Semester is over. Christmas has passed in a blur. Our narrator has fought her way from the airport through the tube and reached her secret yet temporary hideout: the bright pink door and narrow tilted staircase of an AirBnb flatshare in Whitechapel.
A few minutes after I text her, Kathy opens the door — “Are you going to manage with those bags?” The staircase is narrow and dark; the building creaks.
Kathy, formerly of Hong Kong and now a proud artisan of London, makes paper flowers for a living, and runs tutorials from her dining room table. The only sign of her winter flu (“I feel just awful, being outside in the cold does it, I never should have gone shopping in central London — it’s going in and out of the cold air that does it, you know”) is the strong smell of ginger from the broth on the stove which I never do see her eat. She probably lives on air, and the hot ginger footbaths recommended by her herbalist.
She adds, “they’ve been trying to have this building knocked down — have you seen those fancy new apartments across the way? But we’re heritage-listed, they can’t kick us out.”
I don’t find this information particularly reassuring.
“This whole area’s so pricey these days. Paying five pounds extra just for ice-cream with steam on it! I’ve lived here for ten years, it never used to be like this.”
It’s a while before I come back to London, but when I do, it’s to a very different set of characters.
In the kitchen of a youth hostel at 8am in the morning, an American woman and a German man are having an argument, each in their own version of heavily-accented English.
“What’s your address?” the woman says. “I’ll write you a letter.”
The man avoids answering.
“Here’s my address — you can write me a letter.”
He has lots of mail, he says, lots of people he writes to. “Give me your address, I can write to you.”
This interaction repeats itself until it begins to give me a headache.
She advances, he retreats. An uncomfortable, conversational tango.
She offers to make him porridge.
My first thought is that they’ve had sex — a one-night stand maybe, or a brief fling — only the woman thinks it’s more than that. They don’t seem to know each other very well, and it is time for breakfast after all.
I concentrate on my cereal, but eventually looking up, I notice that both have white hair, and the woman especially looks frail, hunched over as much as my grandmother. Does this make my conjecture more or less likely, I wonder?
The next morning, again at my cereal, I see a woman shepherd two children into the kitchen. They’re a neatly sized dark-haired pair — twins, it seems — a boy and a girl.
A ritual dance ensues.
A plastic Sainsbury’s bag rests on the table between the two children, who sit on the bench side-by-side like a painting. The woman pulls out two bags of chocolate brioche buns, two small metallic sachets and a milk bottle.
The woman proceeds to pour the milk into two glasses, heats them in the microwave.
I expect the pair to start eating immediately — especially the boy — but they don’t. The boy plays with lego soldiers (are those two kissing?) as the girl watches, angelic head in her hands.
The woman I assume is their mother takes out the milk, opens up one metallic sachet and slowly pours, stirring chocolate powder gram by gram into the hot milk. It changes colour, slowly, and begins to blush brown. The boy is definitely impatient now, taking the second sachet and heaping it into the glass — a mountain of brown powder, the spoon stirring it into dark clumps of cocoa.
The woman gives the girl the first glass. She takes it very primly — with the pride of a sister who know she is better behaved than her brother. The woman shakes her head at the boy who takes the packet to control the flow of cocoa. He grabs the teaspoon and stirs vigorously.
They eat. Their mother doesn’t.
It’s strange, this watching other people and taking notes. I see snippets and make assumptions. Sometimes, things strike me as poetic, like the mother feeding her children breakfast, which may not really be when I reflect on them. They’re mundane, dull, even painful.
Trying to write can distort what you see, even without trying.
Like the time I walked up to write at Castlerigg stone circle (I was pretty pleased with myself.) It was a rather steep climb for England’s terrain, across a vast wilderness. In England, that meant a tarred road without a footpath winding up a hill through some fields, and a massive highway visible in the distance. There were even bored roosters doubling as wild animals.
The sight itself was even more impressive than I’d thought. A shallow upturned bowl of a hill in the middle of English mountains. The sky fell away, the countryside opened out for miles: a remnant of ancient deforestation.
In the centre of that, there was a circle of stones, almost like a convocation of wombats — or beavers. I thought myself a dignified artist — not like the crass tourists who came up, peered around, and went back down again — so I plonked myself down on a central stone and took out my notebook.
The Romantics used to write there. here was even poetry on the notice-board which greets you as you come into the field. So surely inspiration would strike like lightning.
Then one of the inferior-tourist types wandered in, and peered about. But when she spoke it was in a broad Northern accent.
“Hello love! Didn’t think anyone would be up here, you enjoying your stone circle time? Everyone’s got to have a bit of stone circle time.”
I laughed once she’d gone, picturing the crowds of artsy tourists (like myself who must crowd the stones in summer, all desperately trying to find a corner in which to get a whiff of great inspiration. We’re just like the Grand Tour explorers, who went from Britain to the rest of Europe, “getting an education” (that is, stealing stuff, and bringing it back to England). The Parthenon sculptured from Athens, Egyptian statues and artefacts, and all the goods of the British Museum.
Is stealing something in writing less detestable?* At least stories are endlessly reproducible.
*Disclaimer: I didn’t have to take the stones from their place to write about them here.