PERSPIRATION

By: Rob Hakimian

 

Diversions in the Heath?! It’s bad enough they seize up our streets with their relentless road works, and now their tyrannical time wasting has overflowed into our sacred green spaces! ‘Improvements to the ponds’ – how can you improve a pool of water?

And all I wanted was to get up to the hill for a quick smoke and a gaze at the skyline. It’s the only redeeming feature I’ve found to being shipped out to the Hampstead branch for a week. Hopefully it’ll provide some inspiration for my next short story but if not at least a nice buzz will soften the burden of my extended trip home. This ridiculous diversion away from the ponds is going to stress me right out, though.

Where the bloody hell is this path taking me anyway? They’re truly taking me round the houses on this one. There’s got to be some kind of alternate agenda here; some gardener must have slipped some money to the right person who fixed it so all visitors are made to walk straight past his prize topiary.

Actually, that can’t be right, there’s barely anything to be seen here. On the right a few bog standard trees and on the left a fenced-off patch of land that leads back down towards the ponds. I’m genuinely starting to perspire right now; trust London to have a random sunny day in the middle of October.

It’s so quiet here it’s unnerving. Better stick some music on before I get spooked. Dead battery? What the -? This thing’s been plugged in all day! I swear it was full when I left work. Must be fucked; the lifespan on these things is just getting shorter, it’s a farce.

Well, great, now all I’ve got to listen to is the grass brushing against the underside of my boots. I suppose I’d better spend some time thinking about my short story assignment for uni to distract me. ‘Out of place’? What can I write about that? Oh shit, I won’t even be able to make notes in my phone for when I come up with a pearl. Do I have a pen on me? Not in my coat pockets. Nope, not in my trousers either. Shit. I don’t even have a notepad anyway, come to think of it. Guess I’ll have to keep it all up top.

I can’t stand this quiet – give me some sirens any day. I don’t know how country bumpkins do it; how can you even hang on to any thoughts without some noise to stick them to..?

The fuck is that?

“Afternoon sir, lovely day isn’t it?”

Where the fuck did this guy come from?! I almost walked straight past his little hidey hole under the branches. Not sure how though, his blanket is aggressively colourful and that is one furry-as-fuck face. How did this beggar end up here? Probably wandered here pissed one day and never found his way out. Better break it to him. “You’re in the wrong place, mate. You won’t get much change here.”

“Change?”

“You’re asking for money, right? You wanna go back to the streets, to the centre, that’s where all the people are.” I think I’m pointing towards the city, honestly no clue though. Anyway, this coot is none the wiser.

“I’m not asking for money.”

Tricky bugger. “I just heard you jingling the coins in your cup.”

“No coins, sir. Just bracelets.”

Bloody hell, that is a lot of bracelets rattling around on that bony wrist. He must be trying to flog them. “Not interested, mate.” What, why’s he standing up? “I’ve got nothing to give you.” Better keep walking. I’m afraid he might start chanting some gibberish incantation and cover me in stinking spittle.

“Hold on just one moment, sir. It is not you who is to give me something, but rather the other way around.”

Hmmm, I should keep walking but this could be interesting. “What has a lost beggar got to give me then? And how much is it going to cost?”

“No cost. What I give is free.”

Wow, he’s standing awfully close. He actually smells surprisingly nice, like sandalwood. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much hair on a face before. If this guy’s not careful someone will phone the police and report seeing an orangutan on the heath. Now he’s putting his hand on my shoulder. I don’t know why but I don’t actually mind. I keep losing myself in the glittering of his earrings – they must be fake gold, but then again… “Alright then, what do you have for me?”

“Slow down. Look around you. Use your senses.”

He’s going to hand me some poorly spelt handwritten prayer or – “Wait, is that it?”

“Yes sir. Slow down. Look around you. Use your senses.”

Oh I get it now! This is some OAP hippy that slipped his carers, got stoned and couldn’t find his way back to his nursing home. Better get out of here before it becomes my responsibility to see him home safe. “Ok, thanks for the life lesson man. Peace out duuuuuude.”

Got to speed up now. Lost so much time already thanks to the fucking diversion, and now this hippy nonsense… It’s bloody hot though, feels as though my shirt is soaked through. I’d better take my coat off. Wait, hold on – there is a pen in here after all! I knew there must be – a real writer is never without a pen! No paper, though. I guess I can scribble on my hand if needs be. No ideas yet though, it’s so hard to think without any music and all these things distracting me.

At least we’re back on track now. Just got to head up this path and we’ll be at Parliament Hill. Then I can light up, unwind, and the ideas will surely flow. Blimey, this incline only seems to be getting sharper. My calf muscles are starting to ache. And this low autumn sun is blinding me. Will this view even be worth it? I should have just stayed on low ground and smoked, but now I’ve been sent to hither and yon I feel like I have to complete this mission.

Finally, here we go: the wide-angle cityscape of the most glorious and important place in the world. So many recognisable landmarks. I don’t need to look at the board to tell me which ones are which – I’ve lived here longer than many of them have even existed. They’re all just monuments to capitalism anyway, so why should I care?

Nobody else around. What luck! Got my pick of the benches. Maybe everyone else refused to take the diversion just like I should have done. But I guess I have the last laugh. Who dares wins, as they say.

Right, where’s that joint? And the lighter. Here we go. Ah, just the taste is making me feel better. All that nonsense is sliding away.

Wait a second, there was a point to coming up here… Oh yeah! To come up with ideas for my ‘out of place’ story… Bloody hell, it’s not that easy is it? Out of place, out of place… So tempting to just write a story about a fish restaurant that is literally ‘out of plaice’ and be done with it.

“That cloud looks like a fish!”

“FUUUUUUUUUUU-!” Scared the fucking piss out of -! Where the fuck did this person appear from?! “What are you doing?!”

“Just looking at the clouds.”

“But… why? Why did you sneak up on me like that!?” I need to stop cringing away from this… woman? Otherwise she’ll think I’m giving her the bench. “There’s a billion other benches you could sit on!”

“But this one’s got the best view. Besides, I wanted some company.”

This woman-ish creature is hideous. I’ve never seen a female with such a mass of fur on her cheeks and chin, and the way her snot is dribbling down the hairs is making my skin crawl. She’s probably got some birds nesting in there, using her dried snot for structural stability. I need to not focus on her, but I can barely look away. What’s going on up here today? Is there a circus happening nearby? I really want to get away from her, but I’m too tired to move after that climb and the smoke. And besides, I was here first.

“Can you see the fish? Oh and look, that one is a monster truck – do you see?”

I’m not going to look where you’re pointing, you crafty beast. You’ll pick my pocket at the slightest opportunity, I know it. “Look, I’m sorry you don’t have any company, but I came up here to be alone and I was sitting on this bench first so…”

Now she’s turning to face me. I can’t help but look back. I’m going to see the full extent of this facial atrocity.

“Don’t you like to talk?”

Wow. Look at those eyes. So brown. So deep… Wait a second – what did she say? “No!! I mean, yes! I like to talk.” Don’t get distracted by her eyes. Think about that mangy mass festering on the bottom half of her head. “But I don’t want to talk right now. Please go away.”

“Alright then. I’ll go. But do you have a tissue? My hayfever’s playing up.”

“No I don’t have a tissue!”

“Ok then.”

Now what is she doing? Pulling out her journal? Oh she’s going to tear out a page and use it for – oh fuck, that’s disgusting. I’ve never heard such a loud nose blowing! Jee-zus, now I really miss the quiet.

At last, she’s finally going. But she’s dropped her – “excuse me!” She didn’t hear me. “Excuse -!” Actually, if I call her back then she’ll turn around and I’ll have to look at that rotten hay bale on her face again. Best just leave it. If it were any other piece of litter I would of course pick it up and throw it away, like the model citizen I am – but not after what I just witnessed. There are probably untold amounts of germs on that scrap of paper.

Alright now I can get back to business. Story ideas, okay here we go…! Out of place… Out… of… place…

God she was repellent. I can’t stop thinking about her. She’s ruined my whole vibe. I’ll never think of anything now. If you have hayfever like that why the fuck would you come here? Literally of all the places in London, The Heath is the last you should be in. I know, I’ll get as far away from the street as possible and go walk among all the pollen in The Heath! Idiot.

Wait a second, that’s something. The Heath! It’s so ‘out of place’ in London. I mean, just look at that sprawling concrete jungle in the distance and then look at this verdant scenery surrounding me. How can they even be the same place? The Heath is totally ‘out of place’! Alright, this is something I can work with. Let’s see… maybe I can anthropomorphise the different areas of London, like posho Kensington and punky Camden, but they all make fun of Hampstead Heath for being green instead of grey… Yeah, then it could be an allegory for race and class and all that other hot-button stuff. Genius! I knew I would come up with something great if I just thought for a second.

Shit, I wish I could write it down though. I’m too sweaty to write it on my hand after all, it’s just going to rub off. Dammit, I’m definitely going to forget this idea after I have my stoned nap on the train. Fuck, why is my fucking phone fucking dead?!

I’m not going to have to… I think I might. It’s the only option. That snotty scrap might be the only way to preserve my thoughts… I hardly even want to get near it. But I have to. Okay. I’m going to wrap my coat around my hand and just lift it up to the bench where I can write on it.

Carefuuuuuuuul. Carefuuuuuuuuuuuul! Alright, it’s up. Shit, this side is covered in green goo. Gotta flip it. This coat-glove is worse than an oven mit. Delicately so I don’t push it back to the ground agaaaaaaaaiiiin. There we go. OK, where’s that pen? Aha! Alright, just a couple of sentences to capture the essence of the idea. That’ll do. Now I need to take this scrap with me. I’ll fold the snotty side in on itself so it’s more manageable. There we go. I’ll have to risk getting my coat pocket snotty… well it’s waterproof so it should be snot-proof too. Just shove it in quick and be done with it.

That’s it. Mission accomplished! I can set off home with a feather in my cap. One last good look at the skyline before I go. Thank you London for inspiring me once again, you beautiful bitch!

Right, now which way’s the station? I’m not following their diversion maps again – follow the purple blob around the green blob to the dark green blob – yeah right. It’s obviously meant for children and simpletons. I can find my own way. The station’s at the bottom of the hill, so if I just walk straight down through those trees I should get there.

Better get a move on, already running late. No need to follow the path, it’s just a matter of orienting myself through what I know. The skyline was roughly in that direction so the station’s got to be just a little to the left of that. Obviously cutting through the trees is not advised for people of a less adventurous nature, but for me it’s the perfect way. Best of all I’ll be alone, no more weirdos, so maybe I can continue to develop my Racist London Boroughs Story idea.

The canopy of these trees is much thicker than it seemed from the outside; hardly any light’s getting through here. In fact, I can’t quite see any sunlight coming from the end of the little wooded area either. The other side must be further away than I thought. It’s got a twilight kind of feel to it now, strange considering how sunny it was at the top of the hill. I’m sure the opening will come into sight soon though, as long as I keep walking in a straight line.

I need to take a wee though. Well, nobody else is around so I’ll just park up next to this tree trunk.

Ahhhhh, that feels better. Whoa, where did that cold wind come from? How did it make its way into the woods like that? Wow, that really sent a chill through me. My little guy has crawled back inside all by himself after that, hardly need to tuck him in.

It’s really chilly in here. Wait a second, where the fuck is my coat?!? Did I forget it? Really?! HOW????? My story idea!!? Hooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooow?

It was that bearded woman; she must have put some kind of hex on me.

SHIT. I’m going to have to go back up to the top of the hill and get it – if one of the freaks or beggars hasn’t already snatched it. Quick, better run back. But which way? Oh no, I completely lost my bearings going for that wazz, and it’s so dim and full of trees in here I can’t tell one way from another. Shit, shit, shit…

“Looking for this?”

NNNNNNNNNNNGG. “Who’s that?!” How do people keep appearing out of thin air?

“I think this is yours.”

That looks like my jacket, can’t really tell in this light, but grab it just in case. “Yeah it’s mine; get your filthy hands off it.” Phew, glad to have it back. Is my note still in the pocket? Indeed. Eurgh, got a little snot on my hand for checking though.

“I thought you’d need that.”

“Well of course I need it! It’s my coat and it’s freezing!” Wait a second; I think I recognise that voice. “You’re that foul woman that wouldn’t leave me alone at the top of the Hill aren’t you? I knew you’d played some kind of trick on me.”

“Trick?”

“You know perfectly well what I’m talking about you hag witch thief!” I need some more light – quick, the lighter. “Try to deny it, you – oh.” It’s not the bearded woman at all. In fact, this woman is of a completely different order of being entirely. Maybe it’s just the warm glow of the lighter flame but she’s really rather gorgeous. The way her dark hair pours from her head down over her shoulders is just mesmerising.

“I was just trying to help. I thought you’d be cold. The chill comes on quite suddenly in here.”

Oh dear, I’ve completely put her off. Calm down. “I’m awfully sorry; I thought you were someone else.” Gotta turn on the charm. “Thank you so much for bringing my coat… It’s just, I keep running into some weirdos today… You’re not one of them I should say though!” Smooth.

“Are you lost?”

She seems genuinely concerned. And goodness that concern looks marvellous on her soft features. Maybe I’ll make out like I don’t know the way just so that she’ll accompany me. “I’m afraid so. Can you please show me the way to the station?”

“Just keep heading in that direction.”

She’s pointing in the complete wrong direction, I’m pretty sure. Her elegance is sublime though; even though most of her body is obscured by that bulky coat and the shadowy light I can tell she’s got it going on. “Are you sure?”

“Certain.”

“Are you heading towards the station too? Do you want to come with me? I’m afraid I might get lost again.” That’s it, play on her sympathies, buy more time to show her your debonair side.

“I’ll come with you a little way. Let’s go.”

OK, she actually agreed. Stay cool. Don’t walk too fast. “Do you come to the Heath often?”

“I wouldn’t say that, exactly.”

How cryptic. “No, me neither, I just came here for inspiration. I’m a writer, you see.”

No response from her, just the sound of the breeze in the trees. I guess she’s a little intimidated. “Yeah I’m gonna write a story about race relations in London, using Hampstead Heath as a character…”

“It certainly has plenty of that. And many interesting people in it.”

“Yeah…” She doesn’t get it. “But what I mean is I’m actually going to make the Heath itself a character that talks to the other parts of London like Camden or Shoreditch or whatever.”

Wow the rustling of the leaves as we walk might as well be literal tumbleweed; such is the harshness of her silence. “You see because most parts of London are grey but the Heath is green so-“

“Here you go.”

What? How – we’re at the edge of the woods, how did that happen!? I swear there was no end in sight just a moment ago. I must have gotten too lost in the sway of her gait and the train of my own thoughts. “Won’t you show me to the station?”

“It’s just there.”

She’ll think I’m an absolute hopeless case if I tell her I need her to show me the rest of the way.

“Alright then, well thanks.” I don’t want this to be over. She may be a little dense on literary understanding, but there’s something so other-worldly and warming about her presence. “Which way are you heading then?”

“Back that way.”

“I see. Where do you live?”

“That way.” She waved into the forest, she must mean in Hampstead. Of course, some rich banker has already claimed her as his trophy wife. Well maybe she’s looking for some fun on the side. “Oh yeah, in Hampstead? Well I’m working here at the moment, maybe we could-“

My phone’s buzzing. I thought it was dead?? Mum calling, probably wondering why I’m not home yet. I’ll call her back on the train. “Anyway, I was just thinking that-“

Where’d she go?

***

Rob Hakimian has bee10997723_10152683447410642_1187679547666072279_nn enamoured with London since a young age, when he would come up on the train from Whitstable at weekends to go skateboarding or watch his beloved Arsenal. He moved to London at the first opportunity, for university, and despite stints living in Los Angeles and South Korea, he has always found the British capital’s lure too great and returned to the city where his mind feels most alive. He hopes to channel that inspiration into his endeavours on the Creative Writing course. You can read more of his various writings at savedbyoldtimes.com.

INTIMACY

By: Alex Ciobanu

 

The neighbourhood proved striking. Its historical significance was unknown to me, but I was never one to revel in that. I was simply struck by such sophistication and style in the buildings, a consistency to the architecture, and I found it comforting. Colindale wasn’t the same. I could tell I was in the presence of greatness when a middle-aged woman walking one of those Chinese Crested hairless dogs passed by me. At least I was wearing my most expensive coat, from Next, so I didn’t feel like I stood out that much. I was hoping that the streets would be empty so no-one would see me fixing my hair in my phone’s camera, even if I would have to rely on street lights to do so. As I turned the corner and reached my destination, it was rather disappointing. A bland, square, apartment complex. It wasn’t the fact that I wished he lived in one of those expensive and refined houses I passed by, since he was just twenty-four, but it had to do rather with the architectural mismatch. A fleeting moment of disappointment, however. That should hardly matter to me at this point.

It was expensive traveling to Earl’s Court from zone 4, and it was my only day off that week. At least I was meeting him at his house, and that was saving me some money. I had gone on a few dates in the previous weeks, which never lead anywhere. Usually I would go in hoping the guys would be more than they were, and end up tolerating their presence for the duration of consuming one beverage. This time is different, I thought to myself, I haven’t had sex in a long time.

This place looks pretty strange, I pondered, looking at the white hallways with the uncomfortably low ceiling. It seemed as though a hospital and a college dorm were merged into one building. Not a good combination. I knocked at his door and a few seconds passed. Didn’t he just open the door for me downstairs like a minute ago? I was feeling a bit uneasy with the idea of meeting someone for the first time at their place.

“Hey,” he said with a smile as he opened the door.

“Hi. Fuck, you’re short…” I think you can imagine which part was audible. Handsome, curly blond hair with blue eyes. I already knew that, but not his height, because Tinder doesn’t make you fill in those details – and it’s rather weird to ask someone how tall they are. But damn, the place is bigger on the inside. This is my Doctor Who moment, I amused myself as I followed him up the stairs to the open living room and kitchen. He’s no Matt Smith, though. Then again, he’s isn’t thought to be conventionally attractive.

I remembered what he had written on his profile, which was ‘wine o’clock is my favourite time of the day’. That should improve things. I hesitated as to where to sit as he headed for the fridge and came back with a bottle of wine and glasses.

“So much chanting today from the stadium. Did you hear it on your way here?” he said to me after he sat on the couch, while I relegated myself to the armchair beside it.

“There’s a stadium? I’ve never actually been to this area before.”

“Yeah, Chelsea. There was a football match and all the fans were chanting on the way to the tube… How long have you been in London for?”

“About seven months. You?”

“Two years. How are you liking it?”

“Ah, the inescapable question. It’s a mixed bag, honestly.”

It has become so tiring explaining to everyone how London has failed me. Recounting the same ideas; that it is alienating, that it is quite difficult to find people to connect with, people that can become your friends and not merely acquaintances or classmates. And everyone nods approvingly while listening to their experiences proves they don’t really know how I feel. With him it was no different.

He went on to explain just how irritating winter in London can be. How he had failed to see the sun for three months once because he had to leave for his job in finance quite early in the morning and left work too late. Now he goes skiing and sunbathing abroad in the winter, or back to Paris where he is so glad he kept his place, or across South America for two months.

“I’ve heard that summer in London might make me fall in love with it,” I told him, thinking that perhaps I was coming across too defeated and joyless. He agreed, telling me of the barbecues every weekend and of how happy British people can be due to good weather. I think that neither the person that told me that initially, nor this guy, really knew anything about what I find enjoyable. But then again, why would they?

“Last summer I didn’t spend the weekends here,” he went on. “I went to Nice to my parents’ beach house.”

“I’ve heard Nice is quite crowded.”

“Yes, but the house is in a more secluded area. It has a pool and it was quite a lot of fun.”

As he was telling me this, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between his experience and a few chapters in the book The Line of Beauty, especially because it was standing on a shelf behind him. In the book, a politician and his family spend the summers in their holiday mansion in France, lounging by the pool and so on. I commented on this comparison, but I don’t believe he understood that in the book this upper class family is used to explore themes of hypocrisy and privilege.

We went on talking about books; the conversation was very harmonious. As a matter of fact, it had been this way from the beginning of the night. He proved to be educated, receptive, intelligent. There were a few moments, however, where I was unsure whether he was aware of the pretentiousness of his life stories. I was talking about LA as one of my possible dream cities to live in, and he was quite indignant at the thought. “Why would you want to live there? I was there once on my way to Japan to visit my dad when I was sixteen, and it was awful. Only three days and I wanted to go back to Paris so bad.”

I wanted to say that my family was poor, that I never even went to the beach growing up because we could never afford it, even though Romania has a seaside. But what point would that have made? Other than projecting my own insecurities, that is.

“Why was your dad in Japan?”

“He was there on business. He travelled a lot when I was growing up, so I didn’t get too see him much at home.”

He got up to retrieve the bottle and filled up the empty glasses. When he came back, he sat down closer to me. Subtle. I was still talking about The Hours, I think, when he put his hand on my knee. He was looking at me quite intently, having brought his face closer to mine. I was still very interested in what I was talking about and I didn’t want to stop – yet I felt I had to. And so he leaned in and kissed me. He lifted me and laid me on the couch, continuing to kiss me. For a half-French guy, he wasn’t very good at it. I was also bothered by his stubble irritating my skin so I couldn’t really get into it.

He got up and signalled me to follow. As if my responding well to the conversation was a sign that ‘the subject is ready’. It felt a bit odd and unnerving.

I hesitated. My reaction time is usually rather slow, probably due to an uncertainty effected by my severe lack of drive. My decisions are not made on the spur of the moment, since I constantly reassess where my interest in something lies. Needless to say, it is usually meagre. Why should I go downstairs with him? Where does that fall within my parameters of desire? Why did he have to signal me to follow instead of saying something, anything? Probably because that would have ruined the sensual atmosphere that he thought us kissing and rubbing up against each other had created. Also, it was rather authoritative. Without figuring out yet where my interest lied, I got up and followed.

We entered the bedroom and he pushed me on the bed. His piercing eyes and playfully mischievous smile made me uncomfortable. I remembered that look from other very nice guys I had ended up in bed with. Nothing in their prior behaviour had indicated that any such thing would occur. On those occasions I felt like prey.

I was lying on my back, then on top of him; we were making out. This went on for a bit. I was already growing tired of it. He took off my jumper and I felt compelled to take off his. He took off my pants and threw them away on the floor. I felt that was excessive. I continued to kiss him to delay what I couldn’t bring myself to stop from happening. Then he pulled my hair hard and slapped me on the ass. Oh, cause you’re short, I thought, you’re trying to release your frustrations about your height and exert dominance over me.

Eventually, I realized where my interest lied. And I told him, “I don’t think I want to go any further.” He suddenly changed back to his warm-hearted nature, reassuring me that he understood perfectly. That everything was alright.

I got dressed and he hugged me goodbye on my way out. The side streets were empty by this time and it made me slightly apprehensive, as though people might have assumed I was there scoping out their houses to rob them. That reaction soon collapsed under the weight of its stupidity. I felt proud of myself for attempting to have a sexual encounter, even if it was unsuccessful. Trial and error. But then what are the moral implications of using a person in order to get rid of one’s sexual inhibitions? They’re not getting what they’re expecting. I am a fucking tease. How do they get to have such healthy sex lives, expressing their desires so freely? Some sexual preferences are indicative of past trauma, right? But my reluctance could just as well be indicative of past trauma. He could’ve just liked it rough. And I could’ve just told him I don’t.

***

Alex Cioalex-ciobanubanu is originally from Romania. He enjoys reading and watching TV shows, anything that will elicit strong feelings. Social standards vex him and he usually draws inspiration in his writing from personal experience. As one of the greatest characters on TV, Lumpy Space Princess, says it: Get in touch with your feelings, babe!

SOMEONE GREAT

By: Zahrah Surooprajally

 

You know the story. You’re at Winter Wonderland with a great guy, a cool guy. Someone who looks like he belongs with you in pictures. You drink too much mulled wine. The Mousetrap ride spins too much and makes you feel nauseous. You’re cold, you didn’t wear enough layers. Your new boots are muddy. People keep bumping into you, you feel invisible.

He doesn’t even ask you how you are.

You walk around the market, linked arms, obeying all the conventions of a couple that have been together for two years. The thought doesn’t cross his mind to point out something you might like (glass snowflakes, leather notebooks, bunny earmuffs) but then, maybe he just doesn’t know you well enough.

And then, miraculously, he decides to call it a night. He offers to take you home, but he doesn’t need much convincing when you say you’ve been looking forward to a tube ride home by yourself all night. The truth isn’t always sexy.

You catch the Victoria Line by yourself to Oxford Circus. You have a buzz and want to enjoy it with the Christmas lights. Fuck every guy out there that makes you feel more alone. Cold epiphanies as you realise that’s all you’ve ever done.

It’s a Friday night, but it seems deserted. You hear a muffled musical tune and can’t quite grasp what it is. Passing Miss Selfridge, you practically sprint to the sound. It’s spectacular. Love Yourself by Justin Bieber played on steel pans. There are a couple of people around. But they’re irrelevant – for the first time you feel as though you are the only one that matters. A song you thought was overplayed and only for the most shallow, suddenly seems like it could save you. But then, you’ve always loved niche covers of mainstream pop. You swear the pIanists are winking at you. You are in awe of what they can do. Putting a song out there, in a different voice, and with a different arrangement, and it actually being able to touch you, to spark something inside of you that you thought was dead, it was like coming up with an equally unique way of saying I love you, something we haven’t managed to do in thousands of years of history.

***

“I don’t know what I’m trying to say,” Jenna shook her head.

“Well, that makes two of us,” Noah grinned.

It was their time. No-one else mattered. It was two friends opening up about a world they felt didn’t understand them. They both lay side by side on the grass in Walton Park at 11pm, staring up into a starry sky. They stared into the velvety vastness, loving the feeling that life wasn’t about their tiny troubles. They reveled in feeling irrelevant.

“I wonder what it would be like to be a star… pretty cool I bet…” Noah mused, pointing at the biggest one he could see – he swore it winked at him.

“Hmmm, I’d rather be a cloud. Like if you get sick of one bit of sky, you just move on to the next one – and no-one judges you, like it’s complete freedom.” Jenna pulled her giant red and gold scarf around her and nestled back into her puffy black jacket.

Noah looked at her; really looked. He saw the tears brim in her huge, grey, 17-year old eyes, he watched her run her fingers through her hair, and knew she wasn’t really talking about clouds. He tried to skirt around the subject, but his irritation got the better of him. “Look Jen, he’s leaving to go to Asia, we all know what he’s like when he’s away – all of sudden he starts to show affection? For real, you know this guy isn’t serious”

Jenna sighed at how well he knew her, “I know, that’s why I’m closing the door on that, but you? You need to start practicing what you preach mate.”

He pushed her head away playfully, and put his hands behind his head looking up to the sky, “You’re different to me though. You are timeless Jenna, you have a beauty and personality that no one will ever get tired of.” Jenna stayed quiet and just appreciated what her best friend had to say.

Noah sighed, “Sometimes I think being hurt is the best thing to ever happen to us.”

***

“Oh come on, I didn’t mean it,” came his reply.

Oh, well that makes it okay. Jenna thought in sarcasm often.

“You didn’t mean it? You didn’t mean to tell my best friend you liked her arse? You didn’t mean to make me feel like absolute shit.” She typed so quickly and angrily she briefly thought about how the glass on iPhones had to be quite durable, resistant to scratches or resentful tapping. Sapphire crystal glass, if only feelings had a protective barrier made of something equally enduring.

She threw her phone onto her bed, and it hit the small brown teddy bear David had got her. Three years, countless spins in the washing machine and it was still soft. She placed it on the bed carefully, with precision, as though she was scared of it being hurt. The dim light in her dusty pink room made it glow, but her head hurt from looking at her screen. Jenna turned off the light, and switched on the lava lamp her father got the year before he left.

***

“Did you have a good time at Winter Wonderland?”

“No, it was shit,” she paused, as though remembering something, “and then it wasn’t so bad.”

Noah propped his head on his hand as he leaned towards her, surprised. “Wasn’t so bad? He turned it around and treated you like a person for once?”

“Of course fucking not,” despite herself she let out a laugh.

“Oh, I just thought, maybe it was a Christmas miracle,” he grinned that grin that he would only ever grin with her.

They laughed, their voices bouncing off of each other, complimenting each sound – making it more relevant.

“How’s your Mum?” It was a question asked gently, because it had to be.

***

Noah woke up from the most restless night he had ever had. He looked around his room and rubbed his eyes, as though getting used to it. 80s records bordered the white ceiling and cream walls. The room was immaculate, his tidy desk with books and notebooks piled up and his pens in his retro pen-holder. The only thing that was messy in the room was his body inside his unmade bed.

He heard shouting and then the door slamming.

“Mum?” No answer. He descended the stairs, not rushing, but with a sense of urgency. Tea towels covered the bannister, which was usually bare.

“Mum?” Noah raised his voice a little louder before he entered the kitchen.

“Yes, oh you’re up Noah, what would you like for breakfast?”

“Mum, I’m 22, I can make my own breakfast, what happened down here?” He asked, watching her sweep up the fragments of her favourite pink and gold china teacup.

“Are you OK?” He touched her arm gingerly.

She looked up, applied a smile like she would make-up, and pushed him gently, but firmly. “This is life, it get’s messy – and that’s when we have to clean it up.”

Noah had a feeling she was talking about more than just dishes. He looked at the smashed china on the floor and had an overwhelming urge to hug his mum.

He didn’t, instead he went upstairs and took a hot shower.

We make a lot of our introspective conclusions about life, the universe, everything, while we’re in the shower. Lukewarm, warm, hot water pelts our skin. And we have the discussion with our bosses that we were supposed to have last week. We tell our best friends how much we love them and how they deserve more; we do not smother them or patronise them. We are there for our families and for the first time they listen when we tell them they’re being self-destructive and hurting everyone by hurting themselves – that’s how much they are loved. We manage to capture, so eloquently, how to tell our antagonist to go and fuck themselves, to tell our lovers that we are trying to be so much more, to tell our past that we are strong and that has nothing to tell us, and we won’t be living in it anymore.

And we soap all our frustrations out into lather. We clean and exfoliate and we soften our skin. It feels warm and smells like apple and mint. Then we step out, dry off, and all the lather slinks down the drain and we forget, again.

“How was your morning?”
“Just woke up and had a shower.”

***

It was 12:30am, Jenna yawned, plugged her phone into her speakers and played a song Noah had never heard before. She sat next to him on the bench and leaned into his shoulder. The song was soft, acoustic, and made them both feel warmer despite the cold. They each put an arm around each other and for a few moments, things just felt completely okay.

“You know you’re more than that right?”

“More than what?”

“More than a shitty person who broke your heart. More than family relationships that pissed you about, and so much bloody more than the past that fucked you up.”

“Sometimes I’m not so sure.”

“I wish you could just see yourself like I see you.”

“And what’s that?”

“Let me put it this way, wherever you go? The people around you are the luckiest.”
Noah walked around the block five times, deliberating whether or not to go in. It was Autumn, again, it was enough to make you wistful, wondering where you were this time last year, when the leaves were this crisp and papery. Noah kicked the leaves aside, sat down on the bench and that same nostalgic sentiment passed through his mind whenever he thought about the rain, or the wind, or the sun – that the seasons came around all too quickly. It was 2pm, Noah sat on the same bench. He ran his hands through his once brown hair that was now speckled with grey.

He looked up at the grey sky, slowly bluing – becoming clearer. He winked back at the sun and let himself miss her. He sighed, smiled, leaned back as though she was with him, and hoped with every fibre of his being, that wherever Jenna was, she was happy.

***

Zahrah Surooprajally is a Creative Writing student, volunteer and campaigner from South London. She enjoys 80s music, comfortable clothes anzahrahd nostalgia. After studying a BA in Literature and Creative Writing and working in the charity sector for two years, she now dreams of writing a screenplay, becoming a stand up comedian, and creating her own dance flash mob.

SILENCE SCREAMS

By: Amanda Fuller

 

The first thing I learn about London, is that there are many kinds of silence.

Where I am from, it is rarely silent. The very moment that it seems that a silence might occur, someone will step in and fill it. Often, more than one someone, all at the same time. It is all noise, colour and chaos. Silence was an alien thing, to be avoided and suppressed – even when all of the very worst things were happening to us. When the noise of the shells and the guns joined with the terrified screams of the children in the streets and the roar and rumble of the tanks outside our splintered doors, we would meet in moments of calm, with what little we had, and raise our voices to drown out the death and the fear and the not knowing what was next. We would try to find some comfort, for then at that time, silence meant death.

In London, my new home, silence screams at me like an angry demon, pushes my mouth closed and my eyes down, holds its hand across my face making it hard to breathe. There is the tired silence on the trains, the buses; the silence of strangers who know the rules, and expect us all to know them too. The frightened silence of the deserted streets at night; berating me for my restless walking, chasing me back to my small room. The silence of the man behind the desk in the centre I am obliged to visit each week; a practised, artful silence that is aware of my discomfort and pulls words that will perhaps condemn me, unbidden, from my lips.

This is a familiar story, but one that nobody wants to tell. It is rarely even on the news now. When I arrived here it was all that seemed to be reported. Night after night I would press mute on the handset and stare at the screen, watching the boats come. Only rescues were shown, the few hauled to safety. But most of us could and cannot swim.

The boat was overcrowded, of course, they always are. The days and nights of hunger and thirst and sickness and pain were all for nothing, in the end. It is extraordinary what the human body is capable of, and what it will do to survive. When the boat overturned, I lost my children in the chaos, and panic. I remember being buried under bodies, my screams silenced by the crush upon my lungs. Then, I was in the water. I somehow found something to cling onto; a dead man in a rubber jacket. One by one the screams around me fell silent. I had known that all my own were lost the moment the boat overturned, so why did I cling to that corpse for so long? I ask myself these questions, but find no answers.

Not all of the silence is from outside. It is when this city is at its noisiest, that I become most aware of the silence within me. I have lost the ability to hear myself, and I do not know what to call my own silence. It is not like the others. This silence is an inside thing and it is hungry. It is slowly eating its way out, eating me alive. I have lost too much and left behind too little. There is no-one waiting for me in the place before, and no-one for me to wait for here; they are all dead. The silence within me is a vast, still pool of grief, in which all my hopes have drowned, along with those whom I have lost.

I survive here, though. The nights are longer than the days because I cannot sleep. I leave my bed and lock the door to my small room, creep past the silent sleepers in the other rooms in this place – I never see these people, I do not know who they are – and wander the streets until dawn. South London streets are silent too, but not in an unpleasant way. It is often raining and I like the rain; it is as though the skies are crying for me and for what I have lost. Sometimes I hear whispers that aren’t really there, the voices of children; soft laughter, playful teasing. I push them back down into the darkness, the silence is easier to bear. Often, I pass people as I walk at night, they might try to speak to me. Other lost people. Some have bottles or cans with them, trying to drown the silence. Perhaps it works, for a time.

I do not know anyone here from before, but if I did, I would not seek them out or speak of what I have lost. So here is another silence; this is necessary, for me, to speak of what I have seen, to find my voice, would be to lose my mind. It is best to be alone. What better or easier place to be alone, than this vast, crowded city? There are statues and streets and parks in which to lose myself, in which to wander with small grey birds and animals. They accept me in their midst; a small, grey person who sometimes feeds them scraps when she has some.

I am an unperson, with no past, present or future. The past is as if it never happened. There is nothing from there except myself, so I might never have been in those places, done and seen and heard those things. The present, the me here, in this city, merely exists. With no past to draw strength from and no present to spring from, I cannot think of a future. And yet, I go on. Yesterday, one of the other night walkers spoke to me, and I became real, for a moment, and felt no fear. He spoke to me of a life filled with pain, and grief, and terrible violence, and then he cried, because I heard him. Perhaps, one day, someone will hear me, too.

In the meantime, the silence is everything, and I am learning to embrace it. It is escape, protection, self-preservation. It is a habit that cannot be broken, a compulsion that must be obeyed. The silence screams from inside and outside and it is who I am, where I am, and what I must both acknowledge and overcome.

There are many kinds of silence. Mine is the kind that screams, that scars. The only thing I have that is truly mine, I would gladly give it up.

I would gladly give it up.

***

Amanamandada Fuller turned forty this year and is almost certainly in the throes of a mid-life crisis. A mother of two, she attempts – with varying results – to juggle parenting, a full time IT job, studying part-time for her MA in Creative Writing, performing at spoken word events in London and very occasional naps.

DOWN AND OUT

By: Sophie Bowles 

 

8 a.m. I rise, from unsettling dreams – last night it was the security guard at Morrison’s caressing my thighs in the back of a mauve van, as we headed for Plymouth to escape a Fourth Reich in London. Arms retreating under the mugginess of my duvet, the first thought of the morning is I’m Fucking Freezing. No central heating in the flat, so it’s twenty minutes clung to the fan heater before I head into the kitchen for a breakfast of stale toast and old beans. Monosodium glutamate, sugar, refined vegetable fat – I couldn’t get through the morning without them, as well as a cup of freeze dried coffee, falsely pledging affinity to the doomed coffee workers of the Honduras. After a piss and brief examination of the mould on the tiles, it’s time to get ready for work. A quick dive under the dribbling shower, back to the barren bedroom for my sweat stained jeans and out the door I go. I take the 29, run in the last door and don’t bother tapping in, though I know the Driver can see me. He doesn’t care, he’s dead inside, consciousness dimmed by the sound of swearing toddlers and weary mothers fighting for a seat.

Usually I’m about ten minutes late. Ignoring the constipated greetings of my fellow Half Dead’s, I grab my apron and head straight for the kitchen where the KP, origin unknown, stuffs his face with clandestine leftovers – half eaten pizza crust, a forkful of spaghetti. I join in. We make small talk over untouched jam and toast. Our mutual disgust at the customers is shattered by the arrival of the Beast. The manager, pompously fitted in cheap acrylic, demands me on the floor, immediately. A panicked frenzy. Four of sixty seats have been occupied and I, loyal slave, rise to the occasion. Table set, smile fixed but a crushing blow – they only seem to want tea. What can we do, mutters the manager – what can we bloody do? You take care of this table. He disappears into the office to ring his cousin, who’s also managing an unsuccessful restaurant in London, and complain at length – of our indifference, our inability to carry hot plates and the audacity of a member of staff to take time off for a dental appointment.

I smile, oozing falsities. You have to be friendly. Give them all you’ve got. You never know who might come in the door. I’ve got this childish fantasy that these people might be important. They’ve come to rescue me from obscurity. Celebrities can always be found in airports and cheap cafés. I’m next. They’re artists; they’re eyeing me up, intuitive whisperings that I might be the Next Big Thing.  Forget the steak, I saw you in the window and I will make you a star. Post spectacular debut, it’s onto bigger things. A writing career, clothing line, retiring as an ambassador – the voice of every slave to minimum wage below the Watford Gap. I ponder their dithering faces – will the apple tart give me a heart attack or diabetes? The sheen fades to grey. They eyeball me because they’re hungry, not dumbstruck by my quirky beauty. They’re office dullards who saw the lunchtime discount and thought it made for a nice change from a meal of crisps and Mars bars. I’m nothing to them, just a waitress who gave up on smiling.

They eat, they leave, it gets busy, we fuck up, the manager screams. Table three throw a tantrum, which cannot be soothed by tiramisu. I thought I showed you how to do refunds on the till, how long have you been working here? I mop, I savour pizza crust, I’m almost there. Can you stay another hour? I lie – I have to meet my friends, when really I’m just going to check my email at the Star Express Internet Emporium on Seven Sisters Road. This is the highlight of my evening. Nothing exciting, mostly cheap tickets to warm places. I write false promises to Mother that I’m one step further to my dreams – depicting a life of spontaneity and whim. Truth is, I’m in a vegetable state, crippled by long hours and scraping dirty plates.

I spend a lot of time looking up celebrities. I’m obsessed. Who went where? Does being an Aries help? Who got bullied at school? I want to know it all. Did they do time deep cleaning the sink? It’s comforting to know I’m not alone; it’s a stint we all have to do. A means to an end. Some of them never went to school. In two years I’ll be there, in a sparkling dress, blowing kisses to the manager as he watches from his TV set. I log out and my daydream ends. The future remains certain. Nothing will change. It’s useless to think otherwise. I’ll lie in my squeaky bed for years to come. I’ll buy reduced, I’ll wear my faded jumper to the bitter end. I guess at some point I had my ambitions too, but they were quickly swallowed up by bigger, more menacing fears – a roof over your head, money to eat and to get into noisy clubs where you might find true love. But I don’t go out anymore, I’m just too tired.

I get in, watch TV. Ignoring the warning, I help myself to my flatmate’s bread and butter – just to spite him. I trip in the darkness and crawl into bed.  Someday I’ll tidy my room, but for now I cosy up to some loose change, a bottle of stale lemonade and some toenail clippers, all which have their place in my little bed. After a final peek through the threadbare curtains at the body sea below – rude boys on bikes heading home to Mum, couples fighting, corner shop men leering – I drift off to The Sound of London. Sirens wailing, neighbours shagging, pigeons dying and the thoughts of every lonely soul echoing from here to Wood Green.

TOTTENHAM COURT ROAD, 3A.M.

By: Rachele Salvini

When Terry saw Nikki, she was alone at the counter.

Girls who had the guts to sit by themselves on a Saturday night, in a place that was as fucking crowded as The Monarch, Camden Town, deserved his attention. They knew perfectly well that pretty much everyone would hit on them and buy them a drink – so, if they were okay with just sitting and sipping their own beer as the crowd behind them screamed and danced to the Grease soundtrack, then they were probably confident enough to go home with a depressed motherfucker like Terry.

Or at least, that’s what he hoped.

She didn’t deserve to be his last resort, though. She was too beautiful. On the other hand, before he had spotted her he had tried to hit on a Dutch girl that told him her 6’4’’ boyfriend had just gone to get the drinks and was coming back shortly (why the fuck did she have to specify his height anyway?). Then he had said “you’re an amazing dancer” to a British girl who was too high to realise if he was good looking or not and actually danced as if someone had just run her feet over with a truck. She had tried to examine him but failed, so she had answered that she needed to puke to focus up. She had told him to wait for her. He had gone out to smoke a cigarette and, when he had come back inside, she was nowhere to be seen.

So yeah, when he saw Nikki, she was sipping a beer and laughing at something the girl behind the counter had just told her. He decided to give it a try. Terry’s last night in London should end properly.

In London, no-one knew who he was.

He needed to take advantage of it before going back home to South Carolina.

Well, he didn’t really need to go as far as London to stay in a place where no-one knew who he was. Canada would have been just fine, but two weeks before he had booked the first flight he had found – no, this wasn’t exactly true.

The night he booked the flight to England, he had been spending another Saturday night alone in his room on campus. It was a strange feeling for him. He knew his buddies were probably playing beer pong in someone’s kitchen, and he should have been there with them. But of course, he couldn’t. Not since The Thing had happened.

So, on that Saturday, the rain was hitting the windows and he was lying on the bed with his laptop on his belly, listening to music that was too quiet for him. He had gone from Four Tet to Chet Faker to Damon Albarn to Gorillaz playing live with Mick Jones and Paul Simon, and had finished with an old song by The Clash that he had never heard before. This is England.

He had booked the flight to London in five minutes. Then he had felt so good that he had gone out of his room, smiling back at the dirty looks he got from the girls who walked past him. Every girl on campus knew of The Thing. It was like he had a sign pinned on his forehead.

He had gone straight to the fridge in the common kitchen, opened a beer and then headed back to his room to smoke a spliff and masturbate.

It had been a good night.

Anyway, when Terry saw Nikki at The Monarch, he thought that she deserved more than being his last resort. He could see from the way she was sitting that she had a wonderful butt and she knew it. She had probably straightened her hair. It fell over her shoulders, heading to her lower back.

Terry approached her and told her she looked stunning. He also said that she must have been very brave to sit there, all by herself. She had probably said too many “no”s that night, but he wanted to try anyway. It was easier than he imagined. She drank the pint he bought her in two or three gulps. Then she got up, grabbed her Oyster card and looked at him. “Where do you live?”

He opened his mouth in disbelief, “Mile End.”

“Let’s go then. Central Line, right?”

He followed her out into the pitch black night. October was chilly as hell in London. Terry had hoped for better weather.

There was a guy dressed as Thor from The Avengers giving out flyers in front of the bus stop. They took one and started reading it on the bus, after going up the stairs to the second floor.

Nikki’s hair was touching Terry’s forehead as the words faded before his eyes. They snogged hard until the metallic voice announced they were approaching Tottenham Court Road.

You could have said that they were just a normal couple going down the escalator at Tottenham Court Road tube station at 3AM on a normal Sunday.

Well, it had started to be normal to see people wander around tube stations since London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan had decided that the young alcoholics deserved another night means of transport. One that worked better than the double-deckers, which were too slow to take brats back home in time for them to puke in the loo instead of on the bus seats.

Nikki could smell Terry’s hair from at least twenty centimetres away. He had combed it back, leaving just a very subtle layer of hair to cover the sides of his head. His veins were pumping under his skin.

He was beautiful. He had a rounded nose covered in freckles, big blue eyes and full lips that Nikki knew had made many girls drool. He seemed like the perfect fraternity guy, coming from money and partying all the time. He was wearing a fur coat over a nice and clean light blue shirt, and he had put on a golden chain just to seem a little more ghetto – in vain. He looked exactly like the perfect American guy that went to university and sucked vodka out of WASPs’ bellies.

That said, she needed to go home with someone that didn’t seem like a complete nutter. She knew that going to a stranger’s place wasn’t exactly a wise move, but she didn’t care.

Her cheek was still burning. She needed someone to make her feel at least beautiful. Her objective wasn’t the orgasm – she was probably too down to get one. She just wanted someone to sleep with. Even just sleep in the literal meaning was fine.

Fucking Connor had slapped her face as soon as he had seen her arrive at the club. It went like this: he had told her he was seeing his friends and wanted to spend some “dude time.”

As Nikki turned to look at Terry, waiting for the escalator to bring them down, she stroked her own cheek. It still really burned. She couldn’t believe it did, but she couldn’t help feeling the heat of fucking Connor’s fingers and palm on her skin.

“Are you alright?” asked Terry.

She nodded.

Fucking Connor hadn’t liked the fact that she was at the club too. In fact, he was talking to a beautiful Hispanic girl that looked disturbingly like Kim Kardashian. One of Connor’s mates had told him his actual girlfriend was there, so he had turned and spotted her.

Nikki had seen him murmuring “excuse me” to the girl. Then he had approached her, grabbed her wrist and taken her out. He had walked beside her in silence. When they had been far enough to avoid anyone seeing, he had finally slapped her.

Nikki smelled Terry’s hair again. It seemed like he had put a lot of stuff there. It was a nice smell, very manly, and Nikki hadn’t been used to smelling other men’s hair for at least two years. She tried to glance at it while he was looking right in front of him as they waited for the escalator to go down.

If she stopped smelling Terry or looking at him, though, the only thing she could think of was that Fucking Connor had called it quits.

She would have missed him, of course, but you simply couldn’t forgive a slap. Nor the cheating that she had suspected for so long.

“When we get to mine, we need to be quiet.” Terry said, bringing her back to reality. “There is a family right beside my room. If their child wakes up, we won’t hear anything other than his screams, I promise.”

Nikki smiled at him. He was trying to keep up the conversation. Sadly enough, after leaving the pub, they hadn’t really had anything to say to each other. Alcohol and music were two common fields for the both of them. But what else? He was a good guy. She liked the way he looked up at the ceiling when he wasn’t sure of what he was going to say next, and how he scratched the back of his ear when he was going to say something embarrassing – like how beautiful her neck looked.

He was sweet. She wasn’t used to it.

And now, he was telling her to keep quiet because a family was sleeping in the room next to his. It was nice of him. Nikki smiled.

“Alright, I promise.” she said. “I’ll be a good girl.”

Terry smiled back and kissed her. “I really hope not.”

He was hunched over himself, the thin fingers gripped on an empty bottle of gin. Terry saw him and immediately knew his night with Nikki was over.

“What’s wrong with that guy?” she said, frowning.

Exactly.

The guy was definitely not homeless. He had almost-white blonde hair, a very pale complexion and freckles all over his body – at least, on the visible parts. He was wearing jeans and a blue sweater. He looked like a normal 20-something who had drunk too much and had passed out on the floor of Tottenham Court Road station. His eyes were closed, but he was awake. Terry knew it because he was wincing slightly.

“Are you alright?”

Nikki kicked the guy’s shoe gently.

He didn’t react. Terry looked at him. He just wanted to go home.

But Nikki turned to him, and he caught her glance. He knew what it meant – girls were masters in that kind of look. They wanted you to do something, and they knew you knew perfectly what you had to do. So he sighed and bent on his knees.

“Do you need help, buddy?”

The guy winced again, then opened his eyes and looked at Terry. His eyes were red and his eyelashes were wet.

“My cat has just fucking died!” he screamed.

Of course, Terry lost his balance and fell on his butt. The first impulse he had was to get up and kick him in the face, but he was with Nikki. He just couldn’t.

“Holy shit.” he swore, as the guy sniffed noisily. “Well, sorry about that, but I’m sure lying on the station floor and screaming in people’s face is not making it any less dead.”

Terry knew Nikki had just given him a dirty look, but he couldn’t help himself.

“My cat has just fucking died!” the guy cried again.

“Yeah, do you want us to arrange his funeral here in the tube station?”

“Terry!” he heard Nikki saying.

He turned to her. He was still sitting on his butt after the guy’s hysteria had made him lose his balance.

“You look familiar.” said the blonde guy, showing his perfectly white teeth. He was no junkie at all. Terry turned to him and felt that look of recognition that he feared so much. He swallowed. He needed to play it cool in front of Nikki.

“Stop bullshitting. You’re drunk.”

“But I saw you somew…”

Terry felt his heart miss a beat or two and turned to Nikki to avoid the guy’s gaze.

“So what? What do you want to do?” he asked her.

“He needs help,” she said, “Let’s take him to the platform.”

When he saw the way she was looking at the stinky dude sprawled against the wall, Terry thought of the Dutch girl who had told him about her 6’4’’ boyfriend and then of the one who “needed to puke to focus up.” Two lost battles. And when he was almost going to finally win the war, a fucking pissed skinny guy (that probably knew who Terry was) had decided to snatch victory out of his hands. Nikki didn’t even want to fuck him. She wanted to fucking help him.

Terry knew Nikki meant well and that the guy really needed them. But he couldn’t help but hate him deeply anyway. After all, it was his last night in London.

Aksel had thought he could easily be taken for homeless. He hadn’t washed his clothes in at least a month and he probably stank like shit. He had drunk a whole bottle of gin by himself, wandering around Camden, and he had just collapsed in the station in his pathetic attempt to go home.

The floor wasn’t that bad, though. A guy had tossed a pound to him. And the station was warmer than he had thought.

“Do you need us to take you to the platform? Where are you going?”

What had really surprised him were those guys stopping to help him. No one had passed for a while, and then, these strangers just wanted to put him on a train and send him home. The guy seemed quite familiar, but Aksel couldn’t say exactly why.

He didn’t feel like engaging in a conversation, though. He had never felt like it, at least, not with strangers. And in the past month, with no one in general. So, he had tried to go with looking like a lunatic, screaming about his dead cat and shit, but the thing hadn’t discouraged them.

“My cat has just…”

“Fuck it, this is hopeless,”said the American guy, standing up. He turned to the girl. “Nik, it’s getting late…”

He really looked like someone he had seen in a movie. Aksel couldn’t say who. Maybe a minor part in a shitty rom com.

The girl didn’t listen to him, anyway. She lowered on her knees to look at Aksel in the eyes. He needed to focus because his eyelids seemed to weigh a ton, but he felt her dark gaze and swallowed. The rancid taste of gin at the back of his throat made him want to puke. Nevertheless, he kept his eyes firm.

“Do you need help, darling?”

She said it in such a kind tone that it broke his heart. Aksel wanted to cry.

He swallowed and tasted the gin again. You need to stop doing that, jackass, he said to himself.

He looked at the girl, and nodded slowly.

“Fuck me, mate, you bloody stink like a dumpster.”

Terry tried to keep balance while holding up the blonde smelly guy and forcing him to walk. What the fuck am I doing, just to impress a girl?

“Stop saying that,” Nikki told him, “and your British accent is horrible.”

“It is,” confirmed the blonde smelly guy.

Terry had another impulse to toss him on the ground and kick his face.

He had to catch his flight back to the US in seven hours and he just wanted to fuck Nikki. Was it that much of a wish? Didn’t he deserve a little fuck before going back in that shithole of a campus? Besides, he didn’t like how the guy was looking at him. As if he was going to spit out where he’d seen him and, most of all, why. Terry didn’t like feeling trapped.

Anyway. Nikki was following them along the corridor that brought them to the platform.

“Are you sure you don’t need help?” she asked Terry.

He did, but he’d never admit it.

“I’m fine,” he grunted.

“Thanks so much,” stuttered the smelly guy, ”I’m Aksel, by the way. I’m from Oslo.”

“Introductions later,” Terry panted, trying not to seem out of breath. He wanted to look perfectly at ease, as if he spent hours at the gym and was born to rescue 20-somethings that passed out on tube station floors. Aksel wasn’t even that heavy – he was very slim, and the skin stretched on his bones was as thin as a shell.

“I’m Nikki,” the girl said, smiling broadly at Aksel. Terry tried not to sigh.

The platform was empty. It was a strange feeling. Every time he had taken the tube to get back to the hostel, it was always packed with people – or at least, there was always someone to look at. But now, it was desert. A train must have been passed a few minutes before.

When he dropped Aksel off on the benches at the platform, he groaned. He needed to go back to the gym. He had stopped since The Thing happened.

“How are you?” Nikki asked Aksel.

Terry looked at him. His pale complexion didn’t bare the traces of a particularly hard, street life. He just seemed like someone who had fucked up his own night and couldn’t deal with it.

“My cat has just died,” he moaned.

If you kick him, Terry, you can forget Nikki’s butt.

Nikki smiled and sat next to him. ”I’m sorry, dear. Last year my dog died. I cried for days.”

It was when Terry saw how Aksel’s face cracked up in an awful grimace that he realised the cat was just… nothing. The guy wasn’t crying about it at all. Maybe there wasn’t even a cat involved. Wrinkles erupted around his eyes and mouth, deforming his features until his face looked like a crushed can of Coke that you’d kick absent-mindedly on the street.

Terry swallowed and saw Nikki putting her hand on the guy’s knee. It would be a long night.

They let a train pass. Tired-looking people got off and went home. A group of British girls, no older than seventeen, approached the exit shouting and laughing.

Aksel didn’t dare to look at them for more than two seconds. He knew he was not going to bear the sight. These girls’ most serious problems probably included a guy that hadn’t texted them that night, or the fact that they had broken one of their newly-painted nails during a wild dance to some shitty pop song.

“What happened to your cat?” Nikki said to him.

Aksel didn’t know what to answer. He couldn’t believe the girl really thought he was ranting over a fucking cat. Well, of course, pets’ deaths were always pretty sad, but not to the point of breaking down in the middle of the tube station at 3 AM.

He was going to answer something – he didn’t exactly know what – when the group of 17-year-old girls stopped in front of them. Aksel saw a pair of shiny silver boots. One of the heels was slightly chipped.

“I know you,” one of them said, her voice a bit altered by the alcohol.

Aksel looked up at her. Her eyes were circled by a thick light blue powder that some hours before must have been eyeshadow. She was talking to the American guy, who stared helplessly at her.

“You’re that guy of out the papers, right? I saw you on Buzzfeed.”

Aksel knew it. He must have been famous on the social media or something like that. “Yeah, I told him, right? He looks familiar,” he said.

Nikki was looking at the girls. The American guy seemed distressed.

”I… I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he stuttered.

Aksel thought he looked like he knew exactly what the girl was talking about.

“Oh, well…” the girl said, a bit too loudly. “Fuck me, mate, of course it’s you. I read it today,” She took her huge phone out of the pocket of her golden shorts.

“Why don’t you go fuck yourself?”

Nikki and Aksel almost jumped on their seats. The American guy’s face had suddenly reddened, and big, purple veins were pumping madly on his forehead.

“Terry!” Nikki said, flabbergasted.

The girls were puzzled. The one with the huge phone backed off, looking at him suspiciously.

“You’ll end up in jail,” she hissed, ”You know you will.”

Aksel saw Terry’s eyes widening wildly, his face getting paler than a paper sheet.

Terry’s heart bumped. The motherfucking whores. Did he really end up on Buzzfeed? Of course yes. It was the shittiest website in the world. Even ratemypoo.com was more reliable than that fucking webshite.

Terry looked at the British girl and tried to calm down. He was not going to lower his gaze anyway. He had managed to keep it cool with Aksel. He didn’t have to explode like this. Telling the girl to go fuck herself hadn’t been a wise move.

“Terry,” Nikki started, “What the fuck is happening?”

Terry didn’t answer. He kept on staring at the blonde girl, who was putting her phone back into her pocket.

“Girls, isn’t it a bit too late for you?”

Aksel’s voice was feeble, but still pungent.

Terry swallowed.

“There’s no need to be so rude,” one of the girls told him, ”unless you’re hiding something from your friends.”

Terry felt his cheeks reddening and a drop of sweat running down his nape, heading to the spine. He couldn’t believe the station was so fucking hot in October.

“I’m not hiding anything. Leave us alone. This guy is not feeling well.”

Blaming his distress on Aksel was a good move. Well played, champ.

”Seems like the one who’s not feeling well is you,” answered the girl with blue eyeshadow scattered all over her face.

She had a point. Terry knew it.

“Girls. I think it’s time for you to go,” said Nikki, ”We’re just trying to get home. There’s no need to fight over nothing at all.”

Terry thanked her mentally.

But then, as he watched the girls heading slowly to the exit and giving him dirty looks, his heart was crushed. Again. The blue-eyeshadowed girl turned to look at him, smiling nastily.

“Bye, rapist.”

The silence was on them, heavy and sticky as a slice of bread overloaded with jam, falling inevitably on the floor.

Terry kept his gaze on the exit, where the group of girls had been until a few seconds before. Aksel’s eyes were fixed on his own shoes. Nikki looked at the both of them, unable to utter a word. Did the girl really say it? Rapist? If Terry hadn’t known anything about it, he wouldn’t have exploded as he did. And Aksel had recognised him as well. She didn’t. When she had seen Terry in the club, the last thought she could have was about him being a rapist – after Fucking Connor’s slap, Terry’s smile had just made her feel better.

She didn’t know what to say, so she had a look at the arrivals. The next train was going to stop in five minutes. The night tube was slower.

“That was intense,” whispered Aksel.

Nikki turned to him, but Terry didn’t. He kept silent.

“It’s fine,” Terry’s voice was low, harsh. He was still looking somewhere between the advertisements on the wall and the infinite blackness where the train would come from. Nikki noticed all the advertisements had been bought by Apple. The whole tunnel was covered with pictures of the new iPhone 7. Squalid.

She didn’t say anything and looked at Aksel, whose face was still wet. His eyelids were stuck one against each other.

There was silence again. Nikki bit her lip, trying to think about anything, anything in the world, she could say to lift the spirits. At the same time, she really couldn’t concentrate on a good way to distract herself and the guys. Why the fuck did the girl call Terry a rapist? Was it true? There was something weird going on. And Terry was still trying not to look at her.

Aksel seemed more upset than before. As Nikki lowered her gaze, she noticed his pale hands were shaking. His knuckles were covered in freckles, and what seems like cold sweat was making his skin glisten.

”Are you okay?” she asked him.

Terry turned, as he thought Nikki was talking to to him, but she looked down at Aksel’s hands before meeting Terry’s eyes.

Aksel nodded. ”Yes,” he said. ”Yes.”

He sniffed, then he relaxed on his seat. He bit his lip, swallowed, and then cleared his throat.

”My sister died,” he said casually, as if he was just saying he didn’t like Coldplay. ”My sister. Not my cat.”

There was at least another minute of silence. Terry didn’t turn to face him.

At last, Nikki opened her mouth to say something.

Then she closed it, as another train passed.

Terry’s heart hadn’t stopped bumping since the girl had pronounced that word. And even if Aksel had just come up with his sister, changing the subject abruptly, he couldn’t help biting his tongue in anxiety.

”It doesn’t matter. You don’t have to tell us. You don’t have to explain anything. You can just tell us where you need to go, we can come with you and see you off to make sure you’re fine,” said Nikki to Aksel.

Terry felt his cheeks burning. That wasn’t their plan. Their plan was to go to his place, spend some fucking time together and get laid. It wasn’t even the banging that he craved for. It was just feeling okay with a girl. Like a normal guy who could do it. That was the most important thing.

He was sorry for Aksel, whatever his problem might have been, but he really didn’t give a shit. He turned to them.

”Really, Nikki? I’m going back to the States in a few hours. We were heading home. I thought we had a plan.”

Her gaze made Terry feel a pang of shame immediately.

“Seems like plans change,” she hissed.

Terry couldn’t blame her. A group of girls had just told him he was a rapist. Not only a normal rapist – an internationally famous one. Even Aksel had recognised him. And, well, urging her to go home and have sex while this guy had just told them about his sister’s death didn’t do much to help his reputation.

Terry knew he couldn’t help it. Nikki was right. He had thought flying to London for a week would make things different, give him a break from all the shit he had to deal with constantly, but apparently things were not that easy.

He thought of taking the next train and leaving them on those fucking seats. Go home, cry a bit while packing, head to the airport and fly “home”. He knew the next day he would be there, on campus, sleeping alone in his room. No-one would ask him about his trip. He looked at the arrivals, but before he could make any decision, Aksel spoke.

“Are you a rapist?” he asked.

Terry looked at him. Aksel’s face was red and slick with sweat and tears.

He tightened his fists. He talked with a low, raucous voice that had come out more aggressive than he meant to. ”Can you tell me, once and for all, what the fuck you want from me?”

“My sister drowned in a lake in Oslo,” Aksel said, ”one month ago. They found her body immediately. It’s not such a big lake. It’s not even that deep.”

Terry couldn’t stand another word. He knew he had to be sorry for the guy. He just couldn’t. He had run away from North Carolina to stop thinking about his own problems. People had lost any kind of empathy for him, even if what he was accused of hadn’t even been proved. No way he would feel sorry for this guy.

“Why the fuck should this be relevant to you asking me if I am a fucking rapist?” he growled. Don’t start shouting, Terry.

He knew Aksel was scared, but the guy kept his eyes on him. Nikki was looking at them, startled.

“She didn’t commit suicide,” said Aksel, “she was followed.”

Terry saw Nikki’s jaw dropping.

“Aksel, you don’t…” she tried to say, but the guy kept on talking, looking straight into Terry’s eyes.

“Everyone thought she had committed suicide at the beginning. Then they found evidence. They found the traces of her struggling on the ground. They found a male’s DNA under her nails.”

“I don’t care,” said Terry, feebly.

Did Askel want him to admit anything? Did he think he could “save him from himself” or any other bullshit people would say in these cases?

“She was assaulted,” said Aksel. ”Every time I think about her, about her swollen, violet body, and about how fucking scary her last seconds on Earth must have been, I think about people like you.”

That you made Terry feel like a shit. Which you? Who was this you?

“That fucking lake was my favourite place in Oslo,” said Aksel. “I had to flee to stop feeling my stomach churn every time I would take the subway. Our house is in Ullevål, all the way to Lake Sognsvann. And Sognsvann is the name of the sixth line, the one I would take to go home every fucking day. The name of the place where my sister was assaulted and died. I puked on the tube once. That’s why I’m here in London, alone. To forget that in the world there are people like you.”

“Aksel, you’re drunk. Please, you’ll regret this.”

Nikki couldn’t believe how fucked up her Saturday night had come to be. Well, it hadn’t started that great either, with Fucking Connor hitting her and breaking up with her, but her short time with Terry had definitely started to cheer her up. Now things were falling apart again.

“You’re making assumptions about Terry. We don’t know anything about him. I know that your story is sad and I’m…”

“You’re making assumptions too, Nikki,” said Terry. He seemed extremely calm. He talked slowly, his voice low and his eyes on her. “I see how you look at me. You don’t know jack. You’re trying to be all open-minded and tolerant and whatever shit you think it’s appropriate to be, but you act like you already know everything. And you didn’t ask me anything.”

Nikki saw Terry’s veins pumping under his forehead. It was reddening.

“So tell me, then,” she said, more angrily than she had thought she was. “Tell me. Have you raped a girl? That’s why you’re here? Is it true?”

The noise of another train approaching filled her ears. Nikki and Aksel looked at him as his knuckles went white. He shook his head.

“It doesn’t matter anymore. For everyone. It really doesn’t.”

The silence fell on them again, over the clatter of the train.

***

Rachele Salvini  is a 23-year-old Italian student of Creative Writing. She has started writing in English last year, during a semester at Sarah 1915390_10208740411170622_3012928592423707750_nLawrence College, NY. She’s from Livorno but has studied in Florence and Oslo. Her favourite author is J.D. Salinger, but she has a soft spot for chick-lit.

ONE FOOT IN THE SEAGULL’S SONG AND ONE FOOT IN THE DARK

By: Angus Rogers

 

A circle sits in a square on a high wall and
looks down at the stagnant river.
What have I done to deserve this? He wonders.
It’s not so hard to keep a fucking plant alive.
You pour water on it and open the curtain.
Why is there foliage inside the house, child?
She cries into the dead leaves of her spider-plant,
fainted dry on the bureau, and wonders how
on Earth she came to be where she was.
Home wasn’t so far away; a thousand miles
of bluebell wood; seven bolts of shimmering
silk across the open door; a kettle screaming
a lullaby somewhere deep inside. The hot pipes.
Home won’t be so far away, the next time,
when the time comes round again,
too-rah,
Hokey Cokey,
bread and butter,
raw sewage down Argyll Street.
Are you hearing the distant muezzin, child?
Are you still locating these sounds like you used to
when you were an un-budded thistle?
How are you finding the one-horse town of Earth?
Climb the hill. The sacred heart. Primroses.
‘Hallelujah’ on accordion. Leonard is dead.
Everything should have been in place.
Perhaps, in your absence, the hallways had
swapped places and the compass upended itself.
Too far in to think about that now, though.
You, a triangle of love and hate and
whatever this new one is, sitting as reviled as a rat
at a dinner table in the octagonal hole
in the circular hole in the middle of the night
in the shadow of the valley in the manhole cover
you have slipped halfway into. Enough!

Cease thought!

For, really, who am I to question the order of things?
For, really, who am I…?
For, really, who…?
Four rolling hills at each corner of the map.
I tie my grandfather’s handkerchief tightly
around my throat and scramble up,
only to slide back down.
Where?
Here!
Here I am, the circle in the square.
It should never be so difficult
to remember to water the plants.
I can hear the deep-sea leviathans,
laughing from their boardroom meetings,
actually laughing, laughter like crying –
Ancestors, fetch my watering can;
My spider-plant, Lazarus; my wet shoes; my eye;
A light in the village hall come on COME ON
COME ON EILEEN geography homework dignity
beauty come on scream hark hark hark hark hark –

One foot in the seagull’s song and one foot in the dark.

WE NEED THE FOREST

By: Jessica Wragg

 

The tracks of the underground train from the carriage window. Hot breeze of the last act of summer whistling beneath my blouse. Barbed wire like thumbprints and fingers and outstretched palms. No, the jungle is not the same as Streatham Hill, but the birds are just as loud.

Jealous of our travelling friends in Thailand and South America we did the best we could. Tooting Bec Common was our wilderness, that place in which we searched for things un-done, never tried, never seen. You wanted mountain-scapes, thick cities rich in colour, but instead the horizon was tower blocks behind Bedford Hill and the same church building; a thick tapestry of brown brick and a canopy of tile rooves.

We blew smoke rings, propped up by our elbows until the room filled with the thin mist of mid-morning, searched the internet for the cheapest flights to the furthest distance. We visited the aquarium and spent hours in the tropics, in the pacific, in the mangroves. We fought through the thickets of commuters going south as we travelled north and hiked the Parliament Hill. In Richmond Park we got as close to the red deer as we dared, ignored the twenty others around us snapping pictures on their smartphones, throwing a peace sign to the buck. The zoo was as close as I came to the Savannah desert, or the outback of Australia.

Car exhaust on our tongues, pigeon shit, stagnant water; we turned them to spices and incense, salt water and red dry dust. Our flat was our cabin; pale floral wallpaper faded to brown, overrun by damp. We looked out onto a neat row of garages; grey, brown, black doors, blue beneath as the paint cracked off. Ten, perhaps twelve angular hatchbacks parked in front but to us they are rocks in a stream. At night, sirens turned to the chirping of crickets, and the headlamps of passing cars illuminated our window like torches. Cars that scraped their bumper on the road taking a speedbump too quickly sounded like the cracking of branches. I worried sometimes that the longing would drive us mad, you wondered if we already were. Me and you, we both fitted in quite well.

And then one night you woke me when the sun hadn’t risen yet. My eyes searched for you in the dark and found you, a figure crouched at the end of the bed. Your body bent double and your back hunched with urgency, the cool side of your hand brushed my ankle. In the black I found your face and felt the damp contours and the rolling tears. The shuffle of your canvas rucksack was soft and quiet, and when you put it on your back I could tell it was heavy from the sound you made. You kissed my hair and opened the door of the bedroom and yellow light drowned the room, blinding me. The last thing I saw was the rubber heel of your boot as your closed it again.

I lay on my back until the sun came up and waited for the birds to signal morning, climbed the tree down from the upstairs window to the forest floor. The soft gravel branches crunched beneath me and the mist hung low by the very ground. I caught a sparrow by the wing and plucked feathers from its breast, hung it by the limp feet and bit into it with a frenzy appetite until the guts dropped onto my chin. I bounced from the rocks in the stream, dipped my toe in cool water of the puddled pavement and ran barefoot over broken glass and the speedbumps. The ground shook with an underground train but to me it was the earth sighing, and when the rain fell thick it got caught in the canopy. I spoke a strange language that I didn’t understand, walked upon my hands and lost my fingernails digging in the dirt.

Wildness is a strange word, but I understand it to be me. We did our best there, in the city. Yet still, the feeling that I needed the forest and the mountains, the beaches of an island and the tongue of natives won me in the end. A life without me seemed to have won you.

***

Jessica E. Wragg is a full time fiction writer, a some-time butcher since the age of sixteen. now 24, she divides her time between telling stories, image1drinking gin, and longing for cold weather so she can crack out her winter coat selection. Her fascinations include women in history, short fiction and second person narration. If she could she would write everything in italics. You can visit her website to read more: jessicawragg.co.uk

 

BEING A PERSON

By: Lauren Cadogan-Grealish

 

I hadn’t known Charlie for long, had first met him just two weeks before, at the opening night of a street art exhibition in Shoreditch. I had written an article for Time Out London about the growing scene in Walthamstow and its surrounding constituencies, and thought it would be nice to meet one of the artists I had written about. I found GHX to be personable – he offered me a bottle of Beck’s and we shared a short conversation. His wife arrived a little later with his baby boy. They made a nice little family – GHX, Claudina and baby Shaffi. It had made me ache, seeing their family unit. I wanted someone to love me, but I needed to love someone more. I excused myself when another fan cut in, wandered away from them under the pretence of wanting to browse the artwork.

I was zoning in and out of the event when I noticed him. Tall, slightly-ginger beard. He filled the space in his clothes nicely – ripped jeans tighter on the calves than the thighs, a black knitted jumper.

I made my way over to him and fearlessly asked him if he was enjoying the artwork. He introduced me to his friend Rado. Rado was slightly shorter than Charlie. I learned he was the assistant at a contemporary art gallery in Islington.

‘And what do you do, Charlie?’

‘I’m a freelance project manager.’

‘Nice,’ I grinned. He smiled back.

I told him I was studying, that I worked a few shifts at MNKY HSE in Mayfair.

All three of us had needed a toilet. We left the exhibition quickly, finding separate dark corners to piss in. Rado said he needed to go because he had work the next morning, and had already drunk too much.

Charlie was shy but he asked if I wanted to go back to his flat with him.

‘I live with my older brother,’ he told me in the Uber ride over. ‘But it’s kinda spacious so it doesn’t matter. He’s an Operations Manager for a restaurant chain – Josh – and he makes pretty decent money. He practically lives at his girlfriend’s place in Bethnal Green. I’m on my own a lot.’

I follow Charlie into his room. It’s just past eleven, and I’m tired already. I am overcome by a sudden feeling to leave, to get away from him.

The walls were painted a duck-egg grey. There was a small two seater sofa, as well as his bed, and a television mounted on the wall. He had a few film posters – films I’d either never heard of or hadn’t seen. But one caught my eye – a print of a white skull on a purple background. Underneath the skull were the words you, in another life. I started to feel hot.

‘Your posters are pretty cool,’ I said.

‘I screen-printed the skull one myself.’

‘Is it a reference to life after death?’

‘In a way… But I think it’s more the idea that if you were someone else, you’d still have a skull, literally. So the point is… That’s all there is underneath our skin, and since we’re us, we might as well carry on the way we are. We all have death in common.’

We stood awkwardly for a moment before he gestured that I should sit down. I sat on the sofa, and felt myself sink into it. He asked if I’d like a beer. I nodded, and he went downstairs. While he was gone, I stared at the skull print. It unnerved me. I felt a slight breeze – Charlie left his window open. I walked to it and leant over the sill. Would he come to the funeral?

‘Are you cold?’

I jumped. Charlie was back with my drink. He set the can down on his desk. Unsure of what to say, I nodded again. I stepped back and he closed the window. I returned to the sofa.

‘You’re shivering,’ he said. ‘Do you want a jumper?’

I muttered and he asked me to repeat: ‘Yeah, please.’

He crossed the room to his wardrobe and dug out a navy hoodie. He handed it to me and I stood to pull it over my head. It was a bit big. But it smelt like him, even though his scent was a new thing to me.

‘Better?’ He watched me.

‘Yeah,’ I replied. ‘Thank you.’

He passed my can and I sipped it.. It stung my throat a little.

‘I’m going to roll a joint. Do you smoke?’ he asked.

Yes, Charlie – but if I get high as well as drunk –

‘Sure,’ I answered.

‘Great,’ he replied, taking a tin out from the top shelf of his wardrobe. I caught the scent of cannabis as he closed the door.

When he was finished rolling and roaching, Charlie lit the joint, inhaled a few times, then handed it to me. I took it, and breathed deeply. I got lost in the smoke.

***

I woke up in Charlie’s bed two weeks later. Charlie was gone, probably to work. The indent of his head on the pillow was the only mark of him having been here. That, and the musky smell of sex. I stumbled up, still drunk, still a little high. I picked a t-shirt and shorts of the floor, pulled them on, and lit a vanilla scented candle that Charlie had left out.

The room was warm – I opened the window and leaned on the sill, letting the air find its way into my lungs. I looked around the room, my eyes finding and settling on the skull print – you, in another life. I was caught, for a moment, in a spasm of panic – our lives had started to merge together. I considered leaning a little too far over the ledge, and dropping onto the concrete below. Any doubt about Charlie, or my ability in a relationship, would die with me.

I shook my head lightly. There is no need to go down that road, I told myself. For a moment, I traced the scars that marked my left wrist. I was tired, my body weighted by a heavy sleep. I moved slowly to the television. There was, as usual, nothing on that interested me. But I settled for a mediocre comedian’s stand-up show, and the joy-hungry audience roared with laughter at his mediocre jokes. I did not; I lit a cigarette, returned to Charlie’s windowsill and contemplated my sexual performance with Charlie – was I good enough?

***

Two days later, Charlie met me at work, since I finished at half nine. We walked from London Bridge to Southbank, found a quiet space on the grass and sat down. Charlie started rolling a joint and when he was finished, and it was lit, he took a long draw. I watched him, noticed the way the lighter flame illuminated his face, his eyelashes casting shadows across his nose. We laid back on the grass and got high. I looked at him. He was beautiful in the half-light too, eyes closed in the grip of the buzz. The air made my skin tingle and my eyes closed under the weight of the weed. Charlie’s hand found mine.

An hour or so later we made our way to a bus stop. A chill was settling, and it left goosebumps on my arms. He pulled me against him and I didn’t pull away. But I was scared. I was so high, and starting to fall.

***

The bar was packed and loud. It wasn’t very big, and it wasn’t long before I felt claustrophobic. We pushed ourselves towards the bar to get some drinks, and Charlie was patted on the back by several guys. He introduced me to two of them, and I stood in their company awkwardly sipping my rum and coke. One of them informed me his girlfriend was dancing but would be over here soon, as if my lack of interest had anything to do with a lack of female company. I excused myself and went to find Charlie.

He was outside, talking to someone on his phone.

‘Yeah, sweet Matt… See you soon,’ he said and hung up. He turned, saw me, smiled. ‘You ok?’

‘Um… Yeah. No, actually. I’m going to head off. I don’t feel well. I feel quite sick.’ I stumbled over my words. Charlie studied me for a moment.

‘I’ll get you an Uber,’ he said, unlocking his phone with his thumb. The smile had dropped from his face. I wondered if he knew I was lying. Act sicker, I told myself.

‘No – I’ll be fine. I think I’m going to walk to the station – it’s only a little way. I’ll have a cigarette. Go and enjoy the bar. It’s really cool in there. I’m sorry I can’t stay.’ I feigned sincerity. Not difficult, since I did it all the time.

‘You sure? I can walk with you – ‘

‘No, it’s fine. Really. I’m sure.’ I looked at him in the half-light and nodded weakly. I added a small smile so he thought I meant it. He placed a hand on my shoulder, squeezed lightly, before kissing me on the forehead. I watched as he turned and headed back into the bar. I walked away from the entrance, and the bass from the music faded into something sporadic. It was replaced by the thud of blood in my ears.

On the walk to the station, I rolled a wonky cigarette. It was smokeable. I inhaled so deep I coughed. My mind was everywhere but on the street. I let people walk around me as they needed, I kept to a straight line. Autopilot engaged. My mind flitted back to Charlie, and his skull print, and I thought of myself in another life.

SIREN

By: Soraya Bouazzoui 

 

She laughed softly into her glass, sipping at the red wine. Don’t laugh too hard, her mother had always taught her. That gives too much away, gives a guy too much confidence. Be coy, make him try harder. Her mother had to teach her when to laugh at appropriate times, when to feign sympathy or dissatisfaction. It had been tiring.

Tucking a strand of blonde hair behind her ear, she looked up at her date. His green eyes stood out in the dark, poorly lit bar. The man opposite her appeared to grin widely, pleased he had earned at least a giggle from her. He was nice enough, charming and polite, or so her mother would explain, though the hint of arrogance was evident. He continued to run his fingers through his perfectly combed hair, pulling at the sleeve of his blazer every now and then to bring attention to his Rolex.

“So, why join Tinder?” He asked, sipping at his brandy. His brown eyes sparkled in amusement, dimples becoming evident to her then.

She shrugged, feigning innocence as she began to play with her necklace, bringing attention to her collar bone. His eyes flickered to it, following the plunge of her red dress. It was all too easy, she thought.

“Despite living in London, and it being full of people, it’s kind of hard to actually meet anyone. No one wants to talk to each other in person.”

“Can’t say I disagree,” he commented, “Unless it’s to do with work, I don’t even like being disturbed while there.”

“Tinder just sort of removes that unsociable barrier.”

“Yeah, if you’re above six foot.” He joked, earning another giggle from her.

“Is it that hard to get a match if you’re short?”

“Can’t really say, I’m lucky enough not to be in the five foot category.” He smirked, signalling over the bartender to their stools.

He wanted to order second drinks already? He was eager, she thought. She hadn’t even gotten halfway through her glass yet, they’d only just eaten. Maybe he was just nervous. Her best friend always said she needed to have a couple of drinks to feel confident on a first date. She didn’t mind, the drunker he was the better.

“Slightly arrogant, don’t you think?” He laughed loudly, as if she’d made a ground-breaking joke.

“No, arrogant would be not mentioning how fortunate I am to be in the company of such a beautiful woman.”

It was her turn to laugh, shaking her head in disbelief at him. “That doesn’t actually work, does it?” She asked, “I expected you to have better game than that.”

“Well it’s not usually this hard to make a woman laugh.” He said, laughing at his own failure. “I think you’re quite difficult to please.”

She rolled her eyes, finishing off her glass as the barman brought her another. She thanked him by smiling towards him, and the young boy nodded in return. The bars in Bank always appeared to have student employees, the hours were probably more flexible than a retail job. Plus, everything was closed in Bank on the weekends, so that meant they would have time to party their weekend away.

The Revolution Bar in Bank had a different vibe to other local bars, the marble counter tops and tables implied the type of customers it aimed for. Leather chairs always looking perfectly polished and new. The low lit lamps and soft beat of music added to the tone of relaxation, your ‘wind down’ post-work drinks.

They spoke back and forth then. He explained his role as an accountant- and how he was awaiting a promotion. He’d been in his job for five years now, and had joined Tinder in the hopes of bypassing the awkwardness of approaching a girl in public. He felt that at thirty two, his game would be out-dated. Things had changed, he’d felt. People didn’t meet and date normally anymore, his assistant had told him to get with the program.

She spoke of how she’d only graduated three years ago, and worked as a Paediatric Nurse in a hospital. It was tiring hours, but the job was satisfying to her. She mentioned that she loved kids- he grinned at that comment.

“You want kids?” She watched him take a sip of his latest drink, noticing how he swayed on his stool.

“Eventually, yes.”

“Good to know.” He grinned, and she wondered if he’d really meant that.

Read between the lines, sometimes people don’t say what they actually mean. You need to learn to tell the difference between the two.

Her mother had told her all about different underlying meanings with words, it was irritating. She was still attempting to learn the differences.

He leaned forward, his hand stroking her bare arm. Eyes drunkenly focusing on the brown tan, thus fuelling his questions to where she was from.

She’d told him of her Greek Mother, and Turkish Father. He nodded eagerly.

“That’s so sexy,” he half slurred.

What was it that English men found so erotic and exotic about foreign brown women? She didn’t question him though, that would make him back off. She’d made too much progress for that. His fascination was working in her favour, after all.

“Shall we get out of here?” She eventually said, after a few moments of his silent staring. He let go of her, looking down to his watch before nodding in agreement.

She hopped off the stool, opening up her purse to pull out her card before he gave her a dirty look. He almost looked offended, and told her to stop being silly as he handed his card over to the bartender to pay the bill. She shrugged, not thinking it was a big deal. If he felt that strongly about paying she wouldn’t argue.

She pulled on her large wool coat, buttoning it up and placing the strap of her handbag on her shoulder. He placed his hand the small of her back, leading her towards the exit. She didn’t particularly like the way he loomed over her shoulder.

***

“Alright mate, it was just a fucking joke!” She watched him with slight distaste as he yelled loudly on the train as a teenager got off at his stop in a huff. He’d started singing loudly in the young boy’s ear.

People had cast glares at him on the underground as they made a late commute home. Smiling whenever he looked back at her for approval of his joke. Nudging the annoyed commuter who stood beside them. She never understood the need to make people laugh. As she’d noted before though, most social norms were confusing to her, even after her mother described them in detail.

Pretend to understand them, her mother had said. Just pretend, please.

Against professional opinions, her mother had always attempted to push down what had made her different, which Doctors had attempted to rectify. She guessed it had always been out of guilt, after all it was because of what she had witnessed her mother do that caused her damage.

Then people will think you’re normal. Please. Just be normal.

But she wasn’t normal, she eventually realised. Growing up in London hadn’t made her feel any less part of the city, part of the people. She had always been an outsider, watching from a window. Going through life as if there were instructions. Instructions that her mother had given her. When to laugh, when to cry, when to be angry. How to make friends, how to plan a future, how to pretend to be passionate. Always pretending.

“Would you like a drink?” He asked, helping her take off her jacket after he’d closed the door of his flat.

It was located in Greenwich, the area slightly trashy, her mum would have said. Yet the hint of money and class bled out of his furniture and paintings. His widescreen TV located across a large cream sofa.

She nodded, walking around the room quietly as he crossed over to the kitchen. Black and shiny countertops separated the kitchen from the living room.

“I’m going to move, eventually.” He explained as he poured white wine into two glasses. “Once I get that promotion, it’ll be my treat to myself.”

She forced a laugh, watching as he struggled to set the bottle back in his fridge delicately. His grin widened, and she almost felt glee over the fact that a simple laugh inflated his ego so much. Almost.

She took the glass from him, only she didn’t bother taking a sip from it as she initiated the first kiss. Taking him off-guard as she tiptoed, she placed a free hand on the back of his head to pull him down. The taste of alcohol strong on his lips, and in his drunken state he struggled to grip onto her waist. He pulled off his blazer quickly enough, though he struggled with his buttons as he led her to his bedroom. She picked up her handbag, letting him grip her hand tightly as he pulled her to his bedroom.

His kisses were clumsy and uncoordinated, falling onto his bed and looking up to her, shirt half unbuttoned. She’d at least learned to read different types of men, and how to cater to each of their likes. Despite being drunk, he liked her being in control. It made everything a walk in the park. She leaned above him, pulling apart the rest of his shirt. He eyed her hungrily, watching as she unzipped her dress from behind to reveal the deep red strapless bra beneath.

“I love a girl in red,” He mumbled, his eyelids drooping slightly. She pulled him by the shoulders, forcing him to sit up as she straddled him. She wouldn’t let him fall asleep. Her handbag was just beside them, carefully placed there by her. She’d reached her hand into it, feigning pleasure as he buried his face in her neck.

He was a terrible kisser.

Then again, she didn’t enjoy kissing.

He’d grabbed her waist and rolled them over, and she pulled the rest of her dress off. He’d begun pulling at her underwear, making a huff of satisfaction at the red lace. With his eyes on her hips, she gripped the scalpel in her hand tightly.

He looked at her, drunken confusion etching into his features as she stared blankly. Wondering why she had suddenly become so unresponsive.

Her actions were swift, all the expression she had forced onto her face throughout the night had vanished. She sliced the scalpel across his throat, watching his dark eyes widen in shock and horror. His blood splattering at a rapid speed cross her torso and face, as he choked. She remained there, face blank and unfeeling as he fell beside her. She moved to straddle him, and he weakly attempted to raise his arms to push her off. She stuck the scalpel deep into her chest, forcing it to push through his skin and pierce his heart deep inside. Using force to pull it out again as it had wedged so deeply into his chest.

She sat there on top of him, arms crossed as he gagged at the taste of his own blood, staring up at her dead green eyes. Eyes that had seemed to want him at the beginning of the night. He remained that way, half naked as he bled out onto his sheets, choking on his own blood.

She watched him, waiting for him to stop moving.

That was always the most boring part.

***

Soraya Bouazzaosorayaui is a Creative Writing MA student, who has spent the entirety of her life surrounded by books. Apart from spending the day in Waterstones, she also loves to attend Comic Con, cry about Star Wars and binge watch TV Series’. If she’s not laughing hysterically at a bad pun or meme, she’ll be hidden in a coffee shop writing fiction on her very old laptop, fondly nicknamed Bruce.

LIGHTS IN THE SKY

Prose + Photo By: Benji CWK

 

I check out of the Hotel at 5.00 AM, exiting through the automatic doors and onto the streets of London.

I am halfway between the accomodation I rented in South West London and my destination ahead – a return to London City Airport. It feels surreal. My old life, and my older life, are switching roles. I’m leaving my second home for my first.

Despite the completion of this circle, I sense I’ll be tracing its perimeter, thickening this line I have walked, for a long time to come.

I had wanted to stay somewhere else before I left, though. Just once. I made the necessary provisions in advance, organising my funds. It was part of the purpose of the placement – to see things, and people. I’ve seen just over a year of London mornings. I will add this to my final report.

In South West London, the morning soundtrack consists of the call-and-response of birds in trees along the street; the indignant whine of a Milk Float as the driver spurs on its battery pack to complete the journey before cars arrive; the solid echo of heels and the wheels of a travel case, bounding between paving stones.

It’s different in Central London. There’s always something humming, always someone shouting, always an engine. But not indoors – you’re insulated, detached. It’s a sleep affected through preparation.

Perhaps that’s just what the Hotels offer.

Across the road, there’s a row of benches beneath the canopy of Vauxhall Bus Station. Soon, there will be many Buses gathered here, each growling in quick succession from the last. It’s the sound of London clearing its throat for the day ahead. Christmas has passed. Mornings begin anew.

I jog across the road, parking my travel case beside a bench before sitting.

I feeluncomfortable.

It’s been that way for some time. Maybe it’s just these seats. I don’t think I’m meant to be especially comfortable on the seating at a Bus station. I shouldn’t be this concerned. I’m being pedantic. I’ll be off them soon and onto something more comfortable.

I’m only here to check the route. I think it might be from here.

I am told I must take three Buses: the N87 to Trafalgar Square/Charing Cross Station, the N15 to Canning Town Station and the 474 to London City Airport, in that order. I have to avoid the Docklands Light Railway. It’s easier to escape from a Bus.

Despite the seating, the Station is nice. Built on an island surrounded by roads, it bears several stops for Bus routes in all directions, facilitating the circulation of these vehicles. Its thick metal roof covers the Station, lengthways, from end-to-end. At one of these ends, there are what appear to be two great lengths of cantilevered track, risen at an approximately forty-five degree angle, pointed towards the skies.

There’s something almost charming in seeing them come up with something like this – slinging their vehicles around the curve at the end of the Station to a new heading in another direction, as if using some hidden gravity well in the Station itself, represented in intent by what appears to be a Shuttle launching ramp.

The construction feels appropriate. While it couldn’t launch Shuttles – being covered in Photovoltaic Solar Panels – it does symbolise the London atttitude. Londoners are also proactive, highly ambitious and warmed by contact, even if they usually seem glassy-eyed and steely-faced. Their architecture should reflect that.

Professional adults are taught to lace themselves up into emotional straitjackets; to be taut, succinct, fine-tuned. But they’re not alone.

I feel the tapping of a distant foot.

End of Placement Evaluation…?

My right leg itches. Irritated, I fling my right hand against the affected area until it stops. I should’ve chosen cleaner clothes.

It doesn’t matter. I’ll change soon.

An N87 swings into position at the curb. I extend the handle of my travel case, step aboard, tap through and take my seat.

Goodbye to all the parks I discovered, to my pleasure, were lined with fountains. Goodbye to all of you who give up your seats for those who need them, seconds after they board the Bus. Goodbye to my closest friend in the world. 

***

I look out the window as Vauxhall Bridge passes beneath us. The sky is the colour of concentrated cooking grease. The River Thames is its drip tray. The quantity of artificial light kills the stars. It’s difficult to imagine the Cosmos existing beyond it.

It must’ve rained overnight. There’s a glaze on scaffolds and signboards; on metal shutters yet to open. Despite their drenching, bricks and mortar sustain their sooting, invisible to naked eyes and unreaching hands.

I look towards the London Eye. Despite myself, and all that I know, I try to perceive the slightest movement; a guided series of eyelines, sighting me, pinning me down in the absence of a lunar spotlight.

We’re waiting at the lights behind a heavy truck, shifting on its hydraulic bed. Why haven’t we driven around it?

London feels restless. I can’t be here when it wakes.

I’m being paranoid. I try to think about something else. I think of Jen; of the coffee she’ll be grinding herself in an hour or two. A handful of roasted beans from the little brown bag she gets from Camden each month.

I try to think about something else. The words start to arrange in my mind.

London is built on layers of itself, accrued over time. You already know that, of course, but it contributes to a homeliness attained only through sight and inhabitation. It goes beyond data. Sediment and…sentiment. London’s streets have risen by inches over time, but it’s the people who underpin it, who make its foundation. It’s them, really.

It isn’t wrong. I resume.

In South West London, the terraced rows of flats upon shops along the roads are pushed together in a way that – over time – I’ve come to see as a comforting stodginess in shape. It reminds me of traditional steamed English pudding served with Pub lunches on Sunday afternoons. I remember when…well, to the point, the top and bottom halves often look different to each other, despite being hunks of the same dessert, because the top gets all of the Custard from the ladle, initially…

I need to focus…but do I? Really?

Isn’t this what the assignment was all about? I don’t think I’m…it wasn’t unreasonable, trying to get along with others. I learned more in immersion than through observation alone. You can’t simply spend your days with a notebook, putting yourself in parallel with everybody else. It’s not enough. You have to live through a life. That’s what I was doing…playing a role, being a part of things.

I’m a twenty-three year old man. Soon, I won’t be. What’s done is done.

Was it a mistake to come here? Have I become too involved with these fears? Am I seeing dynamism in the people, or in the City’s basic operation? I don’t know if I did things right. I don’t think I was ever certain…I know it’s a long time to not correct my course, but really, who could guide me? How successful is living at this moment supposed to be, for me? Is this what adulthood should feel like?

If I don’t feel like one of them, I don’t have to treat them as an other.

They are subjects. Not objectives. Not attainments. People.

I pretend. They pretend. There’s no distinction between us.

Observing them for this long…I can’t dismiss their lives anymore like I once could. We don’t have to be the closest of allies.

In some ways, the ones who are my age are as alone as I.

Many are in excessive debt for what – in some cases – amounts to a Seal of Approval for employability; the kind that’s supposed to let you live well in the first place. They’re not confident in themselves, unable to do what they’ve been told to in adulthood – and not even for want of defiance.

The world around them is uncertain. To the West, by the unforeseen hands of many, the once-New World has fallen onto old crutches of bigotry and exceptionalism. To the East, a dictator attempts to claim an old-world Empire in an age of international personal identity. And somewhere between the two, there is London : a sanctuary, but one in which few will have a home of their own by the age of thirty.

Maybe I can be at peace with them – and I don’t have to be the only one.

***

From the window of the N15 to Canning Town Station, I see lights at the edges of curtains; hear shutters rolling back. I’m running out of time.

Information is about so much more than measurements. I kept my body in good enough shape for the past year. I always paid the rent on time. I can recite the route to the workplace – my placement – in Regular and Striking conditions.

But did I do what I needed to?

I remember when I first arrived. I wasn’t used to standing for so long, so often. Some of the passengers looked towards me; at what I was looking at, before I realised their scrutiny. To them, I was an interloper on this journey. I didn’t behave in a regular, or even regulated, fashion. There was foxing on the cover the Seller hadn’t told them about. I was a nick on the canvas of the commute; a skip in the usual music. Wasting time.

But they were the precious few. They didn’t speak for everybody.

I remember the cold in the months before Spring. I always buttoned my work shirts to the very top. I would run my finger around my shirt collar, relieving the stifle and flare of heat contained there for a few moments. Sometimes I risked undoing the button. Too much cold, every time. But I always hoped for the possible, and breathable, alternative.

But then, there came the freedom; of undoing three at once on Friday nights, going straight to the metal venue, headbanging for hours. Its practitioners shook me from my resignation whenever I wanted to slump over, convincing me I hadn’t run out of energy – that this reserve of fuel needed a flame that burned hotter than most. Jen didn’t join me, but she didn’t begrudge it, either.

We did other things. Over the Summer, we went to a Fair near her flat. In the Autumn, she showed me the Great Parks of London. And when the first snow fell, she wore her ankle-length navy blue dress. I remember how the snowflakes rode around her, like mats on the Helter-Skelter.

We can’t stay in contact. We’re going to be at too great a distance – especially considering the way we were going. We’d need time.

Time would be all I have, if I could stay. But this confident twenty-three year old is a disguise. I don’t want to lie to her. 

She told me once that roses live off vehicular exhaust and pollution. I couldn’t stop smiling at the strangeness of that.

***

I climb aboard the final Bus.

I wouldn’t want to be alone in this world at this time of year. The last week before the Holidays, people didn’t just go back to their lodgings. They’d head home. Families walked, talking and laughing together in groups. Couples dithered on purpose, enjoying each other’s company in the knowledge of time together.

I pinch the distressed, nerveless skin of my cheek, acutely aware of the lights above me. I feel like I’m in surgery. I feel like they’re about to put me under.

If I don’t behave awkwardly, that motion won’t be carried.

I haven’t broken the skin. I could’ve…it’s an older face than it once was, cured with the alcohol and the late nights, but not with the beating sun over the Nevada Desert.

And yet, despite that place being of this Earth…for London, I would stay.

Its atmosphere, culture, attitude…these exist for all. Every colour, every body, every identity, can meet here. People can truly learn about people the world over. Beneath great Gothic walls and windows, behind the realm of ceremony and Monarchy, along the halls of power, there are Londoners – of business, pleasure and time.

It is a testament to beauty in unity, a bedrock for the best we…the people…can be to each other.

The phosphorescence of the signs over Piccadilly Circus. The buskers on the Southbank, playing the soundtracks that stop couples for three minutes or more, living out their love through their steps. The British Library, taking the nexus this Capital represents as its cause and gathering the written knowledge of the United Kingdom and Ireland.

It’s the most hopeful and vibrant city on Earth. Probably.

I think of those I’ve met. Despite the passage of time and my very nature, they’ll remember me. I’ll be like a flyposted advertisement for a gig they’d never attended; a half-scuffed-away memory.

I step out of the Bus and begin my walk towards the Airport.

Suddenly, an icy wind pummels me. I feel it rend through my clothes and flesh. I feel lean, cut down to the bone. My free hand slaps against my face, fingers scanning for a loose thread, trying not to pull at the skin but fearful of…nothing.

But I will be vulnerable – somehow, and soon. I’m running out of time.

I stuff my free hand into my trouser pocket, breaking into a lopsided jog. The adrenal intervention within my chest becomes an accelerant for the combustion of excitement and fear. I stumble into the Airport and land on the nearest seat, catching my breath. My luggage clatters down beside me.

I feel unburdened, moreso than the eyes of the Airport staff would know at present. My ship is waiting for me. I can feel the others nearby. One way or another, these humans will know better, soon enough. Running out, onto the tarmac.

As I ready myself, I feel a pang of nostalgia. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that it’s almost over…perhaps I’m safe enough to want to go back again…

I could be a twenty-three year old, one more time; strip it all off, seemingly-inebriated, sprinting towards something only apparent to me. I wouldn’t be caught and detained, because I wouldn’t be drunk. I’d be a confirmation of extraterrestrial life.

And if I can’t escape?

For my last days on Earth, I think I’d be right at home.

***

Benji CWK currently studiefor-04-10-16-profile-picture-for-wsj-completeds Creative Writing at the University of Westminster. His short stories – usually in the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres – are often set in London, exploring how the very particular history and culture of the city could inform the lives and journeys of fantastical and futuristic beings.

 

A LOST GLOVE

By: Bistra Nikova

 

Claire climbed the window sill. Outside in the street, Tom was having his first lesson on how to ride a bike. His father, with a hand supporting the seat, was running alongside the bike while Tom happily pedaled forward. Claire pressed her nose on the window and the view became foggy because of her breath. She sighed and turned to her dolls on the bed.

‘Marta, stay under the blanket or you will get cold.’ she tagged the edge of the blanket so the doll’s legs remained underneath.

The door opened and Claire’s grandmother entered. ‘Darling, your father called.’

‘Really?’ the child’s face lit up.

‘Yes, he’s coming to see you. In half an hour.’

Claire jumped off the bed and rushed to the big walnut wardrobe. She pulled out three hangers. Quickly placing them one after another under her chin, she checked her reflection in the mirror. The yellow one was very old. The red one was nice and had smooth silky fabric but was too bright and she was not in the mood for red today. The blue dress seemed perfect, which also happened to match her eyes. She chose her blue tights and a cardigan. Then she pulled the drawer open and took out two perfect purple gloves. They had googly eyes on them which looked at each other every time Claire put them on.

Half an hour later Claire was waiting in the hall. Now she had her coat and boots on and her hair done in a long thick braid half way hidden under her hat. The googly eyes on her purple gloves staring at each other. The doorbell rang and she immediately opened the door and smiled. A huge brown fluffy teddy bear appeared with its arms open wide as if waiting for a hug. ‘Dad!’ she threw herself in the man’s arms. ‘I’m ready to go.’ The toy was as tall as she was. Claire grabbed it and ran to her room to leave it there, then suddenly ran back.

Her dad and her grandmother exchanged glances.

‘Do not be late,’ her grandmother said.

‘I promise,’ her father answered.

Claire and her father walked out the building, turned right and down the street which led to the river. Claire liked that path; it was a Thames footpath down to Greenwich. Small boats were leaving while foam appeared on the otherwise smooth water surface. Seagulls, gathered on the rotten old dock were turning their heads after the passing boats like a tennis match audience and all in perfect synchrony. Claire and her father shared the footpath with other families, single runners and people with dogs.

‘Dad, why don’t you come more often?’

He stroked her head. ‘You know I can’t. I travel a lot. Besides, your grandmother won’t be happy.’

Claire knew there was tension between her family and her father. She was too young to understand it and that was why she did not try to. She only knew she loved them all.

‘I want to spend more time with you, that’s all.’

They walked over the bridge, recently built to connect the two shores of Creek Road and then walked down to Greenwich.

‘I thought we could watch a film.’ Her father smiled at her.

‘Great!’ she jumped like a  jack-in-the-box.

The queue in the cinema coiled all the way back to the door. Impatient children waiting to see the last hit released by the Walt Disney studio. Frozen. Claire stayed close to her father rubbing their coats together, his grey wool catching hers. They bought tickets and sat in the bar upstairs for a drink. She had a hot chocolate and he had a coffee. Her drink was hot but she did not hurry drinking it. Now, sitting opposite each other, she could study his face: he was clean shaven with a gentle oval framed by dark hair. He had very soft blue eyes. People always commented how their eyes were the same but she wondered whether her blue eyes were from him or her mother.

He smiled at her. ‘Do you like your drink?’

‘Very much! Thanks Dad.’ Her toes wiggled in her boots, a habit of hers when she was happy.

She took a sip and spilled a little bit of chocolate on her chin. Her dad grabbed a napkin and dried the drip with his big hand. She could feel his coarse skin and smell his musky scent. That moment left a mark on her mind.

‘I love you, dad.’

He gently pinched her cheek and smiled.

Claire looked out of the window. The bus stop opposite was busy with families gathered around.

It was time for them to take their seats. They headed to the screen room, showed their tickets to a cheery girl at the entrance and searched for their seats. The room was big, the seats were soft and round like armchairs. Claire trusted her coat and gloves to her father and sat next to him inhaling more of his perfume. The lights went off and the film began. She held his hand.

After the film the lights went on and everyone was up on their feet. Her father helped her put on her coat, hat and purple gloves. They could only find one glove, the other one was missing. She looked in her seat. Nothing. ‘Dad, I am missing my glove.’

He looked briefly around. ‘We’ll buy you another one.’ He rushed her outside.

“No, I want this one. It is my glove.’ She was saddened. Her pair of gloves was torn apart. The perfect match was not perfect anymore.

‘Come on, darling, it is only a glove. I will buy you a new pair.’

On the way back home they did not talk. There was not much to say. She entered her home and went straight to her room.

‘What happened?’ Claire heard her grandmother asking her father.

‘She lost her glove.’

The door closed and her father’s footsteps faded with distance.

Claire took her one glove off and put it in the drawer next to her carefully folded underwear. A single tear dropped out of her eye and landed on the corner of her mouth. It tasted of salt.

***

Bistra Nikolova is currently studying Creative Writing at the University of Westminster. Born in Bulgaria, she loves cooking, drawing, walking and dreaming about places and stories she can write about. Sometimes her characters can knock at her door and surprise her. That happened after she finished her mystery novel.

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A FEATHER

By Sofie Raphael

 

I saw a white, angelic feather on the tube seat. I smiled and picked it up.

I slept through my alarm, I never do that. For some reason my phone battery died and it just stopped working, much like most of the technology in my possession. Can you image what would happen if we, as people, decided to stop working? It would be a never ending strike and we would probably all cease to survive! I didn’t have my glasses on but I could tell my room wasn’t quite right. It was a niggling feeling, like getting shivers in a warm room. I put my glasses on, hoping not to see some killer clown or something equally creepy. My clothes rail was broken; clothes were spread all over the floor mimicking silhouettes of crime scene bodies. I grabbed a chunky jumper which I knew made me look like the Michelin Man. Scraping my hair back into a frizzy ponytail fluff ball, I ran out the door towards the train station.

Finally, I was on the train and people kept looking towards me. I know I didn’t look great but geez, give a girl a break! I subconsciously felt my underarm and sniffed my finger tips, I smelt like mint shower gel. Fuck them all. Then, I caught a whiff of something and looked at the person opposite me giving them a disapproving look. Probably did a fart, smelly sod. He lowered his eyes to my feet, there was a thick brown sludge covering the top of my boot. I must have grazed my bag as I crossed my leg as there was a similar sludge on the bag too. I lifted my bag up and caught the smell again, shit it’s shit!

I practically ran to the train toilets and wiped my shoe and bag with a wad of tissues, then sprayed it with deodorant to mask the smell. Sheepishly, I walked back in the opposite direction from which I had come and found that there were no seats left. I stood for fifty minutes in high heeled boots, just marvellous. My phone buzzed from my bag, ‘I’m too sexy’ started playing, shit my sister must have changed my ringtone again…

‘Hi grandma’. My grandma hardly ever called me; she’s constantly travelling with her new partner. Good for her really but it would be nice for her to remember her family sometimes.

‘Ella, last week I went to Morocco. And it was fabulous, you have to go, anyway, I found a feather on our hotel bath. How strange is that? It’s your granddad; he’s still watching over me.’ My grandmother always told me my granddad loved pigeons and that, when he passed, she always found a feather wherever she went. It was her good luck charm. However, I never got any luck.

We said goodbye and she promised to take me out for a drink as soon as she’s in the country next. I got off the train and onto the next for my journey. Changing at Stratford, I got onto the Central Line for Tottenham Court Road. As the train doors closed my backpack got stuck in between. The doors didn’t reopen for what felt like a while so I was stuck pressed up against the train. A few people offered help by pulling at my shoulders but I heard tearing noises and told them to stop. Most of the commuters looked at me with amusement. I finally broke free of the doors as the driver finally reopened them and an older man offered me his seat. He winked at me and that’s when I saw it.

I saw a white, angelic feather on the tube seat. I smiled and picked it up.

***

Sofie Raphael stumbled across Creative writing at university and fell in love. She wants to work in publishing and hopes to one day discover the next ‘Harry Potter’. In the meantime she spends her days working in retail and studying an MA in Creative writing. When she has the time you’ll find her reading from her overgrowing library.

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INVASIVE

By Caitlin Auer

London’s seductive visage, her angular skyscraper and swaying side street features, began to evolve into an overwhelming toxicity– an entrancing figure that was far too intimidating to ignore. With the winter chill, she revealed a stingingly cold steel gaze framed with crumbling ash, stained brick skin, hissing smoke and gasoline wafting out of pipe nostrils and crane teeth that swung as the city purred and whispered in a language only a seldom few of its inhabitants could even properly understand. The crowds danced in flames, pedestrians collided in an escalating rouge frenzy, the thick air clogs and hazes.  After nearly a year spent decoding the blurred clues of the city’s drumbeat pulse within the center of the city, I sought the green earth hues reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest. I yearned to feel some soil or catch a scent of the bay within a fleeting breeze that brought a touch of familiarity, some calm, and some lung expansion, something–

Something to take life, to extend its sinewy veins into the ancient marble rock of such prestigious land and to sprout fresh.

A spreading patch of ivy burrowed into the in the crevices of the dirt between the cracks of cobblestone pathway in Water Lane, right beside the quiet patch of the River Thames in Richmond. Ivy is a woody stemmed, self-clinging climber that can grow quickly into the canopy of a tree. Where it grows as a trailing, ground-cover plant, it roots in at many points and its stems extend over a wide area, concealing street poles and high block railways. A true pest, it is. A nuisance- easy to spot amongst the finely manicured brush found in Henry VIII’s hunting grounds, sprawling throughout Richmond Park, or in the rose bushes lining family manors and planted on boathouse decks. Ivy multiplies in colonies and settles into residencies overlaying renovated cream houses with centuries of stories seeping out of the chimneys.

I nearly tripped on the intruder’s vines, the stems snaked over the ground, and the lack of cluttered sidewalks failed to alert me otherwise. My breath held deep within my core, a standstill, and a resounding snap of heel against earth. The ducks and swans fluttered away, further into the riverbank.  Fingernails dug into the ivy’s velvety green leaves, and I gingerly plucked a bouquet to feast my eyes on during teatime. Save for later, to relish the pungent scent of its heart-shaped leaves after a rainstorm.

***

Cait Auer is a writer from the Seattle, Washington state, specialising in 12935255_1337469659612044_1475896679_nnonfiction and fiction prose. She has served as a writer’s conference assistant coordinator, a travel journalist, a music and restaurant reviewer, and an editorial assistant for three regional magazines based in Washington state. Utilising written words in the business realm fascinates her. Cait’s a spontaneous walking fiend, as her main hobby is spending her pounds on tasty treats found in treasure trove restaurants.

LONDON MARATHON

By: Linda Lloyd

 

Some journeys take you somewhere else, somewhere new forever. When you launch yourself off that starting block, you have no idea whether it’s a sprint or a marathon, or where you’ll end up. In 1981 I was living in the sub-arctic climate of the unemployed North East of England. In the same year, Norman Tebbit, a Conservative politician depicted by the satirical TV show Spitting Image as a leatherclad, skinhead bootboy, and described by the leader of the Labour opposition as a ‘semi-house-trained polecat’, famously implied that the solution to being unemployed was to get on your bike and look for work until you found it. A strange source of inspiration for migrating from Newcastle to London, but that’s another thing you never know – where inspiration will strike from.

In the winter of that same year, the boyfriend and I emptied our lives out of a hired white van and squeezed them into a bedroom in Southfields, where we spent a few miserable weeks looking for jobs. We were so hungry, I seriously contemplated shoplifting. A criminal record seemed a fair exchange for a box of fish fingers. We passed the time wandering round Wimbledon Common in freezing fog, pretending we were Wombles as we picked litter off the frosty grass and dropped it into bins. It was good karma, we thought – once, we were rewarded with a dropped packet of cheese sandwiches. We sat on a bench and unwrapped them with numb fingers, grateful that we’d found them a good few feet away from the nearest pile of dog crap. Karma went up in my estimation.

We did find jobs, and took day trips to window shop places like Liberty and Hamley’s, wondering if we would ever have enough money in our pockets to go in and buy something. I loved the Paddington Bear teddies, because he had come all the way from darkest Peru with nothing but a suitcase, some marmalade sandwiches and a label round his neck, and he’d found a loving family in a warm, happy home. I was very jealous of anyone who could afford more than a bedsit in London.

Gradually our bedsits got closer to life in the centre. In Kilburn, we drank in Irish pubs and our Italian landlady showed me how to cook pasta properly. She wouldn’t have been so nice if she knew we’d turned the electricity meter on its face to stop the dials going round. There weren’t enough fifty pence pieces in the world to keep that meter satisfied.

Our next move was to Earl’s Court. Our upstairs neighbours yelled at their kids and threw their rubbish out of the window onto the pavement. The police stopped me and my long-haired boyfriend every couple of weeks, making us turn out our pockets and looking disappointed when they weren’t full of illegal substances. The world and his wife descended on the area at regular intervals, massing around the Exhibition Centre, abandoning their 4 x 4’s in the middle of our road. I got spat on once, by an inebriated Young Farmer. There was a small square of manicured grass and trees, surrounded by black iron railings and a padlocked gate. Rental tenants weren’t privileged with access. The landlady ripped us off over the deposit. I began to get panic attacks.

The only time I’d been in London before trying to make it my home was to see the sights. I had headed for the first place I’d heard of, marveling at the simplicity – all I had to do was buy a ticket, navigate the underground system and up I popped like a mole from under the pavement, right in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. I was promptly whacked on the head by the noise, the smell, the crowds bashing around, the dirt, and the traffic. Stunned, I gazed at the massive billboards, the shops and buildings huddled together like bad teeth. The diesel engines of the black cabs and the double-decker red buses chugged and spluttered their way past the statue of Eros, who was poised on one foot, taking aim with his bow and arrow. It was all smaller, dirtier and smellier than I’d imagined it, but so familiar it was like being in a living postcard, and the air was laden with the aromas of a huge city full of a hundred cuisines. A couple stopped me and asked for directions. We had a smiley, gesticulating conversation involving my mini-map and schoolgirl German. I felt truly cosmopolitan. I could do this. All I needed was a map and a foreign language. Eros had shot true: I was in love and London was my Valentine.

But in the 80s, I desperately missed the pink, fluffy cloud that Eros had wrapped me in all that time ago. I tried to get the feeling back. I went to Regent’s Park, struggling to find a bit of green to sit on. I saw bands at Hammersmith Odeon and Wembley Stadium, queueing for hours to buy an exorbitantly priced can of Coke, and went to the free museums and art galleries, straining to see from the backs of crowds four and five deep. At Camden Market I learned to beware of pickpockets, and tourists who suddenly halted right in front of me as if they wanted me to smash my face into their mountainous backpacks. The one time I ventured out to see the Christmas lights turned on in Regent Street, I narrowly avoided injuries from being crushed when the police used their horses to broadside the crowds back onto the pavements.

My rose-tinted glasses were smashed. I was living in a gigantic pinball machine, battered from bedsit to bedsit, temp job to temp job, exhausted by commuting in filthy tube trains and draughty tunnels, where I’d seen mice and cockroaches scraping a living between the electric rails. I knew how they felt. I became claustrophobic and started walking to work, but it was just as bad above ground. I felt small and vulnerable as the traffic roared along Talgarth Road, the most polluted road in the city.

London was too full of people and too expensive. I wanted out, but by the time we’d paid our bills, there was nothing left. Sometimes you have to be at the end of your tether before the karma gods notice and give you a break.
Suddenly, things went right.
We were managing to afford a clean, attractive, ground floor studio in Swiss Cottage, and I had a shiny job in a shiny office near Scotland Yard. My boss asked me to stand in for him entertaining a Dutch client and his wife. I was ferried in a limousine with the driver pointing out the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and Tower Bridge to the visitors. We saw Cats on roller skates, and dined in Langan’s Brasserie, celebrity spotting. I saw someone buy a bottle of champagne for the same price as a week’s rent. After dropping the happy clients off, the limo driver did me a deal. I could sit in the front if he could take off his cap. We drove around for a while, just because we could, enjoying the empty streets: the reflections on the river, the lamp-lit architecture, the swoop of the Hammersmith Flyover. That night, chatting quietly in a limousine, laughing at the strangeness of folk and agreeing that the rich could keep it, the city regained some of its charm. Eros twinkled hopefully and I conceded that London and I could still have our moments.

I liked the place in Swiss Cottage. It became a refuge, despite sharing a bathroom with an argumentative couple, and the public phone in the communal hall ringing day and night from all corners of the world. It was a lovely area to wander around; there were trees and gardens. We had a bay window, a moulded plaster ceiling and a decent carpet. Life was good.

Then the karma gods gave the wheel of fortune another spin.

The Landlord needed us to move out. His mother had died and he had to sell up to pay off taxes. The other tenants told us they weren’t moving. I checked it out with the Citizens Advice Bureau.

After a glance through the rental agreement, the quiet, bespectacled adviser smiled.

“Either your Landlord is stupid or he’s hoping you are. You have a sitting tenancy. If he wants you out, he’s going to have to make it worth your while.”

We couldn’t believe our luck. For a while, The Landlord’s sister played bad cop, calling on us at stupid o’clock in the mornings to put the pressure on. We were burgled and some jewellery was stolen, but we stuck it out. Finally The Landlord came round for a chat. We made him a cup of tea and he asked us what we wanted. We mentioned a heroic sum of money and he offered us a quarter of that. We met half-way.

Suddenly, he was all smiles.

“If you were my kids, I’d want you to use that money wisely,” he told us. “Get your feet on the property ladder. I’ll put the money in trust with a solicitor. Find yourselves a place to buy. When it’s time to pay the deposit, the solicitor will release it to the mortgagee.”

“All well and good,” said the brave new me, “but where are we going to live while we look for a place to buy?”

“I’ve got an unfurnished flat standing empty in Belsize Park. You can have that for free. Take the bed and whatever else you need, I’m only going to get rid of it otherwise.”

Belsize Park sounded lofty and airy, but the place was a mouldy basement with rats in the garden. I talked to my new friend The Landlord and told him about the fridge having been switched off months before with a raw chicken still inside it. He told us to dump the bio-hazard in the garden, where it was hidden by the long grass. Even the rats steered clear of it.

But that was only for a few weeks, until we found a flat in Northolt, far enough out of London to have luxuries like a swimming pool and fresh air, and Central Line trains that weren’t already packed when they arrived at the platform. Finally, after seven years of running, we had a home.

I’m over London, though it hasn’t noticed. It was a one-way thing all along. I’ve flirted with other cities. The Eye of Horus gave me a cheeky wink in Alexandria. But one journey’s end is the beginning of a new one.

So here’s my advice for running marathons: just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and appease the karma gods as much as you can along the way.

A SELF-IMPOSED EXILE

By: Safiyah Ouaguena

 

I have these intense fantasies of spectating my own funeral; that I would die today and be the object of your melancholic affections tomorrow as I lay in the pathetic fallacy of a dark gothic cathedral in the middle of an unidentified plain. My troubles would be known to you all and conveyed by an ordained stranger dressed for the occasion as he romanticised the tragedies of my soul into a eulogy that would make me into a martyr of the melodramatic problems which I cling to. The sound of birds singing and low mumbles begin to bleed through into my mental construction. I shut my eyes tightly, I refocus and I continue.

It is this narcissistic predisposition which I exhort my mind away from as the dependence on external social validation has caught me in its trap, and leads me to nothing but emptiness again and again. I see that they have constructed this for me, knowing the details of my childhood and having transmitted my psychological algorithms into the machine in order to construct the perfect hyperreality to keep me from the truth, keep me chasing the impossible situationalisms that will never come to be. Whilst I humour myself alone deep within my mind, the real world simply won’t have it, and it’s killing me.

I have no culture, I have no identity, I have no place, yet I am of all cultures, identity and place. The isolation and rejection has led me to a lonely place outside of their collective dwellings. In either state my similarity is rejected, for a part of me belongs to the enemy. They do not realize however, that I have a comprehensive view from the outside and see what both sides do – the good, the bad and what they wish to remain secret; and that is why I am a danger to them. I am of the Pan-Arab Amazigh who has seen the oppression. I am of the Arab Spring rebels and the witnesses of the US Iraq invasion so have learned to hate governing bodies of imperialism. I am a spoilt child of the West so am just as disaffected to the violence because of the gory video games I play when my parents aren’t watching. I am both the religious extremist of ethnic heritage and mentally ill outsider Caucasian with a gun and subjective vendetta against the popular kids. I am all yet I am none.

I find acceptance here on the plain. I do not have to seek out external acceptance; only absorb the posthumous affections of the unidentified attendees of my funeral. I do not have to try so hard to be, because here what I was is adored with the sweet sorrow of my passing. The celestial white noise from outside and soft murmur of my eulogy surrounds me; all is sound.

I now find myself here alone again in my post modern form. Waking up to find it was all a dream and being horrified by the quiet ordinariness of it all. Before the static makes me lose my mind I will take these sleeping pills as I have done many times before and have my transcendental and ectopic slumber here in the cemetery, drowning out the traffic of reality to the sound of The Cure; because to be sad in a beautiful dark place is everything, like being the lead character in a movie and having your deepest emotions be the forefront of the narrative and allowing them to characterise you into a tragic hero; this I pretend so that the pain is not in vain, and that it would seem that my emotions matter. The sky darkens, the rain falls, the scene is set.

LUCILLE

By: Claudio Fedele

 

Disturbing silence darkens your sight

We’ll cast some light and you’ll be alright

We’ll cast some light and you’ll be alright

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

The maid had left the manor just a bit more than five minutes before. She had given the last, final touch of polishing to the silverware, thinking about how she had always done at her best at what she had been paid for. For years. Lucille, mother of three children and wife of a husband of sterling character, left Grant’s house in the middle of the afternoon. She had put the broom and the other tools in the cupboard under the staircase of the luxurious manor and, finally satisfied, she had headed towards home.

She had been in that job for fifteen years, so no one could teach her how to polish a lamp or clean a carpet, or even suggest her some basic tricks to do the chores at best. Lucille Jones was born to do what she had done her whole life, with commitment and elegance. She loved to breathe in the smell of “the great manor,” as she called it, but most of all she loved touching the luxuries she could not wish for herself, with her own hands. Ancient objects, treasures that had been bought in auctions in the furthest places around the world, collections of rare artefacts. Every time, she would completely fall for all that, almost as though she was entering for the first time into the British Museum. She was the daughter of two working class parents and had grown up in a British suburb as many others had. She had always wanted to become a literature professor, one day. This ambition had fallen because of the uncontrollable chain of terrible events that then forced her to leave school. Her father, a coarse man who drank too much, had left Lucille and her mother on a cold morning in January, many years ago, and he had never come back. Mr Jones had always been quite a bizarre bloke, at least, according to the neighbours and his colleagues, but no one could have suspected he would go that far.

The rest of the family was forced to make ends meet in disparate ways to survive poverty. Lucille learnt when she was very young, at her own expense, what it meant to starve to get a slice of bread, or to stop in front of doors of a restaurants and crave a bowl of hot soup.

The years that followed her father’s leaving were the worst. Her mother could barely find a job. Every now and then, she gave French classes to a guy that lived three blocks away, but she and her mother knew that a “je suis” couldn’t solve the financial problems they had, nor could it change a damn thing at all.

“My dear, please, go away. Go to London or Liverpool. Find a job and a good husband, that will love you and make you feel special.” These exact words, which her mother would utter in tears, were progressively more frequent in their small house. They were undesired guests. Day after day, from being murmured or cried in the worst moments, they became like a holy ritual that Monica Jones would repeat every time she sat for dinner, when she had the chance to actually eat something. She did not want her daughter to suffer or beg for money on the street to buy a stale piece of bread at the local bakery. She wanted her little daughter to live the best life, maybe not in sumptuous luxury, because she had never really liked it and it was also quite unlikely that her daughter could reach it, but she wished at least for the warm and comfortable serenity of having a family of any kind. She could not find this all in Righton, not now, not ever. It was not easy to convince Lucille to leave the place where she had grown up and where she had spent what she would always remember as the more turbulent years of her life. The opportunity came when her mother, a simple, but elegant woman, was lucky enough to find a job in a hospital, not that far from the town centre, as an assistant.

She had an unlimited contract of employment, an unexpected surprise. Every morning, Monica took bus number 4 and she headed towards the hospital, to come home tired, but satisfied, at 6 o’clock, when she started making dinner. “Times are a bit calmer now, Lucy, you can leave this place. You have a fixed wage; I can cope with everything by myself. Don’t renounce anything because of me. I know that your father and I did not manage to give you the life you have wanted since you were a child, but we did our best. I did my best. Now you can have a future by yourself and leave this infamous town. Don’t come back here, unless you want to come visit me when you want, or for Christmas. Go to London, find a job and always pray to be able to count on yourself only. If you are lucky, as nice and bright as you are, you won’t have difficulties in finding a husband, but please, please take this decision seriously. Don’t finish up like me. I have loved your father, only God knows how much I loved him, but I am still suffering. I am not angry at him anymore for what he did, mind you, it was his choice. Life taught me that fifteen years of marriage bring you nowhere. Times change people and show them for what they really are. Don’t dwell on illusions. Please, go, and when you arrive, send me a postcard or a note. I hope I’ll be able to come visit you soon and walk beside you in Hyde Park meadows, to visit Saint Paul’s and to go up and down the rooms of the National Gallery.”

At 23, Lucille Jones left her mother to her reassuring destiny. She took the train to King’s Cross and left the place where she had grown up and where she had learned what joy and pain meant. Now, a new beginning was waiting for her, a solitary adventure made of dangers and traps. She was ready, she knew she was, and she wanted to challenge herself. Still, she was as scared as she was excited. She had found a nice job as maid in an old house at the end of Zone 1. The wage was more than sufficient to let her rent a studio flat that was 20 minutes far from the heart of the City. She could not complain, she was lucky. But luck had never featured in her miserable life in the past, so she could not expect much. Therefore, considering herself as a privileged girl that had been touched by something as strange as luck provoked in her many emotions that she thought were too difficult to describe. She needed to be careful. Her destiny could try to rip her off.

A month after setting foot in the Tube for the first time, Lucy was already used to many of the areas that London could offer to her with generosity. The streets, the lanes, the complex webs of alleys and roads were a kaleidoscope; she spent her spare time trying to find places that could genuinely and vaguely take her breath away. She loved to hang out in libraries and churches, not to pray, but to experience their eternal stillness. Living by herself was very satisfying as well. No hours or limits, no running to be home for dinner or going to bed late feeling like a revolutionary rebel brat. Everything was simply before her eyes, waiting for her curiosity to penetrate that universe, rich in energy and constantly changing.

London wasn’t only the city that she had always loved as a girl. It was something more. It could be compared to a high-speed moving train or to a motorbike that could shoot up and down a beautiful boulevard full of trees. Every detail had an incredible appeal and every shop in Regent Street was just inimitable. Lucille was aware that all these sensations, as days, months and years passed, would fade away, and that the routine would make even the most exciting entertainment as flat and meaningless, but now she just wanted to enjoy the present. And she had a point.

Even her love life had an incredible improvement, to which she had never been used. At the beginning, it was weird to get to know the fact that she was so desired by men, but as time passed, she started being more at ease with guys of her age. During her first months in London, she had many relationships, which all started with nights spent at the pub and which ended with the first rays of light on the next day. Someone, in the old town, would think that her morals and self-respect had gone to pot, but Lucy had told herself more than once that, if she had found her soul mate, she would have committed herself to a solid and stable relationship.

The chance arrived quite early. It had Colin Hardy’s face. He was tall and slender, a perfect gentleman, produced by Britain to represent all the values that every respectable British citizen was worthy of. Everything began one night, in one of the most famous pubs of the City, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, that was also one of Lucy’s favourite places. It was said that, once, great writers would spend their nights sitting at the tables and on the sofas of that rest temple that was always packed with tourists during high season. High quality beer, comfort in every corner and a tranquillity that was quite unusual to find in London. The perfect place. There were also rumours that Charles Dickens had the habit of sitting in front of the fireplace and talking loudly about what he was writing, almost as though what he was jotting down on paper had the power to have a conversation with Oliver Twist’s father and many other characters. Another urban legend was about a famous movie star that one night, as he was tired, ordered a beer and never paid the bill. There was also someone that said that, during the night, the ghosts of the people who had owned the pub decades before would awaken, and that every now and then the alley would resound with the joyful cries that these people would utter when still drunk with life and light heartiness.

Lucille didn’t believe in everything that was said of that place, but Colin did. They met casually, in the most typical way: she was leaning on the door, waiting for a new friend she had met on her job. Colin was striding towards the door, trying to look for a comfortable spot where he could drink and eat something. He had his head in the clouds and was mumbling about his job as a part-time teacher. She was lost in the reading of an ordinary flyer, which had been given to her at the tube stop in Piccadilly Circus by a young man with a beautiful orange cat between his arms. Colin was completely in his own world. An unexpected bump in the road, caused by a badly placed stone, had provoked his temporary loss of balance, which led to a collision that was similar to two meteors crashing together.

And there it was, the perfect accident that began such a passionate and difficult love story.

He charmed her with his academic knowledge of medieval literature and his obsession for ancient books; she bewitched him with her seducing intelligence that made him want to listen to her for hours. That girl knew what she wanted, thought Colin, all the time. The casual encounters became dates, the dates became the beginning of a relationship that in which they spent hours telling each other their most intimate secrets. The wooden tables of the pub were substituted by the white sheets and the beers by glasses of wine of dubious quality drank with no reason at all. The habitual chitchat of the customers became the Beatles, David Bowie and Blondie heard on the radio on Sunday mornings. Lucille had difficulties in understanding how much she loved Colin, because her fear of not being loved back was like a threatening shadow that would stretch above her, but she had no doubts on the happiness she felt in his company.

Months passed. Lucy became a Hardy. He proposed to her in front of the door of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, after a night spent discussing how uselessness and ugliness the umpteenth cover of an 80s masterpiece, recorded again for the new generation but lacking any artistic value. When he had finished his argument, Colin had taken her hand. He had bent down that much that he shivered, thinking of how his trousers could just rip open on the least noble part of his body. He felt a warm pleasure when it did not happen.

“Hey, little mermaid, will you marry me?”

The answer arrived late. What did marriage mean? Why did Lucille fear the facing of such a decision, a similar situation? Was it her mother’s or her father’s fault? Was it her own fault? Was it destiny’s fault? Was it worth trying?

“Yes.”

A murmur, almost more imperceptible to her than to him, who was on his knees before her. The moments spent in silence had contributed to a tense, unnatural atmosphere. The air was full with excitement, fear and indecision. They were facing the final proof, whose verdict would be the evidence of what they really felt. Still moments. Then the answer and a promise. It was done.

Lucille would not be a Jones anymore. Once more, she was in front of a decision and she had chosen to put her past behind her. She must, or better, she wanted to look forward. She often asked herself how her life would have been if her father hadn’t left her and her mother on that cold January day. Lucille loved to build up stories in which she was the protagonist, where she would imagine being in another place, with other people. It was a habit that, for years, she had indulged in every time she would get on the tube. The sound of the train in the galleries, the voices of the travellers, the mechanical voices. All those shades and details made it pleasant for her to lose herself in long digressions where, for a short period, she wished she was someone else, or maybe even herself, but in a different context.

When she would arrive home, though, Lucille really knew which were the reasons why, at the end, she couldn’t wish for a better life. Her house was a typically British, two floor house in London’s centre, which they had been able to buy because of Colin’s pay increase. Their wages, together, had allowed them to buy a small car and a motorbike. Now, both of them, after temporary fights, lived together with their three daughters.

They had everything they wanted. They had become a whole thing of many things. Nothing could challenge her serenity. At least, until it ended. After all, as she knew, life is nothing other than a poker hand with the goddess of luck. But, from the moment she had first left her house in Righton, good luck had never abandoned her.

THROUGH THE EYES OF A PAINTING

By: Leila Vignozzi

 

I was in the National Gallery the other day, and while I was wandering around I had some sort of deep connection with some of the paintings. I was in the Renaissance section, which is mainly composed of Italian works, the majority of which are from Florence, the city where I come from. I found myself in front of the Leonardo Da Vinci’s Virgin of the rocks and felt strange somehow, like we were sharing some sort of mutual experience.

It’s almost been two months since I moved to London and only now is life starting to feel real. I was always felt as though I was living in a movie. I don’t know how to explain it. Imagine you wake up one morning and everything is different from how it used to be. Imagine men are wearing skirts and ladies have beards, children wearing black suits, talking about politics and grownups playing with toys in the middle of Trafalgar Square. No, that doesn’t explain the feeling. Okay, just try to imagine you wake up one morning and everything is absolutely the same as usual but you don’t feel part of it. You’re on the tube, or in Oxford Street and it feels like you’re just watching it all, without taking part. Imagine you talk to people and it doesn’t feel like they’re actually talking to you, it’s not you when you smoke your British tobacco, when you have scrambled eggs for breakfast or scan your Oyster card at the station. It’s not you while you enter your University Campus and it’s not you when people ask you to describe yourself and you start saying all of those things that seemed to describe you once, but that now feel…so unfitting. And if this isn’t enough to give a portrait of this feeling, try to imagine having the need to stare at your figure in the mirror every morning, moving your hand to check if the imagine reflected is matching every movement, just to be sure that the person you see is actually you. It’s strange, isn’t it? And you find yourself living in some kind of reality in between your past at home, which is still present, and this new person you’re trying to know, with such a different personality.

I remember the first time I felt like myself here. It was a rainy Sunday afternoon and I’d spent it with these two new friends on the bed, eating Pringles and playing music. It wasn’t a big deal, but it felt like home. We all experience this; it doesn’t matter if you come from Paris, Abu Dhabi, Cornwall, or just around the corner.

So, coming back to the paintings, I felt like that Madonna in the portrait was actually feeling like me. The canvases were all cheated, brought in another city, a place where they weren’t meant to be. But probably they did. A place where their colours, instead of conveying everyday life, gave the feeling of something exotic. Staring at the eyes of that woman, painted, still, tired, I saw the longing for an aged story. I saw the affection for a new life, rejected in the first moment. We love everything we take part in. We grow fond to every instant of life, even if brief. Every breath we take stays within us, motionless, as a memory. And with time, with distance, it becomes better in our minds, as good wine.

In two weeks I’ll be finally at home and after all, I’m having this strange feeling that somehow I’ll miss this.

A TALE OF THE CAT AT DOWNING STREET

By: Melissa Garrett

 

In large cities and small villages live many cats, as they do in England’s capital. One of these cats lived at number ten downing street with the Prime Minister. This cat’s name was Billy.

Billy, like any cat, spent time scratching behind his head, sending fur balls flying all over the door mat. It was one of those days, with a clear blue sky and a keen English breeze. But scratching didn’t seem to please him as much as it normally did. He could only feel what was missing, his collar.

Billy had always had his blue collar. He assumed it was a gift from his birth mother, who he had never been able to remember. And without it, he felt that a part of himself was stray with it. Billy sat up straight and looked up at the number on the door.

“I’ve checked all of number ten, even number eleven and nine too.” Billy gazed at the windows. “Where is it?”

As Billy was looking he heard fluttering wings coming from the sky. He knew those wings to be his friend, Peter Pigeon, who landed on the railing by the door. Peter Pigeon said to Billy, “good day, old chap!”

“Hello, Peter Pigeon!” Billy said to him. “How’s the weather up at Nelson’s column?”

Peter Pigeon cooed. “Truthfully, old chap, it’s much windier than it is down here.”

Billy nodded. “I thought so. It’s always cold at number ten too. I think our visitors bring it with them.”

“That’s a shame, old chap. Hetti Horse says much the same.”

Billy’s eyes widened. “Oh really?” he asked. Surely a police horse with a coat shouldn’t get cold.

“She passed through on her way to Leicester Square, and she said that there was a real nip in the air last night.”

“Her officer should give her a thicker coat.”

“True indeed, old chap. I have a message for you from her. She says that she saw something of yours yesterday.”

Billy’s ears rose. “Did she say what?”

“I’m afraid not, old chap. You’d better hurry along to her.”

“I can’t. The Prime Minister should be back soon, and after a long day at Parliament, I’ll be needed.”

Peter Pigeon frowned and asked Billy, “is the Prime Minister still there?”

“Yes. It seems there are many talks to be had these days.”

“That’s a pity. Still, I suppose it doesn’t affect the birds in the sky,” Peter Pigeon said as he flapped a loose feather from his wing.

“But what about the street cats, the ones on the ground? What about them?”

“Admiral Nelson had a keen saying before the battle of Trafalgar.”

Billy turned his head. “What’s that?”

“’Something must be left to chance; nothing is sure in a sea fight above all.’”

“That’s a curious saying.”

“It doesn’t seem so curious to me. Now hurry along to Hetti Horse, Billy, or you’ll miss her!”

“Thank you, Peter Pigeon,” Billy said to him as he flew over number ten, back to Nelson’s column.

Billy stood on all fours and thought hard. He liked to stand when thinking.

He knew he would have to go along Whitehall, then through a busy Trafalgar Square to reach Hetti Horse at Leicester Square. It wouldn’t be easy with all the people, but to him it seemed a risk worth taking if it meant getting his collar back.

Billy shook his body, stretched his back legs and ran towards the gates of Downing Street.

Tourists cameras’ flashed at him as he climbed the gates. The officers on guard smiled, saying, “it’s that cat again.” Billy could never understand why they said that. After all, he had always been there.

Billy jumped down from the gates and ran past the clean white buildings of Whitehall, which always looked like palaces to him. Then he came to Trafalgar Square and sat at the lights, waiting for the man to turn green. A tall lady next to him bent down and rubbed Billy’s head, which made him purr. She looked in her bag for something to give to Billy, which he thought was kind of her, but the man turned green, so he had to run across the road.

People swarmed in Trafalgar Square. Billy ran beneath their feet, and he heard Peter Pigeon give a coo from Nelson’s column. He called down to Billy, “be careful, old chap!”

“I will, Peter Pigeon. Say hello to the Admiral for me!”

Billy ran along to Leicester Square, which too was full of big feet, and found Hetti Horse in the centre. Her officer stood in a group nearby.

“Hetti Horse!” Billy called to her.

Hetti Horse turned to Billy. “Hey, Billy,” she said to him, sounding rather bunged up.

“Are you alright, Hetti Horse?”

“It’s nothing. Only a sniffle.”

“Oh dear. Is it because of your coat?”

“Well it doesn’t make winter any easier. We’ve all been working long hours too, so I’m rather tired, and a tad hungry, and my mouth is very dry from walking all day…”

Billy said, “Well, Hetti, I’m sorry-”

He tried to finish his sentence, but Hetti Horse blindly carried on talking.

“…And I do get cold a lot, and I would like a nice sit down, and to breathe in some fresh air, like the air in Newmarket. And maybe some crisp hay too. That would be lovely. But other than that, I’m fine. Did Peter Pigeon talk to you?”

“Yes,” Billy said with bright eyes. “Did you find my collar?”

“Well, Billy… I’m afraid that…” Hetti Horse sneezed.

“Bless you,”

“Thank you.” She looked down to the pavement.

This worried Billy. “My collar?”

“Yes… well… when I was in Trafalgar Square earlier, I’m afraid that…”

“Yes, Hetti Horse?”

Hetti Horse sniffed and said, “…someone threw it into the fountain. I’m sorry, Billy.”

His ears fell down. He knew he couldn’t get it back now.

Hetti Horse lowered her neck down to Billy and rubbed her nose against his head.

“You might get my sniffle now,” she said to him.

“That’s okay, Hetti.”

“Is there anything I can do?”

He looked at her big brown eyes. He didn’t want her to see he was sad, so he shook his head, missing the sound of his collar rattling. “Thank you for telling me.”

Billy walked slowly along to Charing Cross Road. People tried to pet him, which he would never refuse, but knowing that his collar was gone, he didn’t feel like revelling in it.

And then he came to that fountain. Knowing that his collar was in there, but that the water was far too deep and frightening for him to get made his heart sink. Then above noisy chatter, Billy heard hooves.

“Hetti Horse, what are you doing away from your officer?”

She breathed deeply, and sneezed once more. “You looked so blue, Billy. So I thought I could help you get your collar.”

“But it’s lost in the water.”

“Perhaps if it’s close to the edge, then…” Hetti raised her head, waiting for another sneeze to fly out.

Billy’s ears rose. He said to Hetti Horse, “then perhaps we could reach it!”

Hetti Horse sniffed and said, “that’s what I was…” the sneeze was still trying to come out.

“Tip your head back,” Billy suggested. She did so, and an enormous sneeze blew out of her nose.

Her eyes watered and she sniffed some more, “ah, thank you.”

“Now let’s go!”

So Billy and Hetti Horse ran down the steps to fountain in Trafalgar Square.

People stared at them with shocked mouths and ready cameras.

Billy asked her, “where is your officer?”

“Never mind that. We have a collar to find.”

Hetti Horse reached the fountain before Billy. When he caught up with her he jumped up on to the edge, and they looked into the water. There were coins from all over the world, and someone had clearly tried to write on the ‘No Entry’ sign. Against the coins, a shiny gold ball stood out. It was the bell of Billy’s collar.

“There it is!” Billy said. “My collar!”

But it was near the middle. Hetti Horse had a long neck, but Billy knew she would not be able to reach.

She leaned as far as she could, stretching her neck and her head and even her tongue. Flashes from cameras and laughter surrounded them. Then came a whistle, but it was not one of Peter Pigeon’s.

Billy turned and saw Hetti Horse’s officer running towards them, but she paid no attention as she carried on reaching for the collar.

“Your officer is coming,” Billy told her.

She held back another sneeze and raised her front legs. Then, to everyone’s shock, especially Billy’s, she climbed in the fountain, and put her head under the water. Billy called for her to come out, but she didn’t listen.

Seeing Hetti Horse like this pulled on Billy’s heart strings. So, ignoring his fear, he jumped in after her.

She raised her head. “Billy, what are you doing?”

“Going for a dip, Hetti Horse. What do you think?!”

“Get out of the water!”

But then the whistles got louder, and a horrified officer stepped into the fountain after Hetti Horse. She put her head under Billy’s body and lifted him up. All he could do was look down at his collar.

They both sat by the fountain. The sun was going down over Trafalgar Square.

“I’m sorry, Billy.”

He looked up at a shaking Hetti Horse. “Your cold will get worse now.”

“I don’t mind. My officer will find me a dry coat.”

“Thank you for trying,” Billy said to her. Even though his collar was gone, a part of him smiled on the inside. It came from knowing that he said such true friends in Hetti Horse and dear old Peter Pigeon, who had flown away to visit friends in Hyde Park.

Hetti Horse’s rider pulled on her reins.

“Will you be alright, Billy?”

“I will. Thank you again.”

She smiled at Billy and walked away with her officer. Before he left, Billy sat by the fountain for a moment. He thought that at least he had somewhere to visit the collar, or more, somewhere to visit the memory of it. It wasn’t really gone at all.

He waited at the lights again, where he was nearly stood on and then apologised to. He ran past his palaces at Whitehall and came to Downing Street’s gates. At least he still had his home. He climbed them and ran to number ten.

After some visitors left, he walked through the door and up the stairs. Then he saw, the Prime Minister was back!

The Prime Minister gleamed. “Billy! Come to me.”

Billy ran to the Prime Minister, who knelt before him and rubbed behind his ears.

The Prime Minister pulled Billy close. “Hey there. I think you’re missing something.”

Over the Prime Minister’s wrist was a new collar. It was blue, like the old one, and had a gold bell. But this one had a tag on it. The tag had ‘Billy’ with the number ‘10’ on it.

The Prime Minister put the collar on Billy, not too loosely and not too tightly, just as he liked it. He rubbed his nose against the Prime Minister’s cheek. The number on it meant that no one could ever question it. Billy was the cat at Downing Street.