REPORT A PROBLEM
‘Remember Earth fondly.’
I read the words on the page and thumb through the album of images I carry with me, searching for my epitaph. Wink. Wink. Wink. My heart leaps into my mouth and my chest is empty. All fat-tongued and fallen out of time, I’m in action again. It’s you. It must be. You want to talk. To me. You’ve chosen to break the silence. A cuddle from wherever you are.
It’s not you and time starts up again around me. It’s deafening. An Indian Giver, my mum would say. Or another one of those stories from yesterwhenever.
I searched back through all the dates looking for you; where you first appeared. I found you near the end of October, all marzipan and lamp-lights. I found you again a week or so later, then again and again and again until you became the reason for the words. You were everywhere. Then, at some point, the writing seemed to stop. I couldn’t finish it. Bits and pieces lay around incomplete. I should have tried so much harder to keep going, to show you all the things you wanted to see but in the end, we lost our way together.
“You’re a closed book. I’m trying to read between the lines. You hide things...”
I am used to this conversation now. I know how it goes. I know where the pauses come; the expectant silences. I know what I should say to speed things on; when to nod and crack a joke. Self-deprecate, apologise, bite my tongue and chuckle. I know how the ceiling always looks so close in darkness, how my tongue tastes in my mouth not speaking. I know how to be totally still, invisible to the human heart. All these things I know and nothing. Absolutely nothing.
You’re still with me wherever I go. I can’t shake you, no matter how many times I try to come up with new ways of telling myself what I already know, you still rattle around in my body, all elbows and knees, puncturing lungs and bruising my liver; punching my flabby heart until it shrinks to the size of my brain, gnarled and angry like a walnutted fist. They duel and morph, wrestling for supreme control of the body, for control of the thoughts and the feelings. You remain constant throughout. So very far away but always close beside me.
Kant, ‘The Prophet’,’ Londyn: A Guide’ (Polish possibly), ‘The Lacuna’ and ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ pepper the tube carriage. Different heads bowed over different books. Furrowed brows and finger-wagging. The advent of the E-Book threatens this secret pleasure of mine. Taking in each glossy cover; sharing a knowing smile if I’ve read it before. Enjoying that wonderful moment when a stranger leans over and says, “You know, that’s one of my favourites.” The only words she’ll ever share with me and given with a chubby smile. The E-Book hides all this away from me. Twilight and Maeve Binchy for all I know.
Bouncing rain – the first of the year – and it’s skipping all around me as I try to cycle home from the theatre. I can’t keep my eyes on the signs long enough to read them. I’m scanning the road ahead for lakes and screaming torrents to negotiate. Drain covers bubble and float like flat-pack corrugated islands, blinking shy warnings in the headlights of cars that pass me on the Edgeware Road. Very wet and very lost I follow the river until it reaches the sea. Hyde Park and I’m on my way again, squelching in my shoes with every pedal.
So this is new. I can’t say I’ve done this before. Here we are, doing what? I’ve no idea. A bit of fun and off we go again. I’ll just keep whirling on, whirling a little deeper with every fresh turn, whirling away as only passengers can until it’s time to stop. Feeling ever so slightly like Thomas from ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ but where will it stop? I don’t really believe living is light. I weigh it down with conscience and reason, morality and judgment. My inner Catholic fighting to be heard. Maybe this is good for me.
I pick up maybe every fifth or sixth word, which does not a sentence make. I generally agree when I hear one of these words. The speaker interpreting my urgent nod and smile as understanding and an invitation to carry on, surges forward. I can only continue nodding and smiling as I hear more words I think I may have been taught once upon a time. Ordering in a restaurant, asking for directions, naming fruit and veg in the supermarket: how smug we feel. How cultured. But actual conversation with real people; how appallingly English. Grinning in fits and stutters.
It hits me like a soft wet bullet; a jumble of memories fall down from the ceiling and catch in my throat. Sitting in the back of the car with my sister while Dad drives us to the airport in the early hours of a December morning. Mum is gazing out the window, talking to keep Dad awake as she always did. It’s snowing and the gritter, in front, slides off the road into a ditch. A lazy collapse into a soft white pillow. The instrument panel lit up orange as Bono sings “Don’t say that later will be better.”
Far too tired at 38’000 feet to write much in the way of anything. I find a handful of abandoned entries and read them over and over again. Familiar characters appear from stories that have long since ended, abandoned in one of the many yesterdays. I chew my nail and see again some of the many sunsets. On lakes and through car windows. Always sinking. I can taste every life ever touched under the ridges of my finger. Salty and warm. A new memory of Orxata sweetens my belly. Chuck Berry on the radio and the sun upon my face.
We were sitting in The Interval watching a jazz band play as we drank our beers. In my memory, it was cold outside and the Christmas decorations were up but equally, it could have been balmy and hot with the patio doors open. You leaned over, pointed her out and said she was the ‘music girl’. The one you’d had your eye on. You said you would speak to her soon; ask her out. You did and today, six years later, you married her. You said, with a smile, that speaking to her was the best decision you’d ever made.
I feel as though we’re straddling two worlds now six years out of university. Meeting together again, all of us suited with warm handshakes, cufflinks, an array of ties and pinstripe lining the church. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years worth of memories and stories to make us all smile. Ed finally settled back, married, and so happy to be amongst what he left behind. Now Sizer joins him in that ‘club’ as he puts it. We’re moving on together. Safe knowing we can always come back to this. Growing up with girlfriends and wives but we’ll be here.
There’s a date in my heart from which time runs forward and back. A date and a handful of places. Sometimes, the places were mine to begin with but then they became ours, belonging to us. For the most part, we found them together. Places I’d walked through, looked at everyday without a second glance, now haunt me. They plot the course of our journey. They give me the words for our story. They take my breath and drop my heart into my stomach. There’s a date in my heart I cannot fathom. A number that means nothing at all.
‘Because this is not my dream of her in lazy rivers.’
Running on the tiled floors, breathing bubbles with her bouncing on my back. (waking with another punch to the stomach as I read the words again. Another memory takes my breath away.) Running on the tiled floor; toes searching for the grouting. Jumping and falling and floating in circles, propelled backwards into waterfalls. Wet skin on skin with squeaky wrinkled fingertips. Your hair in your eyes and on my back; in your mouth and you’re laughing. My memory is not a dream but I can hardly believe it happened.
Strangely, I feel ok about it. I knew the conversation would happen at some point and here we are. Satisfaction, of sorts. There are lots of questions that could be asked but I am sure they will all be answered in time by other people. There are still waves of sadness and anger (with strong roots in confusion) but what use is either emotion here? They are crippling and I only want to move. One day I might understand what happened but in this moment it’s enough to smile and shrug off the burden of guessing and second-guessing life away.
Arthur Miller is frozen in black and white on the cover of the book; frozen by a wall and staring, hands thrust in pockets, into the middle-distance. Behind those thick-framed glasses he’s lost in thought, caught off-guard and wanting. I am standing by the wall, staring into that same milky, middle ground longing to be filled up again. To feel full of whatever it was that made me smile for so long. A lie for a smile or truth for tears? I honestly don’t know. It’s going to be hard – as hard as I feared – but not impossible, never that.
Peering down through the skylight watching the top of her head spinning in concentric circles as her hands soften and wrinkle under the tap. She falls into a spinning trance, staring into the foam below, washing the wok in her hands. It will never be clean enough to stop. While she washes, she has no other responsibilities; the children will stay sleeping, her husband will never come home, she need never surround herself with over-caffeinated white people again. She can stay with her hands in the sink, washing the wok, and melt out of life. Until the water runs cold.
“I’ve got a friend called Zachy.” Bouncy, lolling head pinging from side to side like an office toy. A shiny ball-bearing crowned with a shock of black hair falling in waves, swishing like a pony’s tail in time with all the lolling. She evokes the Heavens with the point of her chin, cries ‘God’ in rainy cadences; falling off each sentence and rising to a question. A rhythm of speech that betrays an absolute belief in the importance of what is being said, finished exquisitely with shades of faux-naivety. She burns bright white but doesn’t burn for long. A sparkler.
Everyone is walking around like extras from a post-apocalyptic movie; all distressed leather boots with buckles and clips and miles of lacing. Bow upon knot upon loop upon bow, strapped around the knees and reinforced throughout. Nobody runs for the bus anymore. No one can flex below the thigh. Trussed up in epic woollen cardigans, mass-produced to look like something home-made, with patches and thick loose weave. Deep pockets for stock-piling food and oil when the reserves run low and we’re forced to forage and kill for survival. A city full of fashion-conscious Mad Maxes biding their time until Armageddon.
George Devine lived here in the 50s when he was Artistic Director of The Royal Court – the founding Artistic Director of the new theatre. From 1956 to 1965, he lived on the bank of the River Thames gazing out onto Hammersmith bridge and glimpsing the roof of the Harrods Depository from his small balcony. Now the shiny blue plaque only emphasises the peeling paint on the door and window frames, the ivy crawling through the crumbling brickwork and the dusty shutters firmly separating the sunshine without from the darkened whatever within. Pages and pamphlets and plays buried in the masonry.
He said he was a Londoner with all the zeal of a convert. Ebullient with his forthright two-fingered salute to convention; picked up in Stockport, perfected in Mile End. He said he found the idea for the name of his play rattling around the Underground where he felt the steady weight of dislocation from the rest of the human race burying themselves in free morning newspapers and pocketfuls of Ipod; in the ‘atomisation’ of people; fragments. That the suicide bombers on that day in London were English came as no surprise to him. We had all sufficiently dehumanized ourselves already.
He also said that with age he had developed a taste for contradicting himself immediately. One’s own Right to Reply. He loves this city – his adopted home – for it’s people. For the millions who packed themselves onto the Tube carriages in the weeks following the bombings and prized themselves off again at their various destinations. For the same two-fingered assault at those who sought to disrupt their silent, solitary journeys. The city is a web of contradictions and complications, of secret empty spaces sitting untouched beneath us. We share this secret, unseeing experience as it threads its way between us.
It’s the phone call every parent hopes they’ll never get: ‘Mum, I’m in Pornography.’ All those years transporting precocious child from Drama Club to Dance class; driving up the M69 fro seemingly endless pieces of devised theatre at university and, of course, two and a bit years of training at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. This wasn’t the phone call Mum was expecting. Thankfully, before the tip-tapping of tears on the other end has turned into a full torrent, I’ve explained that the first play I’m doing is ‘Pornography’ by Simon Stephens.
“No Mum. Terrorist bombings.”
You weren’t expecting that at all. It shook you up a fraction. Made those 1960s porceline white cheeks glow a little. Stopped you in your tracks enough to propel you off again at twice the speed with a splutter and a stutter and a start. I never like to see you struggle for anything but I’m glad this time. The mask slipped (the quiver of a blink) and you were back to how I remembered you and we were back to how I loved us. And then you were reeling out the door again and I was remembering to breathe.
I almost recognise her from somewhere until she opens her mouth to speak and she’s lost me. Can’t place her. Chewing, she looks like a cartoon cat sucking a bee as it stings her. Round and round in circles trying to taste and numb to the pain, showing she’s listening with a tilt of her head, the end of her nose is puckered somehow. She keeps catching my eye (or am I catching hers?) and I know where I’ve seen her before. She’s my mum in her wedding photo, thirty-odd years ago. Beautiful and delicate; legs crossed like lucky fingers.
I sometimes enjoy this empty feeling; this absence of feeling. Being strangely numb lets me sit and watch other people, other Londoners, running around with places to go together with presents to buy for nephews’ christenings and baby showers (I imagine). To witness random acts of kindness and hand-holding. To watch every first kiss on every bridge over the river and every whispered parting. I watch the slow amble of the tourists arm in arm in arm in arm in love. An old couple on their way to the theatre, in matching coats, fumbling with gloved hands for their tickets.
Where is your secret place? Where is your sacred space? Where do you go to hide? That bench in Russell Square. Your favourite table in your favourite cafe. The deep end of the swimming pool. What does your London look like? We live in a city full of hiding places. Full of opportunities to watch other people and to be watched by them. ‘Sometimes I like the idea that in the middle of the night, in the heart of west London, all of the neighbours can see me.’ How do we bring all the strands together? How do we connect?
If you want to see London, look up. Thousands of sharp edges frame a darkening cloudy blue. Inverted castles peer down into the streets below. Great swathes of turret imperceptibly kissing the cobbled stones by Covent Garden market. The longer I sit, the darker it gets, the more solid the walls of the castle. Lit on all sides by fluorescent shocks of billboard trim, dewy drops of street lamp frosting and the eye-teeth of grinning tourists. Where are your secret places? Your hidden spaces? I’m hit by another memory. Clear as day, dark as night. Hiding in your secret place.
It’s a return to things passed, or past. “Is there an experience from your own life you can use here?” “what trigger do you need for this scene?” “you need to get out of your head and feel it instinctively.” This last is probably one I will hear again and again for years to come. She has me down as a thinker, an intellectual; a writer. She’s probably right on some level. She wants me to get mad, to be a feeler; move from the gut. I know this and I know how to get there, it’ll just take time.
It feels like it’s been raining for years. Like ‘The Deluge’ hanging on the wall of the Tate Britain, lions are being swept past the window, clawing at fallen oak trees, trying to keep their shaggy manes above the swell. A man walks down the middle of the road, his black t-shirt plastered to his chest, flicking through the playlist on his Iphone. He crests each wave with a simple step barely noticing the lions; paws bloodied and bent out of shape, throats yelped dry as parchment. They stare as they pass him, each soft wet face curling in wonder.
The Tip Jar