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Jan 272013

Rachel Stevenson

London loves me

London needs me

London belongs to me

If I were to make a film about London, it would be like Wings of Desire, Wonderland, or or any Patrick Keiller movie. It would feature the following scenes:

A thirty-something woman smoking a cigarette outside Angel tube station, flicking through a yellow Loot

A young man dancing to garage music on his walkman at Oxford Circus with a SALE sign in his hands

A young woman crying into a mobile phone at a pedestrian crossing on a road near Charing Cross

An old man sat in a sleeping bag on the Strand poking his head up and glancing around

These people would not be the main characters of the film, they would be incidentals, keeping still and calm as the city rushes past them, not really interested in them, as they are not moving moving moving, hurrying to take part in the theme park that is The Smoke: to throw up outside a Camden pub on a Thursday night, to take in a West End show on a Wednesday afternoon, to dance in a bondage club on a Monday – all the different activities to take, to take part in, all the people to be, all the possibilities not open to the provinces; London is disfigured by the disease of chameleon-itis.

End of the working week. I walk down Long Lane eating a Friday ice cream. Ice creams in October! My hand sticks to the label. The next two shops along combine their smells – the warm-bed odour of the launderette mingles with the pungent vinegar of the chip shop – to create a happy, homely feeling. The peace of the deep dark underground Northern line at Borough. My big red bus blocks out the sun as I ride home.

I suppose one day Joanna will come to me and say: “We’re getting a place together,” and “we” will no longer mean she and me. And I’ll be living on my own with a cat. I wonder when a girl living on her own with a cat stops being fun and la la? When do you cease bringing boys home just to kick them out the next day to jealously guard your Sunday with the papers and breakfast? How long before you become a spinster? Trying to get the man to stay on a Sunday to share the croissants because you’re sick of eating them all yourself?

I’m only twenty-three for chrissake. Clever Joanna and clever Mike. Uni was like a boarding school; you were there all the time, you were in and out of each other’s lives like fleas. So when we came down here, me and Jo like we always knew we would, getting out of bloody awful Wolverhampton, Mike got the job and just about followed us down and then they got it together – clever, that’s why it’s lasted, because we don’t live out of each other’s pockets any more (literally, when the grant ran out). I wonder if they ever planned it that way – one night after a few ciders in the student union, unbeknownst to me whilst I was being sick in the toilets, did they go outside, admiring the moonlight on Wolverhampton’s dark streets, did they talk it over, talk of their desire for each other but knowing that student romances don’t last nowadays – did all this happen and she never told me?

We have our jobs and separate lives and I feel that future arguments will no longer be about toilet paper and cartons of milk but things more serious.

My wallet is becoming progressively bourgeois. Gone is the student union card, the precious twelve-book library card, the long-haul coach discount card. In are supermarket loyalty cards, a Co-Op Visa and a 100-pound limit cash card that the bank sent me as a reward for staying in credit for almost a year.

London starts to light up for the night, like a thousand million smokers, exhaling blue. I sit on the wall outside Oxford Circus tube watching two men spark up a spliff and the people come and go. I look at my watch again. Seven thirty, that’s what he said on the phone. It’s only seven twenty-three, but you’d think anyone’d be early for a first date. Lonely hearts, lonely genitals more like; lonely hearts, lonely genitals more like; the rhythm of the tube train sang out to me on the way up here. The woman sat opposite in a blue maternity dress and red toenails looked like the sunset scarlet and sapphire over the tower blocks or the canal at Westbourne Park.

Seven thirty-one. I really should get an analogue watch – I don’t like this precision. Joanna and Mike are up in town tonight, probably looking at engagement rings in Bond Street to celebrate their five month’s anniversary or something. I wonder what they’re really celebrating – the fact that they found each other after so long as “just good friends”, or the fact that neither of them usually holds onto a relationship for this much time? It’s hard when your friends become lovers and by definition are forced to exclude you. If anyone were foolish enough to want to marry me, I’d ask for an engagement tiara. Something trashy. Something kitsch.

I swing my feet. Seven thirty-six. Blue shirt I’m looking out for. Blue shirt, black trousers, black hair, blue eyes. Perfect. As long as he’s not got a harelip or a moustache or something. Maybe he’s a disabled-rights activist and comes along in his wheelchair to test women’s reactions as research for his book.

Seven thirty-eight. I spy a blue and black boy but I’m not so foolish as to fall into mirage traps – thousands of men must wear blue clothes to show off their pretty eyes, not that they’d ever admit it.



Oh God, he puts his hand to his chest and laughs. I’m so sorry. It’s this bloody tube strike. I’m usually so on time. God, sorry. I really am.

And I’m just amazed that he’s turned up at all.

Where shall we go?

I lead him through the chaos of Leicester Square to the neon-rush excitement crush of Piccadilly Circus, we go up the escalator in the Trocadero to my tacky Blackpool childhood – the thrill of the slots and the shots and the mini-dodgems, the drug-less ecstasy in the warm loud air.

Isn’t this fun? he roars, slamming the ice-hockey puck down the table. Fun, isn’t this fun, fun, he’s fun.

Such a contrast then, to his choice next, a cinema on Haymarket, the cold air calms us down, Big Ben’s face like the creamy harvest moon looks over us, the chandelier-lit cinema where we don’t watch a film, but admire the lighting, the old faded red stucco, the opulence. We walk around for hours, eating in a 24-hour place in Chinatown and drinking late-night Soho cocktails until he has to go home.

At Waterloo station, I lay down and slept. It was two hours until the next train south and I’d no money for a night bus, never mind a taxi. And I wanted to stay in this city, the city, in the warm beating centre. So I nestled down there, next to two European students sharing one sleeping bag. I was glad they still kept stations open at night, where else are us temporary homeless going to sleep? The last time I did this, in Wolverhampton, the station had its gate closed and me and Jo snuggled together; it was November. Mind you, I was younger then. I’ve got to go to work tomorrow – or rather today.

On Wednesday I went out with a few people from work but left after an hour because bitching about the people you’ve just escaped from at the office isn’t, in my opinion, the most constructive way to spend an evening. Furthermore, whenever I go out with people from work, we end up in these olde worlde pubs with horse brasses on the wall, oak beams and expensive-looking sawdust on the floor. You want a bar snack and all they’ve got is venison sandwiches.

I walk, the low, late sunlight on my legs and a smile on my mouth, the leaves around me the same colour as the warm Autumn sky, a half-flaming tree outside the church…

At the bus stop, a phone ringing sound; two men go for their pockets – who will be the quickest draw? At the station I hear a man talking into an answerphone: “I’ve missed the ten past, so I’ll be twenty minutes late. And I love you.” The mundanity of it spoken in his gruff monotone and then suddenly, spontaneously, that tender rough phrase, a heart-jolt as I long to be told that. The last light shines on the leaves and our orange balloon of heat and light is sinking fast; the pink paint smears of cloud, the slow screeek of the trains like pterodactyls.

I felt unhappy and old and cold.

And so I rang him. We meet again at Oxford Circus, me late this time and we float up to Tottenham Court Road, sinking into Dunkin’ Donuts.

Fuck those pseudo-cosy little Soho pretensaries, he says and, buoyed by my favourite drug, caffeine, I agree. We watch die-hard Londoners and weekend tourists, North Yorkshire men and South Japanese women, short-skirted girls and long-shorted teenage boys – they all leave an acid trail behind them as if my eyes are a vaselined slow-motion camera; ambient jungle plays for my score. I realise that I’m thinking in terms of I and not we and wonder if he’s understood these meandering thoughts. I take a look at him. His pupils are like sunflower hearts in a blue cornflower field. Will he try to kiss me goodnight tonight? On the last “date”, we shook hands politely at the station. He’s so pretty and yet – yet, my senses say yes and my mind says it will never ever work and my third unknown part says “so?”. Take the boy and run – but somehow I know the fun we’d have would never outdo the uncomfortableness of the break-up. God, I never used to be like this – wade in without wellingtons, that was me in the student bars and clubs, but then again it was so much easier in those days, thousands of them all the same just waiting on a plate to be picked up and devoured. You just went to the “Student Nite” at the local club and there they were. I wouldn’t be seen hung, drawn and quartered in a student bar these days. The kids all look about fifteen and I don’t understand their clothes or the music they like and that makes me immensely sad.

I try to analyse Jonathan as he sips his cappuccino and hums along to the techno playing. He’s exactly the kind of boy I would’ve lapped up two years ago, all the time looking like the cat that got the cream, and maybe that’s the whole problem. I ask him: Jon, why did you answer my advert? – something I wanted to enquire of him last time but didn’t get up the guts.

He looks up, twiddles with the coffee stirrer, open his mouth. Well, I, I suppose, I’m looking for someone, y’know, to get to know, to have fun with. I don’t know many girls, y’know. All my mates are well, like mates, know what I mean? – and I do.

Come on, he says, drinking the remains of his polystyrene cup, let’s go.

One weekend, he suggests that we go away to his friends’ house up north. This has got to be our big sex moment. Three weeks and just a kiss on the cheek. We travel up by rented car, through a landscape of bare blasted trees spreading strands across power-station haze as we motor up the flattening road to Spalding. Lincolnshire – home of brilliant skies, winding lanes and whirligig daisy wind farms. I like the space. People may call it boring and flat, but no one says that about the American prairies. It’s because we have such a micro-landscape here in Britain that we need a few hills and lakes to get a quick fix of Scenery, before heading back to the comfort of the ceaseless city with its café-bars and cappuccinos and culture and clutter.

Approaching Somercotes, he says: You know my friends, the couple we’re staying with?

Yes, I reply, Sandy and Joe.

Well, Sandy’s a man. As is Joe.

Oh, I say.

And I realise that there’ll be no sex for us tonight. Fabulous interior decorating yes, but no conjugal beginnings, no light love and sunny starts and no anguished endings, the midnight phone call, the stricken accidental encounter for me and Jon.

A silvery London approaches us as we trawl the M11, the red eye of the NatWest Tower stares balefully at us – leave me for a weekend would you? What kind of a Londoner are you? To quit the pretty city on a weekend, using it rather than living in it, soaking up its essence and its pollution, are you one of the green-welly brigade? Just exploiting London for its theatres and restaurants and shops, utilising its motorways that were designed for people to arrive on, not depart from.

Petrol prices return to under 85p, traffic slowstobumperbumper, police vans start screeching, people’s faces lose their open look.

Canary Wharf gleams and schemes.

London kills me.

[This piece originally appeared in Smoke 4.]

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