Don’t we all have this wish to read something great, something life-changing? Well, this is it. This is the story you’ve been waiting for. It was written on an unassuming Friday night in, fuelled by cheap white wine and Haribo rip-offs from the off-licence downstairs. Yes, really. Who is the author, you may ask? Well, she decided to write when Netflix reached boredom point. Her hair hadn’t been washed in days and she was still half in her pyjamas. The perfect image of a struggling writer, minus the cigarettes. So, what might this young woman have to say for herself? Well, here starts the story everybody wants to read.
As has already been revealed, it was a quiet Friday evening in Peckham. Let me elaborate. The trees outside the window were swaying in the wind, catching the amber light in shimmering incandescence. In the background played soft jazz by Getz and Gilberto, on repeat. A neighbouring musician practicing the trumpet somewhat interfered but was deftly ignored by a shutting of the window. The volume of the music is turned up. An incense stick is lit. The overhead lights are turned off to leave the room shrouded in flickers of candlelight. The atmosphere is of upmost importance, you understand. A setting of the scene, if you like. Our author is very sensitive to these things, as can be seen by the careful orchestration of colour palette and texture in the room.
A fly buzzes lazily in front of the computer screen and is impatiently batted away by a hand whose fingernails have been gingerly bitten into perfect half-moons. The cursor blinks with expectation. She scratches a legging-clad thigh and lets out a sigh of frustration. What could she possibly have to say that everybody would want to read? She knows it is important, but how to express it in words, when words elude her? She takes another sip of wine and winces. Tapping nervously at the keyboard her eyes stray to the sideboard where rosy pink and sunshine yellow dahlias bloom in unabashed splendour. Her eyes follow the line of the shelf and rest on a small figurine carved out of wood. Her mind wanders back to that summer in Ghana. The heat, the air hanging heavy with water, the sweat. The smells amplified by the humidity and the saturated colours burning into her pupils by the equatorial sun. She shivers at the reality of midsummer in London and the unexpectedly chilly weather.
Her mind starts to wander further afield, first to the sound of traffic below, then to the sound of laughter and chatter heralding in the weekend. She imagines students out for the summer, businessmen with their ties and top buttons undone, mothers trying to keep their children in check. A siren breaks the background noise with ear-splitting urgency. She is suddenly thrown back in time again, this time to when the siren was for her. When medics and policemen pushed at the door whilst a calm voice on the phone promised it would all be over very soon. Fast-forward to an Accident & Emergency ward, with people moaning, bleeding and throwing up. A tiny room, with only a beat-up, teal-coloured fake leather sofa and no windows. Brown-splattered walls. A star etched into the wallpaper, about half a metre down from the ceiling. Chemical-tasting orange juice from an aluminium-foil-sealed plastic cup, paired with a cold, soggy egg-and-cress sandwich encased in cardboard-textured bread. “Porter to minors. Porter to minors.” The intercom is loud and overbearing. Still the screams filter through.
Thirteen hours later, she finds herself in the back of an armoured truck, encased in heavy metal. A cage rattles in the back. A beefy, uniform-clad woman sits and stares at her from between two neatly plaited blonde braids. She feels sick. She puts her head between her legs and sees the seats are bolted to the floor. There is no suspension in the vehicle so she flinches at every bump in the road.
The flinch turns into a shiver and she gets up to close the window, back in her Peckham flat. What now? The words are not coming and a pang of hunger grumbles in the pit of her belly. She opens the fridge. Eggs and bacon – perfect. She changes the mellow jazz to native Shona singer Tuku and heats a pot with an inch of water in it, then puts the kettle to boil. In a small cast iron pan she sautés finely chopped garlic and diced bacon, leaving it to sizzle as she breaks a couple of eggs into a glass beaker. She adds grated parmesan and pepper before setting it aside to tend to the kettle. She adds a pinch of salt and then a handful of spaghetti to the boiling water and turns off the bacon. When the pasta is ready she drains it and returns it to the pot, adding first the bacon and then the egg mixture. She stirs it together before carefully increasing the flame to slowly heat the pan. A silky, creamy texture emerges from the mess of spaghetti and egg.
After there is nothing left of the carbonara except a plate smeared with egg and cheese, she once again returns to her laptop. She wakes up the screen by tapping on the keys and brings up the blank document she unashamedly titled “The Story Everybody Wants to Read”. She chuckles at her own audaciousness. So, where to begin? Which story to immortalise in typed word? Her head feels dizzy with the endless possibilities. Or maybe it’s the wine again. The clock reads 21:12. Not late enough to sleep. Not early enough to give up. She lets her mind wander again. This time we surface in Zimbabwe. There are owls cooing in the dark. We zoom in on the room with the pink carpet. The bed surrounded by stuffed animals. The window open onto the garden, and the lilac infused night. She sighs and deletes the paragraph she has just written when nothing more comes.
A truck grumbles past the window. Snippets of conversation wander up from the bar below. A bus heaves itself into gear from the bus stop down the road. Jazz comes back on. She takes the laptop to her bed and lies down, perching it on her belly and feeling the warmth of the machine against her body. Then the rain starts. Its soothing pitter-patter is interrupted by slushy sounds of traffic gliding through the watery streets. Her phone rings; a friend answers. Or, rather, calls for help. Finally, a reason to leave the house. A distraction from the task at hand. She gathers supplies and jumps on her bike. In no time she is drenched. The roads are slick and reflect the lights of cars and streetlights alike in a fuzzy glow. It’s like swimming through a swirling Van Gogh oil painting.
The next morning she wakes with a heavy head. What is this numbness? She can’t seem to shake a feeling of dread. The rain continues to drum against the window. She checks the time on her phone and realises she’s going to be late for her farmers’ market appointment with a friend if she doesn’t get a move on. There’s lukewarm black coffee waiting for her on the side, accompanied by a couple of stale Sicilian pastries. Her partner must have snuck out of the house while she was still dozing.
Dreary-eyed and heavy-footed she ventures out into the drizzle, again on her bike. She realises she hasn’t dressed warmly enough for the chilly, grey Saturday morning. This immediately makes her mood plummet. She then has to wait for her friend to arrive, trying but failing to find shelter under a nearby tree. The market stallholders are poised against the wind, taking shelter behind their wares. There are no customers to be seen. She spots a sign advertising the Camberwell Festival. A few keen salesmen are starting to set up, stringing up garish bunting between the trees and setting up trestle tables underneath striped awnings. She shivers and looks towards the crossing, spotting her friend at a cashpoint across the road.
After buying some veg and a fig-and-fennel loaf they settle at a local caff over steaming cups of black coffee. The rain has let up and the milky sunshine is poking through dark clouds.
“Is everything alright lovely?” the friend enquires.
She considers this query. Is everything all right? She’s not really sure. Something doesn’t feel quite right, but it’s not anything she can put a finger on.
“Yes I’m fine, just a bit low. Like I’ve got a grey cloud hovering over my brain. I’m not sure why or what to do about it…”
“Maybe you just need to take it easy. Do a bit of exercise to get the endorphins going…”
“Yes. Speaking of which, do you fancy a swim in the morning?”
“Sure. I’ve never been to the Camberwell baths but I’ve heard they’re beautiful.”
“They are. The vaulted ceiling and skylights make for an open, bright space.”
“That’s settled then.”
They ponder in silence for a bit before the wind picks up and they decide to make a move.
Later in the afternoon, back in her flat, she starts to write again. Still nothing seems quite right. The washing machine is crunching in the other room, and whistling as it spins. She turns her head to the plant-filled balcony for inspiration. The air still feels heavy with moisture. She sighs and taps her fingers against the keys in time to the tune that’s playing on Spotify.
“I just want you to know, you to kno-ow…”
…I just want you to know that I’m not okay, she thinks, and then says it out loud. A tear escapes from one eye and rolls slowly down a cheek. What is the matter with her? She brushes it away and jumps to the next song on the radio. Her mind wanders back to the last time she felt really happy, in Rome. She imagines the sun warming her face, and the salty tang of the sea on the end of her tongue. She sees the umbrella pines swaying in the breeze, with the cicadas singing their summer song. Awful Italian romantic ballads are blasting on the radio. Her partner is swearing at the car in front, whose owner is unknowingly, or perhaps uncaringly, holding up traffic by driving leisurely in the fast lane. The memory refocuses to a vantage point on the rocky outcrop of a mountain. The wind is billowing and the clouds are moving fast overhead, chasing the sun across the sky. There is nobody to be seen; further away on the horizon the sea glistens and glitters in the harsh light. The scene changes again, as if a new slide has been punched into the projector. The warm evening air is heavy with people talking loudly and is occasionally pierced by a high-pitched laugh. Waiters squeeze between tables laden with antipasti and pizza, accompanied by bottles of wine. The viewpoint shifts up skyward. Lights are strung out from a central pole on the terrazza, peppering the night sky like stars.
A telephone ringing brings her back to the down to earth. She sees it is her mother calling and decides not to answer, as she is not in the mood. She gets up from the computer to stretch, and decides to go for a walk. The rain has let up and there are rays of sunshine breaking through the dark clouds. She wanders up the hill to Warwick Gardens, stopping to sniff drooping rose heads and the fragrant jasmine spilling out of someone’s front yard. The elderflowers have gone over and the berries are ripening to a deep blackish purple. In the gardens the small fruit trees are hanging heavy with boughs of apples, plums and cherries. The sign reads “Help Yourself to the Fruit of our Community Garden”. Nothing is quite ripe yet. There are dogs and children on the green, chasing balls and frisbees. Adults lounge in the shade, discussing the pros and cons of teething toys and a new brand of dog food. The air is heavy with summer. Bumblebees are drunk on pollen. The aromatic smell of lavender wafts over from the flowerbeds.
She feels very much alone, despite being surrounded by people. She decides it’s probably hunger getting her down at this point, and decides to go for a curry at a local Indian. The prawn and coconut curry is as fragrant as it sounds, and comes with homemade chutneys. She sips a ginger wine cocktail whilst waiting for it to cool down, and then tucks in. Moments later it is gone, and a pleasing, warm chilli burn is all that’s left in her mouth. She sits savouring the moment. Back in the park the sun is setting, and she sees a fox flash through the lamplight into the bushes. The sky is streaked with orange and yellowy pink. The dogs and their families have disappeared. This time she has the park to herself, and strangely feels less alone. A train clicks along the tracks and rattles over the railway bridge. Then everything goes silent again, until a plane roars overhead. She savours the couple of minutes of silence she has before another one comes in to land. Above the trees an orange moon is rising like a huge wheel of cheese. All is quiet.