By Ilyas Bhayat
Malcolm looked at the smoldering tip of a cigarette as if it was a glimmering beacon to a lost ship. Islington at 1:33am in November was full of mist and loneliness. Malcolm was holding a cigarette as the wisps of the silver grey smoke it emitted attempted to rise through the humid air of the night. As he held the letter, he wanted to feel her presence; every time he was smoking he felt closer to Leilah. It was their first secret, Leilah nicked a cigarette from her Dad’s coat pocket, and they savored it with a mixed sense of fear and excitement. They carefully, passed it to one another, as though it was a valuable item. To conceal the smell of tobacco from her hair and skin, Leilah tucked all her hair under her scarf, pulled on her hood and put on the thick gloves. They laughed amid the sporadic coughs they each produced and walked while smoking together. In their minds, they were not a couple of teens fooling around with their parent’s cigarettes but seasoned spies, like the ones starring in a movie they both adored.
In appearance, much of London had changed. The city had witnessed a phenomenal development of new buildings and roads. As the new buildings appeared, the old structures that Malcolm had grown up around, including his old flat and the coffee shops he visited, were demolished and the Shard now dominated the skyline. The city was growing and becoming more and more like a rising monster of steel and glass. But for Malcolm, its smell, its mist, its exciting thick darkness of the nights remained the same. He was walking along Regents canal, and the power of memories defeated Malcolm’s mind in a few minutes. The letter made him feel the intensity of the London night again.
Malcolm always wanted to manage time, own it in some way. He wanted to play with it like a child to draw on the surface of time with the colored pencils creating the traceries and patterns in according to his taste. Malcolm wanted to return the time, put it on pause and change everything. London at night provided him with the sense that he returned to a different time when Leilah existed in his life. While here, he became the careless teen again whose mind was full of fantasies and there was no free space for the regret. Westminster was full of magic at night. However, he was aware that his return to the different time was deficient as Leilah was not walking next to him.
That first cigarette at the age of fourteen encouraged the sense of conspiracy between Malcolm and Leilah. Often, when the night approached the city and the dying sun spread its dusky red alongside the streets, Malcolm and Leilah were both at their homes. They took their supper and prepared for bed as was expected of them and then pretended to go to sleep. In cases, when Leilah’s father had a night shift in Bart’s hospital, she left the house openly not even trying to hide her intentions. If her father was at home, Leilah waited until he would fall asleep, which was usually 20 minutes into an episode of Family Guy. Her bedroom was upstairs and she would have to climb out her window and scale her way down. Malcolm would be there, waiting for her behind the bush. They would smoke several cigarettes, some coffee in a thermos and on the rare occasion even with a spoon of rum added to it, cheese sandwiches, and, most importantly, Leilah’s Walkman to enjoy on that 20 minute trip from Cally Road to Central with the sounds of old school music of an era before they were both born but that perfectly fitted the night.
During such escapades, the city belonged to them. Anyone met in the streets turned into their new great friend, greeting even the homeless and the drunks who were walking along the streets. The night walks were not without risk. Muggings were known to occur in the side streets just off Caledonian Road. Malcolm and Leilah even happened to come across a drunk man being robbed. However, nothing and nobody scared them during their nightly excursions. Part of their bravery was because of the extra efforts Leilah had taken to disguise her look. She wore a heavy grey jacket and her elder brother’s jeans. To the casual observer, the two of them therefore appeared to be a couple of men walking at night together. They were listening to their collection of Pet Shop Boys, Duran Duran, and Lauryn Hill. They were the best of friends, who could share and talk about anything with each other. Leilah talked of her dreams of being a scientists and Malcolm talked of becoming a professional painter. He was a gifted artist and Leilah often commended the paintings he made for her. These talks of the future were often transient.
“I’m going to be a biology researcher in future. I’m already working on my acceptance speech for a Nobel prize,” Leilah would state with great conviction.
“And I will be the English Picasso! You’d better save those paintings I give you they might be your retirement plan when I’m famous,” Malcolm would reply with unbridled passion.
Malcolm and Leilah were looking for sites that provided them with a glimpse at what they considered to be genuinely London. One of the loveliest places for them was their spot right at the bottom of the steps at Regents canal. You could still hear the sounds of the busy city, which reminded you that you were still in London, but just on the quieter side of it. To get right close to the river bank was a tricky task, but they were mainly able to remain unseen. They liked to sit on the edge of the steps looking at the shining surface of the water It was cold, and Leilah was leaning on Malcolm’s shoulder.
“Have I ever told you that you’re genuinely the best idiot in my life?” she whispered
“What was that? No I don’t think you have, but please, don’t stop I’d love to hear this new info.” Malcolm looked down as they both smiled and Leilah wrapped her arm around him tighter
“You know Malcolm, no matter what happens in our futures, best believe that I will always remember that you were the first and only person who always knew how to make every shitty day just that little bit better, by just a few simple words. Whenever I lost faith and just wanted to fuck it all, you were the voice of reason and you just knew how to pick me up. Nights like these being spent with you are just perfect, you have always been a brilliant person in my life”
Malcolm smiled as he stared into the night sky listening, “You do realize you’re going to be stuck with me right Leilah? Ever since Mr.Leyton sat the class boy girl in year 3. He put me next to this shy nerd who would let me copy her answers whilst I would spend the hour drawing in the back of my textbook. Little did I know hey, she would end up being the closest friend I have 10 years later. I appreciate you so much, you asshole.”
Leilah was attempting on putting on her hat and thick gloves one handed as she was holding a cigarette with with the other, this proved to be a difficult task but she was keen to accomplish this to impress Malcolm. However, her attempts failed as she was unable to hold the cigarette and her gestures were increasingly becoming clumsy rather than elegant. Malcolm delighted in teasing her in these cases.
“Wow you really don’t want to share that do you? You don’t even trust me to hold it for you whilst you put that on? And then she calls me her best friend!”
Leilah was getting annoyed and started chasing Malcolm, stamping on the ground with her heavy boots. She caught up to him and gave him a dig on the shoulder.
“Why do you think you’re so funny?!,” she cried out with a full-throated laugh.
Once Leilah slipped into the water.
It was freezing cold at the beginning of December; the air was full of fog more than usual. They were not even sitting; it was too cold for it, they preferred to stand on the edge looking at the water.
“Have you noticed how people this days only eat their meals after taking a picture of it?” Leilah asked.
“And don’t forget the picture has to be perfect with the best angle and the perfect instagram filter,” Malcom sniggered in response.
They both laughed heartily at their critique of society. Malcolm did not realise how close Leilah was to the brink as he held her from behind when he playfully pushed her, applying the gentlest force on her. In a moment, she fell over with a massive splash.
Malcolm was not able to move for several seconds and just stood froze staring at the water. Leilah had a heavy grey jacket, strapped black sneakers, and the jeans of her elder brother on. Malcolm sat on the wooden planks worrying that Leilah’s well-meant attire would make it harder for her to float, he turned around to scream for help but suddenly her head appeared on the surface of the water. He quickly pulled her feeling overwhelming relief because she was alive, but she was shaking so heavily that they had no other choice than to run back home as fast as possible to avoid Leilah getting ill. While running, they were laughing and looking at each other with a feeling that they had just had a real adventure. Malcolm had one single thought in his head: “This city was trying to steal you, but I will never allow it.”
Leilah had no fever after her fall, but they did not walk again for about a month.
When they returned to their urban realm, London greeted them with snow and lights of Christmas. They were walking the small narrow streets near Kings Cross, feeling the energy of the city in their veins. The night was unusually clear, Malcolm and Leilah shared the sense that London was looking at them with an iridescent eye. They did not want to return to the canal. Looking for a place to sit and warm up a bit, Leilah suddenly remembered about a site that turned out to be perfect. The site was an old derelict house with a bland appearance that made the building inconspicuous to most people. They made their way into the apparently deserted house and got inside through a pane-less window that had had its glass broken. The ground floor was empty and they made their way up the creaky stairs. While Malcolm and Leilah were moving around upstairs exploring the rooms, it seemed to them that they house was grumbling being awakened by the unexpected visitor. Malcolm noticed an attic ladder and signaled for Leilah to follow him up. The attic-floor room was empty and full of dust, but the window in it allowed them to see the city at its finest. Malcolm stood next to it, made the inviting gesture and proclaimed:
– London is ours, Leilah!
It was their triumph.
It had been 15 years later now and Malcolm was able to restore these emotions only at night, walking alone and smoking the cigarettes of the same sort that Leilah used to steal from her father. London was whispering to him with the voices of people, splashes of water in the river, rustle of the tires. When Malcolm was feeling overcome with nervous energy because of the letter that remained unopened, he left his small apartment full of trepidation and returned to his lovely night.
They drifted slightly about a few months after high school, Leilah was accepted into 6th form and Malcolm attended a different college. The London that both of them knew in the light of day was different. The streets were full of people rushing by to their various appointments and endless streams of cars snaked their way down the roads. There was no place for the fatuous stories Malcolm and Leilah whispered to each other on their way to the canal basin. No room for the coffee with rum and cigarettes, or the Leilah dressed as a man. In the day, they attended class and were engaged in their studies like the other students with hopes of passing their exams and making a life for themselves. They spent time talking with their new found friends. When Malcolm would return home, he would quarrel with his parents who always seemed intent on doing everything possible to make his life miserable. He argued about getting more freedom to spend time with his friends and come home later. It was the other life full of events that seemed to be meaningful for people around. Malcolm and Leilah have never argued with them; they just had their own private view about what was meaningful. For them, the hidden parts of London that they explored in the dead of night was what was meaningful and they felt that this secret London that came alive at night fully belonged to them.
About ten years ago, Leilah had come to Malcolm looking unusually severe and full of inner tensions. He was able to feel it even without looking at her or asking her, and it made him feel cold somewhere in the chest. Leilah wanted to say something to him, but deep down he had a bad gut feeling so didn’t really want to hear it. She had only recently received her degree in biology; Malcolm knew that the dreams of Leilah have already outgrown the borders of London, their London, and the conversation she was going to start was his worst nightmare.
“I haven’t really told you about this before but I’ve been planning this for a while now. I really want to go to study and live in California. This work is my dream. I will have a chance to do everything I love …” As she said this, Leilah’s voice was full of admiration and sorrow. Malcolm had no idea that such combination was even possible.
“Will you really leave London? All these bright lights, all these streets, Our London! Is that even possible for you?”
“Well when you say it like that, and if you would really want me to, there is a possibility I could stay in London,” she looked at him in hope.
How could he ask? How could he do anything to stop her from going to California and from devoting her life to the science exactly as she has always wanted? It was so cruel of her to tell it to him; Malcolm felt that it was the moment of his choice.
How could he do it?
He was renting a small apartment a short distance from where their old flats had been. The Flats had since been replaced with a new building that had a view of the canal, their Thames. He was trying to receive the recognition as a young but promising painter. He was painting with such a strong inner passion that sometimes people could not drag their gaze away from his paintings. He caught a break when a buzzfeed editor walked past him working on his paintings outside Pimlico station and within the space of 6 months He had his personal exhibition, and all his pictures were sold. At this point, Malcolm was regarded as one of the greatest young artists in the sphere of bohemian life of London. However only less than 8 months later due to bad management and poor business advice, his dream of being an artist did not generate enough money to consider making it a permanent profession and he had to go back and concentrate on getting a qualification for a decent job. But he recently failed his English GCSE again for the 4th time, the only thing that he wanted to draw was London at night and during the dawn, and it was opposite to what was expected from him. This failure made him feel miserable; he knew the opportunities open to Leilah were numerous since she excelled in her studies. How could he ask her to stay?
After she had left, he approached the tiny dusty window in the kitchen and recreated in his mind the life they could have had together. This could have been their kitchen and even now she would have been fixing a meal for them as he washed the dishes. He jolted himself out of this heartbreaking fantasy. Malcolm knew that it was right, he had no doubts that Leilah would have a great life in America, but, at the same time, he felt like a tiny worm settled in his head eating his brain inch by inch to produce one single idea: “What if…”. Malcolm was trying to block this part of his mind, but every time he was holding a brush he was full of images that have never been real, words that have never been told, and dreams that have never been possible.
The years passed, but London remained the same. Two years after Leilah left, Malcolm had met Tina and they had started dating. At first Malcolm had difficulty since he kept trying to find qualities of Leilah in her. However, he eventually learnt to appreciate her unique personality and within a short while, they decided to marry. When they had their first child Peter, Malcolm realized that he needed a stable means of supporting his family. He therefore found a job as a plasterer and even as he concentrated on his wife Tina and their son, the worm inside his head gradually became less and less powerful. The brushes, paints and drawing easel remained in his apartment; even Malcolm’s wife was not allowed to clean the dust from these items. At the same time, the coat of dust was becoming thicker from month to month. The main picture remained unfinished. Once Malcolm’s son Peter asked him about the picture covered with a white cloth, and Malcolm decided to look at it for the first time in five years. He wanted to show Peter the picture that had never been finished. He remembered how he once had his own exhibition and was regarded as a great young artist in London. He was secretly proud of it and kept the brochure with the information about the exhibition as a demonstration of his success.
The only picture that remained unfinished was placed on the drawing easel in the corner of the study. There was the Thames on it, the night of London full of mist, and the figure of the girl falling in the water. Malcolm was not able to finish the picture. There still was no girl on it. His son was looking at the picture for some time and suddenly asked if his father was scared to walk so much at night. This question made Malcolm feel a kind of personal pride, as he has never been afraid of anything if there was Leilah. And he knew that Leilah was walking together with him even in case if she was far away. Once, he drew it, and the picture of the man walking at night along with a ghost figure of a girl dressed as a man was sold the first during the exhibition. Malcolm did not expect that the ghost figure would ever turn into the one of flesh and blood. He did not think about it until he received the letter from Leilah.
He did not read it immediately after receiving. When she was leaving, they did not say anything to each other, but both decided that there was no need to keep in touch. Not a single word was written.
Only “what if” remained as a motif of their separation. This letter was a violation of their silent treaty that lasted for years; it was against the rules.
I’m not really sure if you really even want to hear from me, but I am coming back to London on the second week of March. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about coming home.
All of my best memories were with you, it would mean so much to see you! I will have a couple of free days, is there any chance that you will make some time to see me? It would be nice to visit our old places.
Always yours, Leilah”
It was like a slap in the face. Malcolm was feeling that the eddy of time was drawing him into the past. To open the letter and read it, he had to go outside and smoke. He was standing with a cigarette in his lips and whispering to the dark streets of his city: “I am back.”
He recognized the slender figure of a woman in a coat immediately in the darkness. She was standing at the edge of the river with a navy scarf and bright red lipstick, smoking a cigarette slowly, and looking up at the yellow moon shinning in the London sky staring at them with a clear blame. Malcolm approached her and stood next to Leilah breathing heavily as if he needed more air than ever before.
“You are not wearing your jacket and big black boots, you’re not afraid of the bad men in the night anymore?” Malcolm said in greeting.
This nonchalant comment was meant to conceal what he really felt. Here he was a few meters from the girl he had shared so many memories with as a teenager. The girl he had loved and whose loss had caused him more hurt than he thought himself capable of bearing. She stood with her face turned to him and he could hardly wait for her to turn. His heartbeat rose even as he waited to catch a glimpse of that face with the dancing eyes and a secret smile he used to imagine was just for him.
The water of Thames was splashing. Leilah was not moving but suddenly she turned her head, and Malcolm was smitten with her eyes. They made the dark air of the canal full of sparkling waves of light. She smiled helplessly, looked at his baggy hoodie perfectly fitting for the night street walking and lifted her hands in dismay.
They were just walking along the river for some time. The picture of her life was becoming clear for him, Leilah was talking about her life; science, laboratory, and colleagues. She had a big family in America. Leilah confessed that she often thought about him, she mentioned his pictures and told that she asked her friend to visit his exhibition while in London and send her a poster of one of them. Malcolm was walking next to her and he was waiting for the moment when he would be able to recognise his Leilah. This woman was different; he did not know her at all. Malcolm suppressed the inner desire to yell “Where is my Leilah, you, stranger?!” Again and again the mad hot idea was pulsing in his head – “What if I asked her to stay with me?”
The voice of this new unknown woman interrupted the hurricane in his head:
“Why did you give up drawing? It could have brought you more money if you paid more attention to the image.”
They stopped and looked at each other, Malcolm was trying to hide his despair and rage. Both of them were suddenly disturbed by a drunk man singing somewhere near the river. Malcolm put his hand on her shoulder. The University had built a new campus alongside the river and installed dancing fountains just outside the riverbank.
“Do you remember how the water in is cold, Leilah?” he grinned, suggestively.
He felt that she shivered under the cloth of her coat. Something familiar appeared on her face, the mad energy and real courage. Leilah looked at him, and her eyes were still full of shine.
“If you ask me,” she said breathily half daring him to act.
He pushed her with all the power that he had, and Leilah fell into the fountains with a loud scream full of terror and delight.
Several hours later he was finishing the picture in his flat.
His wife prepared the hot tea for Leilah who was laughing and talking to her silently in the kitchen. Malcolm did not hear them; he was carefully drawing the figure of the girl falling into the cold water.
London did not change, and it became Malcolm’s realm again. It belonged to him with its streets, mist, and dark attracting surface of the river. He was finishing the picture feeling that he was finally able to master time.