A Small Thought

I don’t have a favourite colour. I never have had one. I just tell people its blue, but when I picture blue in my mind it doesn’t please my guts.

Lately I have been saying it is metallic pink. Everything I own now is metallic pink. Even the shoes I am wearing. Deichmann, 19 quid.

I don’t particularly like metallic pink but it pleases my gut, so there must be some sort of spark there.

I think some children are embarrassed to talk about marriage and children. It’s a strange phenomenon. An eight year old boy I was teaching was trying to explain storytelling through the generations, and he said, ‘When I’m, well, when I have a child of some sort. Well, a small cousin of some sort, I will probably have a lot of stories to tell too.’

I chuckled at that. I was like that. I told my mum flat out that I would never get married. Ever. That it was a ridiculous notion and intolerable to me, at age eleven. Secretly I was crushing hard on my now-husband. He was fourteen and quite dashing. Did I tell anybody? Of course not. And I was quite cruel to him too. He must never be allowed to find out. I even prayed that when I was older, he would want to marry me. I actually got on my knees and prayed.

I said, ‘Oh dear God, please let me marry him when I am older.’ Every day for two months. I didn’t even say, ‘please let him be my boyfriend.’ I wanted something more solid than that, I suppose. Something in writing. 

Then I forgot, of course. Or it didn’t matter to me so much. My attentions were drawn elsewhere. Life. Exams. Stories to write and read. Exciting social events. Friends. Everything took over.

I even deviated a little and lead myself astray by mixing with some Bad Folk. Let us not tread those waters.

But at eleven, I prayed for him. So weird.

Seven years later, though, I married him. I guess prayers are answered. I married him after only four or five dates. That is weird. But I so wanted to. And I still want to. And I would do it all over again and get really excited to.

I have also never told anybody this. I fear I will appear a fool.

If I ever get to be old, I want to be old with my husband. I want to sit on a bench and stare as the world rumbles by. I believe it will be rumbling by then, not screeching as it is now. My hearing shan’t be as clear as it is now so that might contribute to the rumble.

Who knows.

All I know is that we are here on earth, and earth is fleeting. The people we meet and live with and accompany will leave us, will die, will be separated from us.  All I know is that we are still whole, with or without our loved ones, and that one can love wholly and completely without giving a piece of oneself away.

And that is what I am trying to do.

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Love Letters #38

Have you ever sunk down into the belly of London?

There are vertical escalators, and sometimes they squeak and squeal, groaning under the weight of a thousand feet every second of every day. Never stopping. Hundreds of stories and minds. Millions of thoughts, whispered in thousands of accents, drowned by the voices of people getting things done.

There are pictures on the metal walls, pictures that move and shift and change shapes, kaleidoscopic in their constant swirling motion, and for a moment you want to go to the theatre and see Les Miserable, and the next moment the thought vanishes from your brain as you frantically feel your way through pale yellow tunnels, following the crowd and wondering if you are going the right way, can’t turn back or else people will shove you back the way you came, the rush of hot air pulling you further and further into the belly of London.

Old walls, crumbling civilisations giving way to new ones.

I was born in London.

Tooting.

Same hospital as my mother was born in. So strange, that thought. Twenty four years apart.

My father fell down the stairs and broke his coccyx bone the day I was born. He was rushing to the hospital to see his first child. For twenty three years he hasn’t been able to sit properly.

When I was six years old, my stomach curled and unfurled itself as I clutched a small pink straw bag, descending on those vertical escalators down, down down below the crowded surface of the busy city.

Do we have to go on the tube? Can’t we go on the overground train?

Don’t be so silly, Lenora. Look sharp now, quickly!

My mother, seasoned, marching through the tunnels with myself and my little brother in tow. Stepping onto the train, grabbing the back of her skirt, sick with fear.

Then the hurtle, the loud screaming of the train on those metal tracks, the blackness outside the windows. Why were there even windows, if there was nothing to look at? Terrified. Barely able to breathe. Is this the stop? Can we get out?

No!? Ohhhh. 

A soft groan, deep in my belly.

Any minute now the lights would turn off and the train would stop and we would be stuck down here in the dark and heat forever and ever and

forever.

Loud, screaming, hurtling, whistling, wailing. I would close my eyes, begging for this nightmare to be over.

When I was eleven I read a story about the people who cleaned the underground tunnels.

You wouldn’t believe what they found there. Giant rats, and fleas the size of cockroaches, flittering in the darkness. An old woman spoke of the horrors of those tunnels. Yet, they were a refuge to many during the war. Safe havens, in giant brick pools under the ancient city of London. Curving under the Thames and even crossing by the long forgotten rivers that people seldom remember, yet traverse past daily.

And still, I was terrified.

The tube?! Really?! We can get to Victoria on the overground. What about a bus?! A bus is so much better.

Oh, grow up, you silly girl.

Stuck to my seat, sometimes shoved under someone’s armpit, holding tight, my stomach swaying as the train hustled and swerved and screamed its way through those hot, windy tunnels. Fear seeped through my skin, soaking my clothes and beading on my upper lip.

The roaring becoming louder, and louder, and louder, rising in volume and ferocity,

 – why is it so angry -?!

I open my eyes.

I am twenty three years old. I am sitting on the tube for the first time in three years, and before that, for the first time nine.

London has not been my home for twelve years.

Yet, every time I step off the train and into Euston or King’s Cross, a rush of overwhelming familiarity hits me.

The smells and the noise pollution, rising high in the sky, thousands of lives picking their way through thousands of machines, breathing in exhaust fumes and coffee grounds, heels on newspapers, sweat pooling in the creases of skin, accents and countries and worlds colliding as people get on with their business.

And I love the tube. I love the tube with all my heart.

I love the feeling of standing on the furthest end, watching everybody and their engrossed detachment from the world around them. The ginger man sitting next to a nun, sneaking peeks at her reading material. The woman who is watching a Netflix show and the audience of standing commuters, eyes glued to her screen behind the grimy glass that separates her seat from the doors.

I love the hurtling, screaming ferocity. I love the traffic of humans, all hurrying, running, racing, sweating, on the same journey but so trained in avoiding any real contact with each other. Physically pressed up against each other but mentally floating high above the tunnels through which they are carried at top speeds.

I don’t love London at all. I might love the memories I have, which lurk around unexpected corners and in strange places. That place that I vomited outside the Natural History museum. That spot in the British library where I tried to hide those chewits. That fountain in Hyde Park where I sprained my ankle and subsequently cried all the way home on the 319. That tree where the dog barked at my brother and I, scaring our five and four year old selves half to death. That rookery where we rolled down the hills and I got grass stains on my blue Alice in Wonderland dress.

But I love the Tube.

I love the old terror that rises in my throat like bile, because my twenty three year old self recognises it for what it really is;

Adrenaline.

Excitement.

Adventure.

Thrill.

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Headphones

I was the angsty teenager in headphones. The black hoodie wearing, tattoo yearning girl with dark eyeliner and an air of moody misery. Sixteen years old and the world was against me.

Loud rock music blaring in my ears, adding fuel to my fragile emotions and intensifying my misery and self pity. I hid away in corners reading books and cycled for hours until my depressed feelings seeped into my aching muscles and I turned my depression into exercise.

Oh, poor, poor me, standing alone in the corridors, reading deeply in the library to avoid being seen with no friends.

One day a glamorous girl I was severely envious of came up to me in the library, in the spot where I always sat, reading a book.

‘Oh my God you’re such a loner!’ she said, her voice high and cheerful and her smile infectious. She nudged me.

‘Come hang out with me and the girls.’

I thought it was a pity ask. Our mums were friends.

‘No, it’s ok, I’m actually really into this book.’

Me with my oversized hoody and deeply emotional rock music. She tried several more times but I always thought it was her mother making her. Her mother knew nothing. I found this out years later.

I had no friends. For lack of trying, honestly. I lacked the try. I did not try. I expected them to come up to me and want to be my friend.

They did, as well. They actually did. They were curious, they asked me questions. I was shy. So I maintained a stony demeanour and answered shortly, avoiding eye contact and being blunt and dismissive.

Once a girl told me she felt I was ‘indifferent’. Like I thought I was above everybody else.

There was a boy in one of my classes who spent the whole lesson, every lesson, talking to me about everything he could think of. I enjoyed his chatter. I got first hand information on all the popular kids because he was down with the cool kids. In fact he was friends with everybody.

I was ‘indifferent’ to him too but he kept badgering me.

‘Why do you always sit alone in the library?’ he’d asked once, in between telling me about this girl he fancied like mad and who always sat next to me in Chemistry.

‘I like to,’ I told him, airily, ‘I don’t like you college lot. So I don’t wanna hang out with anybody.’

He laughed so loud that we both got told off and separated. Next class, he was at it again, asking me to talk to the girl he fancied for him. I didn’t. She didn’t like him, and had made that pretty clear to me many times beforehand, so I kept brushing him off.

We never hung out, despite his numerous invitations.

I never made friends there. Not real ones. I sat alone, and plugged my earphones in, and let the sad music wash me away to my own island of depression and misery, believing the world had given me a really bad deal and feeling dreary and lost because of it. I cried a lot at home, I told my mother I was miserable, and watched her heart ache for me because no mother wants to see their child struggle.

Sometimes those headphone days creep back on me, six years later. Making me feel lonely and depressed again. Reminding me of my sadness and my loss. Peering over my shoulder of a sunny day and stealing my joy, sucking it out of me until I am a melted heap on the floor. Self piteous idiot. Why should I let my own incompetence affect me now? I am not like I was then.

In hindsight, I should have gone with that girl. I should have asked those kids questions back. I should have sat with them when they called me. I should have made my own friends. I let fear rule me, you see.

I learnt something magnanimous from that experience. I learned that the world owes me nothing, it exists as it always has done and always will. It exists and it is up to me to get off my sorry, self piteous backside and explore it and take from it what is mine. The world will give me nothing. It has everything and it leaves it all there for us to take.

So, take! Take those damn headphones out with their manipulative music and clear your head and breath some fresh air and shake some hands. Smile a wide smile and ask people questions, and hell, bake them some cinnamon rolls. Indulge, enjoy, enter into other comfort zones, explore, learn, create! It’s up to you to make something of the world, because, as harsh as this sounds…

The world owes you nothing.

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Sweet 16

Six years ago when I was sixteen years old, I hid myself inside a little bubble.

I had just moved the a different city. I left all my friends behind, and I found it phenomenally hard to make new ones. I was painfully shy and irritatingly quiet, so those who did bother in the beginning soon very quickly gave up.

I didn’t see others as people. I saw them as barriers to happiness. I was depressed. So depressed. It was hard for me to talk to people so when I got home I was filled with thoughts and words and I shared them with my mother. I was desperate for human companionship. A friend to walk home from college with. Somebody to call up afterwards and have a chat about the day.

All of it was just stuff I was so used to, being so surrounded by friends at my old school. I still had those friends, of course, but time and distance were an enemy, and soon they started talking about people I didn’t know and had no interest in, so our phone calls and emails and IMs became less and less frequent, until we became those friends who see each other once in a blue moon and when we do we get along beautifully but in between those meetings there is a long, dismal stretch of echoing silence and aching loneliness.

And for two years I tried and failed to make any real friends. I had a few people who would just use me for company, and when I realised that I stayed away. We had nothing in common and they would just call me up when something was wrong or when their own friends ditched them, which I felt was unfair.

I faded in those two years.

I hid away from people. I stopped trying. I would cry sometimes, alone in my room at home. I started making internet friends. It was so much simpler, and I could find the people I had things in common with and soon I was talking to them daily, the minute I returned home from school and way into the night. It was amazing. I still felt desolately lonely during the day, but I had my internet bubble to look forward to later.

I also created more. I dreamt up characters and wrote about them in the hours of free time during lunch breaks and prep lessons, typing away furiously on the computer.

I would say that although those two years are depressing, and I wouldn’t wish that experience on my worst enemy, I am glad for it.

As I am glad for all my experiences.

It made me more compassionate towards others. It made me see through other people, be more conscious of how they might be feeling and try to make them feel included and welcomed.

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Jasmine

I knew a girl once, at primary school, who told me one afternoon while we were having lunch that if I visited her one day, we could go to Japan for a day and visit her father.

She was insistent that you could do that, so easily.

‘Easy,’ she said. She was half Japanese, and her name was Jasmine.

‘I don’t think you can do that,’ I said, cautiously. ‘Don’t you think you would have to fly there on a plane? And it’s terribly far away.’

At that time, at the age of nine, Japan was far off and oriental to me. A land of mystery and romance. It was not mentioned in any of the books I devoured, which, at the time, were all 1940s-50s classics about Western children who dressed well and had adventures, and a charming Canadian girl with Titian red hair. Japan, to me, was unknown, therefore un-interesting.

‘Oh, but you can!’ she was nodding wildly, her mane of thick black glossy hair falling over her smooth caramel skin.

‘My father is from there. He always says I should go and see him for a day, and we can have so many adventures. And they put up red dragon flags everywhere and we can eat dumplings. And I can give you a red silk gown so you won’t feel out of place. Tell your mom, she will drop you off at my place and we will be back in no time.’

I half believed her, because she was so earnest. After all, why shouldn’t it be true? There was nothing to suggest its implausibility. And Jasmine was so adamant that she had done this several times. The idea appealed to me; I stared up at the copy of leaves above the school playground and dreamed I could go with her. How exciting. And her father sounded so child friendly and accommodating.

When I told my mother about it later, I heard my voice sound just as adamant as Jasmine’s; it was my dream just as much as hers now, and I would not let my mother dampen it for me by telling me it wasn’t real.

‘But you can go and visit her, of course. I shall certainly want to see her mother again.’

We never did go. I don’t know why. I heard on the grapevine, and by grapevine I mean the chatter of adults unaware of childish ears eavesdropping, that her parents were divorced and her father had deserted his children.

As an adult, that explained Jasmine’s sad eagerness to visit him in Japan for an afternoon.

But you know, I will never forget that magic in her black eyes, dancing and alive, truly believing in what she was saying. So strong I believed it too, and hoped so hard for her. We all need coping mechanisms.

 

Love Letters #9

She didn’t know Enigma Boy.

He was tall and had long legs which he would stretch out over the aisle, and she would have to carefully step over them when she came late to her lectures. Sometimes he would notice and pull them back quickly, looking up at her with these deep green eyes, murmuring a ‘sorry’ in an accent she could not place.

At first, she would see him around the library sometimes, or sitting in the cafeteria with that other boy he was always with. With the snub nose and the toned arms. But it was only him she had the eyes for.

His complexion, she remembered thinking, was healthy. Cheeks that were a beautiful combination of reddened brown, the result of a lot of healthy sunshine and clean air. Thick dark hair that fell over his face just a little, just so, and he was always perfectly dressed.

She wasn’t. Perfectly dressed. Ever. She wore black jeans every day and alternated between three grey tops, over which she would shrug on her black hoodie and if it was cold, her dark green trench coat. Same black lace up boots, like out of a victorian photograph, and her curly black hair up in a messy bun, always, because she mostly forgot to brush it.

He probably just thought she was a messy person. Maybe he didn’t even notice her. But he talked to her friends, oh he talked to her friends. Maybe because she was too awed by him, that she was frightened to talk to him. She knew she gave off indifferent, moody vibes when she was shy. And she was tremendously shy around him.

Her heart thundered in her ears when he passed her in the corridors, and the notes of his foreign, exotic language were a soft melody in her ears. She could pick his voice out in a crowd.

And anyway, why was she thinking of him like that when she had herself the finest man a girl could wish for. At least, that is what she told herself.

He IS  a fine man.

He wasn’t as handsome as Enigma Boy, that was for sure. And he didn’t have good haircuts, was a little too skinny and smoked legal highs. She spent a fortune on his legal highs, mostly to avoid one of his horrendous tantrums. His ‘ludicrous’ moods. Well, that is what love is, she would sigh to herself, sitting in her lecture, while he was probably out somewhere smoking weed. Love is sacrifice. Love is patience.

And yet, despite all the sacrificing, patient love, this Enigma Boy occupied all her thoughts.

Once she was outside the lecture hall having a naughty smoke. She puffed in and out and closed her eyes and enjoyed the acridity of it, because it made her brain float a little and she needed that. Then she froze, because there he was standing right in front of her, also having a naughty smoke, only he was not puffing, just sucking it into his mouth and blowing it out.

How cute.

She saw him talking to a glamorous girl with red lipstick and thick, straight, glossy hair, both of them smoking, telling the girl that he did not smoke, he just puffed socially. Then he looked up, directly at her, her, and she looked away quickly.

Once he sat right in front of her in the lecture hall. His hair was so neat from the back. And when he shifted in his seat, she smelled him. Tobacco, mint, leather, spice. She closed her eyes and breathed in deep until someone poked her and asked if she was okay.

I’m okay. Oh. I am okay.

Then Enigma Boy turned. Their eyes met. She didn’t know why, perhaps it was out of habit, but she forgot to be shy, and she smiled at him. Not a regular smile that you give to somebody you see daily in your lecture hall. Not a ‘hello, there’ kind of smile, or even a smile of acknowledgement.

It was fully fledged smile, of warmth and comradery and her teeth even showed a little bit, so maybe it was a grin.

Oh, how embarrassing. 

She smiled before she realised what she was doing and by then it was too late. Her heart dropped, thudding pitifully somewhere at the bottom of her ribcage.

Ouch.

To her surprise, he smiled back. A wide, friendly smile. Not a stranger smiling out of courtesy, but a smile as though perhaps they had known each other all their lives.

Warmth bubbled up gently in her chest, and she averted her eyes back to the projector screen in front of them, pretending like she was listening aptly, when really she was graining that smile to her memory, burning it into her retina. Those green, green eyes. That wonderfully tanned face, with features so perfect in their slight imperfection. The way he’d turned, looking at her.

She barely heard the discussion between her friends after the lecture. All she thought about was that smile.

On the last week at university her friends went to have lunch together. He was going, too. Ar first she wanted to say no-no-no-no. But her friends dragged her along, insistent. She ordered a tall glass of vimto, and then he was there sitting next to her asking how her exam went. At first she was fumbly and shaky, her heart an oscillating drill, thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump, but then her thoughts gathered themselves and soon she was prattling on, sipping her vimto, while he listened and laughed sometimes and then it was his turn to talk.

Into the evening, they talked and laughed and then she was not feeling nervous but happy. Funny. Liked. Listened to. Appraised for the words she spoke, and the thoughts she shared. Not like she had felt in a long, long time. All through the evening and then the fairy lights came on and it was twinkly and summery and four of them wandered back to the bus stop together, Danielle talking about how her engagement went down, glittering her large ring at them. Laughter and happiness floating up into the summer twilight.

That was her last day at university. Last day ever. They didn’t even swap numbers.

Years later, after she had miraculously escaped the malicious grip of her ‘man’, after she had left university and met another gentleman, so kind and sweet and handsome, and married him, she was to remember that green eyed smile. Not for the butterflies it gave her, for that memory could not resuscitate any giddy feelings within her that her husband had not made her feel beforehand, but for the happiness she had felt during and after.

She remembered that smile and thought sadly that perhaps it was not a romantic smile, perhaps it was the smile that might have made for a wonderful friendship.

One can never know.

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