Breathing in, then out, that’s how it all starts. The day, the life, the test, the speech. The difficult things you have to say. It supplies oxygen to the alveoli, the blood, the little cells in the brain that get bathed in the fluid. It helps them get through too.
Have you ever sat there staring out of the window, wondering if you could jump through it, break out, run away? Little trees in the distance growing bigger, then their leafy arms enfold you and you are out the other side, the void of the field and sky, the smile broadening on your face, the phone ringing into a ditch with a splish!
Turning around, still staggering backwards, you look at what you are leaving behind. Look, there’s the roof of Tesco. The roar of the motorway. The termite-like structures built in the sixties, little people scurrying around to nowhere. The bookies – that horrible pub – the street – a car splashes them – their house. Same as all the others.
Turn away, leave those streets you’ve walked so many times before. I remember the times I used to walk around the industrial estate, face hidden within the Gore-Tex hood, rain splashing down and trickling from its rim, occasional sips of Red Bull to power the visons in my head – Sarah, and me, married. Sarah, and me, holding hands, Sarah, and me, in love. Sarah, there, when I got in. from the cold. But no, she would not be there, so I went around the block another time, listened to Radiohead’s “Street Spirit” again.
Rows of houses / Are bearing down on me / I can feel their / Blue hands touching me
So I’ll miss it. A bit. But what I can’t stand is it missing me. All the people in there – some of them know me and some of them like me. How can I cut myself away from them? Well, this is what I need to do today. By the end of the day today, I want there to be not one person who will want me here. Only then will I feel like all the thin wires an threads that bind me to others have been severed, and I will be free, like the balloons you sometimes see rising rapidly, waving their string erratically and dancing into the stratosphere. Only when I do this, there will not be a little child with arms outstretched, crying. No, she’ll be giving me the finger.
MORNING. ALIENATION ONE>
Up I get. What is it I have to do today? There is something on my mind. Did I have a strange dream last night? Yes, I – no! I know what has to be done. I smash the vintage Teasmaid off the bedside table. Its Bakelite pot cracks in two, and the plastic light case splits. I feel a clutch of pain in my chest. I remember when I bought this, at a market stall on brick lane, with my girlfriend at the time, she liked tea, and old stuff, so I thought – perfect! It used to turn the radio on and get us up for University, tell us to walk down the road, the mind-jangling of “Frontier Psychiatrist” by the Avalanches a common choice by DJs at the time.
She hasn’t been in my life for a long time, and I think that was the last piece I had of her. She is gone now. Would she miss me? I haven’t heard from her in a while, except maybe that text last Christmas, no, two Christmases ago where I said I was in Hilly Fields, where by the light of the moon we once… This letting go is harder than I thought. I know:
TEXT ONE> Hello! You know that Russian girl at Uni – Dasha? We were always out and having sex while you were in the hospital. SEND>
I have led a bad life. That just brings back one of the things I’m not proud of. Well, I say that, but perhaps the reason I’m relating it to you is that I am proud of it in some perverse way. Like, look at me, I’m such a decadent, live-in-the-moment, no-rules, desirable creature that I get up to all sorts, life is for me to take!
Yes, I think I am glad I’ve done things like that – it makes it easier to throw away this life. It is used up. I have done a lot of things, and there are a lot of things undone, but all in all I feel like I’ve run this one quite into the ground. That girl, you know, the one in the text was amazing, magnificent! The first second I saw her I was devoted, absolutely. She had a jagged haircut, like she had done it herself, pissed, and thin white arms cut to ribbons, the small thin scars reaching from her wrist to her elbow. Her T-shirt hung around her small frame, and her eyes turned on me, vast globes that encompassed worlds within, dark worlds that I wanted to explore.
“Hur, look at that” the moron on the other side of the bar said ‘quietly’ to his mate.
“She cuts herself, what a – “
I’ve no idea what else this fucking Neanderthal had to say, because the pint glass in my hand was shaking, about to either
- A) Smash in my hand
- B) Smash in his face
- C) Continue to be filled with piss lager, get placed on the counter and paid for.
In the end it was C, but I’ve never wanted more to drape some sort of cloak of protection over someone, while releasing all the hate I possibly could onto someone else, seeing if they could take the pain that produced the marks on my beautiful Dasha, the battle scars of her inner war.
Once, we went into my flat, via the four storeys of scaffolding, each of us outdoing the other in how reckless we could be, how little we could show of care for our existence. We slammed our faces against the window, causing much fright within the warm and busy flat, another party.
Another time we had not gone to bed, so found ourselves by the bathing ponds at Hampstead Heath. It was the start of Autumn, and the leaves were like lily pads, a brown and red and gold carpet on the still surface. The veins of the leaves. The veins of her arms, blue in lines, against the snow of her skin. She slipped out of her layers, slipped beneath the surface. I took the old camera from her bag, and clicked as her face reappeared, framed, freezing, almost a ghost.
When that was developed, she painted lines of blue around her, and called the piece “Stephen’s’s Dream.”
One more thing, people, I like this one – we had finished work at the bar, still in STAFF shirts, and, after a few powders in a coin-op toilet (lock forced) and a few cans smuggled into high-class night spots (got away with due to STAFF status perhaps) we were back in her windowless basement, lying among the gaudy palates and discarded canvases, piles of ripped and torn clothing, records and rum bottles. A tune was playing, Ladytron:
They only want you when you’re seventeen / When you’re twenty-one / You’re no fun
As I sung along to that in a robot voice, she took my hand, pulled me on top of her and said
“Yes, you are.”
I took some rope and tied those wrists gently. This was the sort of place where hardware like ropes were commonplace. I moved up her staff shirt, took down her jeans, which slipped past her slender hips simply, over her little shoes and revealed something so blinding that my memory of it all is erased now – I can’t see anything. Except my own flagging force. I think ‘flag’ is quite a good metaphor. Not massive and stiff like the pole, but like a tattered and faded Union Jack on a housing estate on a still spring day. One on the Beaufort Scale, if you catch my drift.
“Must have been all the coke and that…” I explain. It turned out that her using the ropes on her wrists around my neck made things work quite well. The next thing we knew we were in a café, silent in the morning, she had to go to work. I had listened to “Scarborough Fair” about 10 times waiting for her to come back in from the shared bath.
Maybe that could do with deleting.
TEXT RECEIVED> Stephen, are you alright? I know about all that, you told me before – you have made it clear to me how you were then, and I forgave you. What is wrong now? Why this after all this time?
OK, that wasn’t quite… God, she is too good! When I first saw her in that kitchen, she smiled over at me as I took my pizza from the oven, almost burned myself as I smiled back, peppered it with pepper, and went to my room to think, smile, and think.
Arms grab bronze standing lamp. Muscles tense and hold it pole-vault like. Body runs forwards and the heavy base has a disagreement with the sash window. It won.
Ha. Fuck the Landlord! That’s easier. I can get a bit of justified rage going here. Not fix the boiler, yeah! Well get this! I look around for other items in the low-hanging fruit of destruction, but most of the breakable stuff is mine, and the hard stout stuff is his… I pull at the radiator, pull harder, my fingers start to burn and I release and stagger back into the old wooden wardrobe, where shirts fall about me and a hangar twangs me in the arse.
I sit down in the darkness of the wardrobe; let the ties and shirts slowly fall on me. Such wonderful shirts I think, like I’m Gatsby or something. I bought this wardrobe for another girl, yes, this is starting to look like I’m some sort of Casanova, but that’s not really the case. A few girls have liked me, why, I don’t know. The one linked to the Teasmaid was the one in the text. The one whom I bought this wardrobe for is a whole other world. She called me the other day, and asked if we could meet. She could tell from my voice that I wasn’t over-keen, and asked if I really wanted to.
“Yeah, of course! Just busy now, this week!”
“OK. I’m teaching at a school in Tower Hamlets now! It’s so great!”
“Ah, that’s good!”
She had not wanted to move with me when I became a teacher. She said,
“So, I have got to leave London and go to the countryside to become a teacher’s wife!?”
“No, you don’t have to come.”
I didn’t want her to, and that slowly fell apart after that – except she has seemed to want to repair it ever since. But it’s like Irvine Welsh consistently points out – reheated cabbage – it just doesn’t work.
TEXT> Claire, I don’t want to see you again. You have done well, I wish you luck, and a happy life. You couldn’t have had that with me. But our paths diverge here. No response required.
That’s that. I hope.
TEXT> PS. I used to go back to the flats of drunk girls and boys anytime I could. When I disappeared, it was for that. I didn’t care.
Shit, that leaves a sour taste. In the form of happy memories. I just saw an image of her popping up from under the duvet, smiling, laughing, singing! Jesus God, what have I done? Does that make her have to reassess all the happy memories she has of me? There were many, I’m sure… To overhaul that many files in the mind, to recategorise them as dark times, not joyful days, to rewrite smiles as sinister, eyes as hiding something, truths as lies.
Turmoil in the filing system, major errors, system crashes.
Do you wish to start in Safe Mode?
No, fuck it.
I turn on the taps, stick a load of tissue paper in the overflow hole, stick the plug in, walk out the door and slam it behind me. Go back, unlock it and leave it open. Bye!
“You know the break in here? When those laptops went missing? Well I gave some bloke at the station the master key.”
“Really? Well, the insurance covered that, so, well, you don’t work here anymore, so… How are things? What do you do now?”
“Well, I’m a lecturer –
“Wow! Well done! I wouldn’t have thought that – I mean, you did have a lot of days off… Remember that time that your holiday just went on a few extra days! And when we came to that performance you put on! Whew! Quite the primrose path, you were on! Oh, I shouldn’t-“
“Don’t worry about it. Sorry about all that, I mean,” NO! Cut yourself off!
“I mean to say – SITTING IN HERE DAY BY DAY WAS THE BIGGEST WASTE OF TIME IN MY LIFE, AND I PITY THE FOOL THAT WAS HERE FOR ABOUT TWENTY YEARS BEFORE ME, AND IS STILL HERE NOW, AND WILL BE, FOREVER!”
OK, run out, shit, the door is opened by the lady at the front desk, her.
“Sorry Sarah, could you release the door?” – CLICK
Out into the cool. Not too bad, apart from the inadvertent channelling of Mr T. Down the street. Past the video shop. I was going to shout in the door that I’ve still got his copy of “Mon Oncle” from 2003, but he seems to have gone bankrupt. Hopefully due to said incident.
Ah – another workplace down here. A pub. I used to bar people for nicking glasses, writing graffiti – a band was in one day, shouting, drinking, bigging themselves up. I asked their band name:
“Bacardiac Arrest, geezer!”
“Right – OUT! You’re all barred.”
“Wha-what? Why? We ‘aven’t…”
“Graffiti in the toilets. Only one thing in there – “BACARDIAC ARREST” scratched into my woodwork.”
“Ah, I’m sorry pal – “
So it ought to be easy enough to be cast asunder here.
“Awright gel, ah’ll have a crackin pair o’ pints to go wi’ your crackin’ pair!” I leer at the barmaid, within earshot of the six-foot tall manager putting glasses away below the counter. My bravado drains away a bit as I hear myself, see myself in the bar mirror (God, that mirror!) and see also that the rather “arty” girl behind the bar doesn’t even have a “crackin’ pair” in the dickhead bloke traditional sense.
“Oi oi! Leave the banter until after four, eh!” The manager emerges.
“You’ll get a lot more in them glasses than she’s got in that bra, I can tell you!” he adds
“Yes, and rarity makes for a more-treasured thing, does it not?” she replies, then they both look at me.
“Err… I used to-“ I’m not sure how to answer that. God, she is gorgeous, I shouldn’t have messed it up immediately. Actually, maybe this persona will be good at getting girls. I’ve tried being respectful, intelligent-
“Seven pahnd eighty, me old mucker.”
Bloody hell, things have changed around here. I grab a pint and start gulping it down, most of it pouring around my mouth and all over the bar, splashing the beer mats and leaflets, the newspaper starts to soak it up, Cameron’s head becoming engorged in the fizzy shit. I can see them both looking at me through the bottom of the glass, the level descending, them both holding themselves straight with a hand on a bar tap each. I smash the glass onto the floor for good measure, then accidentally knock the other pint over the girl (nice move brother!) who leaps back smashing a bottle of vodka on the shelf behind her, as I drink in the sight of the dripping wetness around her thighs, the smell of the alcohol and the effervescence and fear in my stomach curdle with the lust and I feel a lunging in my throat as Mr Carling’s finest reappears over the polished brass of the pumps and the manager’s shirt as he starts running for the hatch to catch me… as I stagger wheeling out the door, tripping over an item I bought to furbish this place: an old chest.
I jog slowly through the crowds on the busy market street. Old ladies carrying huge bags, about fifty of them in each hand, bristling with jungles of greenery – carrot tops, coriander, Christmas tinsel. They take up all the pavement and I slip by by weaving in and out of the stalls, looking like I’m about to slip a mobile phone cover or weed grinder into my pocket and make good my escape. Talking of which, the next goodbye will be harder. A lovely bloke, a gentle soul.
“Hey, Stephen, what brings you down here!?”
“Fuck off, ya radge, your art is so shit it makes me sick!” I wipe some more away from my mouth to demonstrate this point, and speed up as much as the crowd allows. Another one gone.
I lean on the doorbell of 129c and wait. He’s always in. I ring again. I look through the letterbox – darkness, faint shadows of bikes. Good, he is still here. But the ring as I lean on the bell again has that sparse echo of the empty property, and I don’t expect him to emerge.
“Heeey, Tan, how you going?”
“Ah! Alright Anthony, pretty good actually!” He sees the stains on my shirt and trousers.
“Mad one, yeah?”
“No, just had a bit of an incident at the George.”
“Yeah! Come in!”
We head up the darkened stairs, clambering over the bikes Ant fixes up – racers, mountain, big old 20s Raleigh, and some little kid’s trike…
“I wish I was a size eight, I haven’t been for years…” Some girl drifts by the top of the stairs and up the other flight. Typical Anthony, having these strange wraiths and strays stashed away. We are by the stairs, where there used to be a mattress below, and people crashed out, just the power of the party and music too much, the ether in the air sent them reeling into the damp darkness of this cave, eyes slamming like shop shutters, and slipping into place between the other dreck beneath. Spilling three pints of water more cautious ravers secreted away for the night’s journey. Ant opens the fridge door to get a couple of cans out, and the cockroaches scurry out of the seal, dart for the darkness.
Good to see it’s the same still here.
“What’s up man? Cup of tea?”
“Not much – yes please – actually, I’m alright, thanks” I spied the kettle on the hob out of the corner of my eye – stalactites of lime.
How can I do this to the nicest guy you’d ever meet? So many times I would be wandering lonely around these streets, and know that a knock on Ant’s door (best after four) would result in a welcome, and maybe some vegetarian cookery. His eyes look over to me from the corner of the kitchen, then back to the hob. Encrusted with grease (the hob) and smoke stains up the walls, guiding the eye to the place where the ceiling fell in, and the box that fixed it (PAMPERS) past the ever-shattered window, where local youth occasionally climb in to steal music they would have no idea how to sell on in the local boozers. Actually, maybe that was why they were playing a La Monte Young and Phillip Glass atonal composition at the Little Crown the other day…
“I got a job the other day,”
“Nice one! What as?”
“Working down the library, helping out with the childrens’ workshops, doing a few computer courses, that sort of thing.”
“That sounds good! Not going to do the old acid-session classic that ended relations with GlaxoSmithKline then?”
I feel a bit bad bringing that up, and feel petty for what it says about me. It probably means I relish other peoples’ misfortunes, and want to keep others down as I move forward. It was better when we were all around this table, Kes, Ant, Sian, Kerri, Adam, Molly and me, all passing the old laptop around, applying for a bad bar job in Leicester Square, then feeling free to wander around and enjoy the day and each other’s company as we had at least put some effort in that day.
“Quick, man, the battery is going on that!”
“OK! Address: 32 Beaumont Gardens, New Cross, Date of birth: first of the third – shit!”
“Oh, shit man!”
“Forget it – let’s head down the river.”
They were good times, and here is our host. We have all spun out across the globe since those days. To see us there, then, hands organising letters from the DHSS and thin rollies, as cups of weak tea are passed around, someone else emerging from under the stairs holding their head, looking as ashen as the end of the fag, blinking and turning away from the sudden exposure to human smiles, all cheering:
“What a rinse up!”
“Not looking so ecstatic today!”
“Nice one, brother!”
“Would you like a cup of tea?”
Wincing in the hail of laughter, then jumping out of his skin as the cockroaches scatter as he opens the fridge in search of… coolness.
We were there, that tight circle, as it spun faster and faster, until the centre couldn’t hold – the gravity failed and we all flew away, across the country, some of us, some of us landed even further away, into new lives, professions, relationships. Each one of them some use now, doing something for others in this world. And the centre is still here, the centre cannot hold…
I’ll have to bring up images to do this – maybe, the only thing I could think of – when I was “going out” with this beautiful and strange Czech girl, this girl who… Well, I had just repaired my wooden bed, gone to the hardware store and bought long screws with the intent of making my bed suitable for, well, as said. I wished I could mention this to the guy in the hardware store. Cement my hetero credentials with him. Buying that fairy liquid there the other day hadn’t helped.
Well, she, Ivona, had explained to me that we should no longer go out, except for “as friends.” I cancelled the trip to Paris in my mind, and said with wavering voice:
“Yeah, no worries! Had a good time with you… well, let’s go down that club night!”
She squeezed my hand, grimaced a little, and we marched along the darkening street. I thought – how good must we look? Her, so tall, and Eastern, striking, us in perfect step, me – wearing a rather spiffing hat. Oh, why does this always happen to me? I’m terminally weird, even too weird for people like this, who was dressed in black lace and safety pins on our first night out, who took Michael Gira of Swans’ advice when we found ourselves in a dark cranny of the Camden Palace as he bellowed “Ride your beautiful bitch to heaven / Heaven, yeah.” On the way home, she took my tie in her hands, stroked it and said:
Well, that last night we met up with everyone else, and they didn’t even know we had been going out (and I’d wasted 84p on screws) and I wanted some form of recognition. So I sat down on an empty leather sofa by the toilets, in the leaking fluorescent light from the Ladies’ window, and set my face in close-to-tears maudlinism. The reek from the bogs helped matters, actually. I just wanted someone to come up to me and say:
“Aww, Steve, what’s wrong? You’re not your usual self?”
And that would be my opportunity to pour out my bitter tortured artist’s tale of dark days and beautiful girls, always careful to try and portray myself in a better-than-reality light. But no-one asked. After an eternity of boredom, a couple of times people sat next to me, then went, I saw Ant dancing with her. He leaned in, she leaned out, he danced left, she danced right – he moved closer – and, inevitably, drawn in, she did too. In the green light of the single spotlight, they kissed. The light changed to red, they kissed. It went off and I squinted to see – it came back in and they were still kissing, in a brighter light, which is burned onto the rods and cones on the back of my eye.
[Coming hard, hypocritical] “Ant, you sleazy fucker, why don’t you ever look at girls and not think of sex?”
[Dumbfounded] “What man, do you mean Heidi? She’s only staying here because her housing bennies got cancel-“
[Rinsing it] “No, fucking Ivona, you knew I liked her, and you kissed her!”
[Melting] “Oh, man, no! I didn’t know that! I never would have… Wasn’t that about five years ag-“
[NOT crying] “Bu-but she was… I just thought…”
[A little pleased] “Anyway, she’s married now, man.”
[Nuclear bomb] “Do you wonder why everyone is gone except you? Why everyone has done something else and you are still here?”
[Easy geezer] “Still here? So? Helping people, chilling, being part of the community, taking it easy, living-“
[Zeroed] “Yeah, well, I’m off for good, this shit is DONE. It is all just 2005 again and again, the same old things again and again-“
I jump up and beetles splay all across the lino, grab the bannister which comes away, catapulting me down the stairs into the bike stack, which comes away from the wall, pedals hitting shins and cogs biting my neck. I look back up to Ant, the bulb swinging behind him, casting his dancing shadow around, as the elfin girl joins him, slips her hand around his waist.
[Eternal] “If it’s a good thing, man, do it again. When things are beautiful – just keep on.”
I untangle, slowly, painfully, and take the last bike by the door, swing my leg over and pedal out. It feels like there is some sort of net, some force that tangles its way through all these dirty streets. Memories coming up through the cracks like the verdant moss, the stuff that sends a chill down my neck, makes me shudder. It is infected with mushrooms, the tops of them may push up through the concrete, break into the open, do all that work only to be knocked over by a breeze, or brushed by a bag, and fall, but they are still below the surface, a vast network of nodules, waiting in the damp darkness, ever patient, someday deciding to surface, and look around.
There’s the corner where I saw my stolen bike riding away, painted black cheaply, and with it all memories of solo teenage rides to Aldbury, the countryside, the zoo, first freedom, the open road, first sips of cider.
Under the bridge by the high street, here’s where we wrote our names, or our little pet names, for each other in the wet cement. It is still there, the writing looks happy, jaunty – so much emotion in a finger-drag through sand and lime. Dust in it, and fag butts. Some dog shit further up. It looks like words on a gravestone to me now.
This bench in this graveyard, I have sat here, and watched the autumn day finish its short spanned life, until all the lights, globes of colour, crimson, gaudy and arabesque, come on one by one through the dismal fog. The darkness in the air seeps into me, right through the bones, and saturates my marrow with sorrow, my upturned face willing the occasional passer-by to smile at me, but the shuffling figures, hooded and cloaked, emerge and retreat in turn, all on their own trudge towards…
What brought me through those times, those places? Dear God, it was love, always love. What kept me up at night, what helped me roam those streets, looking in windows, hoping to see someone, seeing them only in my mind.
I never do things / You never do things for me / I just wander around / I just wander around
Now, this is the best one ever: It was noon on a Wednesday, down in New Cross. Here, there are huge long roads, these terraces that I suppose used to be grand – now, obscured by bins, satellite dishes and tattered flags, I think they still are. I have stashed an address away in my dusty mind – we walked past here a few weeks ago to drop someone home. I’d met her in a stairwell at a library a few days before that. I still had not recovered from that meeting. This must be something that she never thinks of now, probably barely registered then, and is fully erased today. Strange, how the world is so subjective, how our internal narration gives it all its colour and meaning:
>10 AUTORUN_PROGRAM: WALK/NX/LIBRARY/
>I wonder if there is anyone in the library –
>look there is an Oasis tribute at the –
>that bus goes to Stokie quite handy I’ll have to get that someday –
>war march on next week I won’t be going to –
>Jesus she is choice how are there so many –
>where is my card it’s here in I go keep my beaming face facing towards me and warm here too hot what shall I do maybe get a few books to stare at hope knowledge will pour in –
>lift at third floor so stairs here that door is heavy it’s like a factory here that concrete like a club keep left greasy handrail hear steps down hope they keep left my rule but like it is logical in England –
>my god she is so beautiful that jacket within it her that hair that falls aside from within that hood my god my heart is fast –
>so so hot here –
>she is going to look at me arrange face into smile or something not this stand up straight suck in gut look at her but not too hard her beautiful hand is on the rail and she is sliding towards me and her hood angles up the green cave that contains everything so shining and bright and life itself dwells there she opens her mouth and speaks to me –
>Dear god say something why has she spoken to me do not miss this chance in life you get given chances know them take them I love her I love her I love her –
“You’re Lucy’s friend aren’t you?” her voice suggests concepts, atmospheres, more than words. I drink it down.
“Yes, yes, she’s in my halls, does Psychology with me too!”
“What are you-”
“Are you going-”
“Are you going to her birthday party tonight?”
>what party hell yeah I’m going –
“Yes, can’t wait – see you there?”
>fucking hell get in get in this is the best day –
>what am I even in here for –
>jump up those stairs hup hup hup whoa too far that time don’t fall don’t hurt yourself shin splitting and blood and oh here’s the floor go in there calm yourself down no go out it’s a beautiful day my god this is it I can’t believe it I love her
>what is her name
>150 AUTORUN_PROGRAM: /END
I watched her from afar that night, I didn’t dare look at her too much, like viewing the sun during an eclipse. People came up to me and spoke, their words washed over me and my mouth moved in response, but I heard neither. I saw her full of life, laughter occasionally bubbling over like a pot on a hob, too quick to catch, then settling back down as it dampens the flame. She self regulates like that, she sees herself from afar too.
Now I’m outside her house, I think – it’s the one with two broken spikes on the railings, the black wrought iron ones grown chubby with decades of house-proud re-paints. I had stepped up those steps, held out my finger, went to press the bell, then ran away and went to the off licence for a can of Holsten Pils. I downed that, washed saliva around my mouth to not stink of it, then returned, pressed the bell and heard it deep within. She came to the door, recognised me, and allowed me in. Her room was like a greenhouse, except freezing. There were posters on the non-glass walls, records on the floor, a mattress there too, a little sock discarded there, wires leading to headphones, some folders and papers, music scores, an old rug patterned with – stop looking at all that and look at her!
“Hello, how are you?”
“I’m alright. That was a fun night.”
“Yes, it’s a good restaurant.”
“It was even better that no-one had any money and we had about three lahmachun between about twelve!”
“Ha, yes, and I loved the way the waiter kept popping his head around the door and whoever was filling their glass from a bottle of ‘bow had to freeze – like a game of Bulldog!”
“Ha ha, yes.”
That was how it started. Even now I wish it was still with me. Don’t worry, reader, this is not a sad story, but the story of how life began, how that breathing rate increased, how we inhaled it all, how we saw so much.
“See you at the corner, roaring noon.”
Now all the places of London have a trace of her.
I watched you when / Your ship came in / And when your train / Was leaving / The sweetest thing / I ever saw / Was you asleep / And dreaming
She was able to curl up and sleep on one cushion on my sofa.
If I am to abandon all of this, I can’t do it like the others. I think you can ruin things with love, too much, overdose, and they stay away. They become scared of your devotion to them. I probably would be suspicious of someone liking me so much too. So here goes, here is a letter to her, the unnameable and most beautiful:
I loved you as soon as I saw you. I had never seen anyone so beautiful, the little smile as face turns in towards your shoulders, the little dance you do, in big boots. Jagged hair and crinkled eyes, darkness from their depths. I kept trying to end up alongside you in that group. When you spoke, it was so gentle and quiet I couldn’t make out your name. I thought you were from some other country, somewhere far and warm and mysterious.
That winter was the best I’ve ever had – it started with a Facebook message from you about an art tour in Brixton, or something. We went out every week, out to bars and theatres, gigs and museums. London now has a trace of you all over, only for me. That pub, The Lamb, I think it was, where I gave you a CD, full of hidden codes. I had said I was just popping by the area, so it would be no trouble to swing by. Instead, I left my friends in a pub in Brockley and ran for the train, made it down there and ran the streets in the darkness, looking for the place. The Arcola (where knees move apart), that church for the concert, Somerset House and its ice, Columbia flowers, pub by Blackfriars, unfunny comedy nights, Geffre Museum rooms, walks around squares where we keep in step. When I was home with my friends I would stand leaning on my bike, chatting on about you.
That night when I brought you the book, when I saw you gracefully gliding around in a green T-shirt as I felt like an ungainly, undignified pillock, when, feeling like that, I asked if would ever be able to hold your hand, and your reply that you had a boyfriend – I think you know how that feels. So the thread of our Facebook messages ends there, the Xs having trailed off, after a quick apology from me for being such a weird fool. But a while later they reappear, you asking how I am. That delighted me, and scared me. I probably replied very quickly. I felt like shouting “Dear God! I adore you! I want to see you so much, to worship all you do! I am yours!” but I think it was more restrained.
So that was all over, but it was also a new period of our relationship, and a productive one for me. I channelled all that into writing, and your DNA wrote itself into so many stories. That is the great stuff in life. The small incidents, the little looks and gestures, words and touches, and how we interpret it all, up there in our dreamy wandering minds. You may not be feeling very good right now. I wish I could transmit something to you, to help you feel better, and perhaps this is what this letter is about – I want you to know that you are so full of worth, you are one of the most amazing people I’ve met, certainly my favourite, you are full of hope and strangeness, washes of darkness and rays of light, someone who will not settle on the ordinary and prosaic, but an adventurer and a wonderer. My muse and inspiration.
And you and everything you do is so beautiful.
But what I need to say is that I would do anything for you, I love you, and all you do and say, the ways you live your life, the moves you make, everything, right from compartment lunchboxes to leather chairs, pictures of girls and joints of ham, walks in rain and tending little gardens. I so want to see you happy, to see you at peace with it all, to be free and content. I wish I could have been a part of that, but different paths have been taken. I have found some of that where I am now. It’s never perfect, but there are glimpses. I skipped down a hill outside Guildford in the sun last week, the first good day, Belle & Sebastian singing in my ears, and, for about 10 seconds I felt as if I were held, that all would be alright, forever. Then it fades. But I now know that that is there, that we can access it, sometimes, when our mind is just right and the world is smiling.
What I think I feel for you now is stronger than friendship and purer than love. I simply want you to be, to be everything you can, and I would love it if I can be there with you sometimes. I still long to hold your hand, to walk down the street with you, talking and pointing out people doing funny things. I want to be close to you, to be of use to you, because I think the only way we can face this world is with the help of someone who really understands who we are, and never judges. Probably someone who appreciates vinyl crackle too.
Anyone who can’t see what you have is not worth bothering about. There will be another, someone better, who sees – you.
I had to write all this or else I would have burst. I need to get the truth to you, so nothing has to be hidden. I hope it doesn’t scare you, or something. I wish the world could be more open and honest. Things would be easier. No games, no secrets, just pure expression. We could live our lives like we were writing a story, set out the plots and go. I hope I can always be part of your life, walk beside you and sit next to you, parallel lines, in a dark underpass.
This is me, and this is what I think of when I think of you.
That’s the last I’ll see of her.
I noticed glitter on my fingers earlier today. I’ve been wiping my face a lot today, too, so I’ve probably got a rather sparkly visage now. The mid-afternoon sunlight is blue and gold through the bare capillaries of the arms of the trees. Single globes of water quiver, the last leaves shiver.
The children play along the bankside, where The warehouse used to be. I remember when this was all factories. They have elaborate games where they run across planks over the water. They do not mind when the helicopters come over because they have got used to them. I say:
“Look! That’s where an abandoned factory used to be! Damien Hurst had an exhibition there… we had a rave there, once.”
They are not interested. Its not their fault. Maybe its mine.
Looking back on what we’ve discussed so far, it’s all been these relationships, these people I’ve known. I guess that’s what it’s all about – of all the people in the world, we are the people who see ourselves the least. Our existence is confirmed by others. We see how others change, but don’t see that in ourselves. It still feels to me like the same voice that’s been talking in my head since I was three: “Come on Stephen, you are strong enough to pedal the three-seater trike – you can carry the others around – go on, up the little hill and whizz down! Don’t worry, they’ll like this, you can do it. But will they want to?”
It’s that little point where when you meet someone, when you like them, when you really like them, and you think, maybe, just maybe they like me too – and the whole world opens up with something, like an array of colours slanting through a prism – and this is possibility. Possibilities become endless, you see yourself with them in variform guises. The long odds that stack against anyone – who would like me? And I like them at the same time? It seems to me that that is a difficult gamble, and the stakes are always everything. You place a little bet every time you send a text, a smile, or say hello. Or when you hang around outside their house, hoping for a glimpse from within the warm and yellow glow. You put down your bet, and if you lose, you get torment, loneliness, foolishness, damn foolishness, and wish you could retract it – I’ll never do this again! But if you win, if you get a text back that ends in, Lord Above, an “x” then you strike a note upon the sky, tear through the darkness and grap the essence of this in your fist, pull back down and towards your body, a cry comes up from you:
“Yes! Get the fuck in!”
For the rest of that day you are free, your mind can meander through the possibilities, and you can travel across years and vast distances. But then you want more. Dissatisfaction, that is what it is to be human. We wouldn’t have got this far if it wasn’t for constant dissatisfaction nagging at our souls.
“This cave is nice. Better than the sea. Let’s stay here. I’m happy now.”
No, we wanted more.
“Have you seen that new development at Elephant & Castle? 23 floors, all flats have a balcony, their own parking space, 24-hour access to the gym, solar heating, full open plan kitchen diner, over 500 square feet, built in oven and dishwasher, with a mezzanine level bedroom and the most amazing views over the city. I’d like to move there – the gym is only open until 11pm here.”
Someone wishes they had a million pounds – so they work, they work hard for it. Or they get into finance. And they make the million quid. Look around themselves, see the expensive stuff, see the view, then look inside themselves, and the same person answers from within. It’s still them; they are still the same person within – just as worried, just as restless, just as discontent. I know! Maybe another million will do it!
No, brother, it never will.
So we keep on – always moving forward, never satisfied with where we have arrived at. This computer’s too slow. This phone is too big. This phone is too small – make the screen bigger.
Some lyrics come back to me now – I first “got into” music when I saw that the Britannia Music Club offered 5 free albums when you joined – you then had to buy at least 5 albums over the year. A fair deal, I thought.
The Fugees – The Fugees
Manic Street Preachers – Everything Must Go
Massive Attack – Blue Lines
Pulp – Different Class
Radiohead – The Bends
OK, some good stuff, some a bit middle of the road – don’t worry, my music taste is much more avant-garde now. We won’t get into it here… OK just a couple:
Can – Ege Bamysai
The Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs
Anyway, the lyric that comes to mind is from Blue Lines:
“You don’t have to drive / A great big Cadillac / Gangster white walls / TV [and something] in the back / You may not haaaaaave / A car at all / But remember – member! Brothers! Sisters! / You can still stand tall / Just be thankful / For what you got.”
I want to be thankful for what I’ve got – and if I have nothing, no-one, I’ll be thankful for anything.
So I trudge on. An interesting word, ‘trudge.’ Sounds very laboured, heavy, probably the ground is soaking, and your boots come up caked in mud, legs pendulous. But it also suggests constancy, keeping on. I trudge down a side street, a little short cut perhaps, or maybe just more lefts and rights, so it is less boring and therefore seems shorter. The gleam of the sun shifts and changes as I walk past the bulbous bonnet of a new Fiat 500. As I see the sun highlight a dent, its alarm cuts across the city sounds, feels like a waveform diagram is emanating from it, sine waves saw my skull. I look away, not wanting to cause it further offence. I think it’s because I thought it’s headlight design was eccentric. It looked me in the eye.
But what I am trying to say is who are we, other than the sum of our memories? If they are deleted, who am I? And can I delete the memories that others hold of me? Will I still exist, as I do today, just because of the conceptions that others have of me – I’m still alive in minds I never knew thought of me. I didn’t tell you this, but I just ran into a friend of mine from a long time ago, who was one of those who flew across the globe, away from the centre and off. I said sorry that I hadn’t been in contact, and he said to me “Time is an illusion, distance a falsification. We exist in the same space – though we cannot see nor hear nor feel each other, we are there.” I like that. And I know what he means. In my old flat around here, I would be in bed sometimes, lulled asleep by the occasional car purring by, the sodium shadows drifting across the ceiling, fingers of light stroking the room, falling across my face, forehead furrowed by an unquiet mind. The doorbell would burr apologetically, briefly. I enter the dark room, wondering why I am there suddenly. It rings again, more insistent, and my legs swing round and trudge me to the window, sliding up the old wooden frame and leaning out. He was there below, looking up and smiling. I gesture to him “One minute,” and add a coat to the shorts and shirt I am wearing, having passed out in them in the heat of the evening. Doc Martens on and get trudging.
We need food, so go to the 24 hour Sainsbury’s in Lewisham. We go the scenic route, through the little park, past the fountain, which echoes around, blue and glistening, the only sound in the still night, except for those cars that wander the streets alone. We pass the Hidden Place (a little brick enclosure behind a fenced off area – requires dedication to enter, offers seclusion from the world. We camped there, once) and go over the bridge across the river, then into the science-fiction film of the DLR station. Piercing LED lights and uniform colour scheme, blue and turquoise lines on every available surface, an orange LED display saying “Welcome to Elverson Road.” Well thank you, sign! We round the corner and walk through the vast car park, a couple of cars sleeping in the shadows, then down the alleyway, with paranoid shoulder checks, and ears scanning for trouble, tongues tasting the vibes like a snake’s. In the supermarket, a commercial radio station blares – the workers stack the shelves, throw empty boxes on the floor, give no quarter to any night time shoppers, just carry on in the bright fluorescence, daring not to look at the clock attempting some sort of out-of-body experience in the shiny-floored valleys of produce. All this stuff looks so artificial now, 15 varieties of tomato in cans, pictures pointing towards vines and hillsides and Italy, but not evoking thoughts of these places – only reinforcing how far from them these products are.
We go to the end aisle, where ready to eat pies and sausages and pasties, all that picnic sort of stuff resides. I look over and he is already bent double, wolfing little cocktail sausages, looks like he is swallowing a small and stubby hand, fingers desperate to stay outside the mouth but gulped down now.
“’Ere, ‘ave some of these!”
“Keep it down a bit!”
“These are choice – get ‘em in.”
“Mmm – dee-lish! Look – Cumberland flavour! Crack them open!”
We both dart eyes around, do exaggerated looks around, lean over and closer, tearing into packets, checking the Best Before for some reason. Laughing.
Why were we laughing? Because we were completely free. We didn’t have to pay, we didn’t have to sleep. We could walk this city any time, pick the bounty from its shelves, do and say what we like. You can’t get more free than that. Wait a sec – maybe you can –
“Hey! Get some of these Greenals down ya!”
He is in the next aisle down, grabbing cans of a premixed gin and tonic. 12%. Oh yes.
The hill gets a little steeper, then levels out into the plane of Blackheath. I think Black Death burial pits may be mentioned, discussed, and the decades of dead bodies and lost buildings and buried rivers hidden beneath the shining glass and steel surface that is starting to cover this settlement, growing into the sky like silver obelisks, memorials only to themselves. But mostly we just are. I feel really present in the present then, and I can still feel it now. An eternal present. As I guess there is no actual future and the past is gone and hidden all we have is the present. Is it possible to live there? Or expand the present to contain all the events we want it to, have an event horizon at our birth, no, we can think further than that, much further – the present ends where we stop thinking.
I stop thinking there, and think instead of what I saw a couple of days ago:
I was on my way home when I, slinking in the shadows on the opposite side of the road, saw a huge queue of men in pastel shirts, all with the same haircut, swept over to one side, all puffed out chests and fat bellies, all with weak banter and mundane observations (“Fuckin massive queue! Let’s push in! Hur-hur!) and a parade of girls alongside them, freezing in ultra short slivers of polyester, stitched by the tiny hands of children on the other side of Earth, bulging, bursting to go into this bright halogen pub, steamy windows, each time the door opens a dirge of drunken shouting and tunes we’ve heard a million time before.
Girl staggers out, seemingly too old for this type of thing, lined and creased face, bedraggled hair, falling like the Hindenberg, a balloon of helium tied around her though, as she belts out a song, like the soggy bellows of a church organ: “Aaand maybay … [deep breath] … You’re gonna be the one that saaaves me! [almost sick] … AAAnd after allllll … YOUR my WONDERwaaall!” I spelled “you’re” that way as that was the way she was spelling it in her head.
The balloon turns to me. I’M 30 TODAY.
What a fuckin waste.
So, I don’t know why I’m not part of that, but I’m glad I’m not.
Why do we set the standard of sanity so low? The dutiful consumer, the Friday night drinker, the diligent worker? A gold clock for 40 years of turning up to a warehouse on the edge of the Trading Estate, packing boxes and sending them out. When you are gone, the boxes will still come. If you were never here, the same things would have happened without you.
That is why life can’t happen to us.
We’ve got to do something to it. Why not be all that is good about the human condition? The saint, the sage, the artist? Well, those are hard, society doesn’t reward them, they have a miserable existence, then maybe some recognition later. In a rare few examples.
Or maybe not. That is why you have to do your stuff – help others be all they can, and you will be all you can yourself. I’ve got to get these students to sit at last in their own driving seat, and swerve off the usual highway. You’ve got to tell these artists, these workers, these people that what they are doing is of value, and that it should be saved, not deleted, not in the world’s recycle bin, but backed up in the clouds.
Create create create – it’s all we’re here for.
Like it says in that story – “Out of the strong came forth sweetness.” We’ve got to carry on without regard to other’s approval, we have to think only of saying what we have to say, even when it comes out sideways in the form of a painting or song or story. Filtered through the dark recesses of the mind, and rendered in the minds of others in colours.
I’ve got to do things now, in my life – my class has gone and the room is empty, only the whir of fans inside computers, and the swirl of the smoke from the factory opposite. The smoke is quick and impatient. Like the people around it.
I do like to think about others and what they do – they have some strange force – they could get people to work, to create, to… come together, to… do anything.
Oh, too many “…” in the world! It is full of them, those unfinished sentences!
Oh the glorious and unfulfilled! Oh the possibilities too numerous! Oh the path we choose to tread, and the others we see from afar!
I’ll keep on trudging – I like a world that has these people in it, out there, somewhere.
I was re-telling this story to my friend earlier, I don’t know why I didn’t mention it then, and he said something that has made me think about what I’m doing, sort of show me that to carry on is better, that whatever we do we are creating, making something. Even sitting on a bench on the Heath at 4am can be a great statement, even inspiring others, showing them there are other ways to be:
“If anybody can make a person shake themselves out of the mental malaise of the modern condition, it is you. I remember somebody ages ago saying, perhaps it was Leila? you know, Leila who liked a drug and worked at the end. I think she said something about how before she met you, she had never even entertained the concept of leaving the house without somewhere to go or something specific to do, without a plan. Which sounds unfathomable to the likes of us. But there it is, there’s the key: never have a ‘plan.’”
As I said to Ant:
“It’s all just 2005 again and again for you!”
Every man hates what he has to deny. Especially I.
It wasn’t that bad, it doesn’t need deleting, and it wasn’t that good, it doesn’t need saving.
It certainly was, though.
And still is. An alarm sounds and I hit a time-lock:
“And see you next week!” declared Stephen as he dotted the I of his surname on the long, long DHSS document. He nodded to the security guard, waved at Mavis in Investigations and stepped out into the afternoon sunshine, a piano loop in his head.
Stepping sharp, clear of cracks, leaping lines, he slips in-between the others who walk the streets.
“Half a pound a pound a carrots!”
“Yeah, yeah, and she slapped him, and got off with Tek!”
“Everybody, everybody down, the CIA, I am with them, I am here, you need fear…”
“Can you spare some change? Much as possible.”
All he needs do today has been done. Have you ever felt that free? He can get on any bus, cruise the city from the top deck front seat, Doc Martens on the dash, pretend to drive. But his batteries have ran out in his Discman. Its not as fun without music. The piano loop comes back in.
He needs to buy some veg for a stew, though. That will fill some time. He enters the doors of Aldi, and heads towards the back, picking up a Kingston Apples box on his way, ready to fill. Celeriac. Leek. Potatoes. A really big onion. What else? Some herbs, torn off the bunch and pocketed.
“I think some blue cheese would go well with this.” Stephen spoke to no-one, but maybe to himself. He could keep himself company in the day, but by night would need people. He would sit on the edge of his bed later, scrolling through the names in his phone’s memory, looking for someone who he could stand, and, more rare, who could stand him. No, I’m being to hard on Stephen. He was alright. He had her in mind when assembling the stew, as it morphed into soup.
He had any chance visitors in mind too. There were lots like him, walking the streets. They would always appreciate a bit of free food on a Dole Day Afternoon.
Walking back to the flat, enjoying the lens flare dazzle of the low sun, the smell of baked asphalt and that strange dead quiet that comes on these days, he heard Dylan’s voice.
“Things are wrong. Things are going wrong!”
“Nothing! That was just an Echo and the Bunnymen lyric.”
“Oh. Of course. Fancy a bowlaround, a bit of soup? Got the stuff here.”
“Yeah OK – shall we go to the cemetery?
“Have you heard about tonight?”
“No, what’s on?
“Oh, some pretentious film night at David’s.”
“Shall we go?”
“Yeah, definitely. Tarkovsky.”
Dylan gives a sideways glance that agrees.
Looking in the mirror, drinking a can as his eyes yellow, the tap drips and the cistern refills. This is the end, my only friend, the end. What a song. He takes a piece of tissue, cleans a smudge from his own image in the mirror, wipes the water from his eyes, and drops it in the toilet. Presses flush but it doesn’t.
There are too many people in the hardware store. Forget the mail. I’m not going in there, workmen don’t like me. They resent me not working and having a good time. If this is good. I’ll go to the launderette. I’ll wash away my sin. Need to get some cheap washing powder. 99p in the purple packet in the shop.
Both sitting with backs to the wall, feeling vast and expansive in the tiny room, Stephen straightens the gingham tablecloth and hides the tomato sauce stain with a salt cellar. This could be alright. This every day, a pizza from our new local, a few Stella, really takes the edge off. Look out the window and you can see the cemetery.
Where is my phone? She’s taken it. She punched me in the stomach. Shouted “What is wrong with you?” I don’t know. I just don’t know.
I get down on my knees and pray, look out the window into town, have to crane my neck to see. I can see along way from here, I always feel the possibility when I look over this town. I could go anywhere here. And I will.
“The lads at the river will pay us for sex.”
“Oh… Kay… How much? I mean, what?!”
“£300 is what Carl got the other day, off the really old guy.”
“That sounds ‘orrible. Although, that is a month’s rent.
“Yeah, and he gave him a few E, a few drinks, that strong coke they have, and he’s going to The Ivy with him this week.”
“Fuckin ‘ell. Let’s go to The Warehouse.”
“Yeah OK, could pop by The River after.”
The lads head down towards the river. There is a large warehouse that has been out of use for many years. You can go down the side of it, down a few slippy slick steps, climb up a wooden sea wall structure and sling a leg over and in. Behind a heavy steel door is a room, penetrated only by the shaft of light you bring in with your entrance. Underfoot, on your tentative step inwards, you will hear crunching. You will notice pale shards from smashed fluorescent tubing twinkle in the grit. Kite marks and wire ends.
With sheer faith, you progress onwards, hands infront, askew, and heart waiting in throat to leap out, toes padding around for never end drops, head dreading swinging girders. Then a light. A green glow that picks out a rectangle. You vision swims and pixellates, as it struggles to register the reality of what it sees. Yes. Light again. Go forward.
In the gloomy green of the single LED, you make out a bank of switches. Switch one, with one hand steadying the other, look over to the other face for reassurance, see nothing. Click.
Click. A faint pinging sound is heard from above.
“Look! Light! There’s a ladder here.”
“No fucking way.”
“It’ll be alright.”
“That is so…”
Have you ever wanted to do something, but were to afraid to? Suspected that it would be something which would be etched on your memory, put in the permanent store, become a youth-defining moment?
And then not done it?
Well, in that case you are little more than a mass of full stops, or, at best, parentheses. Whereas these guys are pure colons, hyphens, and, of course exclamation marks.
That is the sound of the first three guitar licks of The Fall’s “Prole Art Threat.”
Stephen was reminded of this as he shone his phone-glow on the walls of the little switch room. Graffiti from when this warehouse was last used delighted him: “Siouxsie and the Banshees” “Iggy and the Stooges” “The Fall” “John Sucks Cocks”
He hadn’t heard of that last band. Obscure punk, perhaps.
Left foot on bottom rung. Wishes he had a drink. Left hand on high rung. Right foot on bottom rung. And up –
He starts to run on the little landings on each floor, look down at Steve below him, through the grating. He refuses to think or process the fear, instead tastes its delicious mind-unhinging freedom. Run! A metallic clanking becomes their soundtrack, a low bass rumble in time with their feet, and a vibration of the surrounding mesh, yelps and whoops, up, up and round and round…
The stairwell got lighter, as they approached the intermittent buzz and glow of the striplight, beside which was a monolith of blackness. A room. The ceiling was about 10 feet high, and it was impossible to see how far back it went. Stephen leaned into it, and seemed to push his head into thick, heavy blackness, like… tunneling into quilts as a child… but could see nothing. Steve shouted, the words fell out of his mouth, dead.
Indeed. “Fuck that. What’s this?” Stephen points up to another, short ladder, leading to a hatch.
Stephen felt like someone had poured molten steel onto him. The heat and brightness almost made him let go to protect his face, he saw an image of himself falling down the shaft, arms crossed in front of eyes, on light waves, forever. But instead he squinted, heaved up on elbows and came out on top. It felt like the lid of his skull had opened up, and his mind had clambered out to take a look around, see what all the fuss was about.
Feel and know, your life itself, existing in this moment. Intuitively know this. Feel the peace, joy, infinite spaciousness of existence itself. Emanating, as the very fragrance of oneself. This sense of existence – aliveness – I-ness – beingness – presence, is always present, however we associate our self with our self image, memories, experiences, expectations, thoughts, sensations, emotions, attention and intentions. All these things you think of as “I” only exist because of the existence of the “I am.”
And I am Stephen.