I’m a study of a man in chaos in search of frenzy.
I quickened my steps to try and shake off the grinding pain in my stomach. But that only made it worse, forcing me to slow down and come to a stop by the side of the bridge whilst everyone else swept on past. It was rush hour so nobody noticed me, a small figure dressed in black trembling against the icy metal railing under dense grey clouds that threatened to unleash rain on the city below. Unable to move or think straight I let my eyes drift over the raging waters of the River Thames, which stretched out like a rippling black sheet for miles before me. And as I stared at the dark angry water, it seemed to come alive, taking on the appearance of an enormous creature stirring restlessly beneath me. The sound of the waves crashing against the bank now sounded like an unearthly heart beating slow and steady against the soft sigh of the January wind.
I wondered then what it would feel like to plunge into the midst of the creature beneath me. Would the seconds spent in the air before I hit the water feel like an eternity, or would they disappear in a flash? Would any of the people sweeping past me even notice or stop long enough to care? And once the dark, icy water closed over my head, how long would I spend struggling before I gave in to its eternal embrace?
Thankfully, the icy wind was all I felt against me, the biting cold eventually jolting me out of my morbid reverie and back to reality. Noticing a bus roll past and come to rest at the bus stop nearby, I released my death grip on the railing and ran toward it, only just managing to board it before it moved on.
Once aboard the packed bus I inched my way through the knot of people on the lower deck, up the stairs onto the top deck and chose a seat next to the window as the bus lurched forward. Leaning back in my seat, I delicately fingered three soft plastic packages in my right coat pocket. Letting myself relax – ever so slightly – I watched the city streets dance by.
Dusk had crept up on us by this time and the glow of the streetlights beating back the invading darkness gave the bustling streets a festive air as office blocks emptied of their daytime inhabitants. I sat enchanted by the people that swept past, most of them in heavy winter coats walking briskly in either ones or twos toward tube stations or to join the larger groups that had gathered around bus stops in what was a mass exodus away from the city streets. Some people I saw walked with a grimace as the bitter cold whipped their faces. Their mouths were drawn into thin hard lines and their vacant eyes told me that the stresses of the day had followed them out of the office and would be with them long into the evening. Others strode energetically down the streets, jauntily ducking out of the way of their fellow pedestrians as they fled to the comforts of home. They even managed a smile as they waited for buses that were often too full to welcome them aboard. I also saw groups of young men and women around my age that appeared oblivious to the punishing cold as they meandered down the streets, laughing carelessly about something or other that had amused them. I kept my eyes on those groups of blissfully young untroubled types who were a representation of something that had long ago ceased to exist for me, and watched until they were either too far away to see or had disappeared into one of the many pubs and bars that dotted the city landscape.
The bus soon sped away from those people and the city streets, away from the London Eye which stood over the near-black river, holding up its glowing blue capsules like an offering of jewels to the twilight sky. Away from the grand office buildings with their lit windows looking like Christmas tree lights in the distance, and as the bus drew further and further away from the city streets and became emptier with each stop, we were slowly taken away from one world and into another.
No impressive-looking office buildings were to be seen providing the background for an opulent world in this new landscape. And whilst the world I had left behind had statues and monuments as a tribute to their heroes and significant events of their history, we saw no more of these as the bus left behind the wealthy city streets and wound into the urban jungle.
Neglect instead wove an ugly thread along the littered streets of this new world and the only thing that distinguished each unremarkable building from its neighbour was the graffiti that screamed at the passer-by from every exposed concrete surface. It seemed as though every time the bus turned a corner it was met by a sprawling estate or a high-rise block of flats that loomed menacingly on the horizon, dominating the landscape and casting an oppressive shadow over the world beneath. I was carried deep into this new world and got off the bus to the familiar sight of a small group of drunks that had congregated by that bus stop. They were always there, dishevelled, noisy and oblivious to the unease or open contempt that their presence evoked in those around them. In my eyes they were an example of people who had given up on life; kindred spirits that had taken enough of life’s knocks, had handed in the towel and surrendered. People who had made the conscious decision a long time ago to stop striving for the better things in life such as that better job or better relationship. They had instead chosen to find that something better at the end of a bottle – or in their case, the many empty cans of beer that littered the bus stop.
I left them behind and made the short walk into the heart of the urban jungle under a sky that had already deepened to an inky black as night descended, bringing with it a hive of activity as people either left the streets or ventured from their homes to explore it. Cars roared past and I heard the sound of a police siren, the piercing wail sounding like a bird of prey shrieking in the distance before it died away. I passed off-licences, corner shops, and takeaway shops which were now beacons of light in the darkness, drawing people in. I took comfort in the kaleidoscope of colourful faces that passed mine; from white, Asian, Latin American, Chinese and every shade of black; starting with soft golden browns and travelling down the spectrum to the richest blue-black skin tones.
Some people I passed were clearly not at ease in this world and they trod carefully through it with their heads down, trying not to make eye contact with those around them in an effort to get from A to B unnoticed. But for others the world around them had become a part of their identity and was as much an essential part of them as the blood coursing through their veins. Whether they were obvious predators or people that had simply fallen in love with the urban jungle, the hold that this world had on them was a powerful one and it kept them coming back again and again to dance to the rhythms of its dangerous beat.
I made it onto my road without having to stop and give in to the pain which was clutching and twisting my lower abdomen and fled past rows of identical Victorian houses towards the bright red door of a converted house which had become a lighthouse, lighting the way home in the growing storm of my need. Once I let myself into the house and stepped onto the worn dark brown carpet in the gloomy hallway, I was able to release a deep sigh before I closed the door shut quietly behind me, slunk past a door on my left which led to a one-bedroom flat and up the stairs onto the first floor which had been converted into two bed-sits with a shared kitchen and bathroom. The tremor in my hand was more intense when I put the key into the lock of my bed-sit and swung the door open to the glare of the television set which I had left on in my haste to leave earlier on in the day. Safely in my sanctuary, I wasted no time in shrugging off my coat whilst fragments of news that nobody ever wanted to see or hear accosted me from the television screen. It was a news bulletin about another missing or dead child, and a photograph of that child wearing a school uniform that they would probably never have the chance to wear again. I watched the television sadly, affected by the sweet innocent smile that the child’s parents must have longed to see again in the flesh before I snapped the television off and plunged the room into an expectant silence.
Carefully taking out the tiny bag from my coat pocket, I reached for the lighter and roll of foil on my chest of drawers, catching sight of a tall, slim, pretty young woman peering at me from the mirror against the wall.
I avoided her as much as was physically possible, but she still managed to sneak up on me when I was least expecting it and forced me to acknowledge her as I did now.
I watched as she put a hand up to her face which had a strong hint of Ghanaian lineage in the mahogany brown skin, a small, flat, broad nose, full sensuous lips and thick, jet-black natural hair that had been pulled tightly away from her face. Although this face had undergone minor changes over the years, the eyes – my eyes – were the only feature that had changed beyond recognition and looked as if they had seen far too much in their twenty-three years on this earth. It was the clear, deep anguish in those eyes that led me here and made me tear myself away from the mirror back to the lighter and the two small pieces of foil that I tore off the roll. Rolling up one of the pieces, I put it in my mouth and let it hang off my lip like a cigarette then tore open the bag and emptied the brown powder onto the other scrap of foil. Using slow deliberate movements which defied the urgency that was speaking to me from my every pore, I used the lighter to melt the powder into a golden-brown ball and tilted the foil to make the brown ball run down to the other end whilst chasing it with the foil roll in my mouth.
Inhaling the heavenly smoke through my mouth, I chased and chased until all my burdens floated up and out of the room.
All my life it seemed as if I had chased one thing or another; acceptance, love, chasing dream after dream. Whenever I got close enough to those dreams I realised that they were nothing but phantoms. Insubstantial ghosts that quickly dispersed, leaving behind mists of failure, disillusionment and despair.
When it hits, when that first wave hits and I am swept away from everything, swept far, far away from the shore to a place where I can see nothing, hear nothing and feel nothing, I sometimes see his face. His face in all its exquisite beauty often overwhelms me, inducing tears before disappearing as quickly as it comes, leaving me far out to sea with no sight or sound of land until finally, it finds me... peace.
The past always comes to me with the memory of a breezy November afternoon and a large building awash with weak sunlight that sits overlooking a busy high street. Then I’ll see an overweight, seventeen-year-old girl dressed in blue tracksuit bottoms, trainers and a black duffle coat. She waits patiently by the gates as other students pass to and from that building. Then it will slowly dawn on me that I know that building, that it is the college I used to go to, and then it will hit with dream-like quality that the girl I have been watching is me. The old me. And then, just like that, I become her. Again. That shy awkward teenager I left behind so many years ago but who won’t completely let me go.
I can remember that day clearly now as I sink deeper into the past and become the person I am so desperate to leave behind. The shyness that used to cripple me reared its head when my best friend Nicola appeared at the college entrance and I saw that she was flanked by two other girls. One was a tall fair-skinned girl with long wavy hair. The other had the same colouring as me, a sleek bob and the curves of a playboy model. I began to shrink within myself as they neared, admiring the effortless beauty I saw in those three, beauty I didn’t believe I possessed at that time. And I hung behind them as we walked off toward the tube station, noticing the amount of male heads that turned in our direction as we passed. Those male heads easily overlooked me in search of the three women I was with, leaving me feeling as uninteresting as the three girls’ misshapen shadows dancing on the pavement behind them.
I had changed so much since that time both physically and mentally, but even though that memory was so long ago and so far from the person I was now, I could feel the aching inferiority I felt at that time reach across the years to touch me once again.
I was disappointed, but not surprised when Nicola left me at the tube station that day to go off with her two new friends, even though she knew that I had waited for over an hour so that we could make the long journey home together. But I swallowed that disappointment and smiled weakly as she waved me off, noticing that she didn’t even bother to wait long enough to see me return that wave before her attention returned to her two new friends. So alone, I stepped onto the platform and was thinking about how easy it seemed to be for Nicola to ditch me whenever someone more interesting came along, when I saw him standing at the end of the platform.
That was his name and the only thing that I actually knew about him. He was a god in my eyes, towering over most people at six foot four inches tall. He had deep black skin, handsome proud features and an inviting smile. His eyes were deep-set, framed by the longest, thickest eyelashes and he had almost coal-black eyes that pulled you in, leaving you feeling as if you were looking up at the night sky with nothing to illuminate or detract from the almost mystical darkness you were looking up into.
He was alone that day, probably the first time I had ever seen him without some form of entourage which was the norm for the popular elite at my college, an entourage that was mainly made up of simpering young women. Even now by himself, with his head bent studiously over an A4-sized notepad he had in one hand, his presence still commanded attention. And I saw that the eyes of nearly all the young girls waiting on that platform were straying in his direction even though he was oblivious to everything but the notepad in his hand.
I had kept my eyes on him along with his other admirers until my view was obstructed by another commuter. Irritated, I had leant forward and when Mohamed reappeared, his eyes were no longer on the notepad but looking directly at me.
I froze for that split second as our eyes met and it was as if I had found myself standing on the train tracks looking on in horror at a train speeding toward me. Thankfully, his gaze only met mine for a fraction of a second before they returned to the notepad. And when he resumed his furious scribbling, I was able to move again, breathing a sigh of relief when it dawned on me that he hadn’t really seen me, that his eyes had merely wandered distractedly away from the notepad and I was once more in the safety of my anonymity.
But he had seen me.
I didn’t realise it then – and neither had he – but he had seen a lot in that brief instant when our eyes met.
Feeling the anxiety that often accompanied my trips back into the past, I started to back away, not wanting to be taken any deeper into that day of long ago. But the memory was strong and persisted until I started to fight against it and the cocoon of sleep that enveloped me, winning that fight when my eyes snapped open. Defeated, the unwanted memory had slunk back into one of the many haunted houses in my mind and I was left to look around the stark white walls, grubby dark brown carpet and cheap pine-effect bedroom furniture in the dimly lit, sparse room. My gaze was eventually drawn to the tiny bag of heroin lying next to the piece of foil and the lighter that I had left on my bedside cabinet the night before.
My angel of mercy.
It was the one and only thing that kept the past where it belonged. So I reached for it the same way a drowning woman reaches out for a hand to keep her from going under.
Later on that afternoon, I stepped out into what had become a succession of cold, dreary, overcast days and made my way to the main road where I was able to blend into the crowd as if I was just like everyone else. My thoughts that day were as uncomforting as the idle grey sky that hung over my head like a slab of concrete and kept hovering around the image of the large white box that sat ignored in the corridor outside the other bed-sit. I pushed the image away when I reached the bus stop. Shifting from one foot to the other in a futile bid to out dance the bitter cold, I immediately wished that I was back home in the safe solitude of my shabby little bed-sit with the heavy curtains drawn against the window.
I spent most of my days like that and at times it seemed as if I was waiting for something I couldn’t quite articulate. Most of the time it was for my body to start talking to me, to tell me it was time for my next hit. But whenever I satisfied that craving it felt as if I was still waiting. If I left the bed-sit, it was to do the necessary things such as sign-on at the Job Centre to ensure that I received my fortnightly benefit payment. Otherwise, it was to make a rare trip to the supermarket or go on one of my ‘shopping trips’. The closest that I had come to identifying exactly what it was that I was waiting for was a few days ago when I took one of my ‘shopping trips’ to Oxford Street with a cloned credit card and brought clothes indiscriminately, clothes I could later sell.
At the make-up counter of one of the large department stores the cashier, an anaemic-looking young girl, had paused in the middle of the transaction with a frown and told me that she needed to call the credit card company for authorisation before she could process the payment.
I had smiled calmly and nodded, not sure whether my seemingly unconcerned manner had quelled the spark of suspicion that I saw light up her dark eyes. Then I turned to search casually through the lipsticks on display by the cash desks. Still unperturbed, my eyes had wandered around the rest of the department store scanning the small islands of make-up, perfume and accessories counters as well as the heavy sprinkling of shoppers in the store. Only mildly concerned about what I was going to do, I had picked up my shopping bags and moved a few feet away to a perfume counter, pulled out a tester and sprayed it on my wrist. Feeling the cashier’s eyes still on me as she waited to be put through to the credit card company, I had approached another sales assistant and asked a question about the tester bottle in my hand, smiling easily the entire time. Once I saw the cashier turn around, I quickly ended the conversation and moved a few feet away to another make-up counter where I hid behind a display unit and pretended to look at the colourful disks of eye shadows before me.
I had eventually wandered out of the busy store and walked away slowly, at first expecting to feel a hand on my arm with every step I took. But there had been no hand on my arm as I mingled with the rest of the shoppers spilling out of other shops and I had looked back once to see that no security guards were rushing towards me.
I gave no sigh of relief when I reached the tube station. And felt no adrenalin rush, no excitement, no sense of achievement when I realised that I had gotten away. I wondered then whether what I had managed to avoid that day was what I was in fact waiting for. Perhaps I had been waiting to get caught so that I could be put behind bars. Maybe I was waiting for things to get worse than they were at this moment in time so that I would be forced to make a decision that would see an end to all this one way or another.
I couldn’t help but sigh heavily whenever I thought about my life and the many days I spent holed up in my bed-sit waiting for whatever it was that I couldn’t even articulate. I wondered how I had survived for so long like this, how I endured the futility of my existence now that his beautiful face was no longer the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes in the morning.
I had no ready answers, so I sighed again and considered cancelling my appointment and retracing my steps back home. That was when a familiar-looking coat, together with her familiar walk, appeared. She came nearer and before I could find somewhere to hide, she turned and looked in my direction.
Although she was ten years older than me, the physical resemblance we shared was obvious even though she was a healthy size twelve instead of the painfully thin size eight I had withered to over the past two years. Her eyes held mine for a few seconds as the distance between us closed and I involuntarily braced myself for what was coming.
No matter how many times she did this, the feeling as my older sister Barbara lifted her head, averted her gaze and walked right past me always felt the same. Like a cold, hard blow.
She was soon gone; lost amongst the other strangers on the street and it was only when the bus I had been waiting for arrived that I realised I was trembling and that a stray tear was running down one cheek. I touched my face, puzzled by that solitary tear. Then I boarded the bus and concentrated on putting the thought of his beautiful face, the white box, and the stranger that had just passed me, out of my mind. But I was sure that one or all of those thoughts would find their way back at some point during the day.
The only other passengers on the top deck were a young black woman with a little girl of approximately six years of age. They were both staring intently at something in the woman’s hand and their heads were bowed together as if they were saying a prayer.
“Do you wanna scratch it?” the woman asked the little girl, and I guessed then that it must have been one of those lottery scratch cards that she held in her lap.
“No, you do it. Quickly please, Mum,” the little girl replied before she took a quick breath. Her hair was in two bunches and one dark brown puff brushed the woman’s cheek as she leaned protectively closer to her child.
“Okay, here goes! You ready?”
“Yes, I’m ready.”
The excitement lacing their words brought a sad smile to my lips. I heard a soft intake of breath and I found myself holding my breath as well, really hoping against all the odds that Lady Luck was with them and that their lives would be transformed by that little piece of paper the woman held so reverently in her hand. The rush of air that escaped them and the way their shoulders dropped confirmed what I already knew; that they were destined to be like the millions of other people who dared to place their hopes and dreams on a small piece of paper.
“Ahhh… never mind, babe.” The woman pulled the little girl closer to her and tried to soothe away the palpable disappointment with a loving kiss on the head.
I watched as they hugged each other, envious of the love and closeness they obviously shared which was worth a lot more than anything they could have won from that scratch card.
I left the bus a few minutes later and as I began the short walk to my destination, I tried hard not to think about the one special person that had come and gone from my life. Tried hard not to think about how cruelly he had been taken from me.