You come to London to make it. That’s what young women do in countries possessing a world-class financial hub. Of course I wasn’t thinking about my part in this phenomenon beyond the economics of my immediate survival, day to day, even hour to hour sometimes, and neither were any of my contemporaries. I did the thing you’re not supposed to do. In short, I vanished. Not in the sense that I have left London, or even this world. Physically, I am still very much here, if a little smaller, having lost some weight (a fitting by-product of the vanishing process, simply due to having less money to spend on food, more on which later).
It was 1999 when I arrived. We were starlets, hustlers, setters of scenes to a beat. Sculptors and tweakers of mood and trend. Valliant weeders of the pretentious from the authentic. I came from Devon, and I told everyone I met it was the land of Dairy. I even looked like I was made of milk back then, I was so unblemished. Three hundred quid in cash and a car so clapped out all I could do in the end was sleep in it until I’d scared myself enough to put a deposit on a room. We all had a story like my car story. We hadn’t officially proven our status but in the least egotistical way possible; we knew we must treasure these years as office minions, waiters, unknown actors, unpublished writers, gigging, wordslamming, transmitting electronic music to a dozen darkly-lit faces in a too-large pub. Soon we would be ruined with success.
To vanish, you must be first seen. It took a long time. You might be wondering if I was a well-liked or, once, even slightly famous person. Or what event or personal anguish led me to self-erase? But it’s not like that, it really isn’t.
You don’t always see how something begins but now I can tell you where it began. On the DLR on my way to work one morning, I saw a seat become available at Poplar. I worked for a company in the Docklands that helped other companies move office. Even homely old Space Interactive aspired to be something it was not. The head once called it an interior design outfit but we spent most our time shifting freight and furniture, reconfiguring bad electrics and insurance disputes. By now it was 2002. I’d started as a temp covering for a sick assistant, but she didn’t improve in the months to come and neither did my ability to make money from SpeakerSlam, the poetry and spoken word night I was running at a pub in New Cross. I had planned for it to be a launchpad for my poet and musician friends, as well as my own poetry, but we rarely secured public funding and the SpeakerSlam zine never went into profit. Within a year Space Interactive was talking about promoting me to office manager, which infuriated me. I wasn’t supposed to be good at this job.
A freebie paper had been dumped on the empty seat and, in a move that felt out of character, I picked it up. I read about a forty-year-old woman, living in London, who had tackled a devastating depression not with pills or a therapist but by removing everything in her life that caused her anxiety. This woman had left her job, ditched her boyfriend, sold her flat, closed all bank and email accounts but one, and got rid of most of her possessions, including her car and her computer. When she needed the Internet she went to a library. She still lived in London in a flatshare but now her time was devoted to meditation, seeing only a few friends and doing volunteer work. Some of her week was spent on her perpetual job hunt, as she had to convey a certain amount of goodwill to those who doled out her benefits. Yes, she would take a job, she said, if it was easy and part-time but so far she had not got a job, despite regular interviews. She made it clear she wasn’t looking for a job at her former executive level and she wasn’t looking for a new boyfriend. She didn’t bother with beauty appointments or new clothes. I had expected the woman, named Agnes L in the article to protect her identity, to have a written a memoir or manifesto but there was no title at the end of the article. It wasn’t particularly clear to me why she was being interviewed. Except I missed my stop, so intently was I reading about her. ‘Life is often about making the most of a botched operation,’ Agnes said. The journalist probed further – what exactly did Agnes do when she did ‘nothing’? ‘Lie around the house,’ she answered. ‘Listen to Bach’s harpsichord pieces. Hard work and ambition drove me to madness. Depression is not necessarily just an internal journey. It was all external pressures for me, not what my parents did to mess me up, although, yes, they had unrealistic expectations. It felt like my life was full of tumours.’
I didn’t think about the article for years. I only remembered it in my mid-thirties, waking up in a man’s bed, hungover after a party in his flat the night before, wanting to get up and make a cup of tea in the hope that would lead to my dressing and leaving, ideally without too much conversation. I had been here before and knew his kitchen and what was in it. I both wanted to leave and desperately didn’t, but I knew nothing could happen without the tea, the tea that I couldn’t get up and make. The handsome man snored contentedly on while I tried to do that exercise where you tell yourself not to worry, just stay there and I’ll get up, I’ll make you a cup of tea and bring it to you, then you can have your tea in the still-warm bed and plot your next move. It had always worked for me and it felt like a self-violation to coax myself, yet still fail to get up. Finally I managed to sit up in the bed. The man, a painter, was also an occasional market trader for extra cash and his room was full of curios – old coins, perhaps Roman, old paperbacks, piles of newspapers and magazines, a long clothes rack nearly sinking with the weight of ladies’ vintage clothes, boxes of bonbon-coloured stilettos spilling out beneath the long gown hems, old-fashioned writing quills and brushes that he probably wanted me or some other woman to imagine he used. Perhaps this chaos caused me to think of Agnes L, perhaps it didn’t – but I thought of her story that I’d read so intently all those years ago and, boom, I was up. I felt a diversion signalling itself on my life’s road, a drastic detour, except this new road would reveal itself to be the only true road in the end. I barely took in my unceremonious goodbye with the sleepy man, the lip service to non-intentions and friendship to come. I had wanted him but I had already decided that losing him would be easier if I felt no need for a replacement.
I got home that morning and I wrote a list which I still have, tacked on a pinboard in my room:
Get rid of flat and move into cheaper houseshare.
Shut down SpeakerSlam and website.
Remove all social media and Internet dating presences.
Cancel hair appointment and never cut hair again. Same for eyebrows. And body hair.
Cancel gym membership.
Ask Space Interactive if you can work part-time. If not, quit and start temping.
Delete contact details for anyone who cannot be considered a real friend.
Sort through possessions and discard all non-essentials.
File away theatre script. You don’t have to write another word. Ever.
Of course, this great undoing of everything made me temporarily busier than ever. Space Interactive wouldn’t compromise on my hours so I gave up my job and joined a few temping agencies. I moved into a three person flatshare with strangers and made it clear I didn’t want to chat too long over the dishes. I had feared I would gain weight now I wasn’t a gym-hamster but instead the muscle mass decrease made me smaller. Plus I ate less as I didn’t have an office to bore me into seeking out croissants and those supposedly ‘healthy’ bars of fake fruit mulch. My new skinniness frightened me a little but since I didn’t want a man anymore. The only thing that mattered was maintaining basic health.
I told a few friends about the changes I was planning to make. I didn’t tell them about shutting down my spoken word night, which, amazingly, had never quite died all these years, or removing myself from the Internet apart from one email account, exactly like Agnes L. You’ll have so much space in your life for new adventures, they all said. But that’s not why I’m doing it, I wanted to say.
One friend staged an intervention. How she found my new address I still can’t work out. See a doctor, she said. This is not the behaviour of a healthy person. You’re so thin. Then she said, if you won’t see a doctor I’ll pay for you to see my telekinetic healer, which just goes to prove the suburban have-it-all working mothers can be the most cuckoo of them all. Bored and curious, I went to the healer, a surprisingly well-heeled middle-aged woman whose name was Mercy. Halfway through, she cut the session short. Your aura is troubling, she said. How? I asked. It’s dark, she said. Opaque. I can’t help you.
It’s been over five years since I vanished. Money isn’t what I would class as a struggle yet. I temp when I have to. Sometimes I do shifts in the bar down the road. No one recognises me there apart from my flatmates. I spend very little. I don’t have a travelcard and I’m lucky enough to have been given a bicycle that works. I walk a lot and recognise faces in the main square of Woolwich, where I live now. I suppose I live the kind of localised life I might have lived without moving to London. I’m good at cooking on the cheap. My parents are far away in my little home town, doing whatever it is that preoccupies them. There are a few friends who drop in. They ask me if I’m okay and sometimes it takes a lot to convince them I am. But the thing is, I am okay. I hate repeating I am okay because no one believes me and then I start to doubt it myself. But, really, I am okay.
There’s just one detail I can’t let slip by. I am pregnant. I had to come to London, but my child will be born already here. We will vanish together in the city into a home of our own, and her father (the scan revealed it’s a girl) will visit us and take her away for weekends. I am forty now, the age Agnes L was when she shared her tale, and there could be complications but it’s highly likely I will have this child, which I did not plan for and then could not face discarding and now wholeheartedly want. Then I will be visible all over again, my body a tiny city for a tiny human before I become, to her, a finite animal. I will become a striver all over again before I vanish for the second time as most people do, ever so slowly in those ways they observe in the masses but cannot always apply to their own evaporating selves.
About the Author
Anna Maconochie is a short story writer based in London. Her work has been published in The Erotic Review and Prole Books, while her first short story collection is due in 2016 from Cultured Llama Publishing.