life

Green Lanes

​I was standing on Green Lanes when it began to rain. It always rains on Green Lanes apart from when it doesn’t. Once I walked 6 miles of it because I lost my bus pass and that was during a heatwave. I remember it because the added heat and smoke from the bakeries and kebab houses and the Saturday afternoon crowd made the trek almost unbearable to the point where I wanted to cry but I had no tears to shed because I was so dehydrated, and never will I ever be so happy to see the Palmers Green triangle as I was when I finally made it home on that day. When I met my friend she said I smelled like I’ve been charcoal grilled. I felt like I had been charcoal grilled. 

Anyway, this time it was raining. Big, heavy raindrops, the ones that almost hurt when they hit your skin. I was early for the meeting with my solicitor so I loitered about, opting to murder my finite minutes outside a Turkish bakery a few doors down from his office. Inside the bakery I could see a group of women making baklava and some men congregating near the counter, drinking tea. I could hear the men’s animated debate and the subdued chatter of the women through the open door though I did not understand a word.

I lit a cigarette, holding it within my cupped hand in such a way as to shield it from the rain, and watched the women work. It was mesmerising, truly, seeing them expertly arrange layers upon layers of filo pastry, the filo so thin it was almost transparent, delicate and satisfying in one perfect sheet like when you peel off sunburnt skin, lifting up a huge sheet of it with such care but seemingly such little thought, a technique honed through the decades, passed down through generations. They were wielding rolling pins that were probably longer than the women were tall, never tearing the pastry, never once coughing or spluttering from inhaling the continuous cloud of starch powder that engulfed them, toned arms made strong from years of lifting vats of honey hidden under old cotton dresses, the patterns and colours of their aprons faded with age but their hair as white as sugar and their eyes as green as the pistachios that they crush in the giant pestle and mortar. Traditional, routine, precise, step-by-step, live art.

The women didn’t notice me but the men had their eyes all over me and they beckoned me in. I shook my head and held up my cigarette to say “I can’t come in right now even if I wanted to.” They insisted, but again I shook my head. The women glared at me. I suddenly felt uncomfortable, and certain that they were bitching about me in Turkish. The men are probably their husbands. Then, just as I was feeling unsafe, someone came up behind me and grabbed me, digging their fingers in my ribs with an almighty grip. Without a thought I twisted my upper body around and elbowed the person in the face. He immediately let go of me and his hands rushed to his face. He was doubled over and blood dripped onto the wet concrete.

Fucking hell!!” he said, into his hands. “Why’d you do that?!” He stood up and took his bloody hands away from his face. “Oh my God, GEORGE! I’m so sorry! I didn’t know it was you, you scared me, I thought you were a robber or a pervert or something!” “No, it’s just me. Fucking hell, you’ve broken my fucking nose!” “No I haven’t, come on, let’s have a look at it,” I said, searching for a tampon in my handbag. “It’s not proper broken. You’re still handsome, don’t worry,” I promised, as I unwrapped the tampon and shoved it up his nose. “Fucking hell, I only came over to say hello and invite you out to this thing tonight!” he winced. “Oh, Georgie, I’m really sorry, let me kiss it better,” I said, before I kissed his nose and he laughed. “You’re a nutter, you are,” he said as he wiped his bloody hands on his jeans.

We went into the bakery, George cleaned up and we had tea and baklava. One of the men in there paid for me. George said, “If you weren’t so pretty you wouldn’t get away with half the shit you do.” I concurred that that is probably, sadly true. My solicitor called to say he was ready for me, so we hugged goodbye and arranged to meet at Frank’s in Peckham at 10 that night. I promised to buy him a drink to say “sorry about the whole elbow in the face thing” and he promised that we would catch up properly later on and that he had some exciting news.

He never turned up at Frank’s that night. Nobody had heard from him. His phone was dead when we tried to reach him, and it’s still dead 4 years later. I ring it from time to time, just in case it might be switched on.

Where did you go, Gorgeous George? You just disappeared. No social media clues, no sightings, no ideas. The grapevine mentioned you running away to Thailand but then it also mentioned you in prison, and it was even suggested that you were living under witness protection and your true identity had been compromised. I don’t think you topped yourself. I just don’t know where you are. No one does. I wonder if I was the last person to see you: I hope I was, so that you didn’t meet a fate worse than a bloody nose and free baklava. And I will always look for you on Green Lanes, especially when it rains.

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life

All That Appeared Was a Blind Obstinate Impulse Expressing Itself in Bursts of Foolishness

Canceled my New Yorker subscription some months ago, as if that would help me feel less scatterbrained, once the basement bargain on the first year of issues expired and I was back to not being special anymore and just like everyone else again. All too trite and elitist, I thought, silently excusing myself from participation in some indefinable currency, realizing the feebleness of this withdrawal as that snarky manikin leered over my shoulder and snarkily suggested I’d have been more of a pseudo-sophisticate if I’d spelled realizing with an s.

There is simply too much to think about. I imagine turning to the man next to me at the nearly empty bar I’m not sitting in and saying “so what’s it like for you out there” and his obscure eyes turn to meet me with a look of total cancelation surpassing even the negation I supposed I’d find. “Bellow,” I’d say, and he’d hear it as a verb and turn away. “But this was his city, too,” I’d protest, “twice.” That has to mean something, though it’s a lifelong effort to understand that not everything does, and how. Four years on the seventh floor was a form of sanctuary but not as transcendental as I supposed.

Here, the wind blows this way and that, often in the same breath. There’s surely a meteorological explanation for this, I think, remembering the local tv news weather report showing large currents of blue and purple computer-generated atmosphere above a matte gray-brown map and how those currents seemed—always—to converge directly above this city. On the ground down where I now live I watch little plastic flags on clotheshanger-thin wire poles stuck in the muck and mud of lived experience to mark gas lines nervelessly flutter back and forth, but I tend toward the figurative and a certain desultory envy of inanimate stoicism, supposing for convenience’s sake that that’s not a contradiction in terms, nor is the struggle to perfect oneself in the symbolic discipline of an art.

Have you ever loved living so much you were afraid to let it out of your sight? Did you cling to it, even in despair, despite its flutters and turns, despite the partisan, balkanized categorizations that we adopt as identities? That’s all I want to know, I *promise* that’s all I’ll ever ask.

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prosetry

Tracks

​By the time you’d finished reading the LOTR trilogy, the grass had grown over the railway tracks where we used to lie.

How I loved filling those empty hours with you at the train station in my town, in that same spot, off the main platform, over the safety barriers, under the concrete stairs.

Tuesdays and Thursdays. Autumn and Spring. Never the times in between. Always evening. Always vodka. Side by side, sky high, putting the world to rights. “What we think, we become,” you said one night. “I fucking hope not,” I replied.

I cried a lot back then. You let me. But you never let me get too close to the fast trains, even when it seemed like my mind had already hurled itself in front of one. You were splattered with the viscera of my brain, but through my words, my stories, my secrets, my ideas.

No one likes to have their train delayed, not by a technical fault, not by staff shortages, and certainly not by a jumper. We hate so much for our train to be delayed even by a few minutes and yet we willingly delay so many great things in our lives, out of fear, out of diffidence, out of our minds.

You did not delay in telling me that you loved me. That was a great thing you did. It was urgent, as if you’d been waiting your whole life to love me. I think that staying alive is delaying me from attaining the greatest thing of my life: nonexistence. I am causing my own delays out of fear, fear of the unknown.

I am not as brave as you. I used to be fearless – you know, that’s when you loved me. Now you are fearless, just as I taught you to be, and thousands of miles away, while I am still at the station and I am afraid.

By the time I’ve finished reading the 1Q84 trilogy, the grass will have grown again over the railway tracks where we used to lie.

Our initials are still spray-painted underneath the 7th stair, above where we used to shelter from the rain. The black letters look as fresh as the day you sprayed them, a decade ago. I remember the black paint on your white shirt, and how I pierced your ear and you pierced my nose, and we lay our heads on the tracks and listened for the heavy electricity coursing through the rails and cables, the static jolts of the approaching train, stronger and longer, nearer and louder. We’d move out of the way at the last moment and laugh for England as the police chased us away. We have grown too tired and too cynical to thrive on adrenaline and blind faith like we used to. London has caught up with us.

You said you’d always be here, there, somewhere, not necessarily visible but present, like maggots in ketchup. While I delay in finding peace out of fear of missing the madness, I will not delay in saying this: I am still here, there, somewhere, not necessarily visible but present, like the empty vodka bottles that are under the stairs, at the station, where we used to shelter from the rain, by the fast trains, by our graffitied names, by the railway tracks where we used to lie.

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life

Death of a Star

At around half past 3 in the morning I decided that I would go for a crafty cigarette. I was at my grandfather’s house – he didn’t (and hopefully still doesn’t) know that I smoke and I didn’t want to wake him by going downstairs and outside, so I thought it best to hang out of the bedroom window and smother the smell with perfume afterwards.

I opened the window, jumped up on the sill, dangled my pyjama-ed legs out over the edge and, before I could spark up, my attention was diverted to the meteor shower that was performing its drama in the space above me. I’d seen such sights before but never this clearly. These fizzling stars seemed so close, as if I could reach out and catch them. I half expected a piece of hot rock to land in my lap and burn through my shorts.

A voice shocked me back to Earth.

“Are you gonna light that or what?” my father whispered, a little too loudly.

“JESUS CHRIST, DAD, YOU SCARED THE SHIT OUT OF ME!”

He chuckled until his chuckle turned into a cough, which he tried to stifle. He was also hiding his habit from granddad (his father) – he had promised him a year before that he had quit. But here he was, also hanging out of his bedroom window, a few metres across from mine, smoking a joint and watching the shower.

He put his finger to his lips and said, “Shhh,” and then pointed at the sky.

“I know,” I whispered back.

We stayed that way for a few minutes, together but apart, smoking in the silence of the night, watching the meteorites falling so effortlessly from the heavens, knowing that they look pretty from here but up there the scene is one of violence and destruction. We were quite content to revel in the magic of the display, ignoring the science and calculations and unfathomable numbers behind it and the reality of our insignificance (although these things did cross our minds).

“You know how stars die, don’t you?” he whispered to me, again a little too loudly.

“Erm… supernova, is it?”

“Nah. Overdose, usually.”

I giggled into my hand, before whispering, “For fuck’s sake, Dad,” in his general direction. We didn’t know that Amy Winehouse would die from a suspected overdose the next day.

We spent another minute or so watching the sky. I looked over at my Dad, his face illuminated only by the stars. His smile had gone. He looked wistful, possibly even sad. Then I felt sad, knowing we’d be back in London soon and unable to see magic like this through the pollution. Back to London, to depression and money problems and bad decisions and drug dealing and dangerous dalliances and trouble trouble trouble.

“Dad,” I said, quietly. “Am I going to be okay?”

He looked over at me from his window and smiled, and said with such certainty,

“Yes. Yes you are, babes.”

In that moment, I believed him. I locked that exchange in my heart, archived, for future reference. Then I stubbed out my roll-up underneath the window ledge and buried it among the leaves in the guttering. Then I replied to my Dad,

“Are you?”

But his window was shut and he was gone.

 

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prosetry

Peculiar Times

We live in peculiar times.

We speak Nadsat without realising, and are surprised and disappointed when others don’t understand;

start a new ashtray in a plastic yoghurt pot instead of emptying the big glass one that’s fit for purpose but overflowing, then repeat until your entire room has turned into one giant tray of ash;

wake up totally exhausted after 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep;

rely too heavily on answers garnered from an upturned glass shifting gracelessly across a ouija board;

take 133 tablets of psychiatric medicine every week and still feel so terribly unwell, like if your brain doesn’t kill you first then kidney failure will;

wonder how you still have room for all the painkillers, vitamins and narcotics that also allege to make you feel better but take them anyway, then hear them rattle inside you when you shake;

judge people based on the type, style and colour of the material covering their feet and be cruel to strangers solely because of their eyebrow shape;

feel more inspired standing outside the house that your favourite writer killed herself in than at the house in which she lived;

live and die without a single person knowing you;

drink a can of coke and then eat a mento mint and marvel at the fact that your stomach hasn’t exploded;

take our old selves for granted and then kick ourselves when we discover that we’ve lost our best self and can’t get her back;

feel offended about every single thing, all of the time;

cause offense to those who think you should be offended and are offended that you are not;

cause offense by opening our mouths;

cause offense by keeping our mouths shut;

drive to the middle of nowhere and engage in primal scream therapy;

buy a pack of 500 bobby pins and only have 6 left in your possession two weeks later;

go from an immense feeling of relief when the pregnancy test is negative to an immediate sense of utter horror when you realise if you’re not pregnant then you’ve just gotten fat;

throw away the (perfectly good) first and last slices of a loaf of bread;

pick green fur off the remaining slices;

feel unreasonably angry that the picked-at bread is taking so fucking long to turn to toast under the glowing amber grill;

hear our friend’s voice from behind us say with such solemn sagacity, “A watched bread never toasts,” and laugh and laugh and laugh until you smell burning.

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fiction

The Man (With the Hat)

This is the first quarter of a short story I more or less sort of finally finished the other day when I didn’t go to work because work has been wearing me out and I needed writing time. I don’t yet know what to call it, hence the parenthetical indecision in the title.


Of course she’s sweet about it, handing mister plump and dumpy the grey newsboy cap he’d dropped a moment ago from the upper level of the train car and waddled down the narrow twist of too-shallow steps to retrieve, draped in his mauve trenchcoat with the vague, shapeless presumption of slacks falling over scuffed and dismal black dress shoes as featureless as Joe Christmas’s brogans, nebulous man on a mission and I hate him like some kind of pudgy past self crowding pushing into now, this flashbacked possible impossible me. Oh impossible me.

I see him all the time, all the fucking time, waiting on the open-air platform in that hat and coat and featureless fucking material and dress brogans for the 5:15 back to the city, doughy and pale and red-nosed, looking like a pile of burdens, like burdensomeness itself, standing with that leaned-back posture of too much belly and too little backbone, sucking on a vaporizer and emitting wispy aroma clouds that smell suspiciously of air freshener. Every day, every fucking day, sipping in regular intervals from tall cans of cheap beer held firmly by sausage fingers with unsuitably elongated, almond-shaped tips and his thin, dark red lips, almost bruised plum purple and shaded by a narrow, bushy gray-brown Hitleresque mustache, reach out to grasp the rim of his beer cans like giraffe lips tempted by acacia. I wonder where he lives, what he does for a living, how he behaves in his natural habitat and what they feed him. It bothers me deeply that we ride the same train to anywhere, ever.

He carries a thermal lunchbox, a plastic bag of backup tallboys, and a shoulder-strapped kind of briefcase or satchel or something, surely full of papers, business papers, I presume. Or maybe it’s empty and just lugged around for legitimacy, his self-awareness in a handbag. Everything is kind of, almost, sort of, or something; he’s a big mound of imprecision and indefiniteness, and I can’t help thinking he’d be useless in an emergency or devoured in the wild. It’s strange, you know, strange how strange is so often a thing I say, of all people me, strange how we develop something as strong as hatred for a complete stranger brought into our orbit by nothing more than dumb circumstance and the faculty of sight. We fall in love this way, I guess, but that’s almost stranger, stranger.

It’s dark when the train arrives, early evening.

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poetry, prosetry

Even More Chronicles of Us

Read the rest of the Chronicles here:
The Chronicles of Us / More Chronicles of Us / Further Chronicles of Us

TEN.
I should have realised that we weren’t going to work out on that sunny afternoon when we were wandering around that big, empty house: you were excitedly envisioning our future children playing in the garden, and saying things like, “We could make this room the nursery,” and “Can you see yourself cooking me dinner in this kitchen?” while I was internally screaming at the prospect of being burdened with relentless mortgage payments and considering which room I would end my life in, assessing which fixtures I could hang from and wondering what the bathtub would look like with red water spilling over its edges.

ELEVEN.
Forever’s never guaranteed.
But still, you wrote the F word
inside every card you ever sent to me.
And I can’t bring myself to throw those cards away –
they are proof that ‘forever’ once existed for me,
and anyway, I will throw them out eventually:
one day, someday, but not today.

TWELVE.
Remember when you painted a declaration of your love for me in huge letters across the old sea wall? You said it would last our lifetime, that everyone who approaches the island will see how much I am adored by you. You vandalised a protected island just so that strangers would know that you love me. Perhaps if I’d been impressed by this instead of horrified we might’ve survived.

 

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