Jane Davenport had moved into the realm of big pants and had never felt happier. They were basically the big, soft cotton ones that snuggled in under her belly button, looked like pink sacks and could double as dusters.
A lot o’ wimen don’t put them on the washin’ line – did y’ ken that?
There was a crumpled METRO on the seat beside her; it had clearly sneaked all the way from London and was making its way back. The pages were full of rubbish, certainly no news. There was an article that said – we Brits worked more hours than any other country in Europe and as a result, we’re knackered. Jane just wanted a man who stopped and breathed. There was such bliss in pauses and silence. When the world stops, we don’t stop living. She wanted the headlines to read, ‘It’s OK to STOP. And, it’s good to LOOK’. She preferred the man who had mellowed and didn’t care about whether she was in big pants or thongs. She’d thrown out her G-strings, got fed-up with the chafing. The problem was, the only thing that warmed up Jane was hoovering and she bloody hated hoovering, hence her stairs are accumulating dust like her shelves collected books.
We willnae gie y’ her date o’ birth because that’s jus’ numbers and Jane does nae like numbers. An’ we won’t tell you how long Jane’s been single f’ because again – that’s jus’ numbers.
She looked out of the carriage window as the train pulled into London Bridge at the tile and slate roof tops and redundant but lovely chimneys: Lovely – because she loved real fires, the smell of burning wood and the hypnosis of flames accompanied by a good single malt whisky. The newish flats that had gone up in the last ten years looked like LEGO towers, housing LEGO people. Plastic. Robotic. She could have bought a property here in the nineties but just couldn’t bring herself to drink London water, breathe London fumes and be around so many people.
London gave her a headache and that was just scratching the surface of it. There were so many ghosts. She couldn’t sit in a restaurant unless her back was to a wall and couldn’t drink in a pub unless the music and chat was outrageously loud. She got goosebumps every time a glass slid along the bar on its own but it was just the water it was sitting on. Wasn’t it? The thing is, she’d done that experiment and a glass didn’t always move. It had to be a ghost that moved it, one that was taking the mickey out of the sort of people who thought they knew everything. Once her glass of wine had knocked itself over when she was sitting at a table with friends and she was the only person who noticed. But people don’t see.
Perhaps that’s because they don’t want t’ know aboot us. Anythin’ worth knowin’ aboot is hidden. Anyway, it gie her the perfect excuse t’ leave early.
Jane rummaged in her bag and brought out her stash of radishes. The British chilli, she thought to herself. After she’d munched six, she sneezed. Then as she searched her pockets for an elusive used hanky, she found herself looking up. At what and or for what reason she didn’t know.
Jane’s thoughts wandered as she thumbed through her ‘London A-Z’. She thought about London places. She wondered if there ever was a dead man in Deadman’s Place or an angel in Angel Court. . . Then she wonder about the Roman girl’s grave that was found during the construction of the gherkin and why she got to be on page 161 of ‘Secret London: An Unusual Guide’ and why the thousands of other teenagers who have died in London never got a mention – anywhere. The Roman girl’s epitaph read: – To the spirits of the dead the unknown young girl from Roman Lond— then she saw her.
She was sitting in the very same carriage. Jane gawked at her and then realised that no one else had noticed. The girl looked at Jane. The train screeched along the tracks. White noise built up in Jane’s head like history repeating itself, like hundreds of years of accusations – ‘She can see dead people. Witch!’ Everyone in the carriage turned to her, raised an arm and pointed their finger. Jane shrunk down in her seat. Just because you’ve all got normal nine-to-five jobs in an office, there’s no need to point at anyone who’s, who’s a bit different, she thought.
Then, just like in a zombie movie, the commuters dropped their arms and went back to staring at their mobile phones. Jane looked across at the girl in the hope that she’d gone but she was closer to her now in the next row. Unwillingly, Jane found herself wondering how many ghosts there were in London. It was then that she noticed a sickly smell like incense. She sniffed the air, trying to work out what it was, to see where it took her and then she was off again. . . wondering if giants ever walked under Giant Arches Road, if William Blake ever saw angles in Peckham Rye, if there ever was a real falcon at Falcon Grove, if Elvis ever visited Elvis Road, if there were indeed a row of Elves on Elf Row or if, in fact there were ever any saints in London – in St Pancras, Saint this place or that place. She looked up out of her reverie and the dead girl was gone.
At least she wouldn’t have to get on the underground, Jane thought. When she was younger, she always got lost. In those days, she had wanted to scream her confusion to everyone. How was she meant to know which way she was going? What was West and East, was that right or left, North and South? Then she’d have to get off when she realised she was going in the wrong direction (again) and change platforms. Jane breathed deeply, London made her feel sick.
Today, she was on a pilgrimage to Davenports Magic Shop. Why? Because it’s all in the name. At least that’s what she told her friends but actually she was going to see if she could find something… A clue. A suggestion of something else. A mystery.
She needed a bit o’ that. T’ be honest, she jus’ needed a distraction. When we asked her, whit secrets she’s takin’ to the grave – she told us t’ get lost. Instead, she’d explained t’ us that she w’s very intuitive, clairvoyant because these were safer words t’ use than psychic. Heaven forbid – she w’s given that label. She thought o’ herself like a linen cupboard wi’ all her secrets folded. There are nae colourful surprises or expensive bed linen in her cupboard but a heck o’ a lot o’ STUFF. She should really purge it, share it wi’ friends an’ drop it off in charity shops.
Jane had moved seats on the train three times but she couldn’t care less if she looked like a nutter. A suited man in the seat in front of her had been listening to really loud Drum ‘n Bass on his headphones but she couldn’t hear it properly— that was just frustrating! She moved away from him. Then the sun came out, a natural strobe light, flashed on her novel like a nineties’ acid memory and she felt like she was about to do robot arms, not that she ever did robot arms but that’s what the memory felt like, as if it had happened to somebody else. She moved seats again. Then when the train had pulled into Sevenoaks, she spotted a weirdo – not like her but proper. He was about her age, stooped with a stick and tinted glasses.
Wh’t is it abou’ tinted glasses?
And she’d heard our chorus of ‘NOs’ which reaffirmed her intuition and sure enough, he came and sat next to her. His eyes kept moving sideways, his head didn’t move but she could see his eyes, fidgeting in her direction and he never sat all the way round in his seat – as if he knew, that she knew. It was all too much. She’d said, excuse me and chose a seat in the same carriage.
She walked onwards through the crowds until a little voice inside her head told her to stop and she knew she’d missed the entrance to The Davenports Magic Shop. She reversed along the pavement. A strip light in the ceiling flickered as Jane descended the steps to the underground arcade. Above her a billboard announced, TO THE SUBWAY SHOPPING AREA, Mad . . . Fancy Dress, Fitness, MAGIC. Jane looked back over her shoulder to glimpse the street with its buses and people and to reassure herself that this was the way out. To her left was a shop selling fitness equipment and in front was an array of closed shops, boarded-up fronts and filthy windows. Most arcades had money poured into them to make them enticing and shiny. This subway had been forgotten about in a town planning filing cabinet in the 1980s. There were two spots on the floor where homeless people had left cardboard, a nightlight, shoes and pieces of clothing.
Her eyes registered mannequins in Hallowe’en fancy dress. This shop front and drab environment appeared far too deserving of each other: There was a male mannequin in a nun’s habit, a white dress on another was covered in blood, a headless anomaly in a black cloak, a screaming Trump mask and a crap-looking witch. All of which made a corny prerequisite for the magic shop and to finish off the tableaux, she spotted a stash of plastic canes with skulls in top hats that looked like Baron Samedi throwaways from ‘Live and Let Die’.
She saw the Davenport shop to her right and cautiously walked towards it. The three large windows displayed magic posters and memorabilia, she took photos of the first two windows but not the last because a man lay on the floor in a sleeping bag.
Inside the shop, were red glass cabinets with Magic Rabbit boxes, Candle Through Arm boxes, playing cards, Take My Word For It Sponges, Appearing Canes, clown shoes, Chop Cups and Magic Linking Rings. The books, posters and DVDs created a modern library of magic: Houdini, Black Magic, The Science of Magic, Changeling ODO and Spirit Theatre . . . Her mind wandered to what was invisible.
T’ us and the Others. M’ybe she widn’t find wh’t she w’s lookin’ f’ in here, maybe it w’s already wi’ her.
A man in a black t-shirt and short red hair came out from a door at the back of the shop.
“Hi,” said Jane. “I’m doing some research. Do I have your permission to take photographs?”
“Sure,” he replied.
“My married name was Davenport,” she said. “But I’m not related to thee Davenports.”
A second man appeared looking like an extra from a Harry Potter film, with a knitted Fairisle tank top, a black corduroy jacket and a small gold stud on his lapel.
Instead of taking note of what was actually in the cabinets, Jane clicked away on her camera because she was thinking about her maiden name and what she had inherited. Her father’s name was from Wales and she knew there were witches lurking down that line in the darkness of time. On her maternal side there was Spiritualism and attempted suicides.
What hope has she really?
Something strange happens when you lose a parent, Jane thought to herself; there is grief coupled with confusion. Even if you know it’s going to happen, it’s still terrible – that experience of grief and you have to cradle it in your arms and bundle it around like a child carrying a pillow but eventually, you want to beat the shit out of the pillow but that’s the pillow you have to carry everywhere you go. Jane’s arms ached for years. She could hardly sleep for the pain. The pillow that she carried became such a burden. Then the two emotions became animated as though they needed a release and actually, they got fed-up of her bundling them around. So, she threw the whole damn grief thing away and then the next thing that happened was, the floodgates of memory opened. Until then her memories were prevented by tiredness but with these memories, she started processing, or at least trying her very hardest to make sense of her life and what her dad meant to her.
She caught a vague reflection in one of the glass cabinets. She looked tired. She felt her baggage, her excuses and get-out-clauses. She used her get-out-clause superbly to avoid detection, feeling or conflict. She thought of her own disappearing acts.
Her mind whirled until she saw herself as a little girl standing in the garden feeling overwhelmed at the enormity of life, the profusion of experiences, of hearing things that others didn’t and of feelings; of not being good enough, of not getting enough reassurance. She’s still standing there, thought Jane, simultaneously forty-something and five, head lowered, unable to move forward or grow-up.
The best run she’d ever had was after a trip to Switzerland. She was staying in the spare room of her friend’s house and she saw an impression of a girl in the room and she could hear her speak. She was sleeping in her friend’s sister’s room who had committed suicide. Apparently, Switzerland had the second highest suicide rates after Japan. When she’d returned to Scotland, she was so happy to be home, she put on her best trainers and went running up the hills. She was fearless, jumping along sheep paths past the bracken and gorse bushes and returned home elated. But when she walked into the back garden her dad said to her, with as much disgust as something that had crawled out of a drain, “Why don’t you get a job?” He was standing in the garden with a cigarette and a coffee. Yup – he had a knack of ruining every beautiful moment, every up and bring her down so that she stayed, down.
Then she remembered one friend who was physically abused. She would take the beatings so that her brothers didn’t. When her dad died her friend said, “He’s finally released me. I can be myself.” Jane wanted to warn her friend that ironically, that freedom came at a huge cost. Jane’s friend was in hospital for months.
But what Jane realised (that no one ever says) is that death can be liberating. Stuff, and it is just stuff, that’s been holding you down your entire life lifts: One part of you is in crisis but the other part is cruising so high that you need someone to pull you down by your feet. They had all known dad would die. He’d fought cancer for years but the knowing and waiting was agonising. The night he died, they all knew in their hearts it was going to happen. They were at home and Jane’s mum was in the hospice. She had been ringing the landline but Jane hadn’t heard it ringing. Jane was woken up by her dad saying her name as clear as if he was in the room with her.
Then Jane thought to herself that when people have a terminal illness, they are not morbid but by-God do they have regrets. Sacks full.
Don’t ever be fooled by the celebrity who tells you they h’ve nae regrets, they’re nae being honest wi’ thems’lves.
The truth is, people experience relief that they won’t have to hide their secrets any longer.
C’n you feel that?
Their secrets are safe now and only God will judge them, thank goodness it’s not family and friends. When her mind came back into the room, one of the men behind the counter was laying cards face down on a black mat.
“Are you going to do something?” asked Jane.
Suddenly awkward, the man gurgled something inaudible and then said, “I, I could.”
She looked away so that he wouldn’t feel embarrassed and when she turned back, he was holding four silver rings. She watched as the individual rings became magically linked into two pairs and then both sets became one chain.
“Amazing,” she said. She was stunned. How was that possible?
On the train home, Jane sat next to the window, listened to a podcast on her phone and hoped that no one would plonk themselves beside her. At Waterloo East, a bearded man sunk into the seat next to her. He got out his mobile and started to watch something. Jane thanked God he was normal, for it wasn’t just London that was exhausting – it was getting there.