Jay Merill is the winner of the Salt Short Story Prize with her piece, ‘As Birds Fly’. Her two recent short story collections God of the Pigeons and Astral Bodies (both Salt), were nominated for the Frank O’Connor Award and Edge Hill Prize. She is writing a novel assisted by an award from Arts Council England, and is Writer in Residence at Women in Publishing
London Street Scenes
By Jay Merill
I lived a life of appearance, saying to myself if you want to be really hidden take a tip from the stars in the sky. Twinkle! You yourself won’t be where the twinkle is, that’s the beauty. You’ll be a trillion light-years away. Stars were my role model. I loved them and believed an outward show was the perfect way of vanishing. And I had a secret name for myself – the social ghost.
It was all about survival. I don’t know how it happened but I’ve always been a bit of an outsider. And from what I’ve seen of other people this is fine with me. Living in a house-share can open your eyes. You see close up just what they’re really like. Scary is an understatement.
And when so-called friends give you a gift what d’you think that’s about? Well, it’s control with a vengeance. They pretend it’s all lovely-jubbly and shows they’re thinking about you. But – quite the opposite. Because every time you see that gift in front of your eyes you can’t help picturing the friend. Which is precisely what you’re meant to do! It’s the way they invade you; make you think of them. Talk about tyranny. Not only that but there’s
this eternal competition going on. They’re the winners. You are always the loser. Plus, I
just hate the way friends demand your admiration. You have to play the part of audience,
cheer-leading, clapping at every move they make. Especially the clumsy ones.
I went along with my house-mates as long as I could; tried my best to keep them happy.
Sharing my food, cleaning the cupboard-tops in the kitchen, bleaching the loo. But still I was the oddball. They acted like we were all pals together but I sensed they were out to get me. So I played myself down; came up with everything I could to distract them; tried to be invisible. Not so easy when you happen to be giant sized with feet like monster mutts.
The house-mates made me feel like a dog. Their eyes said the words, Stay Boy and I was
sposed to sit wagging my tail by the hoop they were holding up for me till they said, Jump.
Well, news is, I’m not there where they left me, sitting patiently, smiling, waiting for the next command. In my head at least, I’ve now moved on.
Had one final shot at trying to keep things going using a method which I believed to be invincible: I smiled nonstop to keep the house-mates off me; acted buoyant as air. But I’d begun to question just how far they were taken in. When I caught them watching me with suspicious eyes I saw the time had come when I had to leave for real.
I did my vanishing act at half-past-three on a Wednesday afternoon. Heard the racket of kids coming home from school as I left my house-share forever. Stuck a note on the kitchen table saying I’d gone. It felt like the coolest thing I’d ever done. I was almost on the point of dancing I felt that free and easy. Had my back-packs of course, plus the rolled up sleeping-bag. They weighed me down a bit, but anyway.
So I was out on the street and going along all jaunty like. Then, some way down the Holloway Road I stopped moving and just stared. There was this old shop in front of me, a retro, army-surplus kind of store. I’d caught sight of something I wanted. Right there in the window it beckoned to me, tantalising. Combat gear. I was entranced. Because combat gear meant something that was close – not just to the me I was at that moment in time but to something fundamental in my personality. Not the military thing, forget that. That wasn’t me in the slightest, though Cara, one of the housemates called me passive-aggressive to my face. No, combat gear was something else as well. It was camouflage. I said the word over and over, savouring the sound. A custardy something about it. Mellow and sweet. Then I walked into the store, tried on the stuff. Wow, now I was properly clad. At one level it was a sort of game but at the same time I did feel perfectly invisible. Call it delusion if you like but there’s no getting away from the fact that as I swung on along streets and yet more streets, I felt as though I’d completely disappeared from view.
Today I’m sitting in Highbury Fields in my camouflage gear when along come Buzz and Flaky, two of my former house-mates. I do my best twinkle as they get close to me – for old times’ sake, but there’s no response at all. I’m truly invisible now. Success at last!
Then I start to waver. If I can’t be seen doesn’t that say something very frightening? Because if I’m not here in this park at this moment, am I somewhere else? The thought which follows is: Am I anywhere? It’s notions like this which can make you doubt your own being. Panic rushes through me and I pinch my arm hard to make sure I’m real. But wait, there’s no need to go through the self -inflicted pain of that. I doubt. Isn’t that enough to tell me that I am?
And as they pass me I sense their uneasiness, note the panic in their stiffening bodies, the flick of their eyes as they catch sight of me. Then they take a hold of themselves, keep their eyes steady, look through me as though I am not here. I don’t need to come up with anything from my repertoire of subtle distractions. They’re doing it all for themselves. Pretending not to notice me when it’s only too obvious that they do. All the time they’ve known me, and now they’re acting like I don’t exist!
I’m homeless but am hardly aware of it. Am hardly aware of anything, for tragedy has struck. My eyes are a blur; my ears buzz with a swarm of cries that I can’t drown out. I sit and shiver as I beg outside the tube at Farringdon trying to come to terms with fate.
Came to London in 2002 as a student and stayed on. Last year got made redundant. Couldn’t go back to Greece as there was no work there for me either and I was kind of settled where I was. Had some savings to tide me over and no debts then, and I had Miles. Kept up my usual visit to Athens this summer, to visit my relatives in Koukaki. The last thing I wanted was for my family to know about my unemployment. I couldn’t face their anxiety, or the questions I’d be faced with. Or demands that I come home.
Miles was my long-term boyfriend. He spent a lot of time at my Clerkenwell flat as it was central though he owned a place of his own, which I’d never been to because it was a long way the other side of London and nowhere near a tube. It was love at first sight and we were planning on living together though, so I’d see it soon enough, I guessed.
Then one night after yet another job rejection I made up my mind to pay Miles a visit and surprise him. There was this part of me which always wondered about his living space and now the burn of curiosity had become too much.
Warnings throbbed chorus-like in my head as I walked to his address. Reaching the door, I
heard a woman’s voice half-way between sharp and soothing, and a crying child. When all
went quiet I rang the bell. There was the tap of footsteps on wood. Door opened, and…
‘Hello,’ said this quite nice, ordinary seeming woman of thirty-something. She waited for me to say who I was but at first I couldn’t speak.
‘I’m looking for Miles,’ I managed to say at last.
Miles had never told me he was in a house-share. Who was this woman? Relation of some kind? Sister? Surely Miles would have mentioned if he’d had a sister.
‘He’s taking a shower,’ the woman said. ‘I’m Serena. You must be from the office. Miles is expecting you.’
‘I’m Costas,’ I told her, staring at her more intently than was polite.
‘Oh,’ she replied then asked me if I’d like to come in and wait. Three children rushed into the hall behind her. A girl and a boy aged about eight, and the crying one, who was maybe three or four.
I sat down in the sitting-room feeling uneasy. Still no sign of Miles. I didn’t like to say to this lady, ‘And who are you?’ She seemed to know who she was, in any case.
Miles came in. He popped through the door all blasé. Popped then stopped. His jaw fell open, just like mine. Why had I done it? Brought reality up into our mouths like this!
‘Hello Dad,’ said one of the kids. That clinched it. The die was cast.
Words flashed through my brain. Flashed then crashed. I held onto the side of a chair, or a table. I’m not sure which because that’s when the blurring started. At the moment of shock. I wanted to ask Miles why he’d kept his marriage a secret, why he’d deceived me. Needed to hear what answers he would give.
There seemed to be a skein over his face. A tissue of lies was the way I put it to myself.
And violence burst out of me in a spurt. I ran across the room; smashed into his jaw with my fist. Blood on my hand then and a din of screaming as I rushed from the house.
I did see Miles one more time after that terrible night. He said Serena was suspicious of him now and if ever I happened to meet up with her would I please do him the one favour of saying there’d never been anything between us. It could be our little secret. He put up a finger to his lips, gave me a wink. A short time after, sunk by the weight of debt and unpaid bills, I became a homeless man.
In my head the chorus thrums: We told you what would be but you wouldn’t listen.
Masked faces stir behind my eyes.
My mates back in Vladivostok were employed in the car production trade, but me I liked the sea. I worked the ships for a year or two then I jumped and I’m not sure why. I think it came of looking at the waves.
Having friends is the key to everything in life. I left many behind when I jumped ship but have fallen in with a lot more since. In London you can meet all sorts and I like that about the place. This second I’m chilling with a bunch of new pals at Piccadilly Circus. Kenny, this Rasta fella has draped himself in the funkiest blanket you ever saw and he’s having a row with Dave, a young lad just come down from the North of England. Not really a row as such, more of a friendly till Rudi the Mad Monk gets involved. That’s what he likes to be known as and mad is about right. Next Big Bernie stumbles by. Another guy always on the lookout for trouble. Tonight he’s got booze though and he passes a bottle of whisky around. Nobody asks him where he got it. Weather’s turning cold now, so it’s more than welcome. Couple more lads appear. Been to the betting shop; one of them’s had a win. We settle down in this doorway – between the Costa and the entrance to the tube. Little group of us. A half circle. Like in camping trips to Mount Kholodilnik when I was a boy back home. Up comes Rickshaw Tony – called that because he got knocked over by a rickshaw when he was stoned. An ex-serviceman. Shoutin out about the way they’re treated – how they’re moved on every
minute – says he’s had enough. Cheers up somewhat when Kenny passes him the bottle. Can relate to that.
Sometimes, when I’m crossing Waterloo Bridge on my way to the South Bank, I stop.
Watch the swell of the river. Same way as I used to on the Zolotoy Rog in Vladivostok. I love the fluidity; the rush. Feel connected because all rivers lead to the sea. It’s as though I’m straddling the world.
Bridges are like friends. They’re what link you.
I’ve done the sea, and it’s not what I want right now. It’s part of me but not the whole of me. The sea was my master. But now I’m master of myself. I’ve little more than the clothes on my back; my sleeping-bag. They cannot overpower me.
The sea started me off on life’s journey. I swayed to its rhythm, worshipped its force. And though I left it behind I’ve kept a taste of the sublime inside me. I picture my old friends in Vladivostok and their daily life at the factory. Like car parts on a conveyor belt round and round they go. Don’t know where I’m headed but I know I’ll fetch up somewhere.
We all have our own way of getting to the future. I’m aiming to flow like a tide.