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He still swims every day. He is visited by nightmares, visions of the transports or the death march. Flinching if he hears a step behind him, anticipating the stinging blow or numbing kick. He devotes the time he has to writing and painting, not for pleasure but as a duty; a promise he made his grandfather on his death-bed, to remember the murder of his people and tell his story so that we can never allow that to happen again. He says he never lost faith in the humanity of people. ‘Life is quite short really, but it’s very good.’
I’ve held my body in a scream all day long. My muscles have squeezed all that pain into a jaw that feels like it’s been locked shut. It never stops aching. I’ve felt blood rush to my head in anger, confusion and desperation; my skin has flashed cold and hot. I’m scorched with prickly heat and flooded with a clammy frost for no apparent reason, well nothing I can see, at least. Things got too noisy today, it all became a bit too much for me to handle, so I panicked very quietly to myself. I can’t sleep for screaming.
‘What would be your perfect day? One day is sunny and one day is very cold, so two days... What time would you wake up?’
‘What would you have for breakfast?’
Pancakes, maple syrup and bacon surely?
‘Remember when we made pancakes at your house? What else? Shopping?’
(not you I know!)
‘Who would you go shopping with?’
Then a nice lunch somewhere by the river with cocktails or wine. Something different and unusual with a beautiful view and music. Preferably snow and fireworks with seafood and pad thai. Bouncing rain, forked lightning, rolling thunder, purple skies then bed.
Happy Birthday. Good morning to you too. I have seen more sets of drawers this week than anyone should have to, and not a single one in fabric – I know they actually exist now which is a mixed blessing. Agonisingly out of reach but I definitely didn’t dream them (unlike you!) I meant to include one more tale in your book, by the way. Something like, ‘try to find the best in him when he’s closed or late.’ A story of a boy who tries. He’s trying. Sometimes he has to take himself away somewhere to work it out alone.
I kept a little green book tucked in my back pocket full of phrases and words I’d written down phonetically. Words in Pashto, Farsi, Urdu, Turkish and Arabic. Words for, ‘Hello’, ‘How are you?’, ‘aubergine,’ and, ‘carrot.’ Words that unlocked stories some of the kids had buried for years. Stories of Taliban attacks and Allied bombings, of family members killed before their eyes and torturous journeys in the back of lorries for months on end. Those little words brought our two worlds together and made us laugh a lot. I left the job and I left the green book behind.
He shuffled up to us with his head bowed low and mumbled, “Big Issue please.’
I gave him my thoughtless automatic London-learnt response, “No thanks mate.”
“Any change for a cup of tea?” and mum put her hands in her bag for her purse, gave him a beautiful smile and started chatting. She couldn’t find the purse so gave him a twenty-pound note from the bottom of her bag.
“Get yourself something to eat.” He couldn’t say a word but shook her hand.
“God love him, it might help.”
A life is a precious thing and God love my mum.
I’m starting to forget what my housemates look like and I’m sure they’ve long since given up hope of identifying the inhabitant of the room at the top of the stairs. So often, I finish my day and come home late to find everyone tucked up in bed ready for their early starts or I spend the night in softer surroundings farther north. We still manage to come back together at weekends but it’s been a while since we all went for breakfast or a coffee. Another month of rehearsals and late nights and we’ll be back in the habit.
‘No one in the middle of being in love ever sat down to write a love story. It’s only after the belongings are sorted and the shirts returned that the pencils are sharpened and the notebooks opened. So in a serious way, love stories are never love stories. Love is their inspiration, yes, but the end of love is the reason for their existence.’
Can we only write stories if we know the endings? We live our stories from moment to moment without pausing to comment. I think. We look back on how we got here but 'here' keeps changing.
How quickly I was able to close that door and walk away. How cruelly life took a new direction. ‘I’m leaving now,’ I said to nobody in particular and left without ceremony or applause, or without ever really feeling like I’d been anywhere at all. I was passing through. I’m still passing; condemned to walk without footsteps, to walk like the wandering Jew, touching a soul every once in a while. I have loved and been loved like a fury; painted lipstick hearts in eyes of every colour and concentration but I’m so scared of finally stopping. Let me stay.
I stumble over my tongue sometimes. It writhes out of control like a dry dog in desperate need of a run in the rain. It won’t go where I tell it to; it rebels and stiffens up in protest, marching down my throat. Some days it squats on the floor of my mouth, a morbidly obese game-show obsessive, trapped in a tiny bed-sit. I need a crane and a hoist to get it outside. I always thought my tongue was an Olympian, a gymnast moving with grace and poise. I was wrong, it seems, I struggle with lots of things.
The Tube network is crippled for a second day, brought to it’s knees by another strike. Stepping off the overland train at Waterloo I realise that most of the three million who use the Tube each day are with me on the platform, buffeting each other as we trickle towards the gates and out into the daylight. Some walk with eyes cast down, mourning meetings missed and precious minutes lost. Others, blessedly, walk with an open stride drinking in their new surroundings. The river by morning, Embankment: kiss, St Martin’s bleached in sunlight. I’ll see you all again by night-fall.
She’s sat just out of reach, too far for him to spark up conversation. What would she say if he did? She’d smile, or stare without the smile, and chirp something in a sing-song voice before turning to a friend for a question or a lighter or a drink. He’d sit for a while watching planes fly overhead before making his muttered excuses and leaving. She watches him stand and go – maybe she says, ‘You’re leaving?’ Maybe he nods – to see them by day you wouldn’t know them by night. Lying alone, unseen and unlooked for, entwined within their laughter.
I disappear from time to time, stand up and walk away. I think it’s for the best sometimes but from now I’ll always try to stay, or take you with me. I do less than I think I do; make fewer sacrifices to be with you, you say. I’m just not used to fighting so hard. You think him cold and distant sometimes, eternally blasé but you’re here, inside, with him wrestling control away. I know I make it harder than it needs to be and that we’ve a long way to go but look how far we’ve come already.
The first generation of super-cool dad relaxing in the park with his young family. Diesel jeans with Calvin Klein boxers poking out from under a creased black t-shirt, set off oh so casually with a brown leather belt. Hair worn long enough to warrant pushing back behind the ears and kept in place with a straw hat, the same colour as the beads around his neck and the Birkenstock sandals. He shares a smoothie and a joke with his friend and their children bounce around their knees face-painting each other with ice cream. He looks around distractedly, not entirely comfortable.
A million lines to learn before next week and the scripts are sitting in my bag, zipped up away from where prying eyes might read them. I know I’ll look soon - I really should look now – but I’ll read the paper first, find a friend to talk to, maybe do some writing; anything to postpone the final stages of creating Mr Van Dann. Filling the out the caricature that’s written with something more truthful, more human. A man who loves his son but simply can’t relate to him. A man who adores his wife with all the rage of passion.
A few quiet moments amidst the mayhem of the final weeks to stroll back to the summer fayre. Winding our way from stall to stall, eating pancakes and laughing at owls. A blessing from the white witch in another costume, passing hog-roasts and thai food, opting for two dry oat cakes instead. I guess I’m not a perfect person. Sitting on the grass listening to live music, writing in this book as you run over lines in your head on my lap. Then churros and coffee, banana guards and home. A quiet moment to remember there’s life outside these walls.
He asks the question with pause and poise, tasting the weight of each word in his mouth. I watch him asking and I see the savouring of flavour, an absolute relish in the question. Arm resting gently on lap with an educated finger bouncing on his bottom lip waiting for whatever response is slid his way. The answer is unimportant, of course. The sheer pleasure in questioning was enough. It was all. Yes, I think he is affected. I think he is painfully aware of how he is perceived. A shuddering fist opens out into a gesture of genuine sincerity.
‘There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.’ I pick out ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ by Camus from the back of my bookshelf and start the first page, again. I tried years ago but lost it or got distracted by another tome. It’s a funny idea that, ‘killing yourself amounts to confessing,’ confessing that life is too much for you or that you can’t understand it. Why do we try? I remember years ago, a man who worked for dad threw himself into the River Yare. Gambling debts and a broken marriage ended in his confession.
I see you sat hunched on my windowsill, squashed into the corner gathering dust. You haven’t moved for weeks, you’re just sat there moodily watching me sleep. I opened the window for you in the rain; you got wet but still sat there sulking. You’re soft to touch, still draw yourself away from my finger in disgust. I leave an imprint of my nail in your skin and another to dress you up like a tiny white hot cross bun. I sometimes think I’ll move you, roll you in the bin, but you’re not mine to move so you stay.
I wonder if he’s told his parents yet. My guess is not but I can’t see how they’d fail to notice after so long. He’s lived with him for years now, almost since they met and no girlfriends in all that time, surely mum and dad would notice. His brother’s reaction was encouraging I think – surprised of course, initially shocked perhaps but rapidly accepting. A little more time was needed to find the words and the right time to tell everyone; he needed to be absolutely sure himself. He’s scared they’ll be disappointed but he can’t live like this forever.
‘She was making a birthday cake for Beth yesterday. It was so funny.’
‘She was trying to decorate it.’
A hopeful glance in his direction.
‘They took a biopsy, said it was probably nothing but could be anything. That’s what they said.’
The train bursts through the tunnel and I miss what comes next but it’s brief and ends in more silence. He swallows hard and taps his fingers on his knee, his mind wandering off to find that little piece they took from him; the bit they scraped out or cut away.
Momently, he shuts his eyes.
I caught myself walking on the grass and thought I might just keep on walking forever. Past trees and paths, fields and roads, past villages and towns, through borders and physical boundaries. I thought I might walk across the oceans looking for whatever came my way. I caught myself walking towards a mountain range, far off in the distance, with snows and silent wilderness, all white and wild silence. I dreamed of trekking through continents and speaking many languages as I walked, talking to everyone, living through their stories. I caught myself sitting on the grass and thought of you.
When I think back to our first meeting some seven or eight years ago, it doesn’t seem possible that our friendship would have endured. Sat hungover eating breakfast in the halls of residence, your face hidden in your hoody, grunting occasionally. Then four years living together with two in the House of love. House parties that became the stuff of legend and nights out at Fuzz or the Tuesday Club. Now our friends and old housemates are getting married or have left the country and we see each other so rarely but I know we’re always going to have this.
Yes, that’s her dream job; that’s what she can see herself doing in some quiet corner of the world. Writing, with a chocolate Labrador curled up at her feet, twitching his nose and paws in his sleep as he chases after that rabbit. She’s got plenty of stories to tell; a wealth of experiences already at the age of twenty-five. Life as an officer-cadet in the Army with sleep deprivation, operational exercises and her total rejection of the established order; life as a crime scene investigator with blood pattern analysis, finger-printing and court appearances. It’ll all go in that book.
Not an original thought in my head tonight, just a bundle of clichés wriggling around on top of one another. I want to picture mum at home, getting ready for bed, maybe watering the flowers, alone. I thought I might create a fuller life (in my mind) for a man I barely know but can guess at. I’d hoped to apologise for not getting in touch with all those people who have heard nothing but silence. Instead, I’ll imagine a summer together – a girl and a boy – of late mornings and seaside walks, a wooden rollercoaster and crazy-golf with donuts.
One for the portfolio tonight: I can’t believe she has actually become worse, her obsession with objects has dominated us for three terms and we’ve all, finally, rejected her uniquely idiosyncratic approach to Acting. She allows absolutely no room for creativity in the rehearsal process; she has only answers, there’s no discussion, no imagination. She insists on ‘solving problems’ but will not tolerate suggestions for an instant. A line doesn’t fit into her scheme – a line written by the playwright – she’ll change it happily and she’s certainly no writer, yet she hates her actors paraphrasing lines. She’s lost us completely.
There’s a waking dream I return to from time to time of waking in an attic bedroom to the faint sounds of morning traffic bubbling from the street below. The dream is confused with memories of all the beds I’ve fallen asleep in and the rooms I can picture in my mind. Memories of driving from Geneva to Lausanne hidden in the boot of a car looking up at the orange streetlights and stars. Memories of Swiss balconies with coffee and Spanish balconies with beer. Of bohemian windows framing a Parisian sun peering through the shutters.
Waking with a kiss.
M&S Simply Food, No smoking, 75% off London hotels, call collect, Platform 11, lift, Delice de France patisserie boulangerie, Stansted Express, Departures, please stand on the right, Next, her majesty the Queen. Waxing, Dermalogica, teeth whitening, I heart London, Underground, McDonalds, Aldo, AJ, Wonder Woman, community support officer, Superdry, hen weekend, CCTV operates in this area. I heart London.
Reading for pleasure at Liverpool Street station, bombarded with slogans and adverts and warnings and brands, Promises emblazoned on t-shirts and billboards in every colour of the rainbow. Backlit and fluorescent, beautiful people smiling down upon the masses.
I heart London.
Twelve hours of Period Dance in preparation for the showing tomorrow and we’re adorned in finest garments. Frock coats that float and glide behind the whirling gentleman; corseted ladies trussed up with ribbons and lace. One lady dressed as a gentleman with purple frock coat trimmed with aristocratic airs and graces. She looks quite the force to be reckoned with, a porcelain faced libertine, all eyes and cheekbones. Dropping the shoulders down and letting the spine flow up to the sky, eyebrows arched wryly with faint disdain for the gentlemen around her. I’m creating her story to make her smile.
What a strange place to be. My body is aching – my back and shoulders at least, from hours standing and dancing. I can feel my body but my head is all over the place. I can’t be certain I haven’t fallen asleep and this is all just a dream. That would suit, the last ten months have all been a dream – that bad dream I used to have as a kid where mum and dad divorced and I ran away.
I’m not asleep and this isn’t a dream. Mum and Dad divorced today and I don’t live at home anymore.
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