Cash Only 001: the boat

The first instalment of a fictional story from the depths of the weekend brought to you every Monday, when you need a pick-me-up the most.

A fictional story from the weekend. Same time, same characters, different place, come back every week. Catch up here.

It’s 7am on Sunday morning and I’m stood at the counter of an indistinguishable McDonalds at an undisclosable east London roundabout, squinting at the menu through rose-tinted shades. Jack’s asked me to pick up some food on my way to The Boat, where everyone’s been for the last couple hours – my night kicked off somewhere else, but that’s another story. The Boat is that wondrous, frankly mystical thing, a rare care package delivered to London’s crumbling nightlife: a new venue.

If you can call it a venue. Technically it’s a squatted-out houseboat, shipwrecked – supposedly – somewhere along the banks of the fluid grid of London’s canal network. Have you been to The Boat yet?” is the smoking area question of the moment: the Loch Ness Monster of the city’s drug-steeped waterways, a mythical creature that has to be embarked to be believed. 

Anyway, back to McDonalds. Sorry. It’s hard to focus when I’m 0.8‑of-a-gram-certain I’ve got a glittering halo set into my left nostril like a jewel and I’m already struggling to navigate the highly complex queuing system from the upper rungs of a receding K hole. I try to order the four double cheeseburgers and twenty-maybe-forty chicken nuggets Jack’s asked for, but of course it’s 7am and they’re only doing breakfast so I stumble out five minutes later, confused, with seven McMuffins, a dozen hash browns and an odd look off the guy at the counter.

It’s fucking freezing outside.

Apart from the angry hum of early morning motorway traffic, there’s the kind of eerie inner-city quiet that hopeful new immigrants – from Surrey, that is – imagine they will be stabbed to death in. 

I cross over the roundabout and take a hidden entrance onto the canal that Jack mentioned on the phone. The silence is now total, and something feels different here, as though I’ve stepped out of London’s swirling contents and entered the mainframe of the city. Crossing over a small bridge, for a brief moment I am suspended in a sky-deep blackness, a special kind of nocturnal bliss, McDonalds bags pressed wet-warm against my chest.

I turn left at the end of the bridge and follow the path down the water. Jack had said to keep heading east, as though I should know instinctively which way this was, as though this route through the capital’s gutter was written into all interior maps. Google Maps came to my rescue, obviously.

Seven minutes later and there’s still a silence as deep as savasana. It’s pretty unsettling and Jack and the gang are – typically – not picking up their phones. I’m considering turning back – this is looking like the opening scene from a ten-part Netflix drama – when I hear a gentle, comforting bass. 

I turn the corner and there it is. The Boat.

Not gonna lie, it’s pretty much what it says on the tin: a cracked-out houseboat with a soundsystem. Tech-house spills out of a solitary square window and the bass blows ripples across the near-stagnant black water. 

There’s only one tiny problem – it’s on the other side of the canal.

I’m just steeling myself to turn back, cross over that stupid little bridge for a second time and head down the other side, all for the thousandth once-in-a-lifetime chance to join this fucked-up fairground of fun, when I hear a resounding: Oi!”

Nothing inspires a deeper sense of belonging than a familiar Oi.”

There, gratefully, on my side of the water, stands the one and only Jay Adams, bunning a zoot, a buzz of people around him pretending not to fiend over his fathead. I must be in the right place.

Well hello princess, what you saying?” Jay grins, offering the end of his zoot in greeting. 

Jay Adams is Jack’s certified ride-or-die, his broken other half. Jay sniffs packet like it’s going out of fashion and is probably clinically depressed. He smokes a twenty-box a day just to have something else to do with his hands when he’s not racking a line, and wears a permanent look of disappointment, as though at any moment someone has just deeply pissed him off.

Now, though, he’s got a fat smile on his face that warms me up inside. He’s genuinely happy to see me; I’ve made Jay Adams smile.

Thank God you come through! I’m fucking starving,” he says, reaching for one of the McDonalds bags. Na but tell me you remembered my barbecue sauce?”

His smile disappears. The scowl returns.

Meanwhile, the boat has drifted across almost imperceptibly. Then I’m stepping onto it, £15 entry, cash only – no, sweetheart, we don’t have contactless,” someone smirks. Jay pulls two notes from the wad in his back pocket and hands them over.

Underneath a utility gilet, he’s wearing a full Carhartt tracksuit. Camo, charcoal. Ink-black 90s on his feet. A dirty playing card hangs, unexplained, from a black ribbon around his neck. Pressed close to him during our short time in transit I can see all the filthy detail underneath the Jack of Spades: a flame-haired dominatrix spreads herself over an AK47. Jay catches my reaction and laughs. 

The boat comes to a rest, and we have to duck our heads as we step through the door.

It’s packed inside and lit by a soft purple warmth, but it’s missing the closeness of a normal rave and this feels strange, like we’ve walked into a scene from a film. I guess cause it’s January, it really is fucking cold and well, we’re on a boat. 

Jay’s immediately surrounded by eager 19-year-olds desperate to stave off their impending comedowns, so I head to the back of the boat to get us some drinks. This is a surprisingly complicated operation. At a makeshift counter in one corner, I hand someone £20 and he hands me back a clutch of wooden lollipop sticks in various primary colours, which I exchange for double-Bacardi-and-Cokes at the similarly haphazard bar in the other corner.

It’s properly rammed and I’m wondering if our drinks are gonna make it across the floor when I feel it. Two hands, lightly grabbing my waist. So light, almost careful, as though they’re holding two sides of a chair they’re trying not to scratch the floor with. 

I spin around, bored of this shit and ready for war – but it’s fucking Lacey, laughing wildly, a smile on her face the width of a double-decker bus.

Lacey Jackson is my best friend in the entire world and I will never stop being grateful for her. Fierce, fabulous and the diamonte star of each and every party blessed with her presence, she’s also a banging female DJ” – whatever that means. Essentially she knows more about music than the rest of us put together. She also looks like Rita Ora just after she got signed but before she got a driver, if you know what I mean?

Tonight she’s in a tangerine pleather skirt, a black lingerie bodice that she’s spilling out of, and a huge burnt-orange faux fur shaggy thing that adds a sense of drama to the whole affair. Her skin shimmers with some kind of glitter-flecked body cream and her lipstick is the colour of blackberries. It’s immaculate.

Yes girl, what’s going on?” She gives me a big, blissful, blackberry grin and another squeeze of the hips.

I lift up the brown paper bags in response, vaguely embarrassed, like a park alchy in one of those American films. Jack Rascal – always the scene-stealer – steps out from behind her and snatches a bag out of my hand.

Yeah, his last name is actually Rascal. Or so he says. Jack’s a bit of a local celebrity and everyone’s favourite dealer, which makes him hard to hold on to – but we try all the same. He’s loud and charming and lager-slick, with half a smiley carved into the right side of his face, a ragged Joker curl which ties a model’s mouth to a boxer’s jawline. It’s startling – troubling, even – and when we meet new people I love to observe their reactions to it. Still, it’s more Heath than Joaquin. Obviously girls find it sexy.

Anyway, cut back to the McDonalds bag he’s tearing through, the hash brown between his teeth. 

Lacey is outraged. 

Jack you absolute wasteman. She’s come all the way from south and not only have you made her pick up McDonalds but you’re gonna teef it out her hands as soon as she gets here?” She kisses her teeth with surplus fury, but there’s a delighted sparkle in her eyes. It’s only a matter of time with these two.

Jack screws up his face like he’s about to say something but doesn’t. Instead, he hands me back the food with a fragile smile and sidles off to the bar to reassert himself. Give it five minutes, he’ll be back with a round of tequilas. 

We find a corner of the tiny space to eat, but Jay’s already lost interest in his McMuffin and has pulled out a bag. He turns to Lace first – ever the gentleman.

She’s the kind of girl who barely acknowledges when she’s offered something. Just flares one elegant nostril over the key that’s been presented to her, like Princess Margaret approving of the flowers, and I fucking love it. At most, if it’s Jack’s key, she’ll turn and run a finger round the curve of his smiley, and it’s tender in a way he’s never known. Jack never really knows what to do with himself then.

I follow suit and down half my drink to get one of Jay’s pills down my throat.

Time flashes forward now, at high volume and in muted colours. Dancing gives way to spinning, to standing, smoking, spinning again, spinning while not spinning at all. Eventually it all gets too hot, all gets too much, and I need a moment.

Outside, I sit back on a ripped-up sofa and welcome the brutal cold as it seeps back under my skin. From here, I observe the strange and colourful patchwork of disparate partyheads, somehow a culture in and of itself, which unfurls in front of me.

First, in every shade of black, the older crowd, expensively and tastefully dressed, no labels, no smiles. A lot of dark glasses and shimmering eyes. 

Then there’s the bankrolled babies of the Wavey Garms era, kids who blow all their cash on Ellesse tracksuits, North Face puffers and fraying Burberry scarves.

Feeding them, a cluster of Canada Goose and Moncler, padded out with drug-money. All shoulders and elbows, taking up space.

A glimpse of glitter: a couple vaguely famous influencers” that Maya Mae Savage would cut her eyes at – you’ll meet her later. 

A few crusties you’d swear recently rose from the depths of the canal had you not seen their ashen faces last weekend, and every weekend since the dawn of time. 

And then around the edges, the filler, the social stuffing: the stream of hangers-on threading their way through, too early or too late to the party, either way easily untacked from the fabric of the night. 

I’m contemplating all of this – yes, overblown tapestry metaphor and all – from the quasi-cosiness of this sinkhole sofa, when suddenly the music is cut off. Party’s over. How the fuck did it get to 10am already?

Five minutes later and they’ve offloaded the entire boat – including myself – onto the other side of the canal and back into the throes of civilisation. 

Needless to say, it’s horrific. A fresh-faced family on bikes are forced to dismount and shuffle awkwardly past us. The mum grips her kid’s hand extra-tight as though we are actual bona fide crackheads and the condition is contagious, this pleasure-seeking, life-ruining thing we’ve got coursing through our veins. I want to tell her it’s not us, Caroline, it’s in the water. Your seven-year-old will catch it too – it’s only a matter of time in this city. 

Instead, I avoid eye contact and link arms with Lacey like we used to do when we were five. Jay and Jack are talking money. Everyone else looks slightly bewildered, unsure where to go or what to do, knowing this could either be the end or the beginning.

But wait. The boat’s back. Out of nowhere a bright-eyed kid appears at the door with an empty moneybox. 

Yes boys, you here for the party? Ten pound. Cash only.”

People laugh but he’s serious: it’s a new party. We’re all still buzzing and I’ve got another half in my back pocket that will end up staining my washing if I don’t take it now. I can tell everyone’s thinking the same thing but Jack takes the lead. 

Might as well get back on, na?”


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