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It’s been a year since we stood here, you and I, in this very spot, next to the huge presence of the Chinese steam engine. You liked it here. You explained all sorts of things to me which now I cannot remember, and which I will never be able to ask you about again. We always talked facts, you and I. Never emotions. Over the years we developed a way of being with one another. Mostly in silence. The last time I came home I remember thinking that I had nothing to say to you. And that was ok.
Lens for an eye, long legs in a short skirt cross uncovering a knee patch as she frames, and frames, and I’ve walked past her. A bearded poverty prophet strains under the weight of two plastic bags as he stops to let past a turning van which flashes in golden lettering ‘Handmade Handrail Services’. Three young lads in stained sportswear scout the elegant passers-by, rushing office workers, tight shorts, flowing hair, rude rouge lipstick, yeah I’d hit that. From their mucky corner a girl and a guy scowl at Fortnum&Mason’s, slouched in a sleeping bag.
Always electrifies, this initial encounter, stimulating, bustling, London. Reverberating self-consciously/unconsciously with cyperpunk, Melville, and yes Pratchett, a city of stories, a city of symbols. Always a step ahead on the up-to-the-minute must-haves, must-see’s, must-be’s. Gabbling its own dense lingo of mental short cuts, memes, tags, brands, tends. Got to keep running just to stay still. Reinventing the old, the old reflecting in the new, an endless hall of mirrors and tricks of the mind. Liberating, restricting, ostracising. I stop, let myself enjoy being here, now, before it inevitably turns sour.
I wait, faking contained eagerness, while he continues speaking to another attendee; he makes no eye-contact, but I still hover eagerly. Finally he turns, and here is comes my chance to enthuse about the meeting, and suggest my ‘plug’ – I regret the word the moment I say it, his smile turns plasticky, I try to back paddle and flood him with ideas while he pretends to focus on the programme in his hand, and finally throws me half a bone; I take it, belittling myself as I take small step backwards as if in front of the Chinese Emperor.
In the evening the office workers at Piccadilly have been replaced by crowds and crowds of tourists. Selfies are snapped everywhere, with the monitors, with the statue, and with the roadworks. The huge ads bathe everyone in artificial light. An unreal voice bellows at me from the side, and I nearly jump: ‘Welcome to Great Britian! Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha!’. It’s a hyped-up Beefeater, in massive sunglasses, opening his arms to usher shoppers into a tatty arcade, and for a moment I hope it’s a robot, for his sake and mine, for the sake of humanity.
Light floods in when I open the drapes, a gorgeous, blue-skied day being completely wasted on London.
It is shady down in the urban canyons. As predicted, the city has given up trying to woo me, and the passers-by it throws at me this morning are noticeably shorter, uglier, and more casual then yesterday. I feel cynical, negative, prickly, and a bit fragile, defensive. A girl says to me – you are always smiling! It’s a nervous tick, I sneer, and quickly cover for my rudeness as she backs off confused. For she does make me feel better.
His ordinary clothes – dark trousers, dark sweater, shirt – contrasted with the unexpected gentleness in the way he held himself in front of his peers. The gestures he made were shy, as if they started already stifled. There was none of the posturing which usually come with the making of knowledge claims. Elbows tucked in, he rested his wrists gently against his belly, like a little furry mammal, the impression reinforced by his soft looking breast and soft, mousy hair. In moments of enthusiasm he’d put a hand on his hip, and send a shy, restrained smile around the room.
She rolls her eyes and emits a sharp tsk of irritation as his great bulk squeezes past her, pulling the clumsy snack trolley, banging the sides of the chairs. His eyebrows ride up and chins stack up in a friendly and clownish grin; I cannot help but grin back faced with this disarming force of sheer friendliness. I order a tea just to hear him speak some more in that absurd, languid Swedish accent. Every time he comes past on this long journey we exchange a look of joyful complicity, two children that we are in ill-fitting adult bodies.
I squeeze her shoulders in a half-hug of uncontainable enthusiasm as I gorge of the mess of the cityscape before us, standing on a raised walkway on one of the outskirts of the concrete maze of the Barbican. I love the Barbican, this palpable architecture’s dream of a different society. Self-contained with its internal gardens and greenhouses and cafes and cinemas, its underground facilities and jutting apartment towers, it’s like a spaceship landed smack in the middle of the City. I’ve always fantasised about living here, walking down to the cinema still in my slippers.
In the shadow of the building brokers in expensive shirts stand in scattered groups, smoking hungrily and talking on their phones while the small brown man polishes the granite of the outdoor benches. Fifteen granite benches, cleaned by him every day so that no speck of the City’s muck threatens the expensive suits. Just around the corner cheap stores sell cloth directly from Bangladesh, and on a quiet street lined with shabby terraced houses marked stalls are heaped with household goods in tacky plastic. The contrasts are absurd, my skin prickles as I cross invisible forcefields holding worlds apart.
She is always the first to sit down in the chair in the front of the room, facing the rows of meditators. As she settles she pulls the white fleece tighter about her midriff in a gesture she once told me was her embodied metaphor for god’s embrace. The skin of her composed face has a slight sheen which reminds me of polished mahogany. The ceiling light casts deep shadows on her face, sinking her narrowed eyes in pools of darkness, so I’m never quite sure when she is looking at me, although sometimes I can feel it.
The shock of open eye meditation was profound for me. The first time she looked at me with this inscrutable expression I could not help myself but grin, but it was less a smile and more an animal showing of teeth, half self-defence, half aggression, all tension. The longer I looked at her the more her face became a threatening African mask, slit eyes, set mouth, clenched jaw. The portrait above her had a similar effect, and as I journeyed through my own emotional landscape I ascribed pity, disgust, or joy to its features. Still, I prefer the flowers.
The one who usually follows her has a waist-long braid of red hair hanging all the way down to her waist. She wears very thick socks, spotlessly white, and covers her knees with a blanket as she settles down. Her eyes bulge unpleasantly like the eyes of a guppy fish, and often when the time comes for her to look at me my eyes start itching and I end up blinkingly uncontrollably and embarrassingly. At the end she is the one who hands out cake, pausing each time to look you in the eyes and smile the sweetest smile.
The last one I like the most, she seems so sincere. A few times we saw one another in the park, me jogging, she walking briskly, and waved at one another, and it was so strange to see her outside of this calm, soft room. She is all long and thin. In meditation her face seems even longer as the serious expression brings out the wrinkles around her mouth giving her a look of a stern governess. After she usually says a few words, gently, as if half to herself, expecting no answer, but welcoming it at the same time.
I have changed since I started attending the sessions, but the effect of the meditation itself is of course impossible to isolate from other influences. I notice it in myself, though. Increased control over what thoughts I think, not battling with the unwanted ones, more like letting them go. This translates into greater sincerity with others as I stop second guessing their emotions and anticipating their judgements, but let them and myself just be. I lost all this in the last turmoil. When it comes to sitting across the court from someone who hates me, will I lose it again?
There is a pleasure in waking early on a Saturday morning. The air is cool and bright under the milky sky. The bus nearly empty but for a young lad in a tracksuit, swigging orange juice straight from the carton, and a Turkish family on their day out. Comfortable in the front seats on the upper deck they look like spectators in the theatre. Well behaved children wrapped up warm against the spring air. We glide jerkingly through the quiet town centre and from my high vantage point I observe individual pedestrians preserved for me in a glimpse like specimens.
The middle aged man scratching his grey stubble as he strides powerfully and purposefully. A petite Asian girl pulling a huge purple suitcase which jumps up and down on its four wheels like a puppy eager to follow but easily distracted. In contrast the train station is packed entirely, it seems, with middle aged women, all tarted up, dyed hair and all, jutting out their hips as they try to shift the weight and lessen the pain of uncomfortably high, cheap heels from TkMaxx. Here and there a white-and-red of Sheffield United betrays the upcoming game in London.
It's delightful to immerse myself in their life. I step right in, with no pretence, and it’s like stepping into a river which flows regardless. It's wonderful to sit across the table from them and listen to them talk of the worries and hopes and anticipations, the big, tiny preoccupations centred around her smooth, shapely belly. Later that evening she lifts her tshirt up and finally I ask if I can touch it, propelled by generic curiosity. Angles and depressions appear where hands, knees, a bum, a head, push and shift under the thin – so thin! – covering of skin.
The sensation of this sub-skin shifting is entirely weird and alien. The little secret in her flesh, and of her flesh. We laugh – she said she's not at all crafty, but look at what she'd made, all by herself, out of food and water and air.
We know one another so little, and yet so deeply. There is an ease and effortlessness in being together which I hope is a mark of endurance. As if we were brought together neither by accident nor choice, but through the normal cause of things which naturally unites members of the same tribe,
And still, I can’t bring myself to talk to them now, this time. I signal I may want to, but as if out of habit, and to maintain the symmetry of the mutual knowing, as we cross the road in a drizzle on the way back home, but then I immediately back off into excuses about needing alcohol, in fact changing my mind as I feel the emptiness of talk. I feel as if I'm playing a role, and going through my lines through sheer habit. That is neither pleasant nor productive, and my responsive friends change the subject.
Back in the living room they politely extend their curiosity, probing, and I start on the usual path, the same narrative. I feel my jaw grow wooden and heavy, and words turn to ash in my mouth. I apologise. I don’t want to talk about it, I say. I’d rather focus on the baby. I don’t want to talk about it, but it’s worse, I don’t know how to talk about it meaningfully. The narrative is ready to start rolling, but it doesn’t do anything for me any more, it is sterile and unnecessary.
I need new words to make sense of my father’s death. New ways. It used to be all facts. I had read somewhere that it’s impossible not to talk of death in a detached, dry way. At one time, it was necessary. Now that all know what happened, maybe I no longer want to numb myself. Maybe I could try, now, to talk about the feelings. I returned from my friends’ all fragile, and talked with K till late at night in the darkness of our bed, and cried, with pain pinching at the roof of my mouth.
Few are as fortunate or safe as I am, and yet... When he died, a rug was pulled from under my feet. Everything was thrown into question, my entire life and all its choices. They have, after all, been the choices of a privileged and spoilt child. Now, without my safety net, I felt I’d have to reassess. How could I keep deluding myself I had a career and a future? How could I continue risking so much? Being so stubborn? It all translated into money, which I rarely took, but knew it was there should I need to.
He looks up from the conversation and sends her that same owning smile. She smiles too, and trips, just a little bit. She wasn’t expecting to see him here. Then again, she never expects to see him, she doesn’t even know his name. Have they ever spoken? Perhaps briefly, nothing that stuck in her mind anyway. But somehow whenever they pass one another in the corridor he sends her that smile, and she smiles back. Their eyes always lock for just a bit too long. Something hangs in the air between them, a promise never to be delivered.
They are an awkward bunch, and conversation does not gel. Somehow in spite of the gorgeous scenery we settle on the most ghastly subjects. When we stop for lunch I feel obliged to introduce a topic, and I ask what they thought of McEwan’s ‘Saturday’, and then continue half-ignoring them the way I have been for the last few hours. At my turn I borrow heavily from something I had read. Stripey says absent-mindedly ‘yeah I read something like that in one of the reviews….’ … and I'm in the pit of shame. What a sham I am!
It tends to happen in moments of leisure. My thoughts drift to him. To my feelings about losing him. I’ll never be able to pick up the phone and talk to him again. Thinking that still makes me gasp, like plunging into cold water. I feel like someone had kicked me in the chest. Like there is a bruise there; it hurts to breathe. What I had forgotten, having lived without suffering for so many years, is how painful it is to cry. The whole body contorts, draws into itself. Feels unnatural, a spasm, a refusal, like being sick.
I’ve been getting my kicks out of online forums lately. I completely understand why some people go into this. Choose a topic you feel strongly about, wait for a fool to turn up, and then mow them down. Ah the satisfaction of being the voice of reason. Ah the smugness of intellectual stances. Perish opponent under my flaming sword of Common Sense. Ah the rush of blood when someone replies, and again. Wasting my time? Oh of course not. Most certainly I will shine a light into their bigoted souls. Nothing to do with inflating my sense of importance.
I dreamt I was visiting my father at the hospital. I was by his bed, looking through magazines, trying to decide what I should read to him, when I noticed something was wrong. The bed became a shelf, and on it the head of my father lay, ripped away from his body, with all the gristly meat hanging from the neck. The head was covered with a paper sheet which rose and fell in rhythm with the head's awful gasping through a mouth wide open, with the eyes staring straight up. The breath was rasping, and useless, and yet desperate.
I ran to the nurse's office; blankly she announced my father was dead, and the breathing was a normal muscle contraction. I woke up feeling sick to my stomach. It was a perfect replay of the horror of his unconscious death, and the breathing, it was just like that, at the end, and the nurses' apathy was just like that, for they knew he was dying and that nothing could be done. Subconscious cut straight through to the chase, straight to the raw horror. For the first time I thought back to it, and felt it, lying in the dark.
Over some white wine and in a gentle drizzle of the British spring I talked to a friend whose father had died a few years back. She is the only one I can talk with about grief. She sees it. She knows it. When I told her I was relieved I was feeling again, she understood. She said: don't go back home if you don't want to. And I felt a weight was lifted. There is a freedom in not having parents, in that there is no need to pretend any more. I can do what is right for me.
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