Girl on a Boat

I’m sweltering every day under the bridge I call home, dustbin bags for trousers. The councilmen come to sweep the canal path and I snarl at them, sharing the rot of my insides.

I’m shivering every night under London’s muffled skyline. Above is nothing but an ash blanket, suffocating me as my chest pushes in and out. In broken sleep and black dreams I catch a glimpse of my previous life.

I know every sound and smell in this place- the crackle of barbecues, the chaff of a barge boat’s moor rope as it pulls against the tether. Dinner is shared with rats and foxes; we’re the scavengers of the city.

Some nights I sneak in to pubs and use the bathrooms to stare at myself in the mirror. The person looking back at me is gaunt with supermodel cheekbones. Friends come in and avoid me, tittering and sniffing cocaine off keys in the cubicles. Sometimes they forget a lipstick or eyeliner and I snatch at little pieces of my old life; hoarding them like a magpie.

One night I apply the makeup I’ve collected. I put on a full set and comb my hair with my fingers. I use a shard of mirror I found to peer at my queer reflection. I see myself for what I used to be.

One of the barge owners notices me that night, drunk and revelling on the deck of his beautiful boat. He invites me on board and I pretend to be the girl I once was. We drink some beer and talk nonsense; I can even hold conversation using overheard information. At 4am, the party turns dark and everyone starts looking for powder and pills. I keep quiet, the spectator. Everyone’s high now, eyes rolling around like marbles; tongues as loose as leaves. They leave one by one, shoes off, dresses up.

It’s just Joe, the boat owner and me.  Joe stumbles around on the deck, cursing the loose mooring rope as his boat makes a bid for freedom. I watch as he fumbles around with the knot, obviously new to the river. As he makes the final pull he pitches forward, losing his footing on the beer soaked planks. He’s forgotten I’m here.

I watch Joe fall silently, observing his O-mouth and shocked eyes as he goes. He sees me just before his head hits the rock, a pitiful plea across his drawn face. I don’t react, I’m a shadow, and I cease to exist.

The boat drifts uncertainly down the canal; I’m sitting at the front in the captain’s chair, puffing on one of Joe’s cigarettes- the taste hits my throat and I cough.

Once she’s free the boat gains momentum and I take the controls, I’ve watched this done so many times. I’ve got a racehorse in my hands; eager and coiled like a spring.

We glide until we’re out of London; I navigate the misty waters.

I’m free.

The Date

We meet in a dingy bar in Soho on a Wednesday night. I’m fifteen minutes early and I sit on a table outside nervously picking away at the wooden veneer, watching people flooding out of offices like ants around me. I reach for my phone for the fifth time and scan James’ dating profile. There are only three pictures uploaded, each shows a side profile, glasses and a slightly hooked nose; the description is vague and blase. I check the time again and flip out a faded pink compact mirror to check my makeup. The hastily applied foundation and eye makeup which looked relatively attractive in my office toilets now screams ’30 and desperate’; clownlike with a cracked fault line where my smile should be. I wonder for the hundredth time why I’m here, sitting in the hotseat, surveyed but unnoticed, but stay myself for his imminent arrival. 

My dialogue with James has been brief, our discourse rough and unpolished.

‘Fancy a drink?’
‘OK Wednesday night?’
‘Are you dirty in bed?’

I chose to ignore his last question, despite my itching knowledge that the dating application is mainly used for casual hookups. If I can just make him like my personality, maybe he’ll forget the GPS, iPhone-d absurdity of this London life we’re living.

Thirty minutes later, I’m in a mental ditch so deep I need a crane to lift me out and carry me back to my comfortably numb life. The drink I ordered as a social prop has turned in to four and I’m running dry. I don’t have James’ number so I log back in to the dating app and check his profile again. My phone tells me he was online five minutes ago, what the fuck is he playing at? Flustered, I start packing my possessions in to my bag, slowly, incase I’m wrong and I haven’t been stood up. I’m hunched over, fishing for my Oyster card when I feel a tap on my shoulder. 

‘Sorry I’m late, got landed with a last minute analytics report at work’ – it’s him.

I regard him slowly from the floor up. Converse, slightly bad jeans and a plaid shirt- media wanker wear- but his face is just as great when I can see both halves of his profile. Our eyes meet and suddenly I’m shy, internally panicking about how I can entertain a stranger for a whole evening without one of my friends to bounce jokes off. He walks to the bar with self – assured confidence and returns with two cocktails- ‘it’s happy hour after all’. I eye mine suspiciously, remembering my promise to keep my wits about me, but start sipping in spite of myself. 

Conversation is monotonous with James. I watch his lips move but hear none of his words; they pour out like thick tar, filling the air around me with self satisfied egotism. He doesn’t ask about me and I don’t volunteer the information; by this point it becomes clear that this date is only going one way. 

James doesn’t offer to take me to another pub and inside I’m relieved. I start thinking about exit routes, calling a friend, pretending there’s an emergency, but by the time we reach Tottenham Court Road I’ve crossed off every possibility. We take the tube together, I know his station is before mine and I nervously plan excuses to stay on the train so I don’t have to go home with him. This was supposed to be a real date, but I never mentioned that to him- perhaps I’ve led him on, should just follow the flow, let go, release myself. 

In the crowded tube carriage, James moves closer to me and I can smell his aftershave. He puts his hand on my waist and I move closer to him out of habit. I always enjoyed taking the tube with boyfriends, the forced intimacy, closing myself off from the miscreants in our little world. This time it’s different.

I look to my left and in to the next carriage and see a woman pressed against the window watching us. At first I think nothing of it, it’s a Wednesday, everyone’s had a few drinks by this point and the train is full of slurring, stumbling suits. Something in her expression catches me off guard, a desperation, sadness and shock. She shrugs her cloth bag up on to her shoulder and begins to open the door between the carriages as the train pulls in to Chancery Lane. James is breathing in to my neck, I can feel his warm breath touching my skin; he’s in another world, thinking about how easy this has all been. The woman is making her way towards us, fixated on me. As she gets closer, I can see the mascara streaked down her face, freshly painted spider’s legs crawling down to her pursed mouth. 

‘James?’ she calls, he turns and I watch, like a silent movie, his expression turning from smug to surprised to mortified. ‘What the fuck do you think you’re doing?’. Everything changes at that point. the hand around my waist turns to a concrete block, dropping hard to his side. The air turns cold and I’m a spectator on the fallout between James and his girlfriend. At the next station, she turns and scrambles from the train, her long cardigan snagging on a briefcase buckle as she moves. James follows, without hesitation; he doesn’t look back. 

As the doors close, I watch them sparr on the platform, her dip dye bobbing as tears spray from her eyes. 

I get home, turn on my phone and delete my dating profile. I never hear from James again. 

Eulogy

I was born in a blaze of glory; pushing through into the world like a rocket bursting through the atmosphere. I was born at 4.30 AM on a crisp East London morning, I felt the cool air against my bare skin as I blinked through mucus-filled eyes to take my first taste of life.

I was too poorly to move at first, the hard edged birth and my premature arrival meant I was a weak, pink thing- cowering and crying for my parents throughout the night. Neighbours shook their heads and tutted as they left their houses, passing my worried mother on the landing- can’t they keep that baby under control?

My existence was boring futility for three weeks. We had little money so I would lie in my corner of the world, nervously growing and understanding the different noises I heard. When you lie so still and quiet, each day rolls into one- even for the people moving around. The kettle clicks, the toaster pops, the shower bursts into life- the same routine, a pleasant prison.

The problems started a few weeks after I was born, first eviction notices- it was clear no-one wanted us here. My mother was a wreck, barely managing to bring me morsels of food every day, let alone clean my shit soaked bedding. My father was so angry all the time. They both fussed around me, but not lovingly- as if all the affection had been drained out of them from years of running. I looked around and wondered why they’d chosen this place. Desolate despair filled me and I wished I could get up and walk away, but my legs were still too weak.

A month after I was born I began to look more like a normal child. I gained strength but still called out to my parents in the night, panicking in my room in the dark. They guarded me like a damaged specimen; even if people came to see me they would lurk around suspiciously, just a few feet away.

One day, a hot and wet day, where the air seems to stick to your skin, one of the neighbours came to see me. My parents had gone out and left me there, promising to be back soon. I was crouched in the corner of my soiled bed, looking around nervously when a girl came into my room. I recognised her as one of the ones who didn’t want us here and  prepared to remonstrate with her in the only way I could. Before I opened my mouth, there was darkness.

I never saw the light again after that day. I could hear my parents calling out for me but I had no idea how to reach them and I slowly realised that this was the end. It was better than my soiled bed and the constant glares from my father but it was black, nothingness.

I left the world exactly one month and three days after my birth. It was nothing spectacular, I just closed my eyes and took that last breath, the one final taste of that sickly sweet oxygen. My body lies in a park, and people gawp as they pass; some even take photographs to remind them that they’re not immortal.

RIP Pigeon.

By Request

I’ve always wondered what a name means, how much stock can be set by those couple of syllables. When I was younger, my stepfather made me change my name; he said names closer to the top of the alphabet were psychologically more likely to succeed in life. I followed his advice, dropped out of art school and ended up as a pen pusher for a media company in the West End. Some see me as successful but I’m thinking about changing my name again. This is a morning in the life of my three sides.

 

  1.  

 

My alarm goes off at 7 o clock; I roll over and stretch my arm out, hitting the shoulder of the body next to me. I’m not really sure who she is. I stare at her for a few moments, watching the rise and fall of her ribs and examining the way her mousey brown hair cascades haphazardly down her back. She’s probably not the one, she’s not even the one I wanted to see there but she’s one, and that was all I needed last night. I briefly consider whether I embarrassed myself at the pub after work and decide I probably didn’t, save for scrambling around for my coat for fifteen minutes before I took a dive headlong in to another night of excess. I groan as I hit snooze and squint my eyes, rubbing my face for the feel of the week- long stubble I procrastinate about daily. Fumbling amongst the lines of odd socks lined up on my bedside table I find my phone discarded in the heat of disappointed passion and check my messages. There are a few from the lads; digital high fives and requests for an update on the latest conquest but nothing from her; I don’t know if I’m sad or glad. I push it to the back of my mind and swing my legs over the side of the bed.

Sitting on the side of the bed takes a few minutes as I’m forced to adjust to the swimming room.  I look back over my shoulder at the sleeping girl and consider fucking her again but something doesn’t feel quite right and I slope off in to the shower room before my housemate can sabotage my morning ritual. As the door creaks I hear the body in my bed rustle and moan, waking up in a strange bed. I secretly hope she’ll be gone when I get back from the shower, and she is.

I don’t generally eat breakfast at home, my cupboard is usually distinctly bare unless I’m entertaining, so once I’ve rooted around in the pile of clothes at the end of my bed and sprayed myself with cologne I make a swift exit from the darkness of the basement, bursting in to crisp London sunshine. I’m probably the second hardest man in the area, save for “big blazer” who lives on the estate. I fancy myself in a fight against most of the estate youths, especially since they don’t know about my professional fighting history. As I walk I imagine their attempts to happy slap me being thwarted by my black belt in karate and smile, strutting smugly.

The next step of my journey is the tube. I always take the last carriage and since I skirt on the edges of punctuality there isn’t usually a crush to get on. I notice a woman struggling with a pram in my periphery and think about helping her but just as I’m about to reach out I see a girl with red hair grab the end of it, turning to pierce me with her gaze as she does.  Something stirs but I’m not sure what and I’m unsettled for the rest of the journey, obsessed by my failure to help the woman with the pushchair.  I can’t stop thinking about the way the girl looked at me as she lifted the pushchair off the train and as much as I try to indulge in fantasies about the brown haired girl from last night, nothing will shake my unease. Despite my trepidation, I make it to work by the skin of my teeth with an overpriced bacon sandwich between my hands and a happy ambivalence about the day ahead. As I round the corner to my seat my boss smiles and points to the seat next to me.

“This is your new manager”

It’s the girl with the red hair, and as soon as I look at her I know I’ll wish I’d never met her.

2,

My alarm goes off at 7 o clock; I roll over and stretch my arm out on to the empty expanse next to me, briefly sad. I squint through sleep filled eyes and hit the snooze button, with a light sense of dread about the day ahead. My morning ritual fills me with distaste, but I’m happy, happy to be in London, to be looking for whatever it is people find in the big city. I hear my flatmate slam the door to the bathroom and realise I’ve missed my chance for the shower and will probably be late for work again, walking through the office with everyone’s eyes on me. I look over at my bedside table, see a line of odd socks, queuing for my attention and think about my work piling up on my desk. I’m nervous about working in London, I’ve only just started taking the underground and my eyes widened the first time I saw people trying to crowd on to the train. Some mornings I wake up and yearn for the countryside, the clean air and the smell of cut grass, but London is exciting. I’m fucked up in most of my free time, I ride the buzz of MDMA to oblivion and scream from the rooftops.

I swing my legs over the side of the bed and look back at the bed next to me, untouched, imagining her there. She’ll never be there, but I know I’ll try to grope her at the Christmas party.

I wait outside the bathroom angrily needing a piss as my flatmate preens himself in the mirror. Once it’s my turn I crank the shower up to full heat and wank aggressively with a blank mind under the scalding water, grabbing at a damp towel and running it over myself to dry. I stand, shivering in my room for a few minutes with a miniature hairdryer directed at my vitals before rooting around in the pile of clothes at the end of my bed and re-claiming a purple sweater from the chaos.

I’m fresh as I stride out of my flat. I don’t drink tea and I don’t care for breakfast so my morning routine is pretty low maintenance. I’m at the tube before I know it, cautiously pressing myself against strangers as we scrabble for the train that will deliver us all on time to work. I spend the journey reviewing my fellow passengers one by one, business women, fat women pretending to be pregnant for a seat and the oddballs of East London all crammed together in the moving metal tube. By the next stop I’m right up against the door and a girl with red hair hustles her way on, bowling through everyone in her path with a disgruntled face. We end up face to face but she doesn’t look at me, her eyes are firmly focused on some invisible spot over my shoulder. We’ve got four stops left and I’ve started imaging what her name is, what she does and who she is. I’m so close to her that I can smell her perfume and a faint hint of cigarette smoke. Her hair is wildly swept over to one side and she’s wearing far too many clothes for the packed tube carriage. When the train empties slightly she yanks off her coat and I see a sweat patch has formed at the small of her back. Something about the small damp patch is so erotic that I have to squeeze my thighs together so I don’t get a hard on. She looks at me then, fixing me with her green/grey eyes and an expression that says ‘Yes?’ a flicker of laughter crossing her face. We both start laughing and we can’t stop- tears are rolling down her face by the time it’s her stop. Neither of us have spoken and as she turns to leave she pulls me towards her and whispers in my ear ‘see you tomorrow’, biting my earlobe as she withdraws.

I can’t stop thinking about her as I make my way to work, the smell of her, the insanity in her eyes. I glide through the office in a daze- ignoring my bosses glare at my converse and forgetting that I’m due in a client meeting in fifteen minutes. I know that tomorrow I’ll wait for every tube to go past until I see her again.

3.

My alarm goes off at 7 o clock; I’m tangled up in legs, skin and hair and the familiar smell of Lancôme. My stomach flips and I look at her sleeping- I trace the freckles on her back and the curve of her body, from the shoulder, over her hip and reach round to cup her stomach and kiss her neck. I press snooze five times and grab her as tightly as I can. My arm is around her and she’s holding my hand over her heart. I wish I could take a picture of this moment, before it all turns to shit. I want to bottle the feeling of flying high, fucking all night and writing mental poetry about this girl. We slip out of my room and shower together, laughing because neither of us is clean when we get finish. She complains that I never make her tea and asks why my towel is always damp but she doesn’t really care and neither do I. We watch the news and make fun of the newsreader to distract ourselves from how terrifying the world is. I just want to wrap her up in a duvet and get back in to bed to forget about all the shit I’m about to face at work.

There’s a brief time of the day, when I’m walking to work where I forget all my troubles. I hold her hand and my step starts to spring. We take the underground together; hers is the only body I don’t mind pressed against mine. I know every contour of her, we fit together. For now.  She gets off three stops before me, biting my lip and squeezing my dick pretty conspicuously as she skips off the train. I watch her go, those long legs ambling down the platform and I feel a deep sense of foreboding about what I might do to her. I spend the rest of the journey reading last night’s evening standard and listening to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack on my headphones before making the short walk to work.

When I round the corner to my desk, something comes over me and a deep shiver shakes down my spine. I know something’s wrong. They’re all waiting for me at my desk, my secretary is crying-

–           It’s her, I know it. She’s gone.