Me, Honestly, by Zachary Ekpe

I am early productive mornings, but I am also the longest, laziest lie in. I am two pairs of socks in all seasons except summer – I do not trust the cold. I am a black tea, no sugar; however I am not a sugarless coffee just yet. I am the red and black fruit pastilles in the tube, sometimes orange, sometimes green too, but never yellow. I am every last animal on earth, especially Charlie and Whoopi – two Dobermans from my childhood that will be forever in my heart. I am every blade of grass I have travelled across, every breath of fresh air I have vacuumed into my lungs. I am the world and all its inhabitants. I am the church I was raised in and its community of believers. I am every last one of my friends and my family; my mother Fola, my sister Gabrielle, my uncles, aunties cousins, family friends: I am them all.

I am a bright, sunny day but I am also a cloudy one. I am a snowy day spent tucked up warm inside, and I am a snowy day spent outdoors, sledging on neighbours’ bin lids. I am the spring days that prepare you for summer and the autumns leaves that fall after – I am the colours that autumn produces. I am not a foggy day; nor am I a windy one or a day pestered by a constant sharp breeze. I have grown to learn that I am not a boiling hot one either. I am a night sky featuring the moon and its gang of stars and I am a multi-pastel-coloured sunset sky.

I am every customer I have ever served and every French kid that I have toured around the streets of London. I am every language that I have attempted to learn and every accent that the UK has to offer. I am every charity shop that I have walked into and every car boot sale I’ve attended. I am every story I have been told and every city I have travelled to, every dancefloor I have boogied on and every peaceful train journey I have endured. I am every sunny day that I have spent in an English beer garden. I am Thursdays spent dreaming of that weekend capped off by a 10pm episode of Question Time, and I am that eagerly anticipated Friday payday at the end of the month. I am Saturdays spent resting and watching the football, and I am Sunday evenings spent dining and playing scrabble with my mother and sister to tune of CSI, Law and Order or Criminal Minds rolling in the background. And of course, I am Mondays spent feeling sorry for myself because, hey, that’s what everyone else does.

I am a movie. I’m about one and half hours long, give or take 10 minutes. I am usually filled with twists and never anti-climatic. I am not a 3-hour picture. I am a psychological thriller, a suspense film, an outrageous comedy, a feel-good family movie, a film based on a real life story and ones based on books. I am most Disney films, especially Hercules. I am not sci-fi, though Lord knows I have tried. I’m not a gory cult horror and I am not a book or movie about witchcraft or wizardry (despite my childhood obsession with Harry Potter) – the combination of both a religious and African upbringing instilled a phobia of such things in me.

I am every item of clothing I have ever purchased and every book that I have read. I am every CD I have ever listened to. I am every last VCR and DVD I have watched and every wristwatch that has ever lasted me. I am my first pair of Nike football boots and the first Liverpool FC kit I owned sponsored by Reebok and Carlsberg. I am Liverpool FC, their home ground ‘Anfield’ and their 600 million or so fans who do not leave me alone in supporting the club. I am every weekly copy of Match Magazine that my mother bought me as child and every daily radio show that would act as the soundtrack to my mornings.

I am my passion for other people, and I am my genuine interest in the world and cultures that surround me. I am the stories people tell me, and I am the history that precedes them. I am every person I observe from my London bus window seat: from the businesswoman to the homeless man; I am them all. I am the couple on the escalator opposite who just can’t hide their desire for each other from other commuters – I am Public Displays of Affection (PDA).

I am my favourite Nigerian meal; pounded yam with okro ogbono soup made fresh and preferably by my mother, and I am the kitchen it is prepared in. Inside that kitchen, there is a fridge and inside that fridge, there is a pepperoni pizza – you guessed it:  I am that pizza. In fact, I am my entire Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire home and my former homes in Mill Hill and Brent Cross, North London, not forgetting my family homes back in Lagos on my mother’s side and Calabar on my father’s. I am my Lagosian nursery ‘Pampers’, my two primary schools, Fairway and Pixies Hill, and I am my secondary school, John. F. Kennedy, and I am the fondest memories in it. I am the Bow, East London home in which I currently reside in and after five years of sporting an ‘E’ at the beginning of my postcode it is pretty safe to say that I, now, am East London.

However, I am not perfection. I am chain-smoking even though I can’t stand the taste or cost of the cigarettes, and I am a song that contains far too many swear words and that is far too repetitive. I am the pain of a fan who has just witnessed his or her team lose to the mighty Reds and which I misguidedly revel in. I am authority’s victim – always looking to defy it. I am social archaeology, constantly digging, on an endless pursuit for loopholes.

At times, I am laziness – the easiest option or way out. I am that endless pursuit for an escape when the pressure is on and I am developing unhealthy relationships with material things. I am gaming till the eyes feel gritty and raving until reaching a point of self-pity. I can be selfishness: this world and all its inhabitants do, once in a while, revolve around yours truly. I am looking out for number one in all the wrong ways and I am calling all women by the names ‘darling’ or ‘dear’ even though I’m sure it’s not socially acceptable anymore. I am the judgement that I cast unto others.

I am vanity, which guides my eyes to every reflective surface in search of one more glimpse of myself, and I am that indecision when deciding what the hell to wear. I am every toxic experience I have had and every toxic substance I have consumed. I am those cold, long nights spent trying to sleep on the beaches of Ibiza and I am every insult I have ever dished out. I am my own ability to adapt to situations quickly, but I am also my inability to simply say ‘no’. I am also slowness to change, and I am centre stage because I cannot get enough it, and I am the class clown.

I am a banana that’s slightly too green and a few days from ripe and I am the fatty bits that decorate the sides of a bacon slice. I am that double cheeseburger that helps wash down a long, drunken evening and those extra few glasses I maybe shouldn’t have had. I am the final song that the DJ sends you home with. I am that taxi home that I should not have spent money on.

I am a man. I’m approaching thirty and I am fully aware of it. I am under the pressures of society, yet I am free as a bird. I am an Englishman and I am a Nigerian. I am wise beyond my years and clueless for someone my age. I am terrified of change while eagerly anticipating and expecting it. I am both a freshly made smoothie containing my favourite fruit and that bottle of Coke that stands to melt your insides. I am a human being: only temporary in the grander picture. I am a walking contradiction.

Advertisements

Shadows, by Tanya Abbott

My family moved house when I was seven years old and so did the devil. He blended into the darkest corners during the day and into the darkness at night.  

We moved into the four-bedroom terraced house late one evening. Exhausted from the drive and from unloading the hired van, we slept on a mattress in the living room. My baby brother was the most comfortable, lying on his back with his thumb in his mouth, in the middle of his little white wooden cot with the blue animals printed on the outside. The day after, my parents set to work moving things, reorganising and decorating.

There was one other black family on our street and my parents made friends with them. They visited each other’s houses and we played with their children. Their father was a carpenter, so he would often come over to help with repairs and decorating. A short, stout, quiet man; his wife was small, very vocal and scary. Our other neighbours either ignored us or were politely distant, acknowledging us with a nod of the head, or a greeting. 

My mother was like a sergeant major. She ran the house with great organisation and skill. My father was a busy man; he worked on the buses as a conductor and was often out with his friends. He also controlled the purse strings. My mother was great with money, so the little she was given she managed well. She would make some of our clothing, buying cheap material at Petticoat Lane or Ridley Road, often bartering with the stall holders. She would bake and cook and was very creative with leftovers. No edible food was ever thrown away.  

We discovered the haunted house a few weeks after moving. It was six doors down, painted black, and gave off an air of eeriness. The lights were never switched on and the net curtains were black, dusty and moth-eaten. All the neighbours whispered about it. 

“We ain’t ‘ad anyone live there fer years,” said the lady who lived next door when our superstitious mother asked about it. From then, she forbade us to go anywhere near it. 

“Who do you think lives there?” my younger brother would ask.

“It could be… the big bad wolf!” I shouted, making him jump. We imagined the house was filled with cobwebs, just like in the horror movies we watched, starring Vincent Price and Christopher Lee. We investigated the house for weeks and concluded that there were definitely no residents, but we were filled with terror every time we walked past, convinced that we could see eyes at the window or the curtains flickering. We would often be sent to the shops when it was dark and run past the haunted house at speed. The devil would go with us, hiding in the bushes or under the cars.

The first week at the new house was an adventure. “Go round de block to see what shops are there,” my mother said to us in her thick Lucian accent, “And come right back!” she shouted.

I walked, skipped and ran, memorising each shop we came across. A launderette, a grocery shop, a sweetshop and a shoe mender’s. I recalled what I had seen and told my mother when I got home, panting trying to catch my breath.

“A grocery shop?” my mother asked?

“They sell everything: bread, milk, eggs, bacon, sugar, everything!”

“That’s good,” she replied.

She would give me a pound note to go and buy groceries, always writing the long number from the note onto a piece of paper which she would fold neatly and place it in her apron until I returned. I could never understand why, until one day she had entrusted me with a five pound note and the grocer insisted I had given him a pound. My mother marched me back to the shop.

“I just sent my daughter here with five pounds and you didn’t give her the right change.”

“She gave me a pound,” Said the stout man, looking my mother in the eyes.

“It was five pounds,” My mother replied, standing her ground.

She removed a piece of paper from her purse. “Open the till and take out your five pound notes,” she demanded.

He did as he was told and she read out the long number. He reluctantly handed her the correct change. She kissed her teeth as she walked out of the shop. “Volè,” she said under her breath.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It means thief in Patois.”

“Oh.”

My mother was young, in her early thirties, and I always marvelled at how beautiful and smart she was. Her hair was thick and shoulder-length. She was always dressed well, often in a headscarf with bold prints and pretty dresses with the bodice pinched at the waist. She had a collection of pretty shoes which I always tried on when I went to her bedroom on an errand. My favourite was her pair of cream coloured stiletto heels. She had worn them on her wedding day. 

Life in a new area and a new house soon became routine. School could be tough at times with name-calling, “rubber lips” or “Where did ya live before? In the jungle?” We soon grew thick skins and learned to fight back. Home was a routine of chores, discipline and play. Our school holidays in the summer were a myriad of hot sunny days, playing games in our long garden, filled with a selection of sweet smelling roses, lavender, bluebells, snapdragons and more, or the local park. We played made up games while the fire-breathing devil watched in the shadows, rubbing his long, scaly, gnarly hands together.

In the hot sticky summer of 1973 the area was invaded by an influx of ants which grew wings and filled the skies in little pockets of black clouds. It was like the Hitchcock film, The Birds: terrifying. We noticed the black-winged creatures crawling on the melting tarmac at first. The soles of our feet were hot and burning in the cheap black rubber soled plimsolls bought on the high street. The little creatures would flap their clear wings, hovering and then dispersing, or be blown by the odd warm gust of wind and land in your hair. They did not discriminate: they landed on everyone and everywhere. We would run into the house screaming and my mother would pull them out of our soft fluffy afros, from inside our shirts or our socks. The little critters were everywhere. Even hours after they were removed, you would still be brushing your hair, scratching your head or body, convinced they were still crawling all over you. Even when they fell off they were pulled from your hair or body, they seemed to spring back to life again. On closer inspection, their eyes were red like fireballs and they had little fangs which, if they nipped at you, drew blood. 

The devil lingered and blended in the shadowy corners, controlling the little creatures like a conductor, his long talons pointing and twirling as his fiery eyes made contact with theirs. As dusk came, they all disappeared in a strange grey mist.  

It was my thirteenth birthday that year, and I was excited. We had a small celebration with just a few friends and family, a huge homemade cake, stationery, books, a Parker pen set. I began to notice the changes in my body and wished them away. My flat chest was beginning to burgeon and push itself against my already tight dresses, but I ignored it, convinced it would disappear.

The winters were torturous, bitter and snow was always guaranteed. We would be wrapped up in thick gloves, woolly hats, hand knitted scarves, thick socks and Wellington boots. The coal fires in the bedrooms baled smoke and fumes and did a poor job of keeping us warm.

At night, the devil would sneak around the darkness of the house, listening to our conversations or our whispers as we chatted before bedtime. I would lay under the yellow candlewick spread which had holes, from where I had picked at it, quivering, afraid to fall asleep. I would hold my breath, trapped in fear.

I was changing and very aware of my new body 

trying not to expose it.

The devil watched me with lust in his burning eyes, but I never noticed.

I would often be buried in a book. My parents would bid me goodnight and turn off the light, leaving me in a darkness that made me shiver.

The devil snuck in to bid me goodnight too.

He beckoned me to him and held me fast

Like a boa holds its prey

He made to kiss my cheek

Then forced his wet raspy tongue into my young innocent mouth

Long flickering, lizard like tongue, exploring deep within me

Frozen. Confused and emotionless.

A claw had pulled the blanket back, trying to make its way up my nightdress and to my white cotton underwear. Suddenly, there was movement: someone was coming up the stairs. He pulled the covers back and disappeared slithering into the cracks in the floorboards. 

The devil made for me again 

 On several other occasions

Trying to squeeze my young flesh

Explore my new body

His hot lustful breath on me

No one knew how to vanquish the devil. 

I was forbidden to tell.

At bedtime, I would slide the bolt at the top of my door, the lock in the middle and the bolt lower down.

I was changed. 

Quiet, withdrawn.

Angry. 

Dying inside
Untrusting, insecure, unconfident, 

Self-hatred, 

Self-loathing 

Afraid to look in the mirror

Sad and broken.
The devil lived in my house

and 

the decades of nightmares began.

Shedding, by Naida Redgrave

Walking I am listening to a deeper way.

Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me.

Be still, they say. Watch and listen.

You are the result of the love of thousands.

– Linda Hogan

 

There was a line somewhere. It was faint, like cutting through a patch of mist, and crossing its threshold effected no immediate change. But there was a line, and it was there that it began.

On a day in late January 1986, a strong wind moved to the East of England, paving the way for an ensuing storm. Inside Barking hospital on Upney Lane, my mother delivered eight pounds and nine ounces of baby. A mass of soft brown layered in skin, I slept and suckled, healthy and well with the exception of the two littlest toes curved under the fourth, the last little parts hiding from being exposed to the world.

And the home of her womb, which had stretched as I’d grown and left marks as her skin spread, was replaced by a home of brick walls in a high rise building in Islington. Soft and brown and growing, I suckled milk as the wind outside tapped the glass and white snow clung to the top floor window pane, and trees bowed and spindly branches snapped and it was dozens of degrees cooler than the places my parents referred fondly to as back home.

My name: my father and grandfather, sandwiched by my given name and the family name that was changed by deed poll for palatability. The new name I chose to take: my father, and my father´s father, next to a name which is weighty in the mouth and rooted in an ancestry that can be traced back centuries, but is not mine.

Mine stops being traceable at my paternal grandfather, a man I never met, who died when my father was young and whose stories I do not know. It ends too with my living maternal grandparents, who did not raise my mother, whose stories I do not know because my tongue cannot wrap around the language deeply enough to search for the right words to ask.

Promises of stories weighed down my shoulders. I held my sadness tightly, cloaked myself in its buffer, and it grew like vines that held me together and held me in. It whispered to me many ills, but most of all, back home. Back home, a place, a feeling, a party observed from the sidelines.

My roots began in a place I cannot go back to, because to return is to revisit a start that was not fully mine, where the way my mouth trips on the mother tongue makes sounds that bounce white between the brown skin that we share. Back home, in a place where time has weathered the imprints my forefathers made, where their lives just dissipated into the wind like footprints in sand. The vines tightened; I clung on as they wrapped around me and sang a dirge to the loss of things I would never know.

We left the high rise for a new build in the corner of a cul-de-sac, where the dark brown front door vibrated a clang in the frame when pushed, and the greeting of sweet incense and the sound of shoes scraping against the coir doormat and the song that went “We are home” that my parents made up, and me, sat between my mothers knees, trying to keep still, looking ahead at the oranges and yellows of the fire fluttering black smoke up the chimney…

Peeling back hot air balloon curtains to hoist myself onto the brown windowsill, where snow fell onto the street below and my hot breath made a spreading cloud of white on the glass. Later, a tape player on that same windowsill, now white, as Whitney Houston sang “I Will Always Love You” to my cousins and I, and how hearing it later hurt in a deep part of my stomach that would rise to my throat.

The memories now meander and stick, rich like appetisers, indulgent, fleeting moments pulsing through the vines.

My family’s London, loud colours of graffiti tags and trodden gum-dominoed slabs of pavement rolling endlessly together, like the jagged teeth high-rises lining the horizon. All the metal bars and spikes that to me made it look like a playground, and kitchens that opened into living rooms and circled back round to the hallways, 360 degree spaces to run through in circles. Those memories spin now, always moving, flashes of blue carpet, sweaty laughing faces, games of ‘hide and seek’ and ‘it’ and a world lived at arms’ length by forced otherness.   

Without the roots of my ancestors I clutched at the vines around my chest and ran between memories through time, trying to dig an anchor with my feet. The vines held me in, and pushing for a view beyond their grasp made the branches tighten so hard my skin wept itself numb.

Inside Barking hospital on Upney Lane, my mother delivered eight pounds and nine ounces of baby.

Except I was not born in a ward at the Barking hospital that now sits on Upney Lane.  The place I was born was knocked down, moved, repurposed. The memory sheds. I walk into the mist.

And looking again at the photograph at the flat in Islington, snow was not tapping on the window like I remembered. It was not even Islington at all, we lived in Ilford. I cross the mist.

The tape player sang “I Will Always Love You” but it was not the same room as the window sill with the hot air balloon curtains, and the ledge never turned white, and the feeling in my stomach is not stirred by the song but the too-white powder on his lifeless brown face in the open casket.

The vines wrapped tighter and tighter as I’ve floated, trying to take root in collected memories that move ghostlike through space and change through time. I don’t have a list of names to trace, or photographs or paintings to look to and compare the genes I may have shared with relatives past. I won’t find any notebooks with clues to the paths that have been travelled, and the battles that have been fought, and the dangers that were evaded so I could exist.

I crossed the mist and the vines’ branches started to loosen, going unnoticed for a time until its grip was not a part of me but instead could be brushed away. Suddenly, exploring new spaces was not a comparison to things lost, but a collection of smells and sounds between me and the vines, little pieces that stuck and grew, nudging its branches softly away from my body.

Something pulls my feet towards that which cannot be told or remembered, only experienced. It lingers behind certain smells, like sweet roasting cassava or shallow frying plantain. The kick to the nostrils of a sudden burst of humidity, hot salty air on sand. Like my hair allowed its full volume, properly oiled and bouncing with gravity defying lustre. Feeling the lure of a drum beat in time with my heart, like every part of my body is at ease. I leave in my wake a trail of masks, fallen one by one from my face to the ground.

There was a line I crossed, like passing through a mist, where every tiny droplet carried a thousand voices whispering “be still,” and as I unravel my vines I hear them all.

The Garden, by Nacima Khan

I sat upon the green softness

My tired legs welcomed the relief of rest

You were nestled inside

Sleeping and still

Here we took a moment

Here in the garden

We connected

And here, I hope

we will meet again.

 

Three weeks earlier.

November 2018, London

Three years after becoming a mother to my daughter, I was once again elated when I looked at the faint blue line on the pregnancy stick, while sitting in my tiny cramped toilet. At the first scan, when I saw my wriggling, active baby moving around on the small screen, I watched my daughter’s eyes widen with the surprise of welcoming a sibling into her life and my husband – the ever so preoccupied being – had put down his phone as emotion and the reality of another baby filled his eyes with tears.

“Fourteen weeks today, and baby is predicted to be due on twenty-second of June.”

The sonographer, a young girl, spoke in such a matter of fact way as she proceeded to wipe off the cold jelly from my stomach.

The date of June 22nd echoed over and over in my head as I held the sonogram picture of the baby in my hands. The next couple of weeks, before we were due to fly out on our month-long holiday, passed by in a whirlwind of appointments, work deadlines, shopping and googling every kind of risk associated with pregnancy which thought I would conjure up, usually in the dead of the night after waking up in a sweat.

On December 29th, as I lay my head against the seat on the plane, I rubbed my hand over my growing bump and prayed that I hadn’t made a mistake in undertaking this journey. Zika virus, risk of infection, all went running through my head as I thought back to the previous weeks of running back and forth from GP appointments, the immunisation injections, consulting with doctors in Bangladesh, and I breathed out a sigh, confident of having taking all precautions.

Two weeks later, I was to find myself lying on a hospital bed, in a foreign city, with blood running down my legs and staff speaking in a language I struggled to understand. It was then I realised that there was one thing I had not googled.

 

Wednesday 2nd January 2019 – Early Hours, Masjidul Nabi, Madinah City, Saudi Arabia

We were to spend a week in Saudi Arabia, performing the pilgrimage – a rare life opportunity. Those five golden days passed like a dream. There were four of us – my husband, daughter, myself and the baby boy curled up inside me. Each day passed in a daydream of prayers, beautiful sights, and collapsing into deep sleep under soft duvets each night. But looking back now I see the beginning of this story taking shape as I walked so unknowingly on the streets of Madinah and Makkah. I can see the climax gathering speed as love, hope, loss and fear entangle itself into a ball, hurtling towards a dramatic ending. I felt the end before the start. One day in Madinah, I was looking for the correct entrance to find the Prophet’s grave inside the Mosque after completing the dawn prayer. Little did I know that I was about to undergo an experience I would never forget.

I had found the entrance and walked further into the Mosque, followed the women rushing before me and eventually found myself in the midst of a huge crowd. I could feel the crowd pushing and shoving fronted by probably the most hostile and freakishly strong group of elderly women I had ever seen. It was still early morning, and the sun was starting to shine down between the domes on the Mosque roof. My feet ached against the softness of the red carpet and I lay my hands to rest on top of my rucksack, which I had worn at the front to help guard my bump against the shoves. This was the event of Ziyarah. An opportunity to visit the grave of the Prophet Muhammed and to pray on a section just beside it called the Rawdah, translated as “The Garden”.

“Between my house and my pulpit lies a garden from the gardens of Paradise,” is the saying of the Prophet Muhammed.

The Rawdah was marked by a layer of thick, light coloured green carpet which lay on top of it. Praying upon the place of Rawdah has significant meaning and reward in the religion of Islam. It is seen as a piece of garden from heaven on earth. Having been able to pray here in my previous visit when I was younger, single and accompanied with my sister and mum, I realised as I tried to balance myself being swayed from side to side by the jostling and aggressive women around me, all fighting to pray, that it would be impossible for me to pray with the four month bump snuggled against my dress. A woman nearly fainted in front of me, another pushed me sharply from the back and I glared at her pointing to my bump. English was lost here; sign language and the most awkward facial expressions had to be used. She ignored me.

After a while, I had finally pushed myself steadily through the crowd and found that I was standing on top of the green carpet. My toes sunk into the softness of the carpet, but I could feel the crowd behind me starting to push me away. I told myself that it was now or never, and looking up to the heavens in desperation, I threw a prayer to God to help me with the task I was about to do and threw myself down on the carpet, taking off my rucksack and raised my hands to prayer. I braced myself, prepared myself for fight or flight and waited for the shoving to begin. Suddenly, from around me, I could see from the corner of my eye, the many feet which were so close to me, pushing back until a circle of space grew around me. A hush fell and my heart started pounding. I could feel eyes watching me as I bowed down to touch the green softness with my forehead and rose up again.

“God is the Greatest.”

I whispered and I bowed again, each time feeling the pounding of my heart through my chest.

“Peace be upon you.”

I continued to whisper as I looked to the right and peace again as I looked to the left.

I struggled up to my feet and dared to look around. To my astonishment, a group of young girls had formed a chain around me by holding hands and protecting me from the hostile crowd who seemed to have stood still around them. The girls continued to look over their shoulders protectively as I hurried to put on my rucksack, but a sudden shyness took over me and I found that I couldn’t look at their faces straightaway. As I went to say thank you, no words would come out and I just touched their faces in turn and smiled and marvelled at how bright and pure their faces were. I hurried out of the space as fast as I could. When I looked back, I had lost sight of those faces in the crowd.

I found myself a spot in the Mosque and sat down as my feet welcomed the relief of rest. But as I opened the Quran to start reading, I couldn’t control the tears now running down my face. My breathing quickened as the hum of other voices buzzed through the warm air of the Mosque hall, with the shrill voices of the female stewards, head to toe in black, breaking the ambience every now and then as they tried relentlessly to manage the growing and desperate crowds. My tears dripped onto the pages as I struggled to keep the melodic tone in my voice whilst reciting the verses from the pages of the Quran.

“What had just happened to me? Who were those young girls?”

I asked the same questions to my husband, back in the hotel over breakfast, whilst I struggled to eat. I cried, and my husband held my hand after I told him what had happened. He squeezed my hand as I rubbed my bump and said:

“There is something special about this baby.”

In that moment my thoughts did not anticipate what was to happen only a week later, but looking back I think maybe my heart knew.

“Between my house and my pulpit lies a garden from the gardens of Paradise.”

Between my hands, my dear, lay the flesh which held your heart

Between the beat of my heart and the blessed water, lay a little beating heart.

A heart beat along to mine. Fingers and toes curled within

We sat together in the Garden.

Feet to feet, shoulder to shoulder

I had taken you to the Garden.

I had taken you to the place to which you were to return.

My little Garden upon the Garden

Rawdah upon Rawdah

 

Friday 25th January. The Graveyard (Guristan), Dhakaah, Bangladesh

There was a tree.

It was huge and overhanging his grave. Like a protective canopy. The whole grave site felt hollow and cold. There was hardly any greenery around and yet where my son lay, there was a tree standing over and shading him. It was the only bit of green on the entire site. A couple of boys climbed into the grave area and were playing in the dirt, their laughter and chatter providing a welcome change against the repetitive and melancholy cries of the beggars sat in throngs outside of the black metal gates to the Guristan. I watched the boys and wondered about my son, whose image they could have been. I had come to say goodbye – the flight back to London was beckoning, taking me back to the start. Taking me on the journey back home, but without him inside me.

Empty

I feel empty and hollow inside.

Tiny little finger and toes no longer nestled inside me but buried beneath soil in a cold and dark place with the only piece of life – a tree – hanging over it.

I have left you behind my love but the promise of seeing you in another garden fills me with peace when my heart hurts. It is the balm to my pain.

 

April 2019, London.

“I am okay.”

I hear myself giving this assurance to the sympathetic visitors, sighing and nodding with a sorrowful look.

“I am okay.”

I see myself typing it in my messages to those who could not face me but used the safe distance of text messaging to ask, saying they will visit me soon. They never do, and I find that I am glad. Silence tormented me when I walked into my flat for the first time when I reached London. I longed to be on the plane again. It made sense when I was travelling, moving, flying from one empty space to another. But the stillness as I stood hearing my thoughts echoing against the walls of that flat, where the ghost of my pregnant self had hurriedly left traces of maternity notes and scan dates stuck to the fridge door and noted in my diary just a month before, eventually wore me down.

“I am not okay. I am not okay.”

This is not okay. I longed to cry and scream. I wanted someone to reach out to me and give me permission to cry. I wanted to talk about my body, my baby, my Rawdah. He was life. I wanted to speak his life. The space was too quiet here. But the noise in Bangladesh was many a time too loud.

 

9th January 2019, Islamic Bank Hospital, Dhaakah City

On January 9th 2019, I lost my baby at 16 weeks and 5 days.

Five months before he was due.  

The Consultant looked at me and shook her head.

“It was the journey.”

Earlier that morning, when my mother-in-law had walked me out of the front door and into the waiting ambulance, she rubbed my back as I sobbed and she muttered:

“It was the journey.”

I saw the same blame and arrows of guilt shot at me with visitors welcome and unwelcome all informing me that it was indeed ‘the journey’ that had killed my baby.

It was the audacity of my decision to travel that had killed my baby.

It was I who had killed my baby.

I called my crying husband to my hospital bed, as the prying eyes of other patients and their many visitors looked on and listened. I held his hand firmly and said:

“We did nothing wrong. This is the will of God and we have to be strong and patient.”

I heard myself say the words and my heart clung onto them. I had to make my voice shout above the other voices and cut through the loudness.

My Garden

My Rawdah

The beat of my heart misses the rhythm of yours

My body mourned for you

Red tears it shed

pain crippled through my empty womb as a lamenting song

Tears of water, a welcome relief

But hollow I feel within.

 

April 2019, London.

My daughter lay on the bed as we improvised through yet another story involving bears, unicorns and trolls.  Raising her head, she interrupted me in her usual way, assuredly placed a hand on my cheek and suddenly said:

“The baby is being made better and then God will give it back to us.”

I was startled and looked at her with wonder. Fighting back the tears I smiled and responded:

“If God wills.”

She lay back down on the pillow, tucking her toy rabbit into her arms, and her eyes sparkled and became lost with imagination as she asked:

“And then what happened?”

This was my cue to continue with the story.

Wiping my eyes, I steadied my beating heart with my hand and lost myself in a world of fairies and bears once again.

Saudades, by Marta Guerreiro

I

I didn’t go to kindergarten until I was four. I was an innocent child, growing up in my nanny’s arms. She had dry skin, proving that she was old enough to tell me about life, but not perfect enough to believe in heaven. Discipline was what her eyes were always screaming, kind discipline. My only teacher, making me the queen of her castle every time she allowed me to help her with the lunch, making me her dedicated student. Her lessons were about atoms but also about love: she taught me maths and kindness, how to deal with money and how to deal with emotions. Arminda – her name. Her name, her skin and her eyes meant home. I was the luckiest kid in the world, always with a braid, a dress and big hands holding my little ones: either my mum’s hands, my dad’s or Arminda’s.

Every time that my mum speaks about me as a baby, she almost cries. “I didn’t want to leave you so soon – you were my angel, but I really had to go back to work”.  I wonder if she knows how grateful I am that she decided to find such a lovely nanny; I guess she knows. Arminda taught me to ask for the toilet when I was eight months old, and by my second birthday, I was writing my full name.

I can’t remember her house in detail and that feeling is something that she didn’t teach me how to deal with. Missing her – saudades – a Portuguese word without translation, that means the feeling of longing, melancholy, or nostalgia.

During nap time I would pretend I was sleeping and as soon as she went to the kitchen again, I would crawl and hide under the table. Arminda would sit, doing crosswords, playing with her feet without noticing me. The little queen was suddenly just a regular kid, hidden, using her nanny’s shoes as a toy. I knew that soon she would notice, and trying not to laugh she would say: “Don’t make me look like a fool, Marta.” I wasn’t, Arminda.

The kitchen was our entire world; it wasn’t often that we would go to any other room in the house. I know that her room was almost like a secret – her own place. She was the queen of something too, I would think as a kid: the queen of her room. The bed was huge and I lost myself every time she allowed me to play there. Oh, but the kitchen – dark wood and the smell of fresh vegetables from small markets, with a touch of kindness. Portuguese food brings back memories of grandmothers, the generation where women were still the ones cooking, and teaching how to cook. The smell of someone who cares about you. I knew I was home every time she was cooking or feeding the birds. Arminda would try to reach the birds’ cage outside the window on the 7th floor. I was always afraid she would fall. How could such a small woman be so big at the same time?

I didn’t know at the time, but I do know now, that I was the luckiest person on Earth. My parents and my brother were giving me all the love someone could ask for, and Arminda was giving me the same. I was clothed in happiness, all the colours and all the figures. The queen, the princess, the smart and bright kid – the soon-to-be failure, because nothing is forever – and school was about to start.

“Arminda, can my school be here?”

Her eyes were wet, but her face was so sombre. “No, Marta, you need to have a good future. You need to study. Promise me you will study.” She knew I was going to; she and my parents taught me the best. After an awkward silence she would leave, hiding herself like a child; she would clean her face and come back like an adult must – strong.

We met when I was three months and we said goodbye when I was four years.

“They want you to start school one year earlier because you are special,” my mum was telling me, “so you are going to the kindergarten one year, to get used to it, after a year you start school.”

Portuguese law says: kids can only start school when they are six, but I was special, a queen of maturity, of starting everything earlier than the others – and I hated that feeling. Tears were streaming down my face; I was ready to fight, but my heart was asking for a lap to lose myself in.

“Mom, please, I don’t want to be with other kids, you know how good I am when I’m with the grown-ups, don’t make me go”.

My dad would tell me it was going to be good, fun and different. My mum would talk about how I should always give it my best and be truthful to myself and Arminda – oh, Arminda! She gave me all the tools but one: how to be ready to leave her. The last days that I spent with her, the birds didn’t sing, and the smell of the food didn’t make me want to eat it. Silence was the only thing I could hear. Arminda didn’t do her crosswords and I didn’t hide under the table. Why should I anyway? That was not my table anymore. Now I was going to be a kid among kids, instead of the queen of my universe.

This little Marta knew nothing but kindness. Respecting everyone, smiling at the food and never being mean to others: that was the only thing she knew – I knew, and that was about to stop.

“Don’t forget me, Arminda.”

“No, don’t you forget this old lady. Now you have to go. Vamos, anda!”

II

If only you could just live inside my body to feel how sad I am. The kids are always screaming; they say bad things about one other, and they don’t like me. Oh mum, don’t leave me here. Oh dad, please protect me. My super-brother, let me hide behind you – Arminda, where are you? What happened to my home? What is this place?

The kids were running, playing football, talking loudly and making a mess with food. I would never think I was better than them, no way, I just didn’t belong there. But how could they know – the ones who love me? They were not living inside me.

I wasn’t the queen and I didn’t want to be.

“You write your name already?” One of the kids asked.

“I do, yes.”

She started laughing and nobody spoke to me until the next day. I didn’t have any clue of what I could possibly have done to her, but I recall she had this angry face, not dry, like Arminda’s; a soft but angry face.

From the day I answered the question that girl asked me, I stopped telling others what I knew or didn’t. I hid my grades like they were the most terrible thing and later got bad grades, so that the kids would want to play with me. Kind at home, kind with the adults, but always afraid when surrounded by people my age.

I would spend my break locked in the toilet wishing I was with my mom or my dad, wishing I could be making lunch with Arminda. My heart was constantly racing, and far from winning. The luckiest kid was now the saddest: not that her life was a misery, or she was a victim, but there was emptiness in that small chest.

The end of the day was the closest to perfection. I would have dinner with my family, and be treated with love. If my mom could only have known how happy she made me. If Arminda could only have known how I needed her. But I didn’t want to bother them, so I would never choose to tell them the truth. For as many years as I could, I just pretended that I fit in.  

My dad would tell me it was going to be good, fun and different. My mum would talk about how I should always give it best and be truthful to myself and Arminda – oh Arminda! – she gave me all the tools but one: how to be ready to deal with unkind people.

III

On the day my mum turned 46, I published my first book – 1001 Cores (1001 Colours). A short time afterwards, I decided to visit Arminda and give her my book: she, more than anyone else, should have it.

How could such a small woman have become even smaller, but still feel that big? Old like a peach left in a gym bag, and lonely like only the aged can be, there she was. My queen.

“Oh, Arminda, look what time gave you – lonely eyes.”

We sat at the kitchen table and spoke for two hours. My hands were shaking, and I wanted to scream from the top of my lungs: you shouldn’t have let me go. But it wasn’t the right time; it was not about me anymore. With her magical hands, she grabbed my book and smiled.

I knew you would do something big.”

I was already fifteen but near her, I felt like a two-year old again. No achievement is big enough when we stand next to the inspiration for our life.

“Being like you, Arminda, is my biggest goal.” I ended up saying. Her expression changed and she looked at me like I was saying the most naïve thing; but I wasn’t. She just hadn’t known.

The afternoon ended sooner than usual and it was time to leave when all the sadness came to dance with me. With no music on, I was dancing with tears in my eyes and empty arms. I was dancing with the memories of the kid that only knew kindness. I was dancing with the kid that didn’t know how cruel the world could be – ripping our clothes, taking our innocence away and proving to us that we don’t deserve the best. I was dancing with the loneliness and emptiness of an age I didn’t know, only Arminda knew, only my mum and my dad could know. Stripped of happiness – naked, without clothes – I danced while looking into Arminda’s eyes.

Thank you for making me such a kind person,” I said, before leaving.

I lost count of the hours I spent crying because I couldn’t fit in – and it probably was my own fault, probably I didn’t try hard enough, but if trying hard enough means not being my most honest self, then it isn’t for me.

Time isn’t always good, but it made me a strong woman, privileged enough to be aware of what is rotten in the world and fight to change it. Time wasn’t always kind and neither was I, but I forgive myself and forgive time.

Arminda, mum, dad, brother and lovely sisters: I couldn’t ask for more. I know the real meaning of unconditional love. Sometimes my bones are nothing but sadness, but then I remember I have a lot of places I can call home. Not functioning well in big groups doesn’t bother me anymore; the world needs balance, and all the details that make us living people with amazing souls matter. I was given the tools I needed to love others and to allow myself to be loved, and if in order to love the way I do I needed to dance with demons, I’m glad I danced. Those times I was feeling nothing but solitude, I wish Arminda had been there to tell me: “That isn’t sadness Marta, because you can’t feel all that sadness when you have experienced real love. That isn’t sadness, Marta, it is the happiness of having been taught by the best. It is love. It is life.”

Ships, by Erica Masserano

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Completely absent are the houses where you can manage to talk to a flatmate once in a while.
  3. 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?”

“Somalia.”

“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?”

“The bus?”

“In London.”

“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.”

He does.

“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.

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.