How did I get here? You can see the Thames, the London Eye, The Houses of Parliament. I’m sitting in meetings. They’re talking about million dollar deals. I’m getting paid to read Tolstoy; I’m getting paid to judge submitted work. I don’t deserve this, not at all, I’m not like these Oxbridge types. I don’t belong in an office; all I do is drink ridiculous amounts of coffee. I’m just a boy from a council estate who can’t even get his grammar and punctuation right.
There he sits perched at the end of the kitchen table. He never looks at me and will not respond to my presence unless I acknowledge his first; even then it is brief and reluctant. The radio or his cigarette offers him more amusement than me. Picturesque depression. He looks deep in thought, hopefully that thought is to jump off a bridge. I make breakfast and leave, not uttering a word. It’s better that way, discussion leads in one of two directions, argument or a lecture, and I have heard all he has to say.
“London is diverse.”
Elitsa is Bulgarian. Sam is Bangladeshi. Inga and Virginia are Lithuanian. Jozcef and Veronika are Hungarian. Monika is Polish. Alvaro is Spanish. Francesca is Italian. Loukemane is Mauritian. Andrea and Paolo are Italian. Magda and Patryk are Polish. Marlene is German-American. Juan and Louisa are Spanish. Peter is Slovakian. Laert, Namo, Anastatsis, Rrustem, Eddie and Edmond are Albanian. Rosa is Chilean. Lillianna is Columbian.
“Work is Easy.”
I run around collecting glasses, wiping tables, and delivering meals. Smiling, making eye contact, “Please,” “Thank you,” “You’re welcome” — acting. If you pretend to be happy you are happy. A smile is contagious. It’s good exercise being on your feet all day. Only smoke a cigarette when she offers. “We’ll be five minutes max.” We sit out on the steps in the sun, using her cigarette-making machine. Conversation about family, politics, and psychology. “How long did that cigarette last?”
“This is your mother’s house!”
She calls me up a week after we make love. Her landlord is creepy and perverse. She moves into my room. I move my mattresses into a double bed and we drink each night. She tries to connect with Billy; he takes his anger out on me. I have intruded on his territory. I have to get out of this house before I get sent to prison for murder, or get incarcerated in a mental asylum.
Jono has a van. He delivers for Amazon. He tells me about Lilly — she’d be two now — and how he needed anti-depressants after Nicola. Farm life exhausted him, but family nearly killed him. He tells me how he makes extra money fly-tipping, and how he almost got caught. How can two people from the same neighbourhood, same social background, same school, and same age live such different lives? I can keep asking. Are we really the same?
“Alright mate.” II
Aidan meets us in fluffy pink slippers and dressing gown. We chill in his illegally rented flat above a gated garage. The area looks like the set of a mafia film. Next door is the studio. Renowned for drum ’n’ bass music, today they’re doing something different, a live competition for recording time. It’s an industrial estate but it doesn’t matter. We grab a sofa and lie in the sun listening. It’s by far the best day of the year. But at the back of my mind are those same questions.
“How many cranes can you see?”
The twenty-fourth floor had the most spectacular view of London. Facing west, you could see the whole of Canary Wharf, the Shard, that ‘Walkie Talkie’ building, the London Eye, Heron Tower, and the Gherkin. The best thing was when the sun set over them all. When I first arrived I was scared of Tower Hamlets, influenced by all the stereotypes fed to me all my life about inner-city parts of East London. Convinced I’d get mugged, stabbed, killed, or all three.
“Please mind the doors.”
The end of summer is approaching, and so is our time together in Balfron. She’ll go back to Sofia; I’ll start renting in East Ham. From the seventy-nine beer cans we have we build a teddy bear. We call it the ‘Caring Bear’, dropping the ‘l’. I depart, suitcase in hand, walking into the DLR carriage. Before the doors close I stick my head out and kiss her one last time. Although I can see her, we are separated. She looks so sad. I keep eye contact, trying not to cry. That was a terrible way to say goodbye.
“I live in East Ham.”
Never let a suburban cowboy drive you through the city; it scares them and you will get lost. We arrive at 11pm. Parked in the street we block traffic to carry furniture up a pitch-black staircase. Dump it all in the kitchen. Documents signed and bills paid only a few hours earlier. This is all mine now, if only I could turn the lights on or have a hot shower. I’m drunk and alone, and in the morning I have to go to work.
A homeless man walks into the bar and begins to eat a half-eaten meal left on a table. A station security guard and a policeman start questioning him. I’m called over. They ask me if he bought the meal. I’m not sure, and I’m frustrated that there’s only two of us on the bar making coffee all day, so I just say, “I don’t know.” When I get back on the bar I realise what’s happening. The guard and policeman struggle to take him out. At one point he sits on the floor and refuses to get up. I feel guilty for not just saying ‘yes’. I stopped a homeless man from eating.
“Wouldn’t happen to know when the job centre shuts?”
An elderly woman approaches me at a bus stop in Newham. She is frail and worn out, pulling along a raggedy trolley. “Excuse me.” She asks about the job centre, her voice is as strained as the rest of her. It shocks me that a women of her age would still need to work or claim money. She reminds me of my mother who hasn’t worked a day since she was pregnant with me over 23 years ago after being diagnosed with a severe form of depression. She makes me worry that she’ll have to claim money for the rest of her life just to live.
“It’s going to be busy today.”
Typical rush hour. Guys in suits, bankers, drinking Peroni, the most expensive lager we have. I often think they choose it because the pump is the most phallic looking. The way they handle their money offends me most. Some hold their money in the air, or at least in a very obvious way, until they are served. Completely blank faced, emotionless. I view it as some kind of status symbol, as if they could be saying, “Look, here’s money, that’s what you want,” – like a dog owner holding a biscuit.
“A place where people choose to live, work and stay.”
I don’t like the phrase ‘culture shock’. To me it suggests some form of fear, a disbelief that people’s lives are different to your own. But it is the closest word to describe my reaction to East Ham. Only there was no fear, more a fascination with the aesthetic of the streets, the small businesses and terraced houses. This was a true working-class community. It was different to what I had known as working class back home in the suburbs, what I had identified with. These people were poorer than I was, but I was beginning to learn that this is actually what most of London looks like, nothing like the paraded tourism image.
Over time you identify customers with their drinks. There’s the Symonds man who always replies with a “yes please” when you ask him if he would like a Symonds. The two-Stellas man who simply raises two fingers. Half-a-Peroni man, who is ironically short. The two-Heinekens-one-with-a-head-one-without man who is repulsively pot-bellied, and whom I have named the human slug. Another Heineken man who always stinks of urine, and will sometimes hand you a wet bank note. The tequila man, whose deep voice and Mediterranean accent makes “double tequila with ice” sound as suave as hell. And the Chilean Sauvignon woman, who is always surprised that I remember her drink.
Is it possible people do not know how to communicate any more? How can you order a drink with headphones on? Or worse, not even give the bartender eye contact because you’re too busy playing with your phone. Not even listening to the questions they’re asking. Or possibly even more offensive, leaving money on the bar, not your hand, the bar! Especially when it’s coins! Are bartenders simply machines like your phone that don’t even have the most basic human elements? Does technology just make people more ignorant of each other?
“You must make good tips here, don’t you?”
No, but you would think that. Especially when more than half the customers are career bankers working in huge offices in Liverpool Street — the biggest gangsters this country has ever seen. The richest people in The City. But that’s why they’re the richest people, because they don’t tip, they keep every penny. Take, again, Peroni: it once cost £4.95, meaning if you paid with a fiver there would be 5p change. It really shocked me how many of these ‘suave’ suited men would wait so long after paying for their 5p. Now I don’t expect to be tipped, but is that really worth waiting for when you earn so much?
“No, no, no!”
Men shout at the accidental drop of soda in their wine, women on the verge of tears because you didn’t realise they didn’t want coke with their JD. Why? Take it with a pinch of salt, they’re the customer, you’re in the wrong, they get to be passive aggressive. Unleashing their built-up anger from the day onto someone of a lower occupational status. You’re on the wrong side of the bar. Of course, I say this, but I am lucky I don’t work in a call centre.
Name tags and I.D. cards are demeaning. They can make you feel powerless. The customer knows your name, but you don’t know theirs. It’s embarrassing when they call your name for attention, or when they want to thank you as a joke in front of their friends, scanning your badge for a name. They give the customer the impression that working at a bar is the only thing you do with your life. Like it’s your career, and that there’s nothing else you can do because you’re so thick you can only pull pints.
“Got any change please?”
When you spend a lot of time around Liverpool Street station you come to realise there are a lot of homeless people in the area, and they all have their distinct ways of asking for change. One young man not much older than I am sells lighters with designs on them. Another man with bruised knuckles sells poems. A much older man with a tattoo on his face like Mike Tyson sits on the floor and opens the door into McDonald’s for people. A lot of the time I do have change in my pocket and I say, “Sorry man.” It fills me with shame. Maybe I’m becoming like these bankers.
“Head down to the LP Café.”
Free time in July consisted of drinking coffee and trying to write. I would always bump into man called Nick who loved to talk about politics. We would talk for hours about it. One day I mentioned one of my past girl friends from a couple of years ago. A girl who got me more into politics in the first place. She was an anarchist, and brought me to societies like LARC, tried to involve me in the creation of an anti-fascist magazine, and she always attended anti-English Defence League protests. It was unbelievable to find out that Nick used to date her before me, and had influenced her enough to make her go from being a religious school girl to political rebel. Nick radicalised her; she radicalised me.
Reading about history and politics can be damaging to the soul leading to frustration and depression. At some point, you need to ask yourself how far do you want to go with this? How much do you really want to be angry about? What if you can’t do anything? Do you seek to change the world knowing you might try your whole life and achieve nothing but unwanted stress? Or do you take the easy option and decide to enjoy life and live in ignorance of what you know? There are some things that once you know you’ll never forget them.