N to E, by Daniela Bragato

“I can’t find peace here. This city is as tight as my skinny jeans.”

Still, for someone who didn’t even want to come live here, nearly eight years is a long time. This thought catches me nearly every day, when I see the first ray of light coming through the blinds in the morning, when I trot down Camden High Street on my way to work dodging people, when I sip my tenth green tea of the day.

It’s past 8 o’clock in the morning and it’s a zig zag of cars overtaking, vendors setting up the stalls in the market, a bunch of school kids waiting for the number 24 towards Pimlico. Pret is an in and out of people getting their coffee before going to work. Their work badges hang out of their coats. I keep mine hidden in my bag. I wonder what their life might look like and compare it to mine.

I stop at the traffic light and stare into another person’s eyes on the street. I wonder if they can see it. Can they see I’m drowning? That all I want to do is lie on my back, on the pavement, and scream with all the breath I have, from every single pore of my body how much I hate this. How much I hate being stuck in a job that makes me sink slowly. For someone who learnt how to swim at six years old, nearly a year is a long time.

I adjust my wireless headphones and turn up the volume. I look at the red patch on my right hand. I scratch it. My recurrent eczema is back. I am never enough. Never British enough, still never Italian enough. Never good enough at writing. Never good enough at cooking. Never pretty enough, never skinny enough. Never assertive enough, never competent enough. Just never enough. If it’s true that we’re all fighting some kind of battle, then there must be strangers who know how I feel. I just don’t know where they are right now.

I wish I could just put this daily thought into one of the boxes I’m filling and file it away in storage and just forget about it, like the fake silver candelabra I’ve just resurrected from there and that I’ve never used since the day I bought it. That will definitely go to the charity shop.

Both the louge and my room are invaded by boxes, shopping bags and suitcases.

“I’ve got too much stuff,” I say to my parents. But the more I throw away, the more things I found in places I had forgotten. I stare at every item I own and like Marie Kondo, I ask myself: does this spark joy? In most cases, the answer is not, but still, I can’t get rid of that set of Moroccan silver teapot with coordinated glasses and tray. It smells of souk spices and mint. Of sand and camels and colourful rugs. It sparks memories that otherwise would simply fade away. And I need to hold on to these feelings for as long as I can.

This is my sixth move and my parents have come to help. It hasn’t stopped raining since they landed. It’s March, but it feels like November. The wind is so strong, it howls and a cold breeze comes through my flatmate’s bedroom window. I turn the light on. My dad sits on the couch and is shredding some documents from 2014 that have my name on it “because you never know who might look into your rubbish.” My mum is in my bedroom, sewing my jacket pocket, and I’m running around picking up pots and pans from the kitchen.

“How many boxes, Pa?” I shout.

“Fourteen for now.”

Winston observes these two new people, who have somehow taken possession of his house, and then hides himself under the piano. I’m going to miss him. I’m going to miss him standing on the balcony and then coming down the stairs to greet me no matter what time it was. I’m going to miss him tapping on my shoulder with his paw every time I pretended not to look at him. I moved to this flat with a broken heart and he’s been my silent companion since day one. He always stood on the kitchen table, looking out the window while I was eating, his tail wagging back and forth like the hands of a crazy clock. He used to rub his head against mine when I couldn’t stop my tears from falling.

“Your jacket is ready. Shall we put it in the suitcase? I doubt you’re going to use it in this weather,” says my mum.

“You know it was actually sunny before you came?”

“Yeah, yeah, you say this every time we come to visit you.”

I laugh and hug my mum. She smells like sweet almond milk. I feel her warmth and think that I should have learned how to sew when she taught me the first time, before I moved to Australia.

“Pa, are you done with those documents now? You’ve been shredding stuff for half an hour.”

My dad’s eyes are red. And a few bits of paper fall under the couch rather than in the black bin bag. It’s time to make coffee.

Winston comes around, rubs against my dad’s leg and follows us to the kitchen. My dad takes the caffettiera from the cupboard. I watch him making coffee as if it was a religious ritual. He opens the moka, fills the bottom pot with fresh water and then fills the pot’s filter basket with the Italian ground coffee they brought from home. He screws the top part tightly and then places the pot on the stove. I don’t drink coffee but nothing smells more like casa than this. I hear a hissing, bubbling sound. The nutty aroma of coffee fills up the kitchen. And my mind drifts back to a winter evening at a café in Soho a couple of months ago.

“See, you’re not clear with the universe, D. You’re sending it mixed messages and that’s why you’re not getting what you want.”

“I’m not sure I’m following you,” I tell L.

I can’t stop but staring at the pink neon sign behind L’s shoulders that spells ‘We can be heroes just for one day.’ We’re surrounded by tropical plants. Every corner of this place screams hipster, and we’re probably the only people who, on a Friday night, are only having green tea and coffee rather than an Espresso Martini and some roasted salty almonds. I look around: mainly couples or friends ready to celebrate the start of the weekend. I take a sip of my tea and then place the red cup on the cold marble table. We are sitting right in front of the door. Every time someone walks in I shiver. I put my scarf around my neck; another couple is coming in, and their beige Frenchie follows them slowly.

“It’s like you’re at a restaurant, looking at the menu and then you think you know what you want so you make your order. The waiter scribbles that down and then goes back to the kitchen and tell the chef, aka the universe, to start making your avo on toast with one poached egg only and some chilli flakes on top. But the truth is that half way through, you stop the waiter and tell him that you’ve actually changed your mind. You made a mistake and now want shakshuka instead. So the chef has to stop cooking your first order, put it aside and start afresh.”

L stops talking to check if I’m with him. I nod and he goes on.

“So yeah, the universe. Since you’ve cancelled your first order, the universe has to stop working around the decision you’ve initially made and start again. But guess what? Half way through the cooking you stop the waiter again and swear you finally know what you want and order a mixed salad with no oil instead. Can you see where I’m going here? You order something that you already know you don’t want because you’re too damned scared to take some risks. You’re making decisions based on what’s the most reasonable thing to do and not based on what makes you happy. This is why you constantly change your order.”

“Basically you’re telling me that I’m so hungry that I’d like to eat everything that’s on the menu?”

“You need to decide what you want, order it and then wait,” he pauses. “Wait patiently for your order to arrive. Don’t change your order because you’re impatient. If you visualise what you want properly, the universe will manifest exactly what you want.”

“Great! Time for dessert?”

As I walked back home that night, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the confused orders I’ve been sending to the universe in the last two years.

I feel like I haven’t seen things clearly. Like when you can’t be bothered to clean your window and you notice that thin dust mixed with smog that the wind carries with it and stays on the windowsill and on the glass for ages. It turns everything grey and blurry. But the minute you dust it all off, you suddenly see in full colours again: there’s a squirrel running around in the backyard, the usual rubbish on the pavement, and that big lime tree. Nothing has changed around you, but your vision has. You look at things differently. It was just a two-minute job after all but it took you nearly two years to do it.

“What’s up?” my mum asks.

I stretch my back and stretch my neck from left to right.

“Nothing, just a bit tired.”

“It’s stopped raining. Shall we go for a walk?”

“Yeah, why don’t we go to that park you took us last summer. The one when you climb up the hill and you can see the London zoo. Can’t remember…,”

“Primrose Hill?” I say.

“Yep, that one,” he says.

We walk through Regent’s Park Road, and I look at every single shop as if it’s going to be the last time. In my mind I say goodbye to the Greek restaurant on the corner and the little coffee shop I stopped for a matcha latte after my first Sunday run, not long after I had moved to Chalk Farm. Under those grey clouds, I was breathing again. Putting one foot in front of the other and adjusting my speed from jogging to sprinting were the easiest things I had done in months. I still had it. My feet were above the ground, even if for a split second. I was flying again.

Two years later, as my parents and I climb to the top of the hill, my breathing is calmer and controlled. But I’m not sure my heart is any stronger. I sit down cross-legged, looking at London’s skyline while my parents take some pictures. I close my eyes and take it all in. I inhale and exhale, the way they taught me at yoga.

I should state some positive intentions and feel grateful for what I have, but I say nothing. I’m still reconnecting, I’m still searching.  

Have I made the right decision? I’ve been obsessed by this idea of constantly wanting to make the right move all my life. Looking for validation and approval from both loved ones and people I barely know. Doubting myself a hundred times a day. Suppressing my inner voice and ordering something I don’t want because I want to make other people happy. Because I don’t want to ruin those castles I’ve built over the years, even if many are made out of sand. Maybe one day I’ll be able to leave all these insecurities behind and crumble all those castles with one big blow.

For now, time is dancing. And I’m still running to keep up with the pace of the universe, knowing that I’ll probably keep ordering the wrong meals for a long time. But maybe there’s no right or wrong here and I won’t be rewarded nor punished for actually making a decision. There is no fixed agenda, just lots of places that I haven’t explored yet. Lots of inner voices I haven’t listened to that now deserve my attention.

We’re only passing through, so I’ll grow my hair and keep my head up. I’ll take the courage to risk more.

I open my eyes and stare into people’s eyes again. Even if I am not making any sound, I’m sure they understand me loud and clear. I wonder if they can see it now. That underneath the sorries, the doubts and the fears, I’m wrapped up in all my dreams and hopes. And I still believe I can have it all. I hold this thought in and smile like I finally mean it. Like there’s still time to be enough. Even if it’s just for a split second, I’m not going to meet you halfway. This moment is only mine. I’m cherishing this. I’m owning this.

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