So we went then, you and I, waiting for the rest of our lives to wake us from the winter. “Come,” I’d whispered on that white afternoon, as your train pulled away to the north and you still stood there on Silver Street’s empty platform, your cheeks iced and bright, your eyes warm, your arms wrapped tight around my ruby red coat. “Come and watch the spring begin with me.” I imagined a slow walk to Primrose Hill’s summit, past pale yellow petals circling lamp posts, mint green blades of grass soft to the touch, a sky slowly turning the darkest of blues. The lights of London, like a string of Christmas bulbs thrown onto the warm blanket of the city, winking at us gently in the distance, calling us to come home.
Then, after we’d talked for hours about everything and nothing, our lips sticky from the whisky we’d swigged from the bottleneck and pink from the smudges of my lipstick, our hands tight together to stave off the cold, the sun would gently break from Canary Wharf in the east to Battersea in the west and we’d roll down the hill together, seeing grass flash, then the streaks of light beam from the dark, laughing like drains, forgetting that we were too old for this, forgetting that our childhoods and our teenage years had long gone, feeling only the rough turns of the ground, the hard pulse of laughter rattling our chests, and a warm ache in the stomach that felt a little like love.
But that night never came.
April had been the loveliest month. Now I stand on London Bridge in the dim smoke of the morning, and another year is over. Grey buildings suck in dark jackets, starched collars, shone shoes and taut ties. Cold white circles puff sharply from thin lips. I hold on to the concrete, watching each set of features pass blankly, recording each expression like a camera. A woman, bleach hardening her hair, hard lines of kohl under her lashes, a wise furrow in her brow, a tissue held to her nose by immaculate fingernails. A young man, eyes salty from the wind or from tears. A young girl, her hair damp, her arms full of flowers; she holds onto the stems, her hands supporting the tight cellophane, and looks into the river, into the grey, still water. In the midst of her moment, a clock strikes nine.
As she touches the purple petals, I scatter leaves under my feet. I make my prophecies. I asked for our life to last forever. I didn’t expect things to change. Now I hang in my jar; watch the world pass me by.
The wind comes under the door. I am bad tonight. The traffic scratches past the window, lines of red gouge their way through the lights. The smoke rises from my mouth. The wind catches it, jags it, flings it up, breaks its back. My lips are chapped from the cold. I think of him and I think of the others. The smiles that have talked about love. The first set in a face of the smoothest brown, its words full of lyrics and clichés, the rushes so sweet of a teenager’s wishes. The next curled at the corner, the one that talked about a life in St John’s Wood or, maybe, for a while, a boat on the canal, weekends at the Zoo with the child we once thought was coming. The one that made me laugh like I’ve never, and then cry crocodile tears. The one that I thought had caught me, before the last one caught me more. I think of the lips turning down, the moment it breaks. Stay with me. Speak to me.
My chair rocks me. The hot water holds me. The moments pick me apart.
The whisky swirls into my belly, warms my hands, quickly sidles its way into my blood and my brain and my breath against your cheek. “LAST ORDERS, PLEASE.” My head rests on your shoulder, my hand grips the empty tumbler. No, it’smine, there’s some left-inthe bot-tom. I swill the golden liquid around, try and pour it into your mouth. You laugh and tip my nose with the end of your finger. “Behave,” you say sternly, your good eyebrow lowered. I gurn back, let the head loll. In the cavern of Gordon’s, on Embankment’s upper lip, the low ceiling, the darkness, the voices dip and dive over the music that’s playing outside, the guitar twang rattles the speakers, duh-dum-duh-dum, the bass tummy-deep. Hey, how are you, dirty laughter, that early hours sober banter, moves to how-was-your-day, how-are-things, never expecting full answers, being careful to avoid the real edges of life. But then, later, it turns, the drink settles in the stomach, the blood pressure rising, the hearts beating with force through the bar’s smoky fug. I ask if you’re doing OK, and you smile, your eyes closing like walnuts, yes, fine, love, you say, but the stiffness is there in the muscles that let your mouth lift and fall, the small detail that suggests that all is not well. I drift off and the voices submerge me, speaking about him coming back from his travels, her losing the baby, the dinner they’re cooking on Sunday, “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME,” life’s stories and sadnesses and little mundanities lifting me up from my seat and taking me home.
On the South Bank, I try to plot our old stories. There is no trace of them here. No skeins left from our scarves on the benches, no strands lost as I twirled my hair through the nails I had bitten out of nervousness – before I’d brush your hair back from your face so I could stop you talking with a kiss – no memory of the nonsense we babbled, threw out to the river, to fill the tentative silence of our earliest days. I stand here in awe of the riverside’s boldness, the harsh juts of the Hayward Gallery, the silver halo of the Eye, the chocolate box gaudiness of Westminster, and the cruelty returns, every failure from the past comes into the light, the meaning of every encounter catches like the wind at my neck. The raising of voices, the colour in the cheeks, the hands that moved to stress words – the words we pretended, when we were settled again, after the silence had fallen, that we didn’t really mean – then the hours that followed, as the sun rose over Bow, the clumsy love that made us forget what had passed, then the record I’d put on to send us to sleep, before our backs turned in your bed. The melancholy of a moment spent together, the things done for the promise of a warm arm around the waist in the pale light of the morning.
As I travel east as the sun sets, voices clatter and chatter, music winds from bar doors, the ghosts of slim barges move towards Woolwich as the city murmurs through dusk. The London I know slowly fades in the shadows; the London I knew moves in from the water. Here I am in Marylebone in the cold snap of the morning, slamming a door behind the boy that undid me; here I am in Euston, waving another goodbye through the gates; here I am in Highbury, knowing tonight is for me and tomorrow for another; here I am in a hotel on the Strand, allowing myself up for experiment; here I am in Richmond, chasing deer like a child, as you laugh in the distance; here I am in Kew, watching the blue buzz of the motorway glide by in the night, as I swirl the gin down my throat and prepare for my fate. I can connect nothing with nothing. My empire burns.
The river sweeps them away, pulling their bodies along with its slow, laboured current. You’re the last to go under. I smile to myself; you were always resilient. I turn to the Wheel and look into the wind. We were in love with a life. It is time to let go.
At Alexandra Palace, I set my lands in order. The spring has returned. The sun comes up in the distance, turns red over the Downs, lights the fiery column of Canada Square. The air still hangs heavy with the charge of the season, with the weight of the sky, with the promise of rain. The dry road through the park is unaware of what’s coming. This is the place where I must stop and think, but the solitude crushes; the voices still urge me; my whole body rebels. You have failed, you came second, you lost, you are done – but I must drink the water, I must learn to breathe.
When I counted, there were only you and I together. But there was always another – a face held in the hands in the Japanese garden, a kiss in a black cab tearing through Old Street, a night in the long grass in Finsbury Park, a shape on the horizon, a shadow in the river, a man filled with tears, a girl holding flowers. The air throbs like a pulse; the sky slowly cracks.
In our unreal city, towers fall, cultures fracture; in this city, this desert surrounded by mountains, this place I love more than my heart can contain, lives surge, fall apart, whole histories change. All this happens, someone once said, by the awful daring of a moment’s surrender.
I ask you to give.
The violet sky pours its water. By this, and only this, you say, we have existed. I see the faces that pass on the bridge, all bearing their secrets, their silences, agonies, their terrible stories; I hear your key turn, remember love being let in.
I ask you to sympathise.
The thunder holds me down in its tremors; lightning burns, burns, my leaves. The door closes, the rain slices, cuts, punctures the land.
I ask only for control.
The water soaks through my clothes; lightning forks, leaves me standing. Thunder passes.
London Bridge falls away from me. The silence descends. The warmth of one I once loved, the breath of one who once gave. I sit upon the shore. Here I am. This is me. I breathe. I welcome the peace that passes understanding.
The photos for Unreal City were taken by Asya Gefter
[This piece originally appeared in Smoke 5.]