Westgate and Back

Moving slowly along Portway in a 104 with my brothers on the way to Westfield Stratford City.  This is a Saturday and it is the first weekend the shopping mall, Europe's largest, has been open for trading.  I'd been here the day before, sitting next the access road.  A little over an hour later, we are in The Cow drinking in the sun-lit rain with images of huge crowds running through our heads.  The stadium is across the road, framed by a giant car park and the sparse backdrop of Isle of Dogs skyscrapers.  We wanted sustainablity, shops, houses, new communities, amenites.  We got a giant shopping centre.  They say that a society gets the heroes that it deserves: did we fall at the knees of Hugo Boss and beg him to come to Stratford?  Jamie has given us linguine for £15 and freed us from needing decent local grocery stores.  Onwards, on the Overground, to Finsbury Park, where a friend's housemates show me pictures on their phones of massed humanity out shopping for clothest.  A sun dappled Saturday inside an air conditioned shed.  I am on the Overground moving West.  I am on the Overground, moving West, and get out at Highbury and Islington. I run, flitting in between people – I'm late, I think – catching the Victoria Line.  It is hot, humid, I take off my coat on the train.  The girl next to me is reading The Time Traveller's Wife and looking around nervously.  She is blonde.  Her shoes are brand new and suede, a bright citrus colour without London's grey dirt on them.  My plimsolls have come loose at the back and they are leaking water.  I take the Victoria Line and hope.

Later, much later, after the sun has set and when it nearly up again, Dave gets out a Z-Bed and I stand up woozy from gin and tonics and a 236 ride across town past empty bus stops and later even than that, after a third trip through Stratford in three days, the sun streaming into the top deck of a bus, I am amazed at how much is being spent so that more money can be spent.  I know how I spend my days, in love with being in love, fingers gently prising open situations, gradually learning that this is what I can do and this what I can't and this is what I mustn't do and I watch this great City on the banks of a great river turn into a giant shopping mall.

Later, much later still, after a breakfast in Victoria Park Village where the hipster next to me smokes two cigarettes, has a coffee and moves on, after I've eaten an omelette and whizzed through our new international hub of international commerce, down the Bow Road and back through Portway, back down Green Street, where the pavements are exactly the same and the Westfield money hasn't trickled this far, and I look at a new bed through the window of Ashgrove Direct Sales because the old one has too many memories and even later than this as I write that down and get to this particular punctuation mark – there – it is then that I realise that the defence of a well-written sentence is paper thin and –

“This Girl, and Me”

So she lifted up the cup to her lips and drank a sip of tea.  We were in a café, and it was mid-afternoon, on a Saturday.  The night before we’d both been out, with friends, and I’d stayed round hers, sprawled like a half-filled rubble sack on her couch. In the morning the tinkle of cups and the flittering of water noise from the shower had woken me up. I raised my head cautiously and as I stopped, the world zoomed on ahead.  Groaning, I turned on my side and balled up into something approaching the foetal position, the small remaining scrap of duvet slipping from my legs onto the floor.  When she came in, dressed, hair still towel-wet, I could see by the look on her face that she felt the same.  She looked at me, and I looked at her, and we might have looked at each other a half second too long. It is difficult to tell when it comes down to it.

So here we were then, drinking tea and having a light breakfast, well into the Saturday afternoon of football pool coupons and languorous cigarettes and the drone of horse racing commentary from the old boys’ radio in the corner.  They had betting slips on the surface, some stained with a little bit of chip fat grease.  The 2:10 at Elstree finished and someone issues a deep, guttural groan.  From the counter, Denny the waitress shouted over,
            “’Arry, you can’t stand all day on a cuppa!  Want some toast, luv?”  It was a half hard sell hoping he’d order a meal, half-concern for his well being.  She only ever charged Harry 20p.  Harry was a stick of a man, elderly now, well into his cups most evenings. Harry nodded at her and coughed as he compatriots started a hubbub over who had won, who had lost, and whose turn it was to get the first round when they left the Stationary Café for The Lionheart at around five.  It was some form of loose clockwork, I thought.

I thought very little, to be honest, the brown sauce bottle swaying in front of me as another wave of pain and nausea headed my way, passing over me, through me, shaking my foundations.  I’d fainted after a heavy session three weeks ago, on my knees in my flat, face close to the parquet floor.  No one had seen me.  In that respect, perhaps it was like it had never happened.  I thought a deep and silent though while someone ordered a Full English.

Here we were then, in a rough local café eating bacon and eggs and white toast at a relatively leisurely pace, her expression occasionally bunching up as and when it felt uncomfortable to be here, and to not be in bed, resting, sleeping it off, dreaming it out of you.  She had a thing to go to later this day, I, on the other hand, did not.  I had no plans.  I contemplated the empty reflection of an evening spent along with only a metaphysical hangover for company, beseeching me to cry, to jack off, to move, to love again, to do anything except sit here, still, suffering in waves.

So we sat here, eating toast, engaged in our recovery.  And I think at one point, we both must have reached for the salt shaker at the same time, deeming our bacon or eggs not salted enough, and so we did, but we managed to glance hands and I looked up at her, my defences down because of the generalised hung over pain, her eyes puffy and red, as if the tears themselves were pollen on a sunny, hayfever-ridden day.
            “I, er – sorry.  You go first,” I said, and she took the salt, and used it, but something had altered in the air.  It had maybe been welling up for a while, certainly for the last two weeks, maybe for the last two years, maybe all the while, iteratively.  The facts, as they stand, are simple.  We had known each other a long time, years, having first met at a party and having some mutual friends.  She had been in a relationship and was just out of it.  I was in a relationship, and as I left mine, she resumed here, with the same man.  We continued circling the wagons, and we got on so well, and everything seemed easy around her.  But now here we were, brittle, the wagons on fire, stuttering our well-meanings and our well-mets over a plastic cruet set in North London, playing baby games in being deferential.
            “I’m done with the salt,” she said, eyes wide open, but, in reality, it had been in my wounds for too long.  I let my gaze fall to the table and resumed moving a bit of eggs around on the plate, loving it when it hit a pool of grease, and the movement was easy and it slid over the surface of things.


If you look at the lyrics of 'Rent' by the Pet Shop Boys, there's a duality at play.  On the surface, it's a song about a man (or it could be a woman) in a relationship with another man/woman who is rich.  The rich partner is paying for everything – including rent – and everything is, ostensibly, fine.  But there's a sadness, too.  The refrain, on paper, reads:

"But look at my hopes, look at my dreams
The currency we've spent"

And if you take the definite article to refer to the dreams, and the hopes, rather than the actual money, it is these hopes and dreams that the poor partner has spent, in order to have the comfortable life and live with the rich partner who buys the narrator "whatever I need".  I guess the key is the word 'but' – which people don't notice – but which hinges the lyric.  It demands an inference, because there's there's no automatic link between the two lines – no grammatical link anyway.

But wherever you go, and whatever you do, you'll be spending something.  I guess the key is to make sure it isn't your hopes and your dreams that you are using as currency in pursuit of the Brave New World that, surely, must be just around the corner.  Just one more text, one more talk, one more drink, one more chat, one more email.

But –