The International Writers Magazine:Life Moments
Its raining outside my window, a winter afternoon like any other.
The sun is shining and drops of water sparkle in the light, falling onto the mottled pavement two stories below. Clothes and rags lie strewn along one side of the alley. A gust of wind blows a light shower in from the street and beads of water bounce into the lane. Drains overflow and fingers of muddy water search out cracks in the pavement, collecting in pools and spreading. The resident tramp is curled in a ball along the dry wall, soggy cigarette butts saved in a neat pile by his side.
I turn back to my computer screen. A mash of numbers and dates beckon for me to make sense of them, arrange them in some logical order, a course of events. I start to click and drag them into date and time, hoping the case might start to take shape. My imagination runs in a multitude of directions, taking twists and turns at different points of the tale, piecing together each witness’ account and clicking them into place. Somehow, I will build a case from this mess.
A niggling knot tightens in my stomach, reminding me of the nuisances of the day and a desperate urge to unwind, right now, manifests itself. It’s 4pm in the corner of my screen. Soon it will be dark and an orange haze will envelope the city, the life of night escaping from the bellies of apartments and squats all over London like the embers of a dying fire. I text message the number on my speed dial,
Summer, South of the Equator
Warm air blasts my face, I’m hanging out of the car window like a dog, lips and cheeks flapping in the wind. Tall, grey gums fall in and out of my vision, their spindly branches lean and smooth. Flashes of light peek through their branches. The sun is strong and dazzling. We’re driving fast and we’re making good time. The Radio’s turned up and the rock ballad’s ghostly echo trails behind us, its notes distorted, mimicking the scream of a siren. Three huge kangaroos bound across our path. One – two – three. I take a sharp breath and they’re gone. Stop, there’s one more, a joey. We clip it, I guess.
Grit scratches my eyes and the smell of eucalyptus roasting in the sun keeps me conscious. A banged-up blue ute screeches to a halt on the side of the road in a cloud of red dust. The smoky taste of rare meat and salt burns my lips. The accident happened last December, a year to the day.
I’m trudging down the High Street, the tube station is in my sights. We mix it up every week, always somewhere different. My phone’s been buzzing off the hook since I clocked off. It’s my shout tonight and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my last fifty quid. I even borrowed a couple of pounds from the miserable Saffa sharing my office so I could keep this crisp, new note ready for the exchange. Its always clean and quick, nothing said. We recognize each other through a sequence of inconspicuous signs, each one timed just so. Tonight, the messenger is a frail little thing. She stands at the railing on the mezzanine level and I gradually make out the details of her hunched, ashen frame as I glide up the escalator. She looks me up and down as I approach with a studied air of nonchalance. Her blood shot eyes stare directly into mine, challenging me to make a wrong move. I barely break stride as we brush past one another and she slips me the small packet. I shove the note into her hand and she skulks back into the bustling crowd.
The London of my dreams always promised to be my undoing – the passion and tragedy that moved me in my relationships, my studies, my expectations, all of it embodied in one city, in the lives of each of its inhabitants. The city felt like the hub of the universe for a while, fundamental in essence, the very nucleus of life, what it meant to be alive. Then the routine began, just as it had back home, even here. Boredom set in like a crippling curse, and curiosity came along to cure it.
It really is that simple. That’s how it all happens, how people end up this way. I wouldn’t have believed it either. Its just one circumstance, one acquaintance linked to another and then you’re all in it together, a life, hell, a family, all players in a fantastical conspiracy. Underneath it all, the foundations of a former life sit on a sinking grave of naivety.
Mince, Carrots, Celery – check.
It’s the first time I’ve carried my own stash. I swear the shit is burning a hole in my pocket. The security guard looks me over as I stand in line at Marks & Spencers, watching each number as it flashes in red above the next available checkout.
“Will the next customer please proceed to aisle 9”
I shift my weight from one leg to the other. I must look shifty as hell. The queue of suits, a stream of navy, pinstripe and wool, swells and seems about to burst as a large man joins the line behind me. A steaming bouquet of damp cashmere, wet wool and cut-price roses drifts down the line like a current. Customers loosen their collars and open their lapels, an oppressive, anxious energy bubbling in their veins, the life-blood of the city born of cramped spaces and grey skies. The city’s aggression hides behind the corner of every random encounter, every chance taken, a gamble with fate.
The package is small and folded into a rectangle and I turn it over and over in my fingers. The shrill tone of an androgynous voice jolts me from my thoughts and directs me to aisle 11. I mutter to the girl behind the counter and wave heart heartedly at a pack of Silk Cuts on the shelf. She forgets to scan the fags before tossing them into the bag. The security guard senses an argument brewing behind me as two brokers jostle in line and doesn’t notice her mistake.
Now I’m out the door, tearing open the plastic wrapper and fumbling to light a fag. I’m on my way home and it feels fucking fantastic.
It was just another argument, like any other. The kind of arguments lovers have, frightening and passionate. After we’d exhausted every insult, I left the house and collapsed outside on the grass. The sky was as clear as I’d ever seen it and each star seemed to explode every time I squinted and switched my focus from one to the next. I remember naming them - Helena, Christina – but what if it was a boy?
The damp seeped through my woolen coat, sending cold chills down my spine. I’m sure it was at that point – cold, drunk and increasingly nauseous - that I decided to leave. Simon persuaded me to wait until morning when we could drive home together. He told me he would support me in making all the necessary arrangements. He moved closer to me and I shunned his cautious attempt to pull me close and wrap a blanket over our shoulders. Snatching it from him, I turned back to the house, gathering the blanket in my arms and carrying it into the house, keeping it for myself.
By the end of the evening we’d resigned ourselves to the sensible solution although a large part of me still hoped his love might grow as mine had, that I’d have the time to show him the perfection of it all, that I’d have time to change our minds.
I’m sitting in the shower. The weak trickle of water has turned cold and my ass is aching from bearing the weight of my slumped body on the cold, ceramic tiles. My nostrils burn and bitterness trickles to the back of my throat. Soon enough my tonsils are numb and I can’t taste a thing. All I can feel is my thick, warm tongue lolling about in my mouth and the cold pricks of water on my back. I run my fingers along my temples and they catch in a tangle of soapy, matted hair. There’s a gentle knock on the door,
“Hey honey, I haven’t lost you in there have I?” Geoff questioned, his voice tinged with vague concern.
The hum of voices rises and falls in the background and occasional shrieks of laughter soar above a flock of murmurs.
“I’m fine baby, feeling fabulous actually, I’ll be out in a minute.”
“OK honey, well you’d better get out here soon before the hounds get at whiff of what’s left.”
Geoff shuffles back down the hall and greets more guests as they burst into the apartment, always the perfect host. I get my head together and dry off.
A crowd of people greet me as I enter the living room, all familiar faces. The coffee table is covered in a thin veil of white dust, a pattern of thin lines criss-crossing its surface. My head is filled with thoughts, insight and a burning desire to share it with everyone. Time stops for a while and I’m absorbed in gossip and rumour. All at once my head feels as if its going to explode. I excuse myself and retreat to a corner in the kitchen to regain my composure, I know it will pass after a few deep breathes. My heart beat slows and the panic passes. Mel brings out the decks amidst cheers and shrieks from the crowd and my heart skips a beat before pounding in time with the steady, hypnotic beat. I re-join the crowd, once again craving the warm bodies and incessant chatter. A surge of energy rushes through my body and I’m up, off the couch and calling a cab. There are cheers and last drinks all around. We plunge into the night.
We’d be bathing in the sea right now, waves lapping at my feet, white foam washing over my belly.
Drifting paino riffs sweep through the club, bright blue strobes flashing in time and saturating every astonished face in light. Bodies are suspended in stiff, robotic poses. The room seems drained of life and the crowd is reduced to a mob of pallen shapes, void of expression. Then a burst of orange light sets fire to the dance floor, throwing shadows across the wall, arms are raised in the air and bodies sway from side to side. Undulating bodies move with the ebb and flow of the base and people come alive, rescued from the bring of a nightmare.
I feel sweat trickling down my neck and fingers stroking my hair, someone close to me, and respond to their touch with slow, deliberate movements. For a moment I feel safe with this stranger. Our intimacy is short-lived as we’re separated by the surging crowd and lost in a sea of people engrossed in their own ecstasy or sadness. Geoff spots me in the crowd and pushes his way through, smiling knowingly. He takes me in his arms, squeezing and rubbing my shoulders, all the while watching the pulsating throng of glistening bodies. I motion to leave and he gives me a questioning look.
“You stay, I’ll be fine” I shout at the top of my voice. Geoff shrugs and kisses me goodbye.
0039 340 10613
I follow the path of Christmas lights strung across the street. Each tiny, white bulb flickers nervously, disturbed by the stillness. The ringing in my ears has stopped and my nerves twitch as the first bird starts up, mocking me with its cheerful chatter.
Rubbing my trembling hands together, I notice a phone number scrawled on my palm in blue ink. Sweat has smeared the ink across my palm rendering the last two digits illegible. The blue ink has leaked into my lifeline, staining it like a thick, blue vein. I resist a powerful urge to vomit, gulping down the mass of bile in my throat. For the first time this Winter, I feel cold. Perhaps I’ll make it home for Christmas next year.
© Jennifer Marshall June 2010
jennifer_marshall at mac.com
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