A Study in Solitude

by Ersi Zevgoli – an autobiographical piece

“See you in two weeks!” I remember my flatmate telling me as she gave me a big hug and a bright smile, certain that this was only a passing thing.

My smile was a little more tense.

“You won’t”, I wanted to reply, but nobody likes a pessimist. Or a realist, you might say as the two weeks stretched to two months, and I only saw her briefly and from a distance when she came back to our empty flat to pack up and move out.

Up until mid-March, just before lockdown, I remember all ten of us in our flat joking about coronavirus.

“Been to Wuhan recently?” We’d tease whenever somebody got the sniffles. Hubris? Perhaps. It all seemed so far removed from us, first year students in the East of England. Then we started reading about Italy. Then friends and family started calling me, asking me how things where over there. Greece entered lockdown twenty days before the UK did. I remember a joint call from my parents, a terrifying thing as their divorce was coming through at that time, imploring me to come home.

Come home where? My mum moved into the little one bedroom flat I used to live in while I was still working in Greece, and rents out her own place to help me with tuition fees. My dad is a carer for his 92-year-old aunt. And my grandfather had only just celebrated his eightieth birthday, so my grandparents’ place was also out of the question. Norwich is home now. So I stayed.

I remember the silence of the empty flat, of the empty building, pulsate around me that first weekend I spent on my own in student halls. I remember playing music a little too loudly and drinking a little too much red wine to brace myself for what I knew was an indeterminate amount of time. I remember those first few days always leaving a light on in the kitchen; a childish, pointless safety blanket that kept me sane. The corridor lights unnerved me; they activated when someone moved. It had a horror film quality, walking down the corridor and watching the lights turn on one by one as you passed beneath each of them. Sometimes you moved a little too fast for it, and it would come on a few seconds too late, and you would already be beneath the next one. That would be a little late too, and by the time the one outside your room would come on, the door would already be shut behind you.

I had three months to learn how the corridor lights worked. Three months alone in an empty flat. You get jumpy at first. There’s no one there to justify the noises you hear, and even the smallest creaking of settling pipes or wood is enough to wake you up with a start. Vast expanses of empty space, walls, bedrooms, bathrooms meant for ten left to reverberate the muffled footsteps of one. At least cleaning the industrial-scale kitchen and three bathrooms kept me busy (another word for sane, I came to realise) on Sundays.

I struggled to sleep. I made sure I exercised a lot; yoga, dance lessons, ridiculously long walks even in the spring showers that left me blissfully tired and sunk me into deep, uninterrupted sleep. I struggled not to stress eat. I struggled to fill my days. I struggled to keep in mind that this isolation was NOT me, it wasn’t my brain slowly but surely sinking back into depression. I struggled remembering that this was something outside of me. I struggled.

But the days were getting longer, the temperature was rising, and in those spring evenings, with my window open to let the cool dusk breeze in, I found pieces of myself that where long lost.

I listened to music I hadn’t in a long while, a little shy of my taste and apprehensive of the opinions of my younger flatmates. I descended deep into indie country music about the human condition that somehow made my own more bearable. The philosophical, endoscopic lyrics of Brown Bird seemed oddly apt and fitting with my isolation and desolation. Verdi’s Otello provided the more personal drama that I needed; nothing was happening to me while everything was happening to the world at large, and listening to a man unable to discern fact from fiction in hauntingly beautiful music made me feel when I feared I was going completely, irrevocably numb.

I read books I had long wanted to, but never had the time. “Hell is other people”, Sartre wrote in his play No Exit, and while I might have agreed just a month before reading it, I was coming to the conclusion that they might just be paradise after all. I turned to more light-hearted reads after that.

I finally managed to get my grandparents to Skype me and see their smiling, if pale, faces after six months. I reconnected with people who’d faded from my life, the expanse of Europe between us diminishing, as we all had nowhere to go further than our laptops. I remember an unexpected message from a friend with whom I’d exchange birthday wishes via text only. He asked if we could have a chat, it’d been awhile. We Skyped for two hours, trying to figure out how this whole thing, so big it was nameless in our conversation, was affecting us. A gentle sigh over a cup of coffee as we took turns admitting that no, we were not doing great. Our brains were going places they didn’t usually; dark places, places where self-doubt and existential crises lurk, ready to jump on you with no apparent reason. We were struggling. Anyway, we Skype once or twice a week now. Each one makes sure the other isn’t spiralling into this madness again.

This strange outpour of honesty from all of us soothed the darkest corners of my mind. Slowly, the faint electrical sounds emanating from the corridor lights became comforting and reassuring rather than terrifying and ominous. I was finally at peace with the corridor lights. Morpheus came to embrace me more willingly, the stress and anxiety subsiding. Cases were dropping in the UK and in Greece, and who can be grumpy in the summer anyway?

We struggled, I struggled, but we pushed through. June came, and with it three cancelled flights and the end of my student halls contract. Thankfully, having firmly made Norwich my home meant I have people who were willing to help me out, family and friends. I had a place to stay till I could get a flight back to Greece. Those summer days were long, warm, and gin and laughs flowed freely as – at last – I was back to living with people.

Just as things were starting to look up, an urgent phone call. We’d all been so caught up in the coronavirus, we forgot that other things existed to torment us too. There are a lot of euphemisms for this particular disease that my friend was diagnosed with. We’re so scared of it, we daren’t call it by its name, and yet that’s what awaited me as I answered the phone with a smile, only to have it frozen in place, and then melted away slowly, painfully, like an ice cube left in the intense summer heat. Cancer. Going back to Greece became more of a necessity and less of a choice now.

July came, and with it, finally! A flight to Athens. I remember booking the ticket less than a day before the flight, urgently packing up a small suitcase. I remember hugging my uncle and aunt at the train station goodbye, too grateful for their support to even attempt to put it to words, still disbelieving of the news. The train ride to London was surreal; empty seats, empty carriages, and this disconcerting feeling of familiarity, but not quite. The flight itself, even more so.

But what did it matter? What did it matter that it took me a full day of travelling with a mask on, too scared to take it off apart from hurriedly gulping down some water? I was almost there, my friend’s diagnosis was the best it could possibly be, the operation was scheduled and she was expected to make a full recovery. I found my patience to be boundless in that nine-hour stopover in Frankfurt. And I was rewarded, as I exited the airport, tiredly dragging my suitcase behind me, to see my parents, bemasked and there.

The heat of the Athenian July night hit me almost as much as the surreal feeling of my dad’s urgent hug, social distancing be damned. I knew it wasn’t over, I knew we had a long way to go, but for a brief moment, I could be carefree and happy and there. Home, after all, are the people you love, as much as any house or city.

Unprecedented

by Sandra Wilson – an autobiographical piece

I arrived at the tall glass building and entered via the side doors. It was a dark, chilly, wintery morning. I switched on the lights as I walked the corridor towards the office that led to the reception desk. I hung my thick navy puffer coat on the old wooden coat rack and settled at my desk. The air smelt old, dank, close and musty. I sat on the comfy leather chair, switched on the computer and signed the register.

The reception area was quite dull, the silence almost deafening. The old worn dark brown plastic-covered chairs were regularly urinated on and spilled on with the free tea and coffee provided by the centre. They were opaque despite being wiped daily by the chirpy cleaner. They were also beginning to show miniscule cracks, though you could not see it in the dim lighting. Having been covered by hundreds of bottoms of all shapes and sizes, they were now curved in a mix of all those. The sometimes incontinent, often frail elderly people that visited with their concerned, irritated, frustrated relatives, sons, daughters, grand-daughters and grandsons had left a mark.

The thin, once light blue carpet was now lumpy and torn where there was the most footfall. The facilities manager visited once every two months and inspected the building with senior staff, in the hope of getting funds to give the place a revamp. The first visit yielded a budget of ten pounds to buy thick black sticky tape. The workmen were called in for ten minutes to tape down the areas where the carpet was torn. The visitors to the centre didn’t seem to notice – grateful for a warm building, friendly faces and free drinks.

“Where’s the tea and coffee?” Said one of the group’s regulars.

“It’s coming,” replied the occupational therapist who organised it.

There was always a mix of visitors, some happy, lonely, smiling, chatty, others sad, anxious, and teary.

There would be those who walked in at a slow pace, confidently dressed in their best outfits, flouncy flowery dresses, and plastic sandals in the summer. In the winter, they would wear thick black Marks and Spencer’s slacks, quality thick hand-knitted jumpers, ribbed woolly hats, leather boots and cashmere gloves.

Others would come in the same outfit week in week out, bringing with them an odour which seemed to cling to the garments even when they had been cleaned, almost as if afraid to leave the comfort of the cloth it inhabited.

Then there were those that shuffled in, carefully assisted by a relative. They’d wait in complete silence as though lost in another world and jolted back like an electrical current, back to this dimension when touched gently on the elbow and aided on a slow concerted walk to the Doctor’s office down the narrow uninteresting corridor.

I sat at the old brown desk and fidgeted, trying to imagine how many other people had sat here to work. I opened and closed the drawers, flicking through paperwork, reorganising the white appointment cards, and looking at my silver watch – 8.15am and I was already bored. Swivelling in the tattered black leather chair, I looked out towards the entrance. The huge glass doors beckoned me to escape.

Suddenly the doors opened slowly, almost in slow motion, creaking; the bottom swept the black rubber mats underneath and then closed. The fine hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. The doors were usually triggered by movement, footsteps. Why did they open?

I stood up to peek over the high dark brown reception desk, but there was no one.

I liked the early shift because it meant I left early, but the eeriness of the morning was unnerving. I heard every clink and clank and the heartbeat of the building. I walked to the front and locked the main doors, then walked down the long carpeted narrow hallway. Every creak could be heard. I looked from left to right, hearing only my own footsteps as I made my way to the small kitchen. I poured hot water into my faded Santa mug and rushed back to the safety of my desk, trying to ignore the fleeting black shadows that seemed to pop out in my peripheral vision.

I sipped the creamy sweet caramel latte, revelling in the flavours, so comforting and warm, savouring every moment, as it travelled slowly down my oesophagus. I made a mental reminder to cut down on my sugar and to place an order for a bacon sandwich at the café round the corner.

I looked at the old grey phone and quickly checked for any voicemail. I wondered why it hadn’t rung yet.

“Don’t pick up the phone if it rings before 9am, that’s when our service starts,” my colleague had told me when I’d started the job. This had stuck in my head from my first day.

“What if it’s an emergency?” I had asked.

“The out of hours team will pick up, derr,” she said sarcastically raising her eyebrow then return to gossiping with the other staff.

“So, Alice!” said the senior nurse in a loud whisper.

“Who’s that? I asked.

“She’s been having it off with one of the married doctors,” she replied ignoring my question.

Everyone ummed and aahed.

I had completed a Master’s to do this, I thought. I daydreamed of leaving full time employment forever, spending my days travelling the world, reading novels and writing.

I proceeded to wipe the dusty desk, phone and keyboard with the thin cheap disinfectant wipes pulled from a red and white plastic tub. I threw the used sheets in the small bin under the desk.

I picked up a little blue sachet and tore the top off. Inside was a thick disposable wet sanitiser. I wiped my hands. We had been instructed to start using these especially when we returned from the toilets. We had also recently been given training on how to wash our hands more efficiently. I didn’t think anything of it as we were always being given new directives.

***

Staff started to trickle in, and the day hastened. A sudden air of urgency had taken hold. Senior staff rushed around; those with health issues were sent away with laptops to work from home. My colleagues remained tight lipped, not giving away any information after each meeting. Usually there were whispers and leaks, but not this time. I was not privy. Their elaborate version of local and world news usually unfolded through a story involving them, a member of their family or a distant friend or relative. I went to them for news; I rarely read the newspapers, I was too busy reading books and studying. I kept myself up to date with the discussions of the centre’s visitors.

“Did you ‘ear that there’s a pandemic in China. Well, my cousin’s friend’s sister, she works down the local chippy and she said that some virus is coming over ‘ere.”

“Really?” I said to the audience of a secretary and two nurses who had gathered.

“It’s only in China,” said one secretary. “It actually started there because they eat anything. I’ve seen videos of people collapsing in the streets.”

“Those are fake,” said one lady.

“I’m serious! Hang on, I’ll get my phone out,” she rummaged in her bag.

“You better stock up, ‘cos we may go into a lockdown,” said another lady.

“A what?” The phone rang.

“Morning, ladies,” said the manager, popping her head in.

The women quickly dispersed.

“I’m sorry, the meeting rooms are booked out for the week,” I said to the third person that day.

It was unusual to have so many in-house meetings. The secretaries and admin staff were called to attend the next lot of emergency meets. I was left to man the reception on my own. I had become accustomed to being excluded.

“Cancel all the groups,” the manager instructed.

Things were taking a strange turn, I thought. I popped to the local supermarket to buy lunch, and the shelves were void of toilet paper, wipes, sanitisers.

The freezers were totally empty. I just assumed they were waiting for deliveries. But the panic buying said differently. The empty supermarket shelves made it felt like there was an apocalypse heading our way. The fear emanated in the air like a cloud, following the eerie smell of pandemonium and panic. This kind of thing did not happen in England outside of the movies.

***

From having a building full of medical, support staff and patients visiting daily, we were down to zero patients and a skeleton staff of seven.

“From next Monday…” said our Manager, haughtily looking down at us temporary staff, as we sat at our desks. I swivelled slowly from side to side in my chair.

“…you will be expected to sit apart. You sit here,” she pointed to one end of the open plan office, “and you sit over here. The government have advised us to practise social distancing.”

I popped into her office after the meeting.

“How do we know this social distancing works?”

She looked at me blankly.

“I don’t know.”

“Can I have a laptop to work from home?”

“We don’t have any, but as soon as IT have some stock I will let you know.”

Suddenly, the directive was given for a total lockdown. Only key workers could go to their jobs. I was classed as a key worker, but I was now at a reception with no visitors and minimal phone calls.

I dealt with a monotonous backlog of paperwork all day. I put a sheet of paper into the little scanner, pressed a button and watched it slide through slowly.

One evening, I discovered that two friends had been in contact with someone who had the virus. I was advised to go into isolation. My whole family were now indoors together.

“What shall we do today?” We would say.

We spent our days working on projects, reading, writing, chatting, laughing. For us, it was a time of discovery and learning.

One day the phone rang.

“Morning, it’s me, Sarah”, my manager said.

It was unusual for her to call. I listened intently.

“Unfortunately, due to the decreasing workload…”

Here we go, I thought.

“We will no longer need your services.”

“I see,” I replied.

“Thank you so much for your dedication and hard work.”

A sense of relief came over me. I had dreamt of leaving, well not exactly in that way.

But then I thought, can she do that, during lockdown? I had worked for the temporary team for seven years; the audacity.

I didn’t return to work. Our centre had been closed for the foreseeable future. There had been an outbreak of the virus.

I enjoyed quality time with my family. We decorated, played games, read, developed a new business, and studied, learning new skills.

I was grateful for what we had. So many friends and family had been hit hard with job losses, redundancies, and bereavements. Those who had not been directly affected questioned whether there was a virus. Those who had been affected were led by their grief and fear.

***

Finally, lockdown restrictions were lifted and most returned to work. Life was different now, with everyone except children instructed to wear masks. Buses limited the number of passengers at any one time.

“How were the trains this morning?” I asked my husband daily.

“They were packed and still not everyone wears a mask.”

The daily news reported that numbers were creeping back up again. Rumours of a second lockdown spread.

“Did you hear? We can only meet in groups of six. Also, the pubs have to close by 10pm,” I chatted with my friends via Zoom.

“Does that mean they have figured out what time Corona comes out and who she visits?” We giggled at the unbelievability of the situation.

There was daily news coverage. I changed from channel to channel only to be met with an update of deaths caused by Covid or the number of test centres that had been built or the number of cases or which countries you could visit and which, if you did visit, you had to stay in isolation for fourteen days. I stopped switching the TV on altogether.

Lockdown number two came swiftly; it had been expected, like a visit from an aunt which you dreaded but you knew was going to come sweeping in, stay long enough to create a whirlwind in your home and then go suddenly, leaving you with chaos. The number of cases continued to increase rapidly.

“We will have a tier system,” announced Boris Johnson.

There was a new set of rules; Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3, rule of six. Limitations, closure of pubs, no mixing households. Confusion.

“Schools and Universities will remain open and only essential shops. Gyms, pubs and restaurants will shut down,” announced the government. “Work from home and go to work only if imperative. We will do our best to save Christmas; we will be coming out of lockdown on 2nd December,” said Boris proudly.

Stuff Christmas, I thought, it’s more important to save lives. So we will come out of lockdown on the 2nd, we will have an influx of last minute Christmas shopping, and then what?

I had become a recluse. I didn’t care to leave my house. It was a concerted effort just to make plans to go for a walk around the block, visit the local park, or go shopping. Seeing discarded disposable blue masks on the ground or people not wearing masks in shops gave me anxiety.

Standing in line, being herded like sheep, marching in one at a time. Spraying the handle of the trolley. Squeezing liquidy sticky alcoholic bacterial gel onto your hands and rubbing it in quickly. Picking up groceries and putting them in your trolley. Trying to avoid contact with other shoppers or glaring at those that came too close. No entry if you were not wearing a mask. Trying to avoid the shop staff who did not wear masks. Feeling stifled and suffocated, wanting to remove your mask but you daren’t. Stares of disapproval if you so much as coughed, sniffed or sneezed in a shop. Queueing at checkout, standing on little coloured circles stamped out on the floor. Putting your groceries on the belt as the masked, blue gloved cashier scans your goods and you put them in your trolley.

I was concerned about the approaching wintry, flu season. How could you tell whether it was flu or Covid?

News feeds popped up regularly on my phone. Mental health issues and loneliness was rising together with suicide cases as people were forced to remain indoors. The new normal was to stay at home, watch Netflix, read, have Zoom calls, hold lockdown birthday celebrations. Follow the rules, follow the rules; but not everyone followed the rules.

***

A week before Christmas, according to the media numbers continued to rise and the expected lockdown three came. Boris reluctantly cancelled Christmas. It was a quiet time for us; no relatives talking over each other, cooking big dinners, eating too much, laughing, or kids noisily running up and down the stairs.

A few days after Christmas, the headache came first, then the cough. I stayed in bed for a couple of days. I knew I had Covid and sent off for the test kit. I was restless, felt horrid and wanted to work; I couldn’t remain in bed. I didn’t feel hungry, couldn’t taste my food and the cough was getting worse. I coughed like it was coming from the very depths of my soul. I would walk slowly up the stairs, like I imagined a ninety-year-old would and it would take about ten minutes to recover. I would sit on the edge of the bed, breathing hard and heavy, like I had been for a jog around the block. I hacked and coughed, afraid it would not stop. I was relegated back to bed. My family nursed me daily. I spent days in and out of sleep, too unwell to watch TV. The kit came, the uncomfortable test was taken and posted. Two of us were unwell now and the rest of my family were in isolation. Shopping was dropped off on our doorstep. I was afraid to tell friends and family how ill I really was, answering text messages in a light-hearted way, praying that I would not be admitted to hospital.

Superstition and panic set in when I saw my grandfather in a dream, we had a conversation. He had been gone for over thirty years, but it was as though I had seen him yesterday, so clear and vivid.

I did my breathing exercises in earnest, inhaled steam with Olbas oil, drank herbal teas which normally I would not touch. The test results came back positive. I was able to eat, but still coughing violently and unable to breathe properly.

Three weeks in, and I thought I had recovered. I stood up from my bed, and my head felt like it was a fishbowl with the fishes swimming backwards. I was engulfed with a cold sweat as my stomach lurched and I fought the nausea. “I feel sick,” I said to my husband as he encouraged me to lay back down on the bed.

More days in bed. I forced myself to work, make a few calls each day. Week four, and I was making trips downstairs. Going up and down the stairs was still a challenge. Recovery was slow but I was grateful that I came through it, as I was one of the lucky ones. Each day friends and relatives informed me of the deaths of loved ones. Like the whole population, I was now waiting.

Bitter With The Sweet

by Elif Soyler – an autobiographical piece

Right before lockdown, I heard an old song for the first time. It was Carole King’s ‘Bitter with the Sweet’from Rhymes and Reasons, released in 1972. Those last few days were tentatively spent wandering around the emptying streets of Norwich. I admired the last of the magnolia blossom and picnicked at the viewing point in the north of the city. From up there you can see the cathedrals, the castle, the town hall, the newly built student accommodation, now quiet and hollow, and the Norfolk landscape laying low for miles in every direction.

It was my second year studying English lit and creative writing at the UEA, barely six months out of the perpetual chaos and euphoria of life in halls. I found myself in a suddenly bare house, my friends all home safe with their families. I wandered around eating their hastily abandoned fruit, brown bananas and bruised apples, and I made piles of books to take home on my bedroom floor. The house was on a very quiet street on the edge of Unthank Road and if it had not been for Carole’s voice floating through the thin walls and filling the vacant rooms, I would have felt lonely.

Sometimes I’m tired and I wonder

What’s so all-fired important

About being someplace at some time

Woah, but I don’t really mind

‘Cause I could be on Easy Street

And I know that

You’ve got to take the bitter with the sweet.

The week before, I had been bundled into a car by my housemates and driven to the nearest beach. We spent hours there, just escaping. I had been crying a little, all day. When I found a patch of good phone reception in the car park I called my mum and begged her for answers on what was going to happen next. She had nothing to say.

But, I had a sinking feeling that soon, my parents would want me home.

The night of the Prime Minister’s first major announcement, I sat cross legged on the floor near my window, clutching a glass of wine. A text from Mum said:

“Might be coming to get you tonight instead of tomorrow. Be prepared.”

I looked at Ardin, my boyfriend, and he tried to smile. The morning after, my mother’s car was parked outside and she helped me load up any remaining food I had left, my beloved houseplants, my record player and a small suitcase of clothes.

Like a lot of people, I hoped I would be back to normal after Easter.

On the hour and a half journey back, I held Ardin’s hand in the back seat. We’re long-distance, since he lives and works in London. Before the pandemic, we spent many weekends travelling back and forth for each other. The train tracks run past Ilford, Forest Gate, Stratford, before reaching Liverpool Street. On my covert missions to visit him I would shrink back, away from the window seat, worrying needlessly that some unknown stranger, neighbour, or family member would get a glimpse of my guilty face as the train hurtled past. My dad rang the carphone as we reached the Redbridge roundabout at the edge of the city border and I let out a “Hello! We’ll be home in ten” leave my lips in Turkish, laced with fake cheer. Ardin squeezed my hand tighter.

My dad doesn’t know about him. I’m not sure if I’ll ever tell the truth. University life allowed me an escape from his staggeringly high expectations and strict, devout lifestyle. It was complicated and it still is now. Although my mum is English, and a stubborn atheist, my brother and I were raised to be committed Muslims. This duality in my home life was confusing as a child; during primary school other Muslim kids teased me and accused me of lying to fit in. I am still trying to make peace with never really belonging in one place. It was frustrating as a teenager; I wanted to go to house parties and taste alcohol and kiss people but I was faced with an early curfew and harsh punishments. It was still terrifying as a near-adult, but I had nowhere else to go.

We dropped Ardin off at Redbridge station. I got out to say goodbye properly, but he wouldn’t kiss me while my mum watched us in the wing mirror. I held him for a minute and then watched him disappear into the Underground, heading West. It would be three long months before I saw him again.

I have to admit that in some ways, it was nice to be back home. I felt content while I was on Easter break, my studies paused for a few weeks. Those final assignments loomed on the horizon, but still slightly out of view. I poured energy into new writing ventures, starting an Instagram account for my poetry and pondering questions and ideas for the dissertation I would write in the autumn. The weather was glorious: it was almost as if the sun had decided to shine brighter when no one could come out to enjoy it. Spiteful. However, I was one of the lucky ones, living in a house with a garden, with green grass and a leaning willow tree; there was ample room for all four of us to breathe the fresh air. In the evenings, I retreated to my bedroom, still painted repulsive shades of pink and purple that I picked out when I was fifteen, and I would video-call Ardin. We whispered each other to sleep for weeks on end.

My brother, Emin, was just turning fourteen, and he was thrilled to be missing school and able to play video games to his heart’s content at all hours of the day. It was a chore to peel him off the sofa and take him outside. My home is near an entrance to Wanstead Park; I know that lake so well I could do the hour’s walk on its banks on tiptoes, with my eyes closed.

Everything was bursting with bright green life, the surface of the water was coated in pondweed, the ducks and geese left swirling trails of disturbed water as they circled around. On warmer days, terrapins would sunbathe on half-submerged logs. We rarely saw other families together, mainly a few like-minded locals, fellow worshippers of the lake. I wished and wished we had a dog, but my dad would never agree to it. So we just walked him every day instead. And we did have a cat, after all.

Quickly, April was over, May was underway, and then it was the holy month of Ramadan and I was staying up until three in the morning to force down soggy Weetabix chunks as the light of dawn collected in the kitchen. My father, brother and I would then finally go to sleep, and not even be able to brush our teeth in the morning when the day began. The evening meal, Iftar, became the real highlight of every day. I remember leaning out of my bedroom window to take blurry, poorly-angled photos of a mediocre sunset for most nights and then rushing downstairs to devour my dinner as soon as the sun disappeared.

At the same time, the remains of my second term were happening virtually. Some tutors required students to keep their cameras and microphones switched off throughout seminars to improve internet connection. Those two-hour sessions made me feel empty and increasingly numb.

I didn’t ever imagine that I would be debating literary concepts through a tiny chatbox, ignoring the typos (and there were many), trying to squeeze in a response to a question before it was lost in the forsaken chat feed. It did not feel worth nine thousand pounds a year. Other tutors, seemingly quite chipper and cheerful, couldn’t understand at all why so many students let their resounding silence behind the black screen speak for them, every time they asked to see some faces.

The weeks had become months yet every day, I felt the same. I felt tired of being tired, I felt bored of being bored, I felt guilty about all the self-pity, and I missed my freedom so much.

I guess it gets to everyone

You think you’re not having any fun

And you wonder what you’re doing

Playing the games you play

Hey, well, it’s true what they say

If you wanna feel complete

Don’t you know that

You’ve got to take the bitter with the sweet

It was a Wednesday night in the third week of fasting, at the witching hour. I could hear Emin getting out of bed in the room next door; he was always the last to get up so I knew I was almost out of time to eat. I was close behind him, coming down the stairs.

“Do you have to stomp like that, Elif? BANG! BANG! BANG!”

“Oh, shut up, Emin, you’re one to talk, I mean, shout!”

“Well it doesn’t matter now that you probably woke Mum up with your rhinoceros feet!”

“Oi! Calm down.”

“Stop laughing!”

“Hey, hey, what is going on here? Be quiet, your mum is asleep.”

It was my dad, on the top step, the three of us stood frozen, in the darkness, listening for the familiar snore and sure enough, he was right, Mum was deep in her dreams. We descended the rest of the stairs and turned on the kitchen light.

Our eyes adjusted slowly, my dad took a step towards the fridge, blindly searching for the milk. Emin was still blinking with annoyance under the light, a packet of chocolate cereal in his left hand.

I saw her first. I did a double take and realised she wasn’t breathing or blinking or basking by her food bowl. I let out a cry and turned away. Emin’s eyes flashed to where I pointed but he couldn’t believe it, he rushed to where she lay. She was still warm and soft, her limbs flopped about. Her face and whiskers were wet with dribble that had oozed out of her slack face. He shook her, and she trembled in his arms as he cried.

She wasn’t an old cat, just past twelve years.

Emin can’t remember life without her.

A friend of mine once told me

And I know he knows all about feelin’ down

He said everything good in life

You’ve got to pay for

But feelin’ good is what you’re paving the way for

She was named Cilla. She was black and white and according to my mother, it just fit. She was greedy and spoiled and a little overweight, fond of sitting next to whoever was in the armchair, but a notoriously silent and deadly farter. She had a knack for catching bumblebees in the garden during summer. She didn’t like being picked up and carried like a baby, never biting or hissing, just squirming in your arms until you relented and let her go. When we came home from work or school or Wanstead Park, she would snake between our legs and gaze with green eyes up at us, wondering if it was dinner time yet.

Anyone who had a heart would have loved her immensely.

You’ve got to take the bitter with the sweet

You’ve got to take, you’ve got to take, you’ve got to take

The bitter with the sweet

The bitter with the sweet, sweet, sweet, woah, sweet

The next morning was the beginning of the hottest day of the year so far. None of us had slept. It was quarter to nine and still, lockdown hung over the street. All the neighbours’ cars were in the driveways; no one was going to work, or school or anywhere.

We set off, all together, in the direction of Wanstead Park. Emin carried in his arms a bundle wrapped in a white pillowcase. We buried her hurriedly. My dad’s hands slipped off the handle on the shovel several times, the sweat collecting between his fingers like water in cupped hands.

I stood with Emin a little way away, my hand on his shoulder.

When we returned, we all went to bed, and slept for twelve hours. The smell of food and the call to prayer were what woke me. Mum had made macaroni cheese: Emin’s favourite.

You’ve got to take the bitter with the sweet

You’ve got to take, you’ve got to take, you’ve got to take

The bitter with the sweet

The bitter with the sweet, sweet, sweet,woah, sweet

Bathroom Window

by Suzanne Wilson – an autobiographical piece

“Do you hear that?”

“Yeah, what…?” I squinted with both my ears and eyes, “Hold on. What time is it?”

“Eight o’clock.” My partner then understood, “God, they’re doing that clapping thing, aren’t they?”

It was Thursday evening, and we had been watching something I can’t remember on Netflix, draped over our sofa like a pair of drunk bumblebees, when we heard a faint rumbling from outside. My partner had paused the video.

I looked at him for a minute. “Do you want to take a gander? Just to see?”

My partner sighed that we may as well, and we both headed to the bathroom which would give us the best view of our neighbours’ homes. Sure enough, there they all were, clapping and banging pans. Someone had even brought out their didgeridoo: an overtly phallic tool to bring to the weekly ‘I love the NHS more than you and here’s the racket to prove it’-fest. My partner tensed. He plays the same instrument and was probably itching for a ‘doo-off’.

My gaze dropped to our own front garden, where I could see that most of the residents had taken to their front doors to join in. That was when I noticed one person in particular. They were standing in their doorway, clapping far too enthusiastically, head flopping from side to side to acknowledge their immediate neighbours and with a gait that was horribly familiar.

“Did you notice that blonde girl?” I asked my partner when we had returned to our positions on the sofa, “From the last house, next to the garden gate?”

“I didn’t. Why?”

I took a second to gather my words, in the knowledge that I might sound a bit mad. “I know that I couldn’t really see her face, but I could have sworn that it was a girl I used to go to Ballyclare High School with.”

He looked doubtful. “What? Back in Northern Ireland?”

“Lisa Kelly. It just seemed so much like her. The way she stood there. And her hair was exactly the same, even down to the parting and,” I gestured to my forehead, “one of those widow’s peak things.”

My partner smiled, probably thinking that the cabin fever was finally taking hold. “Think of how unlikely it is. A girl you went to secondary school with, all the way back there, just happening to live in the exact same building as you do in Leeds.”

I told him that I knew how silly it sounded, but also that Lisa Kelly wasn’t just any girl I had spent a few miserable years at school with. From the age of twelve to about seventeen, she had been my best friend.

We had done all sorts of daft things together, bonding over our strange sense of humour and ability to judge people quite harshly from a quiet distance. We thought that when we were older, in our mid-twenties, all cool, we would still be thick as thieves and living together, somewhere wonderful that wasn’t Northern Ireland. Of course, this plan never came to fruition, as these things never do. Another girl decided that she wanted Lisa for her best friend, and spent the best part of a year excluding me and worming her way into my best friend’s good favour, until Lisa ‘The Spineless Wonder’ Kelly finally dropped me. I am aware of how typical this sounds for catty teenage girls, but at the time I was distraught, and I am very good at holding grudges, even if it is to my own detriment.

It was around the third week of being trapped inside our one bedroom flat in Leeds, my partner and I. We’d only left to scuttle around Aldi in the search for a bag of dried pasta or an unscathed avocado. Sometimes we would wait until the sun was setting to go for a stroll around the park, hissing like Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, disappearing into the shadows and leaving only a puff of cigarette smoke should any stranger breach the two-meter rule. We had established a vague routine that we were neither happy nor unhappy with. This would soon include my obsessively staring out of our bathroom window, which looked upon the front garden courtyard that we shared with the other residents of the converted tannery building.

The weather had become surprisingly warm for mid-Spring and although there were many of us off from work and school, not many could go out and enjoy it the way we would have liked to. The residents of our building are very lucky, as we have access to both the shared garden, simple as it is, and the sprawling Meanwood Park which is a ten second walk from our front door. However, most residents chose the former for their good weather pastimes, probably due to caution and the fact that a police van crawled in and out of the park four times a day. It was also at this point that we became more familiar with the faces of our neighbours.

My partner’s favourite was Mr Cool-Music. He would have had the ageing hippy look if he wasn’t in his mid-thirties. He sat on his doorstep with a cushion under his bottom all day, fiddling on his tablet and blasting unusual electro from his living room. He had rather red and shiny skin and I often worried that he didn’t wear enough sun cream. There was also Miss Understood, who sunbathed quite a bit with her book. She and her boyfriend lived in the flat below ours. Miss Understood would normally walk around with a face like thunder or, when she was reading, look as though she wanted to murder her book. However, the second someone spoke to her she would break into a genuine smile and chat away quite happily. There was a family of four, including a well-behaved Shih Tzu named Pepper, who would bring their young and often very boisterous human son out to play in the garden. We could only remember the name of the dog, so we just called them Pepper’s Family.

Then, of course, there was who I referred to as Possible Lisa Kelly, who also chose to sunbathe incessantly. When I went to use the loo, I would stand for a few minutes at the window each time, suspiciously gazing down into the garden to try to get a good look at her face. This marked the beginning of the phase my partner would call ‘ Rear-Windowing’. Although I was glad not to be afflicted with Jimmy Stewart’s broken leg, his camera with the telescopic lens would have come in very useful.

The 4th May was what I remembered to be Actual Lisa Kelly’s birthday, so on that day I spent more time than usual at the bathroom window, on the lookout for any activity that could be considered birthday-related. Sure enough, at dinner time, the suspected ex-bestie lolloped out onto the pavement in that twee manner that was all too familiar, and collected from someone what could have only been a large bag of takeaway food.

“She’s just picked up Chinese or something.” I called out, “That can’t be a coincidence. It’s her birthday tea.”

My partner popped his head into the bathroom, “It’s all a coincidence. And you’re getting a bit obsessed.”

I knew all too well that I was becoming a bit erratic. Sometimes I would even jump from what I was doing if I heard any activity outside so I could take a look. I couldn’t help it. Maybe, if the world was running as usual, I wouldn’t have been as bothered. But then again, if the world had been running as usual, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed that she was there in the first place.

I wasn’t alone in my investigation. My current and very decent best friend, Catherine, who lives up in Scotland, had also agreed to help me after I explained the situation to her. Having been to the same school and still in contact with people who I was not, she was able to investigate through social media. Catherine was not able to see Lisa’s location, but told me that she would let me know immediately if she learned anything. I don’t know if Catherine believed that Lisa Kelly just happened to live a few doors away from me, but she was kind enough to go along with it, possibly in the same manner that one might humour a child or someone who is clearly feeling the effects of being on lockdown for almost two months.

However, I cannot state that these observations came only from the direct gaze of my tiny bathroom window. There were many occasions where I would be returning home, in all of my sweaty glory, from a grocery shop, or lumbering to the recycling bins to dispose of our shame in the form of pizza boxes and empty wine bottles. She would be there, sunbathing or reading or even the strenuous activity of doing both at the same time. At these times, I would be thankful for the bright sunshine and my light sensitivity leading me to always be wearing large sunglasses, which I was convinced obscured my identity while still allowing me to have a good look at Possible Lisa Kelly.

No matter how many times I stood watching from the bathroom window or how many fleeting glimpses I captured while hurrying through our front garden with my head bowed, I still could not be certain. I think that my Catherine found it humorous and, to an extent, so did my partner, but he also had to live with it and my excessive yammering on the subject.

Then, Catherine served me well. She sent me photographic evidence that Lisa Kelly was lurking uncomfortably close to the outskirts of my life. There she was, grinning away at me, enjoying the good weather with a friend she presumably had not seen since lockdown began, with our building sitting in the background and our bathroom window in clear view. I was surprised that I wasn’t in the photograph too.

I showed my partner.

“Look! I was right. I was bloody right. See, there’s our flat in the background.”

“Okay. You were right. It’s whats-her-name.” He wasn’t as excited as I was. “So what now?”

My triumph switched to irritation, “Why? Why is she here? Leeds is my town. I live here. This is my special place. I don’t want it infected by her. Why does some girl, from a middle-of-nowhere town in Northern Ireland have to live here?”

Of course, my long-suffering partner couldn’t answer me.

Now that I knew I was right, my only options were to avoid her, just as I had been doing, or actually approach her with a, “Lisa? Oh my god. I didn’t know you lived here.”

There was absolutely no chance of the latter. I couldn’t hack the fakery of it or the knowledge that she would tell the awful people that she was undoubtedly still in touch with about me and my life now. However, I knew that I shouldn’t feel unable to come and go to my home as I please just because Lisa Kelly might be outside. It was a decision I never did have to make.

As it all started with a noise, it too ended with one. I was home alone, breezing about the flat on one of my weekly dust-busting missions, when I heard a lot of clatter and commotion from outside. I rushed to my usual spot at the bathroom window to be greeted with a wonderful sight: Lisa Kelly taking boxes to a removal van. A week later, there was no sign of her at all, and a week after that, a smiley young family of three moved in.

I was once again at peace with my home. I took great pleasure in telling the news to my partner and best friend. Catherine shared my glee; my partner was just glad that I wasn’t obsessing over an insignificant person from our bathroom window anymore.

“Well, you don’t have to worry about her again. Lisa’s gone.”

“And I didn’t even have to do anything. She never knew I was here all this time.”

My partner laughed at me. “It’s not as though you could have made her move.”

“I’m sure the flaming bag of shite I sent her played a part in it.”

We laughed again, then my partner looked at me, “You didn’t, did you?”

“Of course not. That’s disgusting,” I wrinkled my nose, “threatening letters would be far more hygienic.”

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.

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.