Sep 122013

Nydia Hetherington

I found it on the Piccadilly Line on my way to see the flat. For a moment, I worried that the person who’d left it would be wandering the streets above, baffled and alone. But then, not wanting to seem ungrateful, I popped the A-Z nonchalantly into my backpack and thanked the Map Gods for their timely gift. The letting agent had given me good instructions, but a map would definitely be useful too. Except that Cheriton Square wasn’t on the map. When I got to Balham and opened the A-Z, I found that it had slipped down the crease between pages 108 and 109.

Living on the crease felt like living in a netherworld. It felt special. And that’s what gave me the idea. As a way of getting to know my new city and of finding my place within it, I decided to visit every street, on every crease, between every two pages of my adopted A-Z. I would meet others like me – The People of The Crease – and we would have a special bond. I might even document my findings and send the results to Woman’s Hour.

Over the next two years I went from pages 4/5 (Barnet and New Barnet) to pages 44/45 (Gospel Oak and Kentish Town). Not always in order but, bit by bit, I stood on every road, piece of grass and wasteland teetering perilously on the edge of, or falling directly into, the crease.

And I logged everything. I filled notebooks with times, dates, places and weather conditions. I wrote in blue ink on white paper in brown notebooks. And there are pictures too. Of my feet in boots, sandals, trainers and pumps, standing on ground which lay exactly on a crease.

My name is Joanne. A dull name to match a dull face. I was born and grew up in a dull town in the north of England. Nothing of interest ever crossed my path and, even though I had better-than-average drawing skills, I was never exciting or creative enough to make anything cross it. I’m not even sure what made me move to London.

I got a job on the glove counter in Selfridges. I did not like my job. Most of the other girls who worked there were not very friendly. The customers were snooty and rude and made me feel stupid. My one friend in gloves was Jane. Jane was an actress. She hated the glove counter and hated Selfridges. Jane hated a lot of things. Mainly because she should’ve been “giving her Titania” at the National or Being Earnest at the Royal Court and not “stuck behind a sodding glove counter”.

Jane made fun of the other girls, with their tiny noses and overly perfumed orange skin. She mocked their grotesque, over-motivated love for the selling of gloves. In turn they did not like us, because of our under-achieving sales figures and ungainly faces.

Jane was twenty-seven when we met, one year older than me, and she had never lived on the crease. But that was okay. She made me laugh, so her personal geography was not an obstacle to friendship. Jane liked my project at first. She made fun of it, and called me a “mad cow”, but in a nice way.

Sometimes, if we had the same day off, Jane would come with me. So some of my project photographs show four feet instead of two. She’d put her feet in silly poses for the pictures. On the Walpole Street crease (pages 60/61), two of the feet in the picture are naked because she took off her shoes and socks and stood on the freezing pavement, laughing, waving my A-Z in the air like a flag and shouting, “Look, we’re on the bloody crease!” at passers-by.

Phyllis Pearsall is my heroine. She invented the A-Z because she got lost looking for a party one night, so next day she began mapping out the London streets herself. Walking across the city and putting it all down in brown notebooks. Phyllis had lived in Paris and knew Nabokov. And the most amazing thing about this is that during her time in Paris she worked on the glove counter of a department store. I did not know this when I got the job at Selfridges. I’ve never known anyone like Nabokov, though. In London I’d known only people who sold gloves and people who bought gloves. Phyllis was also an artist. She painted portraits. This is amazing because with my better-than-average drawing skills I managed to do a foundation course in art when I was sixteen and I was particularly good at portraits. I mainly did portraits of myself, but the coincidences still make me breathless. If I had not been on that particular Piccadilly Line train on that particular day when someone had accidentally left their A-Z next to the seat I was sitting on, I would never have started my quest and I would have been living on the crease in complete ignorance. Jane agreed with me about the coincidences. “That is so mad,” she said.

Everything was fine until I started to take days off work. I’d ring in sick, claiming that I had terrible back pain and couldn’t even manage to stand up, let alone stand in gloves all day.

“I knew you were mad,” said Jane “but I didn’t think you were stupid.”

“It’s just to get through the next few pages. It’s too slow doing it just two days a week.”

“Be careful, Joanne, that’s all I’m saying. You can’t afford to lose your job. You know what they’re like here. They’ll have you out on your arse as soon as look at you.”

That was when I decided to step away from Jane. I really liked her, she was my only real friend. But Jane did not live on the crease.

I started staying up into the small hours. Organising my pictures, writing in notebooks, highlighting streets and journeys to the next crease. I decided to forget about Woman’s Hour. If they wanted me, then I’d do it, but this was bigger than that. I would give my findings – my notebooks, my photographs, even my beloved A-Z – to the Museum of London.

Jane tried to cover for me at work as best she could. When I did turn up I’d arrive late. And always tired and frazzled from my nocturnal plannings and loggings. I stopped putting make-up on because it took up valuable time in the morning. Sue, my manager, explained to me that certain standards must be kept in the glove department, as this was Selfridges and did I know what that meant? I said that I did know. She sent me to a make-up counter on the ground floor. I was sat down and made over. I wanted to punch the make-up girl hard in her shiny red mouth.

After I had been made over they sent me back to gloves. Everyone was quiet. The usual tittle-tattle of the glove girls was down to whispered giggles. Jane kept looking over at me and half smiling. At one point she mouthed “you all right?”. But I didn’t answer. At 6 p.m. Sue called me into the office.

“Things aren’t really working out for you at Selfridges are they, Joanne?”

I looked at her with my over-made-up face.

“You’ve lost your motivation and, even though we’ve tried countless times to help you show enthusiasm for our products…”

“I have lost my love of the glove,” I said, very quietly.

“Are you trying to be funny, Joanne?”

“No, I am not trying to be funny.”

What I wanted to say was that I did not realise that humour was forbidden in the world of gloves. But I didn’t. I just sat there and looked at the floor.

“As it stands, your lack of enthusiasm, coupled with your bad timekeeping and the decline in your physical…”

I no longer heard or was listening. My bag was on the floor next to my feet and I could feel my A-Z burning inside it. Sue handed me some papers, smiled at me as if I was a pet who had just done a naughty on her new Laura Ashley throw, and pushed me through the door. And that is how I lost my job on the glove counter.

I spent the next few weeks wandering London with my notebook and my camera, covering page upon page. I was tired, really tired. But I couldn’t stop. I had to finish the project. Then one evening Jane came to my flat.

“Where the hell have you been? Didn’t you get my messages?”

“I can’t use my phone any more, I had to stop the contract. Can’t afford it. No one ever calls me anyway.”

“I bloody do.”

I felt raw, like a skinned rabbit. All sinew and exposed nerves. I began to shake. Jane grabbed me and held me tightly. I was shaking violently, and crying. Air was going into my body but I couldn’t breathe it out. I slid to the floor, Jane still holding me, and we sat there together for a while. I thought my tears must be made of blood. But they were just tears.

“I can’t make it stop, Jane. I want to do something special, important. But I’m just a sad little shit who can’t even keep a job selling gloves.”

Then I started laughing. We were lying on our backs now, on the floor holding hands and laughing hysterically. After a while Jane put me to bed. I slept soundly and without dreaming. In the dark, in my flat, on the crease.

When I woke up it was morning and I felt well. Jane was asleep on my sofa. I didn’t want to wake her so I wrote her a note saying that I was sorry for being such a mad cow. Then I grabbed my bag and left the flat.

I took the Northern Line from Balham and changed at Leicester Square onto the Piccadilly Line. At Covent Garden I took out my A-Z and placed it on the seat next to me. I stared at it for a bit, then picked up my bag and got off the train. I walked to the lift and rose up into the brightness of the London day. I felt alive. I stood still for a moment in the chaos and for the first time realised that this city of utter confusion was where I belonged.

I made my way down Long Acre. On my left was a shop, Stanfords. It sold nothing but maps. The sign above the door told me to Explore, Discover, Inspire. I went in. The floor was a large smooth map of London; uncreased. My feet slid across its surface and I wanted to dance and sing as if I was in an old Hollywood movie. Instead, I asked the girl on the counter if I could see the manager.

Some weeks later I moved from the crease. Jane and I found a flat in Stoke Newington. Jane pays more rent than I do, but she has a bigger room, so it’s fair. I’ve started a cartography course and have a job at Stanfords three days a week. I like the people I work with and the customers are all right, really. Jane recently did a tour of schools in a play about the NHS and is part of an experimental theatre company called NOW! She still works part-time at the glove counter and she still hates it. But now she says it gives her “creative fuel”.

I have kept all my pictures and notebooks. Jane says she is going to send them to the BBC one day because, unless they saw it for themselves, they’d never believe it.

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