I see your eyes as I walk past. This is a normal night on a normal day in London except those don’t really exist for me. This is, somehow, actually the truth. Unless I’m moving something onwards I find it hard to live with myself. At no point am I really aware of when I realise that you, so dear to me, are, fundamentally, lost to me. I realise you’re more than one person. Have I moved too far? I think I have but I’m in terrain that I don’t know and the only thing is to continue. That is: you can’t go back because the past, and what you left behind, no longer exists. You kick sand over your tracks to live. They can’t find you here: can they?
Sometimes I look out of windows and see the landscape. Sometimes all you see is a window. What you think you see is what you thought you think you see: the past incontrovertibly bends us to its sepia will. There is no moment that can be conceptualised – that can be turned around as a concept, like a piece of glass, a diamond – that is not historic. I gasp for air as the realisations dawn thick and fast.
‘It started as a message service, allowing operators to inform all their own customers about things such as problems with the network. When we created SMS (Short Messaging Service) it was not really meant to communicate from consumer to consumer and certainly not meant to be become the main channel which the younger generation would use to communicate with each other.’ — Cor Stutterheim, inventor of texting, quoted in Wray, R. 2002
I’m wandering your streets, Johanna, WBR, The Cut, the sun slants down Lower Marsh as I find myself half way through a Pacifico on a wooden bench that rocks when I lean back. From the waiter in Inshoku who didn’t quite understand the concept of vegetarianism to the boring conversation I have to listen to over a Chicken Yakisoba, I grow to understand that these are real lives I am witnessing, and rather than the filmic snippets that unearth whirling eddies of emotion in me, tonic and ice to the Highball glass, they will not be reduced.
I can’t remember how many trips I’ve taken down Piss Alley to be greeted by lunchtime sun from the south, marvelling at how beautiful the girls who work at Christian Aid are, and getting a sandwich to eat on the wall outside the council flats. Once I saw Imogen from uni outside Cubana. I remembered what you said, I can hear it now: that you’d scratch her eyes out if she came and sprawled on my bed again and how oddly life affirming that was at the time. The peeling paint on the Lower Marsh facades is being cleaned up.
We are being transformed from one thing, to the Other.
When you’ve read ‘On Self-Respect’ by Joan Didion so many times that the volume falls open at the essay, that its surface and its runic meanings have become commonplace in the phatic moments of your temporary thought, it comes as a crushing realization when you then figure out that almost none of it has sunk in as practical life advice. That the boyish, canine enthusiasm and keeness in words and communication and honesty in the grand scheme of things isn’t shared by the world at large; that people are deceptive, hurtful, overly territorial and protective of their own interests. That fundamentally, not many people are like you and ultimately they like it that way. That they prosper, in that fashion. That human beings prosper by turning away from honesty and towards artifice.
To some this knowledge comes easily; to some it comes very slowly. To some, beset by the needs of impulses beyond their own control, it doesn’t come at all, it being contrary to a nature that is difficult to chain up to a post and force to the ground. Tramelled, the problems emerge elsewhere, in drinking too much, in unhappiness, in a slow deadening of the senses. In taking a retrospective look at the last year and not recognizing your own actions and imperatives. In a general sense of unease.
It will not pay ready obesiance: this impulse to truth and to look beyond things to the thing itself. That’s a discipline that must be exerted heavily and I look at those who have the chains on it with a mixture of fascination and horror, a mixture of admiration and annoyance. A dread of ennui and eulogy: those sweet souls now passed into hopeless nostalgia, pleasure and pain from old wounds. But I know you, I insist. I didn’t know you at all.
You’ll recognize the kindred souls but they’ll fall away from you because they’re too much like you and that hurts an incredible amount too. And after each disappointment, and each let down, each time you’re drawn like a moth to a flame to the self-reliant and inscrutable personality, you’ll come back for more, a little shorter of breath, and easier to hurt. You’ll keep coming back. You always come back: there’s no surprise in that. That’s ultimately the biggest surprise of all.
People watch, and wait, knowing it will happen.
“It came to her that in the scenario of her life this would be what was called an obligatory scene, and she wondered with distant interest just how long the scene would play.” — Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays
I’m not trying to elope. Could I? I thought about it, I’ll admit. It was the Back Bay jetty; Beacon Hill after a drizzly jog, and a sense, an overwhelming sense, of escape. Escape velocity. To be that something Other than yourself. No more baggage apart from an already scuffed Antler suitcase and some skinny ties. Rooftops in Manhattan with starry-eyed girls who have perfect teeth and Ralph Lauren breton stripes. But I see you, shimmering in the heat. Tarmac melting and people wheezing to the pub. It’s five thirty and this is how we live. The Docklands’ wide expanses of blue green water and no-one around but me and some lonely watercolour stick men. One Canada Square peeking at me via the gaps in a Bromley-by-Bow cityscape, through the scratched windows of a freshly upholstered District Line train. The Tube stops at midnight; so do I – I have work the next day. The pubs serve ales, at the bar: and that’s where I want to buy it. The girls with their diffident wit and porcelain skin, spotted with the spider kiss of cotton thin vermillion veins, crowded bottom teeth – lost somewhere in a Dickens novel and caught in Julian Barnes’s Metroland. That’s what I dream about in the gaps of my to-do lists. You’re clutching a freshly drunk mug of tea, warm still, to your cheeks. For warmth and comfort alone. I watch you do it and love you for it. You’re laughing at me and reading BBC News.
I’m running round Central Park, our Central Park, established 1899, on the grounds of the former Rancliffe House and the April showers start falling on me with that new rain smell and I remember how when you got nervous around me, that Dorset girl so long lost to me, you’d develop a speech impediment resembling a lisp and go red in the cheeks and to be quite honest, my heart was fit to burst. It still is when I recall. Waterloo Bridge reminds me of your curves and the tender, peaceful beauty of your studied English ways. The Thames has the curves of a woman.
I see the sun go down over East London and for better or worse, my heart is right here lost in an A-Z and the smoky alleyways behind Holborn; I’m snatching a half in The Ship, dragging myself drunk through Aldgate on the way to the N15 and I’m sat in a bar in Essex hearing people who talked just like you did. I’m wondering why I’ve ended up in The Pillars of Hercules, again.
The click-clack of the District Line motors my prose — you, labyrinth City of our deepest darkest fears and most sunlit dreams, You —
I wake feeling awful, and something has changed (again). The whiskey picklebacks we drank after Hot Bird in Brooklyn seem to have set me back a way, along with the lack of sleep, and the early morning omelette and grits. I look at the business card of the US Special Agent who came along and told me that he’d done detail on Tony Blair who had a man who was employed to deliver uncomfortable news to other people so Blair didn’t have to. Who tells me the Saudi Royal Family tried to give someone $400-odd for some RiteAid. It’s the coolest business card I have ever seen. He was a nice guy, too. Add to this mix a slice of palate-scraping pizza back in Manhattan before turning in as the sun rose and I know why I feel so bad. I consider a late check out but I know that I’ll feel bad all day, whatever I do. So I go to Chelsea Market, where, predictably, I feel worse. Then it dawns on me: the flight departs at 20:40pm, from JFK to LHR and I will be up for close to 24 hours. I think about what that means, and then think about it some more, and get gingerly into the shower and play with the temperature setting for longer than is strictly necessary.
Later: much later, on the District Line two loud people sit next to me and talk in French. I move, with my case, my resistance to this kind of thing low. They notice but continue to have their uncomfortably staccato conversation, phones waving, each of them texting, talking, pointing and shouting. The woman beside me on the plane seemed to be able to fall asleep at will. I struggled, unable to sleep well on planes, unable, any more, to sleep well, at all. Ever. I buy at Zippo. It has no fuel in it. I pick up the Independent but nothing in it moves me at all apart from a write up about Tom Finney. East Ham seems smaller, provincial, in a way it never did on returning from Chicago, or Atlanta, or any of the other places I’ve been but I suspect its because what I set out to do was dismantle these things and get back to the thing itself. There is not much call for honesty in a world where subterfuge, politics and a slow, plodding awareness of other’s weaknesses will get you far. London, then, again. I wait.