I walk from Embankment tube. I buy a pack of fruit chew star bursts and I unpeel them as I hop down the station steps. I see a park I’ve not noticed before and make a mental note to go back there one day. As I put the wrapper paper in a bin, two police men walk past and I wait to see if they are cute. They are not.
I walk for what seems like a long time and start to get worried that I won’t find Temple station, or I’ll be late. I come across Somerset house, so that’s one thing, and I notice a guard.
Excuse me? Where is the courtyard?
Turn left and then turn left again.
I thank him and offer him a star burst but he declines.
I start walking and around a corner I find the station. Alba is not there yet so I look for a Money Machine. I turn and Alba is there. He is smiling.
I was looking for a money machine. Should we get some strawberries?
I point at the fruit cart
If you’d like.
Would you like them?
I mean, I don’t have any cash.
You want me to buy them?
Are you hungry?
I am now.
I decide against the strawberries and we start walking. I give him the rest of the starbursts.
Where are we going?
To Somerset house to see the fountains.
I don’t know where that is.
He unwraps and eats a starburst.
The Chilean tennis player lost at Wimbledon today. It was the eighth round? What do you call that?
The quarter final?
No, that is _______ in Spanish. What is the round before that?
Semi final? I don’t know. Octo-final?
I don’t think we have a word for it.
We walk until we arrive at our destination. At the courtyard I can see the fountains. They are jets of water that come out of the ground and there is enough room to walk between them. In each corner of the courtyard there is seating where well dressed people are drinking. We choose the corner with a bar.
You’ll have to get the drinks because I don’t have any cash, if that’s OK. I’ll pay you back later.
We look at the menu
What will you have?
A gin and tonic please.
I sit down at a table while he pays for our drinks. I see a couple walk between the fountain jets. They cling together to keep dry.
Here you go.
We take a sip and I tell Alba about my day. I ran a meeting which went very well. Afterwards the marketing woman from my company told me it was the best meeting she had been to.
Why don’t you do this for a career then?
Because I want to be a writer.
He takes a sip of his drink and processes this.
In Chile, people build their houses of concrete, even though it is better to build them out of wood. They do this because there is much change and they want something that will last. You Europeans have a very different idea of things. That is why I could never live here in London. Things are too different.
I feel a pressure begin to build up in my solar plexus. Behind us Americans are talking in loud voices.
I’m not really a European. I grew up in New Zealand. We’re probably more similar to Chile than we are to Europe.
What is it you want to do with your career then?
I’ve already told you before, have you forgotten?
I am trying to work it out, that’s why I’m asking again.
I want to travel somewhere and write another book, and then come back to London.
You seem so certain. Where do you want to go?
I don’t know. Nice? San Francisco?
How old were you when you left London?
How old were you when you came back?
So you only did a year of Drama School?
No, I did two.
The fountains make a different noise.
Look at the fountains.
I look at the fountains and they are doing a display. The jets lengthen and shorten. Sometimes they are short, sometimes they are long. Sometimes they are mid height.
I feel angry inside and I don’t want him to ask me anymore questions. My gin and tonic in the paper cup is half empty. We watch the display for a while. The silence feels awkward so I fill it.
I haven’t made choices about my life lightly. They came with sacrifice and commitment. I ask myself these questions every day. I don’t believe in stereotypes either. People aren’t stereotypes.
I feel a burn in my solar plexus. I feel tired.
I don’t believe people are archetypes either, but I think we can learn things from looking at a group of people. Who did you stay with when you came to London?
No one. I stayed at a hostel.
How long did you stay at the hostel?
And in New Zealand – there was your Mother and your sister?
I have three sisters. My Mother and three sisters.
And when you were in London before did you live with your father?
For a while.
I want to tell him to shut up and wait for this information when I’m ready to tell him. I can feel the anger building up inside and I’m afraid of where it will go and how it will erupt. I want him to stop asking me all these questions. I’ve nearly finished my drink and my head is swimming. I feel exhausted. Drained. He is making me feel exhausted.
What does your sister do?
She is a debt collector?
She deals in debt.
What did she study to do that?
I don’t know you’ll have to ask her.
What is she..?
I pretend to yawn. It’s a stupid stage yawn. I even raise my arms.
I’m so tired. I’m sorry I can’t answer anymore questions.
We sit in absolute silence. My heart is racing. I am scared to look at him. What have I done? What have I done? Why didn’t I handle that better? It’s ruined. I’ve ruined it. I am fucked up. He thinks I am fucked up. I should say something. I don’t have anything to say.
We watch the fountains.
After a while Alba starts to put on his leather belt bag. It starts spitting which gives us both the excuse to leave. We start walking. I laugh and try to bump into him playfully but I don’t think he notices. We walk down the Strand and the voices are yelling in my head. This is over. You have ruined it. This is over.
Will you get the Victoria line?
We are only half an hour into our date. It is ruined and we are going home separately. This is ruined.
I think I’ll take the bus.
But I don’t know where I’m going. I am lost.
Oh, wait. I’ll get some money out.
I walk to the cash point and I put in my card and press the numbers to make the note come out. I put the note in my wallet. Alba is further down the road looking in a shop window. I join him.
Here is ten pounds for the drinks. I said I’d pay you back.
It’s OK. Buy me a drink another time.
OK. Thank you.
We keep walking. We are silent. I look at the poster’s for Chicago. I see MacDonald’s. I see without really seeing. We reach Charing Cross Station.
OK then, see you later.
You have fucked this up. Say something. I don’t say anything.
Alba goes to leave but before he does he turns.
I hope you can talk to me about it some day.
I don’t know what he means. He is waiting for my reply. I don’t know what he means.
Alba walks off towards Charing Cross Station.
I don’t know what he means. It is over.
Support Groups I’d Join
Check My Email Too Often Anonymous (CMETOA)
Caffeine Addicts (Motto: Drink hard, but drink decaf)
“I live with my sister too” – A Sibling Dependency Support Group
Hirsute & Humid
A First Time Novelist's Guide to Stalling Friends
Between the Lines
Amy had to read things twice. If it was something clever in the New Yorker, or one of the Sunday supplements her husband brought back from London, she might give it a spin a third time just to be safe. She was a fast reader - that wasn’t the problem – but Amy had never latched onto words like everyone else, and although she’d been tested, not one of the learning specialists could find anything wrong with her. Still, each day, Amy was unable to get the squiggles and fractured lines running across the page to matter to her.
‘You’re lazy,’ said her husband, ‘you skim read. You don’t take it all in.’ Amy put down the cooking book and thought about banging it shut to scare him. ‘You’re unfocused and that’s why you can’t keep your eyes on the task.’ He picked up his tan briefcase and gave her a kiss. There were crumbs on his lips, ‘Focus,’ he said again.
Amy began to meditate with a room full of strangers. The class was held in an abandoned warehouse, and some weeks there was glass on the floor, which the teacher swept away before they unrolled their mats. ‘Block out all thoughts. See with your third eye,’ droned the sensei between oms, but the next time Amy opened a newspaper the letters mocked her, dancing together in groups of four or five, I’s
escaping bravely, t
hand in hand, skipping, singing, caught in the revelry. Her head was throbbing by the time she reached the sports section.
Her husband came home early as a surprise. ‘Are you still worried about that? Forget it!’ he put his arms around Amy’s waist, crumpling the paper against her breast. ‘You’re living in the past!’
Following dinner she washed her face and found herself reading the label on the hand wash bottle. It was the pretentious sort containing “aqua” and “essential oil of grapefruit”. She put down the bottle, frowning. ‘I’m leaving for Tokyo tomorrow,’ he called from the bedroom, ‘a week, maybe eight days. We should get a cleaner to help you while I’m gone.’
The Yellow Pages were demanding, but finally Amy found the name of a reputable cleaning service and she interviewed a very nice girl from Poland who would come once a week, and twice at the end of every month. The girl’s English was perfect and she was very happy to be in work, even though her boyfriend had a job at an internet company and made more money in an hour than she did all day. Amy politely took down the boyfriend’s URL, but now, this was impossible; the words were so diffident behind their screen, or so haughty that she clicked randomly just to make them go away.
Weeks passed and when the final meditation lesson came to an end, Amy lagged behind to talk to the sensei, the other students noiselessly padding out into the street. The sensei smiled as she approached, as if he already knew the answer to her question.
‘Perhaps English is just not your thing? You could try another form; mandarin maybe, or Urdu?’
Amy nodded, but only because he was a wise man and not because his advice was new to her. As he turned to leave, she caught the smell of him; sweat, cigarette smoke and just the hint of tiger balm.
When she arrived home the house was spotless. It felt like a stranger had moved in, until she remembered the girl came twice at the end of the month. She placed her yoga mat by the stairs and let her legs carry her through the rooms, running her fingertips across the well polished table. One of her husband’s books was askew on the shelf and she noticed it had been turned upside down. She removed it, a thick volume about business metrics and outclassing your competitor, a slip of yellow paper used as a book mark. She traced down the page and words pinged out at her - tricky jargon only the top sellers would know - but her eyes darted across to the slip of paper. The words here were settled, calm, poised, even though the handwriting was hurriedly scrawled.Meet here at six. She’ll be at her class. I long for you.
Amy cleared her throat and closed the book with the paper still inside, returning it to the shelf. She didn’t need to read it twice.
It was hot; balmy hot, the occasional breeze only shifting the hot from there to here.
‘We’re under a tree,’ I tell Christopher unhelpfully. There must be a few thousand trees in Hyde Park. ‘Can you see the guys playing football?’
‘I think so. Which path do I follow?’
He makes a frustrated noise.
‘It’s your fault for being late,’ I say with no edge to my voice, but his reply is clipped.
‘Don’t blame me, I had to go to the supermarket!’ he says as if he were taking his Mother to church and not buying cucumber infused vodka.
Five minutes later I see him walking in the wrong direction. He looks lost and mad so I can’t help but bait him some more.I can c u
I watch as his phone beeps and he checks his message.I’m going to kill you
, he texts back instantly.
I wave the soft red bat I’ve brought for “games” at him and eventually he sees me and I guide him towards our tree. Katy is already laid out supine on a blanket, her legs crossed at the ankle, wrist shielding her eyes. Alba arrives wearing jeans and a grey t-shirt.
‘I didn’t bring clothes for this weather,’ he admits, ‘it isn’t supposed to be this hot in England.’ It’s a brash statement for someone who arrived in the country less than three months ago but we look around at the heat and the grass and the shirtless Australians playing footy, their beer bellies already blush pink, and we nod silently in agreement.
‘Have a scone,’ I offer, holding the Tupperware container containing eight perfectly formed lumps of carb, hexagonals punctuated with raisins.
‘Did you make these?’ asks Katy, taking one.
‘Of course I did - and I churned the butter too,’ I reply.
And no one can decide if I’m telling the truth or not, but no one really minds because it’s sunny in Hyde Park and we don’t have to vote, or work, or fight, or fill in tax forms, or adjust a tie, or compromise. We have the whole day to ourselves.
Believe it or not, I am currently employed as an E-marketing Specialist for a web solutions company in W1.
Some search for specialism, and others have it thrust upon them. About two years ago I started work as a copywriter for a fledgling online marketing company. It was a dull job for the most part, but it paid for my tap classes, and you know how much I love to tap.
I picked up a few things here and there; not html, or Photoshop or anything useful, but I learnt how to optimize websites for search engines to within an inch of their lives. When I left the company 16 months later to head to New Zealand, the company had just won some international award thingumy which everyone was quite excited about. When I returned to London, gripping a CV which I hoped would still have relevance; I was very surprised that the mere mention of my previous employer’s name was enough to get me an interview. I was suddenly hot property. I swaggered. I demanded top rates (well more than the minimum wage I recieved as a copywriter). And I was more than a little bemused when I got them.
Now, technically I’m not qualified for this role. I don’t have a degree in e-marketing or a sound knowledge of, well, much. But I am a fast talker and quite a fast thinker and I like the web, and there’s actually a market out there for specialists who don’t all speak in jargon and scare you with their knowledge every time they open their mouth. I am a lay-man’s specialist. I’ll get the job done, and then some, but I’ll have to do a lot of pointing at the screen while a techy guy sits next to me, possibly holding my other hand.
And believe me, I’m not alone. There are people bullshitting their way to success every single working day. It’s a revolution. I’ll never forget when my friend Lorna quickly studied up in her lunch break so she could give an important power point presentation in the afternoon - a skill Lorna had said she knew inside out during her interview.
What was that?
Ah, sorry, I’ll have to finish here I’m afraid. My boss has just asked me to ping a whatsit on the system-o-something so a bluechip client can make another zillion dollars. If only they knew…
On my way to work I see the young travellers handing out “Learn English” flyers for the schools which squat above the entire length of Oxford Street, lurid signs promising a language and a key to the city. I want to ask these boys and girls where they’re from and what they want to become one day, but I get nervous and decide it will come across as patronizing. Instead, I shake my head when they offer me the vivid green flyer, and wonder what it is about me that makes them think I’m not a native here.
I saw two gay Dads in the park at lunch! Gay! Dads! They were both dressed top to toe in black as if to exaggerate the point.
I miss Harri.
This is my best story ever. Better even than my tale about the Frenchman I made cry because I mistakenly took him for a masochist.
Feel free to covet this story as your own. Change the names, countries, invent your own variation - although, as it will become clear, the logistics of gender
might be tricky to adapt. This story is too good for me to keep to myself. I want to hear it whispered between friends on a bus come Autumn, a living breathing urban myth that I know to be absolute truth.
Three and half weeks ago I meet a handsome young man. His name is Alba and he is from Chile. I have a thing for Latin men. Maybe it’s their dark, brooding eyes, or their full lips, or their bravado - but there is no coincidence that the boys I make eyes with across the bar are, nine times out of ten, from South America.
Alba and I swap phone numbers and the next day I ring him to organise a date. We meet at a pub in Brixton Hill; I take the bus and arrive a few minutes early. I’m nervous, so out of practice because of my other life as a New Zealander, and when he arrives we take two glasses of red wine to the sofas and spend an hour getting to know each other. Alba is an architect. He is in London for twelve months.
His eyebrows are perfect
, I think.
Something Alba says jolts me back into the conversation. He wants to see the Cirque du Soleil, he tells me. The force of déjà vu is so strong I have to take a large sip of wine. Déjà vu is a very odd feeling. It’s your subconscious letting off a flare.
Alba looks at me.
I smile and hope the wine hasn’t stained my teeth.
Did you meet anyone from Chile in New Zealand? He asks.
Another flare spits and fizzes.
I nod, in a daze.
Who do you know there? I ask, but I already know what he is about to say. Cirque du Soleil. Chileans. Eyebrows.
Renaldo, Alba replies, drawing out the ‘r’.
Three months ago. My sister Holly and I drive up to Auckland for a friend’s birthday. I have one weekend to drink and flirt and I waist no time doing either. On Saturday night, just as the bar I’m at is about to close, a tall Latin man strolls towards the entrance. I am standing by the smokers, out front. His name, of course, is Renaldo. He is from Chile. He is stupid tall, and handsome with a long, serious face. He has just been to watch the Cirque de Soliel, which I avoid mocking. We spend the night together and when I leave the next day to drive down to Wellington again, I experience that horrid ripping feeling when you know you will never see a person again, someone you could have quite happily fallen in love with.
How do you know Renaldo? I ask Albo, feeling my face drain of blood, despite the wine.
They were boyfriends, of course. First loves. Albo had only really come to London because Renaldo wanted to travel by himself. Opposite sides of the world with nothing and no one to link them except… me.
I feel horrid; mostly because this has spoilt my nice, lovely date, but also because I don’t want to be “the other person”. I have only ever kissed two Chileans in my life and now they’re estranged lovers. I tell Albo that maybe we should call it a night. He disagrees but neither of us can fight the fact that things are weird. A weirdness we cannot budge, not with all the head shaking, and knee slapping and can I get you another glass of red wine
We go back to his place. As we kiss, I can’t help… comparing. I bet he’s doing the same.
How did he take it? I ask Alba the next time I see him. His perfect lips pout.
Not well. He’s angry.
I bet he is, I think. And then I imagine, not for the first time, the three of us lying in bed together, possibly naked, with soft petals falling from the sky.
A week later I get my first cold sore. This is another major setback for my new found relationship. The scab on my lip is dark brown and crusts painfully. I have never had a cold sore before and so inadvertently infect Alba. Herpes is not an easy word to translate into Spanish.
You know who used to get one of those? he asks pointing at the scab on my lip which is so big it has its own post code.
Let me guess, I think to myself, knowing all too well the name he’ll say.
I went to a VIP party last night. I am not Very Important. I know someone who knows someone who is mildly Important and that person (the first someone) was ill and couldn’t go; I become Important by proxy. I looked around for the real VIP’s when I arrived, but I think they must all have stayed home doing things importantly. I wonder if anyone else noticed?
I am living with my sister. It’s a small room, but it’s yellow and bright and although it looks onto more council flats I’ve come to enjoy the view and not worry so much when I get naked in front of it. Apart from a double bed there is an exercise machine, my computer desk, suitcases, a wardrobe, shelves and my sister’s boots, which as she explained, will get ruined if I keep chucking them into the wardrobe any which way.
Soho Square is the epicentre of my Universe. It’s a tiny slip of a park really, barely enough grass for all the bottoms during the few short weeks of British summer. They sit shoulder to shoulder drinking beer out of plastic cups, or eating fruit; shirts off, legs splayed – throwing orange peel into an empty coffee container while they talk to each other conspiratorially in Portuguese or Spanish or Italian and sometimes English. The gays are bright and shrill here - Jackie O glasses and crimson motorcycle jackets. The girls accompanying them wear skirts at the height of fashion – pleats mostly, ruffles, a dynamic hem. A glut of transient youth takes over Soho Square, fighting for space amongst the pigeons, and lunchtime suits, the lanky Production runners and the Bums asleep on benches. Once I watched two homeless lovers in each others arms, rolling around on the mud, forgetting their dirt and missing teeth as they pulled themselves so tight. Once I tried to climb over the black wrought iron gate with a French boy at 3am, because neither of us had a room to go back to. Once I was given a daffodil for no reason. I only mention this because my new office is on Soho Square and I get to walk through my epicentre now twice every day.