. That’s someone’s lost hat you’re trying to take.”
“The label says 1998. Isn’t there an expiry date?”
“No expiry. No sale.” His attention, seemingly as short as his thinning hairline, returned to his phone.
“I’ll give you ten quid for the bloody hat.”
He looked up at me again with wide eyes, then chuckled and wordlessly held out a podgy hand. I glanced at it suspiciously, before dipping into my inside jacket pocket, praying I had any money at all. I had twelve pounds in cash, and as I handed over the crumpled note, realised I’d probably lost my mind entirely. He didn’t move, or look up, so I went to the window display and grabbed the cap, almost pulling the entire mannequin over. I blew a great plume of dust off the top and punched it back into a vague head shape, then pulled it down onto my head. I noticed then, hidden behind the typewriter, a bucket of what looked like small plastic cylinders. I leaned over, feeling passing eyes peering at me from the street outside, and on closer inspection identified them as camera films.
“What’s with the bucket of film?”
He replied almost jovially, as if the business of extorting me had broken the ice between us and he could relish me as a good friend.
“They get lost all the time, mate. Tourists.”
“They’ve never been developed?”
“Haven’t the foggiest.”
“You aren’t curious? Could be anything on them.”
“Not mine, are they? Not my property, not my business.”
“How noble. How much are they?”
“For the bucket?”
“I have two pounds.”
“Then by my calculations, you can have two.”
I looked down at the bucket and considered this strange fork in the road. The bucket was small but full to the brim. Taking one would prevent me from taking another. A lucky dip of lost memories. I delved my hand deep and picked at random a film with a red plastic top. For my second choice I picked the topmost film – one with a blue top – and holding one in each hand, felt I’d made a choice of some significance. I pocketed them and returned to the counter, slamming down the two coins so hard one rolled off onto his lap and disappeared into some depths of folds, but before he could say something smart the door was already closing behind me, before the existential dread could set in.
I had to search online for the nearest photo developers, discovering one a seven-minute walk down Baker Street called Sam’s Snaps. I genuinely considered the bus, but felt a gross determination to present myself as the total opposite to the man in the lost and found and set off down the road at an energetic pace. I palmed the films in my pocket, running my thumb over their corners, wondering what they might reveal. Some boring holiday snaps, most likely. Family pictures of overweight kids on the London Eye and in Madame Tussauds. A beautiful husband and wife at the top of the Shard. A house party in Camden, or an early morning walk in Richmond Park. None of these appealed to me, and I realized with a degree of pre-emptive disappointment that, quite like collectable cards or Christmas presents, the excitement was all in the mystery. I paused, literally stopped on the street to comprehend this fatalistic thought, and wondered with sobering severity whether I should save them for another day, or if I should ever get them developed at all. Because intuitively I knew it to be a fact: that the excitement was always in the mystery, and shaking one’s Christmas presents to guess what might be concealed was always more exciting than enjoying its contents (unless, of course, it contains a machine gun, a vibrator, or a five-kilo brick of cocaine, none of which I have ever received on any given Christmas, nor birthday).
I felt a drop of rain, and having gotten halfway to the developers felt little purpose in going home just then – as if I ever wanted to return to my drab, temporary abode bearing nothing of homely worth: no dinner with my family, no family photos to reminisce. Only my fractured memories of them, memories which gradually ebbed away each day, and a quickly depleting bottle to hurry the process.
I entered the developers in the mid-afternoon, rain pouring outside, drenched head to toe.
“I’d like to develop these films,” I said, placing them upright on the counter, dripping on the linoleum floor. Wordlessly, the woman behind the desk eyed the films as if to see their contents.
“These are quite old. It’ll be thirty pounds each, assuming you want them printed. You can collect them tomorrow.”
I swallowed, or tried to with a dry throat and nearly choked. I slowly un-pocketed my credit card and waved it vaguely at nothing.
“That’s sixty pounds.”
I entered my card and tapped in my PIN; sixty pounds gone.
“Here’s your receipt. Have a nice day.”
I didn’t. It was a painful blur of wasted hours within which I wandered absently the light-grey streets of London under a charcoal-grey sky confined to a blackened mind, my scampi cap pulled low over my brow and my general well-being feeling sixty pounds less valuable. All I could think about – no, all that was giving me any substance upon which to cling hold of – were the photos, or the possibility of going back to the L&F for more despite having not received the first batch, and ignoring the impossible financial wreckage I would inflict upon myself if I became at all addicted to something as objectively useless as other people’s photographs. I walked home, two hours to Acton Town, and drank myself into an early slumber by eleven-thirty, collapsing through my subconscious like an overconfident contender through a ply-wood door on a Japanese game show.
I dreamt a drunkard’s dream: I wandered a city that wasn’t mine in the most uncomfortable of shoes, the forest green elf shoes from the lost and found, my scampi cap nearly blowing off in a gale. I was searching for someone – my wife, my son? – but no matter how far I walked I seemed no closer to them, and much farther from the core of meaning. I had in my pocket a photo of them on holiday, but the man in the picture wasn’t me, instead some faceless figure. And then, like clockwork: the sudden dread; pools of spilt oil seeping into all my prized possessions; a flash of spark and an explosion of ignition; my arms raised to shield my face; the photo blazing in my hand.
Only after I’ve felt the agony of loss again, and again, do I wake up. But so far, I’ve always woken up.
It was eight o’clock and I was still drunk. Only the promise of the great reveal could motivate me to tear myself from the vague sanctuary of my sheets into a dribbly lukewarm shower. My dream had triggered an old half-memory I never would have remembered otherwise: My wife losing her bag on a day trip to London Zoo, with all her worldly possessions: purse, phone, camera, keys. My son, nine or ten, clutching a soft lion toy, had insisted we ride the tube line in circles in an attempt to find it. But of course it was gone forever.
With no butter to spread on my toast, I washed it down with black coffee – after briefly considering a snifter, I settled for the taste of granulated limescale.
I was out into the gale winds by half-past eight, clutching Scampi to my head, and arrived at the film developers by nine. I suppose it was a Saturday, for the tube was relatively quiet and I had actually claimed a seat which I promptly gave up due to the smell of the man pressed against me – though I imagine I could not have smelt much better.
“You’re early,” she said, opening the shop. I had been waiting outside, peering in, like a psychopath. I guess that’s how she remembered me from the previous day.
“Busy day ahead,” I said. “Thought I’d crack on.”
She disappeared into the back, and I let my gaze wander over the racks of frames on the walls: stock images of happy families in small, medium and large. Dogs, cats, birds and flowers everywhere. Happy bastard families, everywhere.
“A few of them came out a little off,” she said, re-emerging, clutching two envelopes, “from the headshots. But the others were all fine.”
I cleared my throat. “Yes, the lighting was indeed a bit off. I’m not really surprised.”
She handed them over – or rather, she held them out for me to take, and I stared at them. Christmas was here. The unwrapping of the birthday presents. What secrets had I unearthed? What strange faces might I have happened upon? I began to imagine cryptic codes and cave paintings, secret societies and murder scenes. A cut-up corpse drained of blood, presented neatly in a China-white bathtub. I was suddenly terrified and viciously jealous that this woman might have witnessed their contents before me.
“Are you alright sir?”
I nodded and mumbled an affirmative, snatching the envelopes from her grasp and gesturing a stupid thumbs-up-wave combo.
And then, I was out. Back on the streets. I looked down at the envelopes in my hands, then up and around at the passers-by, holding the photos close to my chest as if someone might know their worth and steal them from me. A chain café opposite was promising the best coffee in the capital, as voted by you the public, and I thought it being such a special occasion I would treat myself.
I claimed a corner booth. This way I could shield my booty from prying eyes and also monitor the entrance, should anyone unsavory enter. My heart was thumping; it felt akin to being finally alone in a room with a lover, no social cues or nuance to attend to, simply submitting to one’s lust and engorging.
I laid the envelopes down, side by side, and tried to decide which I should open first, but couldn’t, so just sat there, staring at them, habitually scratching at my burn. Someone must have knocked a glass over or dropped a plate, because I started and grasped one of the envelopes as if it were my child.
This, I decided, would be the first to be opened.
(And let the record state that the mystery is always better than the reveal.)
There were twenty-four photos in total, nineteen of which were of a dog in a garden, five of which were just the garden. Dog asleep on grass. Dog in flowerbed. Dog with hosepipe in mouth. Dog chasing pigeons. Just the flowerbed.
To say I was disappointed would be an understatement; I was mortified. This dumb smiling dog, in that moment, felt like the biggest disappointment of my life. It wasn’t even a cute dog. It was old and haggard, barely holding onto life. The least irritating photo was of a bird bath with a small greenfinch standing on its edge looking almost straight at the camera. At least that one didn’t have the fucking dog in it. Every photo was badly taken; washed out colors, blurry, overexposed, terrible framing. I am by no means an expert, but I know crap when I see it. I wanted to immediately tear the second envelope open (which, by manner of deduction, I figured to be headshots, which would presumably at least feature a human being), but under painful self-restrain held off. At least for ten minutes or so.
And it was ten minutes of my life wasted, because if the dog photos were disappointing, the second envelope made me want to kill myself.
Headshots indeed they were, of whom I assumed to be an aging actor in a tacky checkered red waistcoat paired with a clashing bowtie. I found it difficult to believe that the photos had not been taken any later than the eighties, were it not for the fact I didn’t believe these camera films existed then. From the twelve photos contained, I made a sharp judgement that this man was a failed comedian whose career had likely crashed and burned, nor ever properly taken off. Had I not felt such a deep pity for him, I would have hunted down this man and killed him for having let me down so viscerally.
It would almost have been funny, were it not for the crushing weight of loss. I was suddenly horribly self-aware and embarrassed, not to mention the woman across the aisle watching me have a mild crisis over pictures of a middle-aged clown-man. This man – and the dumb dog – had sobered me so harshly that I suddenly knew the true definition of cold turkey. I had to go back for more. And back I went.
For the sake of conciseness, I shall summarize the following days as a list of the films I bought and had developed from the TfL Lost and Found:
Day 1: Morning, two films, £60: Batch 1: Failed comedian headshots. Batch 2: Garden dog.
Afternoon, two films, £22: Batch 3: Fat British family summer holiday – Spain, possibly Menorca. Two bratty children, fat dad, sunburnt mum. Batch 4: Fishing trip, two identical men, possibly twins. Big carps.
Day 2: Morning, two films £43: Batch 5: Both London tourist trips; One family, possibly Italian, London Eye, Madame Tussauds, Covent Garden, boring. Batch 6: Second family, definitely British, London Eye, Madame Tussauds, Covent Garden, somehow even more hapless.
Day 3: Morning, three films, Ninety-fucking-pounds(?!): Batch 7: One-bedroom flat with no furniture, no carpeting, no people, presumably for estate agents, Batch 8: Gig in a venue called The Zanzibar, thrashing metalhead audience, sweaty lead singer with bleeding head, smashed up music equipment – certainly most interesting so far. Batch 9: Twenty-two photos of one dining chair.
Day 4: Afternoon (a sleepless night), two films, £38: Batch 10: Holiday photos of mountains, trams, cows – probably Switzerland? Boring. Batch 11: Entire film was corrupted due to the light leakage.
And on the fifth day – an unremarkable Wednesday – I woke at four in the afternoon, with a head heavy with poisonous fog and a sink full of vomit. The previous day’s downfall of disappointment had been so substantial that I had taken to the bottle as if it were my final day on earth. My living room-kitchen, reeking from the stench of thrown-up Vindaloo, was in a state of such depressing disarray that I could do nothing but simply look at it, as if the passage of time and the mercy of God might somehow make it someone else”s problem. The thought of breakfast filled my throat with whatever fluids and half-digested remnants it could conjure up, so I instead sat in the shower with the valve turned up to full heat for as long as I could bear in an attempt to detox my body and exorcise the devil from my soul.
My obsession had grown quickly stale. The thrill of the mysterious had peaked, troughed and subsequently plateaued at dead rock bottom at least two days prior, and my yearning for more photos had become transparently pathetic even to myself. This distraction from my sad life, this remedy-of-sorts, had been proven total quackery, and I had returned to the ironically sober reality of a drunk widower.
I looked at the mirror, fogged with steam, and couldn’t bear to wipe away the condensation. Re-entering the lounge, like a man re-entering his prison cell, I side-eyed the pile of photos, Batches One to Eleven, lying on my desk, the only tidy part of my sparse apartment. I approached them as if approaching my own grave and in a sudden burst of pure venom grabbed the entirety with clawed hands and threw them across the room, where they cascaded in a hundred separate directions, landing face up, face down – though quite satisfyingly I watched as a disappointing dog disappeared under the fridge forever.
I vowed to return to the Baker Street Lost and Found only once more, for one final reel of film.
My acquaintanceship with the triple-chinned man had grown ominously convivial by day five, though he had taken a somewhat suspicious interest in my daily return.
“Here for another?” he joked, a smug grin on his face – I knew he was happy enough, his pockets lined with my cash. “Ten quid each! A fine deal just for you.”
On my return each day the price of a film had mysteriously increased by thirty-odd percent, then doubled, and doubled again – all tailored, somehow, to my exact limit. He revealed the bucket from behind the desk, like a bartender preparing a local’s drinks order in advance. “We’re down to the last two. Care to take a lucky dip?”
“Ten pounds? You’re a slimy bastard, you know that?”
“It’s called supply and demand, pal. Can’t run a business without basic knowledge like that.” He spread his arms, referring I suppose to the room itself as his “business.”
I wordlessly peered down into the bucket, briefly refraining from vomiting into it, and eyed the final two films lying side-by-side at the base. One was almost entirely black, with a yellow Kodak label on its side; the other a dark grey with a deep red top I hadn’t noticed before.
“Ya feelin” lucky, punk?” he said, chuckling into his chins.
“No,” I replied. I delved my hand into my pocket and rummaged around the litter. When it resurfaced, it was holding a ten-pound note, crumpled in my fist. “Any chance you can do me a two for one offer?”
“Sorry pal, no bartering.”
“Not even for a regular?”
“I’ve hardly known you a week, buddy.”
I stared at the note, which, as far as I could tell, might’ve been the last ten pounds to my name. Then I looked back in the bucket, my eyes dead and watery.
“Yellow or red?” he said, shaking it like a twat at the funfair. “The choice is yours!”
Without much thought – I had, by this stage, resigned myself to disappointment – I took the yellow-labelled film and gently placed the note on the desk.
“A wise choice!” he said, slipping his earnings off the counter and straight into his pocket. “Or a poor one. Fuck knows.”
By some miracle – and by some mildly maniacal insistence from me – I had had the photos developed and was sat in a dark Marylebone bar within four hours, the envelope of my final frontier sitting on the bar-top in front of me next to a rocks glass half-full of neat Scotch. Or half-empty, rather.
“What you got there, mate?” The bartender had a thick Aussie accent, and was wiping a pint glass with a dishcloth. He had offered an orange peel in my drink, as if it were a cocktail to be savoured and not a fast-track free pass to sweet oblivion. “You’re staring at it pretty hard.”
“Not sure yet,” I said.
“What d’you mean?”
“I haven’t looked yet.”
He appeared concerned. “Well… What you reckon it might be?”
“More of the same,” I replied. He made a polite this-guy-is-clearly-nuts face, continued to wipe the glass, and I continued to sit in silence, occasionally sipping at the Scotch.
“Say,” I said. “Could you look for me?”
He looked at me with a raised eyebrow, throwing the dishcloth over his shoulder.
“Sure thing, mate.”
He spun the envelope around and lifted the flap so I couldn’t see its contents. He began to file through them, and after a minute of quiet perusal, closed it again.
“So?” I asked.
“You want me to describe them?”
“Just give me an idea of what I’m in for.”
He sighed, and shook his head. “Model trains mate. A fuck load of model trains.”
I nodded fractionally, stood up slowly, necked the drink and left, leaving the envelope – and all remaining sanity – with the Aussie bartender.
Ten years later, I happened to be walking down Baker Street. A newish friend had asked to meet me for a coffee, and I had reluctantly agreed on the grounds that we didn’t discuss rehab. I was walking from the tube station to Regent’s Park, which took me past the lost and found, and as it passed my peripheral vision I double-took, stopping dead in my tracks. After my week of obsession a decade prior, I had quite deliberately and viciously forgotten all about it, plunging into sheer alcohol abuse and an eventual rehabilitation program. Having miraculously emerged from the other side, I was surprised and almost sickened to find such a bizarre fragment of my previous life still intact.
The window was almost entirely unchanged: the fucked-up mannequin remained in its scarf and military jacket, but was adopting a brand-new beanie hat, the logo of some beer brand embroidered on the front. The typewriter was gone, but the elf-shoes remained, its unique pattern of green striking a grim nostalgia somewhere deep within me.
As I panned my gaze over the strange dream-like scene, my heart stopped. In the corner, propped up against a small suitcase, was a well-worn, well-thumbed copy of David Copperfield, with a label reading Lost on the Central Line, 2012, £1. My Dickens.
“Jesus Fuck,” I said.
I entered the building, unsurprised – and strangely quite comforted – to see the tripled-chinned man, hardly aged at all, sat behind the counter scrolling through his phone.
“Fill the form,” he said, sliding over a document.
“Actually,” I said. “I’d like to buy the book in the window.”
“Not for sale,” He looked up at me with the same bloodshot eyes and squinted. “Hang a horse, don’t I know you?”
“I believe so.”
“You’re that fella who kept buying film reels. What happened to you?”
I delved into my jacket pocket and pulled out a crisp ten-pound note, then placed it flat-down on the counter. “I’d like to buy the book, please.”
He gawped at the note, then smiled, and slid it into some concealed crevice within his personage.
“All yours, old friend!”
I went to the display and delicately lifted the book from the scene. When I turned back, the man had revealed a familiar bucket.
“You left one,” he said, lifting out the red-capped film. “All those years ago. Kept it, just in case.”
I smiled faintly, patted my pockets and shook my head. “I’m all out of cash.”
He laughed. “Two for one offer,” he said. “For a regular.”
I took the corner seat of the café, my old book and the camera film positioned neatly next to a cup of coffee – still supposedly best in the UK. Sam’s Snaps across the road had closed years ago, but after a decade of alternating between burrito bars and phone-case merchants, had incredibly returned to its former glory as Pete’s Pictures.
I cannot admit, a decade on, that I was any happier, or any more certain of a golden future. Rehab had taught me lessons, certainly, and had mostly rid me of an addictive personality that would surely have killed me sooner rather than later. But I would still occasionally feel the gentle pull of oblivion under the most mundane of circumstances, and simple temptations had almost broken me more than once. Within this odd reflective state, my mind kept returning to my wife’s lost handbag, to the leather’s rich shade of red and all that was lost within it.
But as I sat in my booth, considering the development of these mystery photos, I realised that this was the ultimate test. Because I knew that there was a possibility – a million-million-million-to-one chance – that this film reel contained her, and him, and us.
And that meant that I could never know what they contained, because to know would be to break every vow I had placed on myself. To know, would be to undo a decade of correction and be lost forever.
And so, before the window of hesitation could close, I pocketed the film, wondering whether I should later bin it, or perhaps throw it in the Thames and rid myself of any temptation to reveal its secrets. I sat back in my seat and felt a weight lifted; a major test passed.
I opened Copperfield to the first page, smelling its old papery scent now exaggerated after its time in the lost and found. I was about to start reading from the beginning, when I noticed a small slit about halfway through the book, and realised it was a bookmark marking the chapter I had reached when I had originally lost it, ten years ago.
Here I opened the book, and out fell a photo: Of me, my wife and my son.