It’s my first week in London and the learning curve is steep. I am staying at Susi and Fra’s place near Turnpike Lane, in the draughty front room of a Victorian terrace, where I sleep on a fake leather sofa and an Ikea catalogue. I’m only the last in a long line of friends who come to Fra and Susi´s house and then leave again, all of them Italian and in their 20s; there are no British people in sight. Everyone works barista jobs at Costa’s and is concerned about money, and the social scene still manages to feel posher than I’m used to. This is, I soon realize, because I have spent the last three years in Danish hippy bohemia, and am confusing central heating with luxury.
That chapter is over anyway. A month ago, the cops let themselves into our Copenhagen warehouse unauthorised, found me and my friends having coffee and cake and went straight into our rooms and through our things while the readiest of us spun the best yarn they could about how we did not actually live there. After much Googling, the coppers decided that we were not, after all, a situationist art collective, our rooms were not our works of art, and we should very much be evicted. Me trying to throw my weed out of the window and screaming like a condor when caught was a particularly ungraceful development, but then so was the officer of the law who responded to that by throwing me on my own bed and sitting on my back. Shortly after, I broke up with my partner of four years, packed up and left the country. On the flight to London, the stewardess counted passengers with a handheld clicking machine, like a ticket-seller on a carnival ride. I don’t think I will ever feel at home again.
Occasionally, Susi and Fra are not in Soho working. Fra cooks pasta with mango and shrimp; Susi browses through reviews of musicals; I read, complaining in my head about when I used to write. I am happy for Susi and Fra to show me around town, but I don’t understand the places they take me. Harrods is a shopping centre on acid, with reproductions of what you’re being sold carved on top of the pillars in case you’re not sure; apples cost one pound each, and the crypt to Dodi and Diana gives off a kitsch Titanic vibe. The Trocadero is packed with Asian teens going through round after flawless round of Dance Dance Revolution, their platform shoes flying off the flashing arrow tiles, and expensive candy. People jostle each other in several languages at Piccadilly Circus, their nose in the air to look at the biggest billboards in Europe, broadcasting advertisement. Greenwich is more merciful, and the view of the Thames from the park soothes my broken nerves. On the ancient oaks scurry packs of grey squirrels, imported as fashionable furniture for mansion gardens, now the scourge of the local red population. The rock in the Planetarium comes from outer space and is as old as the Earth and the Sun; you can touch the metal crystals pooling inside it. The Thames Ferry man we ask for a lighter wants to know where I’m from.
“Where do you think I’m from?” I ask him.
“From the accent, American or Canadian. From the face, Irish.”
“And they?” I point at Susi, with her chestnut mane, pale blue eyes and Venetian smirk, and Fra, all dark eyebrows and nose.
“You’re British or Irish,” he tells Susi, then turns to Fra, “And you’re from the Middle East. Where do you think I’m from?”
“Ipswich,” I tell him, hitting his funnybone for no reason I can discern.
“I’m cheeky, buy you’re very cheeky.”
He takes a B&H from the folds of his waterproof vest and proceeds to give us a Cockney rhyming slang lesson, which goes over my head and leaves me grappling with mental images of butchers and minces. We leave him to board the ferry, in the azure glare of the suddenly clear autumn sky. Rows of implausible windowed buildings on the other shore reflect cold honeyed sunlight; warehouse after brown brick warehouse pass us by, then the stocky standing grey shapes of Canary Wharf, ill at ease and fuming at the nostrils. The river is wide and deep like a pet sea and I have no idea what I’m doing with my life.
It’s my second month in London and I have just moved into my new place in Bow. My stay in the city is transforming into a long, uninterrupted day. I wake up late. A combo of 360 Euros a month from my study exchange grant, savings from a summer spent working 80 hours a week and my face, which apparently makes people give me stuff for free, means I don’t have to work for another few months. I am not sure what people normally do with all this time and only have a handful of classes a week at uni, so I just stay in bed smoking, drinking coffee and watching Bill Hicks on repeat. When I am done with that, I take long walks.
Roman Road already feels familiar. There are vegetable shops with fresh wares for a bowl a pound and a street market for clothes and shoes by imitation brands. There is a diminutive, venerable-looking pie shop, all shining white and green tiles, and often a long line of people waiting outside it. There is a cheap caff on the far corner where the cooks listen to loud bhangra in the kitchen while loud Amy Winehouse plays over the formica tables where the customers sit. I often go there to have a scalding cup of milky tea, on my own. I barely see Susi and Fra anymore; they are putting in extra hours in the hope of making manager duties and the last time I mentioned working in film like they came here to do they looked at me with pure exasperation. The only other people I’ve met are a Greek coma survivor who owns dozens of guitars and, based on his experience, thinks he’d be better off dead, and a Nigerian gentleman who listens to Pink and expounds at length about her production values.
Although I am positive I have terrible writer’s block I may never recover from, I have started to take a notebook with me anyway, just in case. Fighting a headache, I take it out and I write:
“Wherein certain puzzling phenomena begin to be understood.
- London is full of houses where you can rent a room for 100 pounds a week and never have a fucking clue who is living in them with you.
- Completely absent are the houses where you can manage to talk to a flatmate once in a while.
- The loneliest place you can be within said houses and maybe in life in general is on the toilet, with no toilet paper.”
I look at what else has come out of me so far. We have pithy: “No tears for crocodiles”. Faux-deep: “A character is a bottle in someone’s shape, filled by someone else’s feelings.” 2000s cultural analysis: “Johnny Marr playing in Modest Mouse gives me a sense that maybe life is somewhat fair”. I also seem to have had a fifteen-page debate with myself about not writing enough. Seeing no contradiction, I snap my notebook closed and move on.
Other than hot tea, I find that what I really appreciate right now is sitting on a dock in Victoria Park, which I also often walk to, surrounded by a dozen ducks. The air is fresh and pleasant, even though I seem to have left my olfactory powers somewhere through the 8 years I’ve been smoking and therefore the realm of adjectives like “balmy” is forever closed to me.I light up a joint. I am one with the fishermen: in their 60s, catching prey they’ll put back into the water again on another unusually sunny October afternoon. I like this corner of the park. It reminds me of biking along the lakes past Refshalevej; the stillness, the weedy sheen of the water, the feeling of decompression.
One of the fishermen catches a fish and erupts in a “Yea.” The others nod companionably. There is fellowship around this lake, then. There is fellowship in the world still, even if I can’t muster the courage to say hello to my classmates. As long as we’ll have old dogs poking into the waters of some pond and the contented silence that comes after victory, I feel like the human race will be ok. But then again, the beautiful ducks with the white mark on their heads have horrible greenish, translucent feet that gleam evilly when they leave the water. What to make of the dark secrets below the surface?
I am, at this point, extremely high. On my way home, I ask a woman wearing a jilbab at the bus stop if it goes to Bow because I can’t figure out how to read the timetable. She also wants to know where I’m from.
“I’m from Italy. You?”
“Nice,” I say, vaguely suspecting it was colonized by my country of birth once.
“Not so much. The Taliban are there.”
“Really? I didn’t know that.”
“Yes, they are. They are responsible for all those people in Mogadishu being killed. How are you getting on?”
“I just arrived last month. You?” I ask.
“Fine. I don’t have that many friends, but I don’t want many friends. Less friends, less obligations.”
I go back to the house in Bow, which I share with a Czech couple who only speak Czech, a British gay guy and his best friend, who seem nice but are self-sufficient in the ground floor unit and not looking for company, and a Tory illustrator who sometimes sells cartoons to the Daily Mail and is the only one who gets bored enough to talk to me sometimes. At night, ducks are gutted by foxes down in the bushes. They scream like murdered children. I am in a place full of possibilities; I have a quiet, lonely room to return to. Less friends, less obligations.
Week three at uni. I am reading at my usual table in the cafeteria in the West Building, the outer one in a triangle of glass jutting out towards the river. If you turn your back to the room, it disappears, present only in sound while you’re cast out towards the slate of sky and river. The smoked glass almost allows you to look at the sun; it gives the Thames the molten silver looks of the Baltic Sea. Other people are sitting in my corner, all women, all on their own. I haven’t had a conversation that lasted more than 5 minutes with anyone for weeks.
I have become convinced that it would be instructive to have coffee with someone called Joseph Cesare. I have written what I believe is my best piece in a long time, not to mention the only one: a takedown of Nick Hornby based entirely on a single tour of Notting Hill where I looked into other people’s windows and begrudged them their mod cons and expensive copper pots. I have sent the article to Joseph for an opinion and possibly to publish it in the student newspaper, and he has dared not to respond. Also, he studies creative writing, which is something I have never known you could do. By the looks of the emo stuff he writes, it’s not doing him a lot of good.
He is hunched over a computer in the Student Union reception, pale and dressed in black and a newspaper editor. This is also the description of my ex, which fills me with irrational rage. I’m sure all the first-year girls all fall for his shoes, I tell myself. They are black and covered in spikes, like my emotionally challenged little self.
“Hello.” I troop out towards him, hand extended. “My name is Erica. I wrote you an email. You said you’d read my piece?”
“Yes, hello,” he shakes my hand, polite, smiling, vague.
“So did you read it?”
His eyes are still glazed over. He has no idea who I am.
“Ah! Yes! It was really good.”
“So are you going to publish it in the paper?” I ask, suddenly holding my breath.
“Yes, of course I am. Do you want to go for a walk, though?”
Joe is a third-generation Italian-American, I discover as the wind sweeps us under the bridge with the customary candy wrappers and empty cans. He off-handedly calls himself and his friends writers, which I find entirely baffling and contrary to what I know: that being a writer takes being published, acclaimed and dressed in expensive corduroy. We touch on our homeboys: Emanuel Carnevali, born near my childhood flat to leave a trail of feverish poems all the way to a short life of waiting tables in New York and the praise of William Carlos Williams, but never success. William Kennedy, still living in the beloved New York State of his Great Depression vagrants and alcoholics, a Pulitzer on his desk, the lyricism and sincerity of his first novel never to be repeated.
We talk about living in more than one place, compare notes and dates on plane tickets. I explain I lived on the decommissioned industrial island of Refshaleøen in Copenhagen, on the top floor of a shipyard. In the middle of the livingroom, we had a two-metre tall metal projector which workers loaded blueprints on, to be projected onto the floor of the ship hall underneath, where they would cut the shape of the pieces from metal. My room had a ceiling made of doors, the toilet froze in the winter. We had the best view in town, and were next door to Christiania. He asks me if Christiania is a commune; I tell him it’s more of a neighbourhood of about a thousand people, with a common meeting to which all the township is invited, collectives and groups. Joe nods and takes a drag off the joint.
“Long, long ago, in a land called Albany, New York, there was a young man, with some serious issues actually, who just got out of the mental hospital and decided to go live on a commune. I cleaned bathrooms and cooked, mostly tofurkey. There was a guy there with a very non-Buddhist name, like Larry or something. You’d be homesick and he’d be saying shit like ‘I just think of the distance between me and my loved ones, and I know there is no distance’. Very unrelatable. Anyway, Ram Dass came and did a speech, and he was ancient and not very coherent. Larry listened to him for a long time and you could see from his face that something wasn’t right. And then Larry just stood up, said something to the effect of ‘I’ve been following your teachings my whole life, and now I see you’re just a rambling old man’, walked straight out of the commune, and we never saw him again.”
“And that was the end of the path to enlightenment for Larry.”
“Which is a shame, because I guess enlightenment would be a worthy goal.”
“I guess it would.”
We silently smile at each other. Planes roar on the other side of the Thames, preparing for takeoff, and the concrete we’re sitting on vibrates. The river swirls with murky Docklands life; ships are conspicuous by their absence.
“I gotta go back to work,” he says. “Let me walk you to the train.”
“It’s right over there, no worries.”
“You’re a writer,” he says to me.
“You’re a writer when you live off your writing.”
“You’re a writer when you write, so you’re a writer. Catchya later.”
I walk towards the train, feeling like my mom just told me I’m the cleverest kid in the world and I am 3 and my heart’s about to spill over. I stare into my own eyes in the mirror of a DLR window. I look shabby and bewildered and made of something unbreakable.