I Was In A Cellar With A Strange Old Man…

Voodoo Ray's

I was in a cellar with a strange old man. Earlier, in the curiosity shop up on the ground floor, full of verdant house plants and empty but intriguingly-shaped glass bottles and jars, I’d been passed a letter to take down to him.

After pushing aside a red velvet curtain, stumbling between some empty cardboard boxes on a dark staircase, and calling hello in what had become a shaky voice, I’d found him in a tiny workshop, squinting over a trunk that served as a bench by the light of a single lamp. He pointed at an old suitcase opposite him, inviting me to sit down, and pushed a cellophane-wrapped barley sugar across to me.

First, he showed me the innards of an old camera, extracting a paper chain of gingerbread man-like figures. Then he guided me through to another, much bigger, underground room and shook me by the shoulders as loud black and white footage rattled past on a big screen. He was also shouting something into my ear, which I suspected was crucial, but couldn’t really hear him because, as it was a cold March day, I was wearing a hat that covered my ears.

Finally, the film and the shaking stopped, and he opened the envelope I’d brought down. I wondered whether it would have been wrong to have opened it myself earlier and whether I was actually supposed to do so. It was too late now. I caught a glimpse of a closely-typed page, but he didn’t let me read it, slipping it away somewhere.

But there was something else in the envelope: a pendant of three silver discs with holes in the middle attached by a small safety pin to a green and white stripy cord. This he put round my neck, where it hung awkwardly over the bulk of my purple down jacket.

Then he pointed at a door. “Find your path” he said. I opened it, went up some stairs and emerged into a side road, round the corner from where I’d started. I suddenly wanted to go back, worried I’d missed something, and thinking that I should try to get the letter to help me remember what had happened. But when I pushed the door I’d come through, it was locked.

It had started when I was waiting for the bus one day. In the window of an formerly empty shop a sign had appeared: “Psychic” it said, in purple neon letters. I noticed it, but wasn’t that surprised. Like parts of New Orleans, Dalston has a rich seam of gothic mysticism. Other people have Pizza Hut and normal green spaces; we have Voodoo Ray’s slice shop and spooky Abney Park cemetery, where the ghosts of religious non-conformists and abolistionists are rumoured to roam.

My experience, however, wasn’t really a mystic one in the conventional sense, being a pop-up trailer for a show being put on by an east London-based immersive theatre company that’s about to open. And I went there because I’d read about it in Time Out rather than because I’d stumbled into the shop hoping to contact a dead relative.

But the experience did reflect something real about Dalston and the way that things that happen to us anywhere can’t be revisited, but leave traces for those who wish to perceive them. The sign, the shop and, presumably, the old man are long gone but, in the drawer where I keep my keys, I still have the pendant and the barley sugar.