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Yuke stands - all four foot grace – staring over the counter, framed by shiny white surfaces and paper coffee cups, lost in time. She stares through the glass of the Pacific Coffee Company window imagining something different; something bigger. She stares through the traffic idling at the crossing; through the antiquated tram turning onto Belchers and pierces a hole straight through the Sin Lai Curtain & Lighting store across the street. She grows a little as the hole expands, sucking in lamp-shades and lights tearing through Midland Realty and Century 21. Soon nothing remains of Kennedy Town save Yuke, and me.
Just occasionally, I’ll catch a glimpse of the future staring back at me from a passing car or a shop-front window. More often than not, I’ll find it in the bathroom mirror, bent double, trying to see myself from the outside in – a view that so few will have seen – cheeks to my eyes, sagging upward. From time to time (an age in itself) I’ll feel it underneath my fingertips; the furrows and creases and cracks that will deepen and splinter. But for every fault-line; a story. For every fissure; a scar to spark a memory to make me smile.
She sculpts a heart into the foam of her coffee with a straw, etching the lines deeper into the bubbles with every stroke. She’s grinning to herself, totally oblivious to anyone else around her, as if her fingers and the foam are working together to create something real: a beating heart in a coffee cup. True love in black and white bubbles. She reminds me of another time, of a different girl in a different place with a red heart in a white smoothie. She smiles. She takes a sip and the heart has gone but then nothing lasts forever.
I found a hole in my chest where I was leaking a bitter yellow paste that squeezed out solid like play-dough from a tube. I rubbed it grainy between my finger and my thumb and squeezed again watching the hole winking at my palm all sorry-looking empty and apologetic. I’m falling apart from the inside out; expelling, repelling and seeping. Every little boy I’ve ever been is pouring out through the holes in my skin, bursting into tissues, flushed out of existence. All that remains is a moist crepe-papery mess that sweats, bleeds and bursts until it dries out completely.
“I don’t want to go in this lift!” and his ugly little face is twisted in rage again as he jambs his pudgy thumb into the button for opening the doors. I’m struggling with a Jaegar-bomb hangover and one too many Icings to manage anything more than a drawled, “Please.” And his mother looks up at me, alarmed that I should try talking to this crease of puppy-fat; “I’m sorry. He’s just like this, sometimes.” And he bangs his fists against the door and glowers at me in the mirrored wall. He’s going to be trouble, this one. Evil dumpling.
Woke up on Bohol in the Philippines. I say woke up but I haven’t really slept yet, what with the 1.30am flight from Hong Kong. Taxi, aeroplane, taxi, ferry, taxi to the southwest tip of the island and the white sands and blue skies are just too tempting to put off for sleep. The Beach Club is almost too postcard perfect and if you scratch beneath the surface of the, “Hello Sir. Good Morning, Sir. Drink, Sir?” smiles, I’m sure there’s another story but now isn’t the time for economics. Now is for ignoring sharks and swimming in that sea.
A Chinese couple are posing for photographs with a starfish they’ve plucked from the sea. He holds it over his belly button and pretends he’s being eaten alive. She directs him to put it on his head and then his face as she snaps happily away. The starfish gives a little shrug – he’s seen this all before – and prays again to the Great Sea God for teeth or claws or a vast stinging tail. ‘That would be funny,’ he whispers. ‘That would make a good photograph.’ But the couple are done and skim him back before his prayers are answered.
We are the Self-Preservation Society. 80km/hr in pastel shades of red, blue and green. Locals stop to wave and grin at three boys beaming through Bohol, beeping at kids hanging out of buses for a photograph; at toothless old tobacco men in windows who smile and shake their heads; at girls who giggle their ‘hellos’ into each others’ shoulders; at Tarsiers tucked away in their trees, sleeping until nightfall. We wind up broken roads; passing unfinished bridges suspended in the sky, past man-made forests and down the other side into God’s own country in perfect convoy.
I wish I’d brought you Submarine and not Fish Tank. It’s an altogether more suitable submersible. I was reminded of you again; a lot of films throw you up in my head. Images from our own Super-8 story – the stars, the lazy river, heavy rain, our heads buried in each other’s chests. I know some of these aren’t true; that my memory has employed a sepia-toned artistic licence and faded all the browns to black and white. That we were never that well dressed, our footprints never fell perfectly in step, and I never held you laughing in the rain.
A gaggle of ex-pat lawyers whiling away six months in Hong Kong before Qualification, working on some high-profile cases – presumably – pulling long hours – one guy at least – being incredibly well rewarded for their efforts – incontrovertible as I’ve seen the evidence and been forced to drink it on bended knee: rounds of Jaeger-bombs, red wine and beer, vodka jelly shots served in syringes. Slipping coins into the jukebox at Jardine. Ziggy Stardust and Brandon Flowers playing above another threatened fight and subsequent ejection. Standing in the taxi queue at five and six in the morning trying to remember tomorrow’s meetings.
His face emerges from the crowd ahead, propped neatly on two pairs of shoulders, gazing straight down my camera lens. Caught in a tight-lipped grimace as he pushes his cart of boxes towards me. Piled precariously, one on top of the other, rattling as they beach for a moment on the curb. Sea cucumbers, birds’ nests and sharks’ fins on their penultimate journey. I pretend I’m shooting a friend behind but he knows what I want. ‘Come to discover us for yourself, have you? Want to show them how we live, Pioneer? Come to patronize us with your camera?’
How are you now? Don’t laugh, I know you’re not quite real; that I’ve managed to create you somewhere between then and when. An amalgamation of past and future but sadly not quite now. Never in the present. It’s strange as I remember things we’ve never done. I predict futures that will never happen. I’ve put a lot of faith in you, in both of you in fact, racing ahead and behind with different stories, all of them wonderfully full and happy and light, but with substance... and... you’re laughing again. Wonderfully full and happy and light. Who are you?
Meanwhile back in the jungle all the animals are sat in different corners of the room plugged into Ipads and laptops, hunched over vast bowls of milky coffee, opening their pores. Three amateur film makers sit beneath a poster for ‘Martha Macy May Marlene’ sharing early influences and childhood tales of inspiration. Leon, Close Encounters and Akira all feature. As does the back-catalogue of Nicolas Cage (excluding the past five years, obviously). I’m expecting you to walk in with somebody else, practicing my feigned surprise and rehearsing casual chit-chat. It’s a waste of time; you’re not coming in.
Three bags of Mate sit between us as you explain the genesis of your homemade Wampas; how you carved the flesh out of each miniature pumpkin until you found the perfect thickness for your tea. Too thin and the walls would collapse; too thick and there’s not enough tea. You bring out the wooden tea-stand, carved in Paraguay, that holds your mate and thermos perfectly whilst you play guitar. There’s a simple pride in your voice and your body as you explain the whole ritual to me with Led Zeppelin playing quietly in the background and your wife looking on.
I remember a time, not long ago, when you were holed up in your self-imposed exile because you couldn’t afford to enjoy living in London. Miserable under house arrest in Island Gardens, glimpsing Greenwich across the river when the wind blew the trees on the bank and the leaves parted just enough to reveal the Naval College and the ruins of the Cutty Sark. Now your fortunes have improved and I’ll bet it all seems worthwhile. I find myself on unfamiliar ground, enduring a similar exile, and I can only have faith that I will see this through to success.
Framed in her own composition, she has an eye for detail; her cream-coloured coat cuts through the mirrored wall like an O’Keefe flower, heavy with everything those petals suggest. She stares into her Iphone as she captures this image of herself and a friend. The case is made to look like a cassette tape – we’re just old enough to remember using these; tales of recording the Top 40 (possibly apocryphal, I can’t remember now). But we were definitely together for CDs and the birth of DVD. 9/11; together, staring at the television with Drops of Jupiter playing in the background.
I have no discernible roots; nothing to really hold on to and call home. The product of an Irish mother and Yorkshire father, I have family in both places and a scattering of memories from childhood days walking along an abandoned railway line with Dad and stepping out of a car trying to avoid being bitten by dogs with Mum but nothing to anchor my soul. I think that’s possibly why I’ve ended up doing what I do. I’m quite content to take on other histories and create myself anew, planting imagined roots all over the place. Story-telling for myself.
They look at me with lowered eyes and shake their heads saying how difficult they would find it; how hard it must be to do what I do – ‘but your job is your hobby, how amazing’. In an apparently generous effort to soothe some imagined existential wound I’m concealing in my soul. I wear everything upon my face so perhaps they see something I keep hidden from myself in the mirror? Perhaps my eyes and hands betray me as we sit discussing house prices and the state of British tennis. Or perhaps they see what they want to see.
Sitting in my Dressing Room at 6.25pm waiting for the right time to go onstage for a warm-up and there are all manner of things going through my head that I could write about. Equal doses of nostalgia and forward planning today. Lunch with two close friends in the sunshine by Wandsworth Common – our old neighbourhood from when we lived together – counting the shops and cafes we recognised and mourning the ones that have fallen away. Passing Deveraux Road and remembering the significance of a simple road sign; the smile upon my face each and every time I read it.
She looks up from her cocktail and fixes me with a glacial stare uttering four little words only I can hear. She smiles and melts back into conversation with the others, running her finger over the sharp edge of the pineapple in her glass. Her skin is stretched like milk across her skull and I can see a thin blue vein reaching into her eye-socket, lighting up those blue-grey baubles as she speaks. She glistens as she dances, disappearing further and further behind a fine silky mist that makes her glow blue-translucent. Fading from view with every flick of hair.
Sometimes you look so alone; like you’ve only just arrived here. Laughing at something that was never there, you wonder if it will always be over before it even starts. You wonder what your photographs will look like when you’re old. Who are you standing next to? Who is holding your hand tightly to their chest? Who have you deleted or torn apart? Will there be characters who suddenly appear beside you and stay through all kinds of weather and holidays and Christmases only to disappear as suddenly as they came. How come you’re not in any of your photographs?
I can’t rid myself of what I have seen. I can’t undo what I’ve done. Nor can I decide if I want to. I can impose limits and restrictions on what actions I take but I rarely heed my own warnings, and if I do observe my arbitrary rules, they shift until they break and then regroup ten yards further down the line. I watch with fear and envy at the midnight dawn time hawkers falling down on their faces and laughing back up, braying at bodies all sweated in sheets and I wonder if maybe someone is watching me.
‘Where did you come from?’ I’m walking over the bridge holding my scarf in hand and sweating into my jumper. I see you pivot on the pavement ahead and bend down to play with a small brown dog, brushing your hair out of your eyes as you look up at the owner. I imagine you’re asking her name as you cup her ears in your hands (the dog, not the owner). You turn to me - like you expected me to be there, catching up - and smile. You ruffle the dog’s head and stand waiting with your arms at your sides.
I see traces of her all over London: the figure ducking onto the Northern Line as the doors close, a handbag hanging from her wrist; the elongated shadow curving up the tunnel wall by London Bridge and curling out of sight behind a passing taxi; the light brown head bobbing slightly higher in a sea of other light brown heads on Tottenham Court Road; the French actress in the silent movie dancing on billboards and winking at me over someone else’s shoulder, bending to ruffle the head of another dog. Traces of her in every single corner of this city.
Finally boarding the train to speed me back to London and to something like my life as I’d expected it to be. For all my ‘game up’ thoughts about the future - the many diary dates and plans - I’m struck dumb by a scene from the past. He looks as I’d expect him to after 17 years of myth and rumour. He almost looks well, greying now, a little spread across the middle; two children in tow. They look happy. They look loved. Can it really be that long ago? Why does it leave such a bitter taste in my mouth?
I’ve been sat in this chair all day watching the sky grow darker. It’s almost purple now as I look out beyond the cotton-bud tree pared down to the blue plastic, illuminated in the street light. A petrified army of limbs held taut against the wind straining to touch - to clap or caress - longing to feel something other than the cold. I’ve been tip-toeing my fingers across the page, keeping time with the lengthening shadows and wondering how best to use my time. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the answer. Pencil down, through the door and into the night.
I saw you looking at me over the top of your phone, talking to your mum who was standing next to you by the door of the Overground from Hampstead Heath to Cannonbury where you got off with your mum still talking beside you and you threw me one last look-come-half-smile that said how nice this journey was; that we both had such a lovely time but wouldn’t it have been even nicer to have spoken? Wouldn’t it have been fun if you could have dropped what you were doing and left with us to wherever it is we’re going?
The longing is a pain that breaks in waves. The swell is smaller today but the sets keep rolling in and swallowing me under. Funny that the song I told you was yours is so sad; like I christened it in the full knowledge that to name was to kill. Past tense seemed to be the best way of relating to what we lived. Imagined stories of a future apart became prophetic. I wonder now, so far away from it, if we really believed all the things we said. How can you know anything when you’re living in it?
I wonder how I’m doing, relative to my friends, my peers (what a funny little word that is: a collective noun for disappointment). My friends who married soon after University, who have houses and cars and children; all these achievements, these grown-up accomplishments. Is there some impartial eye watching them and ticking off a list? Applauding each new child and kitchen extension? Have points been allocated accordingly? Where am I on the table? I expect I don’t feature; that my points are very few. But sitting in my dressing room, staring at my bike in the mirror, I’m pretty content.
Sitting in the middle of Leicester Square with the sun disappearing behind the smooth sliver lines of the W Hotel, all London life is represented on this small stretch of grass: Office workers, clad in suits, meeting for a beer; Theatre folk – the Subterraneans – sun seeking between shows with coffee cups and packed lunches; the ever-present tourist chewing on McDonalds; the school group (Dutch today) with matching rucksacks and recognised leader. They sit and stand with drilled uniformity, each with his or her own number and position in the group. The bells strike six and I’m bound underground once more.
Reading over your entries for last year, I remember why I started doing this. I’ve never had your discipline to complete every month I started, indeed I own countless journals and moleskins with entries scattered amongst shopping lists, addresses and travel itineraries, but I remember the pleasure of looking back and catching up with your life as you wrote it, day by day. Flicking backwards, I read snapshots of my own life; the handful of entries for October, the solitary scribble for January and each fragment chimes with how I remember getting here today. Touchstones for my narrative thus far.
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