With such effect are we blessed
By the flex of friendship.
What cobwebs of brooding thought
Could form amongst these endless smiles?
The brief awkwardness
Of hugs and hellos
Fades away to soft lighting
And air warmed by laughter.
Inside the semi-circle of our tribe
We reunite; burning candles
To ward off the night.
It comes to you slowly, at such pace you hardly notice it
Seeping from the infinite, unknowable ether, coiling itself inside you
Casting the crawling shadow, enveloping the brightest lights.
Despair brings with it understanding, and you are wise beyond your years
But there is no comfortable place for your tongue.
And what should you do with your hands?
You cannot sleep, aching like you’ve swallowed too much coffee.
Enduring the come downs without the high, sweet normality; elation.
I found myself sitting on a bench near Spitalfields market, London’s ruinous East ahead of me and the shimmering Square Mile behind. I’d been touring Brick Lane and the surrounding area for street art, and a day that had started bathed in sunlight was now under siege by rolling clouds and spitting rain. The bench was quite uncomfortable, the gaps between the slats were too wide apart, but after three hours walking I was happy to trade the pain in my feet for a pain in my backside.
I sat in the open air with my jacket collar pulled up to my face, hiding from the wind and rain, and warmed my hands on a cup of to-go coffee while I waited for a friend. I remembered that I was sitting on the front line of a class war, with the financial district absorbing East London into their mountains of glass. It was a war of attrition putting money against culture, steel against flesh, the tall against the small. The sleek, corporate architecture surrounding the market made it clear the city was winning. I was however acutely aware of how different the people walking by were from one another. Bankers and hipsters and city boys and builders walked toe to toe through the marketplace, squeezing past an almost ignored pop-up catwalk in which the models wore Guy Fawkes masks.
The rain stopped and the sun tore through the clouds with an intense heat as though its orbit had shallowed. I saw a young Indian woman in a fashionable black suit walking West across a freshly tarmacced road. Half way across her feet began sinking into the thick, black grease like quicksand. She lost her charcoal heels, leaving them lodged in the tar as she stumbled forward. She landed solidly on one foot, forcing it down as far as her knee, the other followed as she tried to balance herself. The momentum caused her to fall to her hands. She bowed her head to catch her breath, then pulled on her arms and spat out a guttural groan.
With every sip alcohol strips away my body’s chemical defences. Each drink is another volley against my prescription walls until, eventually, I am exposed to the elements. It’s as though my brain, awash with serotonin, springs a leak and this precious solution dribbles down my spine, where it reaches my liver and is spent clearing my blood of the poisons I tainted it with.
After a night of drinking on agency funds I’d only managed a few hours of disturbed sleep, spending the night with an axe in my skull and a lingering sour smell. I felt hot while my body dealt with the aftermath of the evening prior. I sat up and my heart hung low in my chest like a lead weight pumping charcoal lye instead if blood. I could see waves of it flooding down, my toes twitching in the backwash. Every throb battered my ribs with the excitement of a maniac bloodying his fists on his cell door. Each bone felt as fragile as shattered porcelain glued together by amateur hands.
My thoughts were filled with worst case scenarios. I was having arguments that would never take place under normal circumstances, and losing them. I backed myself into corners, saying the most terrible things I could to try and win, but in these fantasies even my closest friends ended up hating me. These daydreams were so vivid that I was beginning to bring the feelings of loss, humiliation and despair back into the real world.
I got out of bed and walked to the kitchen hoping a heavy dose of water would make me feel better. When I went back to my room I had two pints in my belly and another in my hand. I spent the next few hours picking up the courage to get out of bed proper. It wasn’t until the late afternoon that I felt enough shame, guild and self disgust to actually get up.
I went into the bathroom and was bathed in a dull, grey light coming in through the window. The energy-saving bulb slowly reached full power. I found the bath half-full with tepid water and soap scum floating around the sides. I’d taken a bath early that morning because I felt ill, something I’ve done since I was a boy, and always with a complete disregard of the danger of drowning. The toilet was messy with vomit, which I determined to clean up later. The sink and small medicine cabinet hanging on the wall were spotted with gobs of toothpaste from where I’d washed my mouth out afterwards.
I twisted the hot tap as far as it would go, and nudged the cold. As the bath faucet gurgled to life I pulled the shower stopper and the room filled with steam. I looked at myself in the mirror, pale as usual. Then I stepped into the shower and let the scalding water cascade down my back. With a little soap in my hand I dug my fingers in and peeled back the skin on my forehead and down my body, shedding my outer layer like a snake. I enjoyed the stinging sensation as the hot water flushed the fresh skin underneath.
I had to be in Kent that evening, so I clumsily packed a bag and left for the train station. Every step was an effort and the five minute walk made me light headed. I tapped in with my rail card as the train arrived and ran up the stairs. There’s a sense of excitement when the train is already on the platform, you’re compelled to run for fear of being caught in the sliding doors, or being left behind entirely. I wasn’t, and sat down next to the glass partition so my head had something to lean on while I snoozed.
The train pulled into Shepherds Bush where an overweight old woman with short, wavy, dyed brown hair, a pair of NHS crutches with taped handles and a backpack stepped awkwardly onto the train. When I saw her stumbling in I shifted into the next seat and she thanked me loudly. The she plodded herself down next to me and clattered the crutches to rest between her legs.
“Heard any of the football scores?” she asked.
It’s rare to speak to anyone on public transport, even in an emergency. I once saw a woman faint as she stepped off a train and land flat on her face, and although people went to help still barely a word was said. I surveyed her from inches away, her eyelids sagged giving her a squint, and the laugh line contours gave her a kind face, as though it was at its most natural when smiling. She turned to me, waiting for my answer. There was a half inch of yellow crust at the side of her lip, dried drool perhaps, and her mouth was brimming with teeth of all different sizes poking out at erratic angles. “Sorry, I don’t know any of the scores. I went out last night so I’ve been in bed all day” I said. I don’t know why I was so honest but she took it as a willingness to talk.
She asked me what I did for a living, and I said I was a writer because most people don’t know what a copywriter is and get it confused with copyrighting. Upon hearing this her face drew out into a great beaming smile. It turned out she was a writer too, well, not quite but all her friends said she was a great writer. She introduced herself as Pauline, I told her my name was Pete and that it was nice to meet her. She went on to tell me she was sixty two years old and had just finished university where she’d had some of her essays published. As she spoke I saw that every tooth in her mouth wobbled like milk teeth ready to fall out, and they had no fixed position on her gum. With every movement of her jaw they swirled around, forming ever changing arrangements in her mouth.
Then she asked if I’d like to hear her rap. I had no idea what was about to come out of her mouth, but no one could resist such an offer, so she rapped for me. She rapped about a young man that had been arrested and how unfair it was to waste his future over the petty crime he’d committed. She ended it by questioning whether it would be better for him to kill himself or the judge. The sincerity and venom she carried in her voice convinced me they were related.
I, as well as the entire carriage which was quite full, were left in awe. Less for the rap itself, more for her, that she was sixty two and cheerfully performing a rap for people on the train. She went onto tell me that she was a member of the Purple Poetry Club in Camden and read me two of her poems from memory. One station from my stop she told me how she’d been working with the homeless, a situation she’d experienced herself. One of her essays had won a competition to do the same in America as part of a university exchange programme. As the train pulled into Charing Cross she implored me to enter next year.
With every sip alcohol strips away my body’s chemical defenses. Each drink is another volley against my prescription walls until, eventually, I am exposed to the elements. It’s as though my brain, awash with serotonin, springs a leak and this precious solution dribbles down my spine, where it is spent by my liver to clear my blood of the poison I tainted it with.
After a day’s drinking on the agency’s funds I felt like I had a long piece of dry, coarse rope coiled tightly inside my skull, instead of the usual grey matter. I’d only managed a few hours of disturbed sleep, and slept through the night with an axe through my skull and a lingering, sour smell around me. Naked, I couldn’t remember why at the time, I awoke. The room looked off balance, and I could feel a temperature emanating from skin as my internal organs dealt with the aftermath of the evening prior. It was around eleven and I was alone. I was laying in bed trying to get back to sleep and listening to my heart beat. It thumped rhythmically, powerfully, in my chest, and with my head on its side, pressed against my pillow, I could hear it thundering in my ear. My heart hung low in my chest like a lead weight, pumping not blood but a charcoal lye. Every throb battering my ribs with the excitement of a frantic maniac bloodying his fists on his cell door. Each bone feeling as fragile as shattered porcelain glued back together by amateur hands.
Staring down at my body I could see the waves of blood flooding my flesh, all the way down to my toes that twitched in the backwash. My thoughts were filled with worst case scenarios. I was having arguments that under no normal circumstances would ever take place, and losing them. I backed myself into corners, said the most terrible things I could say to people in order to win, but no matter what, in these fantasies even my closest family and friends would end up hating me. So vivid these day dreams it’s possible to bring the feelings of loss, humiliation and despair back with you into reality. I got out of bed and walked to the kitchen, hoping a heavy dose of water would make me feel better. When I went back to my room I had two pints in my belly, another in my hand, and a cold takeaway pizza I had ordered the night before but couldn’t stomach once it arrived. I spent the next few hours downloading TV shows on my computer, and slowly picking up the courage to get out of bed proper.
By four o’clock I was feeling a bit better, and enough shame, guilt and personal disgust to actually get up. I went into my small bathroom and found the bath half-full of tepid water, and soap scum floating around the sides. I remembered that I had decided to take a bath whilst blackout drunk, something I’ve done since I was young whenever I felt unwell. I would run myself a scalding hot bath regardless of any fevered temperature. My towel was folded in a neat square, bone dry, on the heated rail. A pale, grey light dully lit the room, and the single energy-saving lightbulb on the ceiling had not yet reached full power. In front of me I could see that the the toilet was messy with vomit, something I determined to clean up later. On my right was the sink and a small medicine cabinet hanging on the wall, both spattered with globs of toothpaste where I’d washed my mouth out afterwards.
I twisted the hot tap as far as it would go, and nudged the cold. As the bath faucet gurgled to life, I pulled the shower stopper and the room started filling with steam. I took a look at myself in the mirror, pale, as usual. I undressed, stepped into the shower and let the scalding water cascade down my back. My face burned when I placed it square in front of the shower head, causing my forehead to split open. With a little soap in my hand I dug my fingers in and peeled back the skin, shedding my outer layer like a snake. I enjoyed the stinging sensation of the hot water landing on the fresh, new skin underneath.
I’d arranged to see my family back home in Kent that evening, so I clumsily packed a bag and set off for the train station. It was only a five minute walk, but my light headedness made every step an effort. I tapped in with my Oyster card as the train arrived and ran up the stairs. It’s funny how when the train is already on the platform there’s an added sense of excitement, almost automatically you start to run for fear of being caught in the sliding doors. I wasn’t, and sat down next to the glass partition so I could lean my head on it and snooze. The journey was uneventful, until I met Pauline.
The train pulled into Shepherds Bush and an old woman with short, wavy, dyed brown hair, a pair of NHS crutches with bandages wrapped around the handles, and a backpack stepped awkwardly onto the train. The moment I saw her stumbling in I shifted into the next seat and she thanked me loudly. She was overweight, and wearing a purple fleece jumper and black trousers. She plodded herself down next to me and rested her crutches in between her legs.
“Heard any of the football scores?” She asked.
It’s rare to speak to anyone on the tube, even in an emergency. I once saw a woman faint and fall flat on her face while exiting the train, and although people went to help her, barely a word was said. I looked at her and surveyed her face from only inches away. Her eyelids sagged and gave her a slight squint, and the rest of her face was contoured by many laugh lines. This gave her a kind face, as though it was at its most natural when smiling or laughing. She turned and smiled at me, waiting for my answer. There was a half inch of yellow crust at the side of her lip, dried drool perhaps, and her mouth was brimming with teeth of all different sizes, poking out at erratic angles. ”Sorry, I don’t know any of the scores. I went out last night so I’ve been in bed all day” I said. I have no idea why I was so honest, but she took it as a willingness to talk.
She asked me what I did for a living. I said I was a writer because most people haven’t got a clue what a copywriter is, and confuse it with copyrighting. Upon hearing this her face drew out into a great beaming smile. It turned out she was a writer too, well, not quite but all her friends said she was a great writer. She introduced herself as Pauline, I told her my name was Pete and that it was nice to meet her. She went on to tell me she was sixty two and had just finished university where she’d had some of her essays published. As she spoke I saw that every tooth in her mouth wobbled like milk teeth ready to fall out, and that they had no fixed position on her gum. With every movement of her jaw they would swirl around forming ever changing arrangements in her mouth.
Then she asked if I’d like to hear her rap. I had no idea what was about to come out of her mouth, but no one could resist such an offer, and she rapped for me. In it she spoke of a young man that had been arrested and how unfair it was to waste someone’s youth and future for such a petty crime. It ended by questioning whether it would be better for him to kill himself, or the judge. I had a feeling that it was about someone in her family due to the sincerity and venom she carried in her voice.
I, as well as the entire carriage which was quite full, were left in awe. Less for the rap itself, more for the fact that she was sixty two years old and cheerfully performing for friendly strangers on the train. I told her it was good, and she said she was a member of the Purple Poetry Club in Camden, and read me two of her poems from memory.
One station away from my stop she told me how had started studying at fifty eight so she could help the homeless, a situation she had experienced herself. One of her essays had won a competition to work with the homeless in America for six months as part of a university exchange programme. As the train pulled into Charing Cross, she hurriedly implored me to enter next year before saying goodbye to me, then hello to the man who took my seat.
I met a woman in Gordon Square garden. She was a short, stocky, on the wrong side of middle aged woman. I could tell she smoked. Her mouth wrinkled and pouted in the way only an ageing smokers would. Her lips sagged away from her mouth, as though escaping from her yellowed teeth, and made her face look in a perpetual pucker. Her lipstick peeled and flaked where she had been biting the dead skin off her lip, and stuck to her teeth. I glimpsed the ragged line where lipstick gave way to the soft, pink, wet flesh of the inside of her mouth.
Her youth was fleeing her. It would only be a matter of months before she stopped dying her hair a fiery red, intermingled with licks of blonde and black that set her head alight. She would go grey as she gave in to the betrayal of her creased face.
It was a warm, bright day in the small patch of London greenery. I tore away the plastic packaging of my supermarket bought chicken sandwich. I took a bite of the coarse brown bread, lukewarm chicken, and mayonnaise that had begun to turn clear in the heat. I saw her sitting on the grass in the shade of a tree. She was wearing large brown sunglasses, a salmon shirt with no sleeves, white three quarter length trousers and cheap, plastic flip flops. Her skin was pale, and scattered across her body were small, light brown freckles.
She got up matter-of-factly and stepped into the sun. Casually, she undressed and laid her clothes side by side on the floor. Now naked, she placed her hand on the small of her back, and using her thumbnail, pushed her chubby little hand beneath her skin. She began to wrench it from her flesh, unfolding it from her body, until it sat completely separate from her in a pile on the floor. Kneeling, she flattened it out until what lay in front of her was a perfect square sheet.
Starting at one corner she placed a freckle between both her thumbs and squeezed. As the pressure mounted a thick, brown grease coated her thumbnails which she proceeded to wipe on the grass. One by one she popped them.
In the sun I could see her flesh. There was no blood, no gore underneath her skin. The muscles glistened in the sun like a fatty roast joint left to cool. The sinews pulled down through her back and into her legs as she twisted her shoulders from freckle to freckle.
She began to tire, and got to her feet. She slowly paced around her grubby task admiring her work. Placing one foot, and then another, onto her epidermis. Her pale feet stained as she kneaded it with her toes.
When I get on the train in the mornings I like to sit at the front of the train, on the outer banks of seats, in the middle of the seats where two dip back a bit. I always get a seat because I get on right at the start of the Central line. Smug like a spoilt obese child, I can have whatever seat I want.
I used to sit in the seats with the window bit next to them so I wouldn’t have to sit next to anyone. Being new to London I didn’t realise that these were for people less able to stand. On my way to work one day a shy, knackered old woman was standing next to the glass looking at me, waiting for me to give up my seat. I didn’t realise she was old. All I could see was her arse leaning up against the glass, and it’s fucking hard to judge someone’s age based on their trousers. One station away from my stop I look up and see that she’s eyeing up my seat, undressing me with her eyes, through my skin, flesh and bones to the warm spring supported seat beneath me. Naturally I gave up my seat as is normal etiquette, but as I did this she actually said “Thanks, about time”.
I stifled the urge to shout a long, protracted “WELL FUUUUCK YOU”, and just kind of laughed. I was half asleep at the time, that’s what trains are for, second sleep. Like Hobbits with second breakfast. How was I supposed to know she was there? All of us at the start of the line loll our heads in a doze the entire journey. I’m sure that most people, like me, do it so we don’t feel guilty for not giving up our seat for someone else. As far as they know I’m dead to the world and out of sheer luck wake up at exactly the right stop.
I got on the train this morning in same indent of seats as I mentioned above, and a bald headed black man in a darkish grey suit, dark blue overcoat, white shirt and red tie sat down next to me. He had a Blackberry Torch, it had a huge bright screen and a keyboard. He was typing furiously on it and I could see at a glance that he was writing long swathes of text to someone. I tried to ignore him and shut my eyes but I could feel his agitation. He pivoted around on his backside, trying to find some space among all the knees for him to think in. Eventually he leaned forward and I got a full view of his conversation. I remember looking down and seeing his fairly plain black leather wing tip shoes, brown lining, and the same kind of socks I used to wear in school. Black with straight, wide lines stitched up them. It helps keep them up.
He was messaging a woman about a shipment of contact lenses that never arrived. I don’t know whether he was in the contact lenses business or whether they were for his personal use. Either way he seemed pissed off that they hadn’t arrived. I felt a strange connection to him as I read his private conversation. In a grimy ballet of thumbs he guided the conversation away from this now obvious preamble. He was sure that she was cheating on him.
‘Is dat wat u fink?’, she said. ‘Ye’ he replied.
They argued back and forth in Stupidese. Whether it was instinct or a severe dislike for the man that was interrupting my snooze, I felt that he was in the wrong. As this wall of text grew, I leaned ever closer to him for a better view. By the time we had reached Shepherds Bush my leg was firmly alongside his, and the breath exhaled through my nose was causing a loose strand on his coat to flail and whip around. I could smell his odour. It was neither pleasant or unpleasant. It was just the smell of his home, like we all have but rarely notice because we’re around it so often.
I delicately leaned my chin on his shoulder. He knew I was there, but did not feel a thing. Perched forward he continued to berate his woman. I pulled back, and placed my hands at the base of his skull, my thumbs crossed each other on the nape of his neck. One by one I applied pressure with my fingers. Without blood or pain my fingers slid underneath his skin, lifting it off and away from his scalp. His skin wrinkled and sagged over his face. I pushed forwards with my hands, planting my fore finger underneath his hair line, my thumbs on his crown and my ring and little fingers at his temples.