Conversations with Londoners: Walking the Space Between Words
Every working day at a rough 13:45, he wobbles over an Americano in that impractical glass. Smile and wait the 10 minutes needed to pick it up, ignoring the pangs for a caffeine-narrowed focus needed to crack on with your applications. This is not a café. The books ordered-in by the regulars thrust out their spines in triangular humps. In two weeks, you will have a resident purple bruise from twisting your hips around the tables crammed at the back to get to the socket. It’s framed by the ladder your Vans judder against when the caffeine hits in another 20 minutes. Replace the name you’d dubbed them in your head on the third or fourth conversation. The baby you trot in one morning was the opening line to a daily expulsion of “the improvements to the cycle routes have really blown my mind” and “he just would not sleep.” Think that first day, this is what we did before Twitter. On your last day at a rough 15:50, stumble back out, passing feet scuffing and stomping muffled as you concentrate on your post about this now-named stranger and wonder at the lightness of your own steps.
– that café on Kingsland Road you told your boss about.
Please excuse me- I don’t mean to overstep. Your first thought is about length. You are taken back to your old ballet teacher’s words about yanking on the invisible string attached to your head using your invisible hands because don’t you dare move a muscle. The real ones are rigid. She’d turn you all to stone every class with that mix of disappointment and boredom she’d get in her eyes, and it would sink to the bottom of your stomach. Rooted to the spot, but still light and spring-like and long. Up, up, up. There’s a Germanic twang woven into the words that you’re unsurprised to meet in this city. Peering up from between sweaty straggles of hair you see his eyes are fixated on your knee. Please, go on. There’s a detached concern; medical. You’ll damage your knees stretching like that. He is your father’s age, but you are caught by the mirroring of your bodies on the gym mats. Inhale slowly, voice patient. It’s ok, and he lifts his eyes to yours to finish for you, you’re a dancer.
– that gym you went to twice on Wandsworth High Street.
That finger point is authoritative. That finger point understands direction. That finger point could read a map and silence Dad’s “but I know I’ve driven this route before, cor’ was it ten? Yeah, it’s ten. Ten years ago, for my old job.” Third table to the right. Feel a stab of guilt at betraying the independent booksellers. For being tempted by the fridge magnets. You don’t even own your fridge. She’s wonderful, isn’t she? He practically peels your fingers off the hardcover. 22 days exactly. Adamant not to read it by the cold, techy-glow of your Kindle. Crossed an ocean to press wrinkles into the dust jacket. Have you listened to the podcast? It’s balanced between both your fingertips now, delaying. Every. Single. Episode. Scold yourself for your brief flicker of surprise. I saw her live the last time I was home- so inspiring. It’s tipping towards you, weighed down by the throats being cleared. Reel off the guest performers and watch his eyes widen with excitement. One day. The book’s weight drops back against your chest. He shakes his head, resetting his gaze to neutral. Flick your head back once. You notice his thumb left a smear on the glossy red lettering. As you walk, you place your own over it and creak open the first page.
– the Putney bookshop you’d spend all your pocket money in.