Chock-a-block all the way
down on the bus today so I’m upstairs. Sun’s
hot through the glass but best not take my coat off, I’ll be getting ripe underneath
it and there’s stains on my dress won’t sponge off with cold water.Place I’m staying in now, you have to be up
with the larks and up for a fight if you want hot water, and I’m past that now.
much happening on the street down there – folk scurrying about with their heads
down mostly.Think who they might see if
they’d only look up now and then - neighbour, friend, old lover.Or a stranger with silver buttons on his coat,
and a smile like summer.Saw him pluck
up the courage - come to the sea with me, he said, train to Margate; go on, you
only live once.
get the teenagers upstairs, flicking their hair, putting on a show, no idea the
thousand different ways their lives might turn out. Downstairs the mums battle their prams and kids,
promising the moon to keep the peace.Missed
that boat years ago, but I keep a picture in my head of what could have been; a
boy I like to think, with that same sunny smile.Daft, I know.
swings into a stop at Kennington Park, usual clatter of branches from the
chestnut tree against the windows.Young
woman comes upstairs - something promising about this one, not plugged into her
phone like most.She has a proper look
at people, gives me a smile instead of a wide berth and sits down in front of
me.Her eyes are grey and ever so clear,
like the rock pool where we sat down at Margate, dipping our feet while we told
each other everything we were, all that we wanted to be. The rock was warm and
smooth under my feet when we kissed.
lurch away up Kennington Road. Driver
yesterday kept sending the tots flying into everyone’s legs - miracle how some
of them pass their test - I shot my arm out to catch one, human instinct, but the
mum grabbed him off me quick as a stick, eyes wide.
don’t blame her.The years haven’t been
kind and nor has some of the company I’ve kept, grog included.Thirty years and more since I sent him away, after
the sand had gone cold under our feet and everyone else was going home. Make a
mistake big as that, you stop trusting yourself to make decisions, just let
life carry you.
round the corner at Lambeth, the woman in front has to grab the pole to stop
herself being hurled off her seat by Stirling Moss down there. Her hair’s dead straight, the colour of
conkers, something like mine when I was a girl.
Bridge, and we’re almost full.Last one
to come up is a tall fella with a full beard, trimmed neat like his Brylcreemed
hair.A stillness about him, something
solid. He has a look down the bus and starts
to turn back when he spots the last two empty seats, next to me or next to her
– well, no prizes.
a good feeling about these two.They clock
each other just a bit longer than they need to as he sits down. His eyes are set deep and his smile is slow,
trace of an old sorrow in it, maybe. I feel
the spark, probably before they do.She runs
her hand down the side of her neck, smoothing her hair, and he straightens his
shirt collar, first one side then the other. I whip out my notepad and scribble, pencil
shooting off the page as Stirling throws the bus round the corner at the
Aldwych.They turn towards each other
again, not quite in time, and I can’t see from behind whether they’ve caught eyes,
but I’ve been doing this for so long I pick up the smallest signs, and I see
them lean a hair’s breadth closer.
woman turns her face like she’s looking out the window, dabs something on her
lips from a silver tube in her pocket, faces forward again with a little shake
of that lovely hair. Go on, say something one of you, God love us! But when the brakes get slammed on at Holborn
Tube, he gets up slowly, flashing her a smile with a pound of regret in it before
he disappears down the stairs.She half rises,
hitching her bag strap over her shoulder, but no.She sinks down and sighs, twisting her hair round
the fingers of her right hand.No point
telling her what I think, she’d smile politely and pull a book out of her bag.
of missed chances like this every day, but I can’t be everywhere at once. Sometimes people take the plunge afterwards
and send a message into one of the free papers that get left all over the seats:
‘To the girl on the District line with
the blonde hair and the black coat’ –well that narrows it down – ‘I can’t stop
thinking about you, please get in touch.’That’s why I carry a notepad, so I can get all the details, so there can
be no doubt.
coat’s the same colour as his all those years ago, silver buttons on the
shoulders catching the moonlight after I sent him away down Margate seafront, slowly
shaking his head.I thought there’d be
others could make me feel the same.Didn’t
know I’d fallen in love.
know the PO Box number by heart. I write out the rest of the message:‘To the woman on the No.59 to King’s Cross,
Tuesday 1st October – chestnut hair, grey eyes, olive coat, amber earrings, and
the man who sat next to her over Waterloo Bridge - red and black checked shirt,
brown leather satchel, beard - I saw you both wondering What If?Here is your second
They visited her for years,
this eccentric old aristocrat on the hillside; businessmen, tourists, journalists,
teachers, and locals alike.
As often as not, they came here
to stop, to escape the thrum and turbulence of the city, and perhaps to have a conversation.
Sometimes these conversations led to love affairs or business deals and
occasionally to squalid fights on the terrace. Other interactions fizzled and were
forgotten in moments.
For when they are here, these
patrons, standing tall on the varnished wooden floor, they are the hotel bar’s life
blood, as if they’ve never existed elsewhere. But when they are gone, others step
up immediately, chuntering between the white walls and cultural bric-a-brac,
equally present and alive: they too become the place itself.
Over there, a young boy sits
with his father – in that corner, under the solemn painting of the two
brothers. He drinks lemonade as a reward for his achievements at the chess
table. His father, in Addis Ababa for a year on business, is repeating the
history of this museum piece, built on the whim of an empress at the dawn of
the twentieth century. But Oliver is eavesdropping on a young European couple,
hoping to hear words of love, which will mean that they are having sex. Years from
now, he will return to the Wondwossi Hotel and, in this same bar, will meet an
academic from Jijiga. This woman, apparently with no agenda other than to speak
with him, and to laugh, will join him at the night’s end in the four-poster bed
in his high ceilinged room. And again, years later, when he sets out to find her,
he’ll discover that she had become pregnant with his child.
Yeneta, the new barman serves cheap
draft beer to Oliver’s father. He’s concerned that his mental arithmetic skills
may be insufficient for the job. He plans to study biology but will become
distracted by friends, and then by a family, and will work at the Wondwossi for
years to come. When asked about studying, he’ll say that people are his subject
and that observing them is life’s greatest lesson. In a decade or so, Judy,
whose conversation Oliver was straining to overhear, will also return. She’ll
spend a week, sitting alone in the bar, consuming trashy novels, whilst trying
to decide what to do with her life.
Judy feels let down by her bicycling
husband; and certainly, in the Wondwossi, many promises are made and just as
many broken. Many pairs of roving eyes are noticed by Yeneta. He notices everything,
in fact, until – returning home one wretched night – he is caught beneath the
wheels of a motorcycle and never regains consciousness.
Yeneta’s fate still awaits him
when Oliver collides with Habesha in the hotel’s revolving doors. Oliver
apologises and begins a conversation. The bar by now shows signs of shabbiness.
Plaster falls from the white walls leaving gaps like pock-marked skin. It is though
in many respects still a fine hotel. Ethiopian jazz plays once again in the
club, after music all but died during the Red Terror. Oliver tells Habesha
about his chess tournaments as a boy and how happy he is to be back after all
this time. Habesha talks of a memory of riding with her father on their only
camel to see her dying grandmother in a Jijiga hospital; her first visit away
from their mud-hut to the city; her first sip of Coca Cola; her first sight of the
university where she would work.
You can see how they bring
pieces of themselves, but how, mostly, their lives are left outside. Like
Mitiku, who returns nightly for what seems like months with his friend Nega
after the sudden death of Mitiku’s young bride. In this bar, she is neither named
nor mentioned, because language can be stretched to cover the holes in people’s
lives. But she is present in the looks that pass between the two old friends as
they raise their glasses in their nightly journey towards oblivion.
And they spot, but do not speak
with, Judy, immersed in her week of intensive reading, although she does have a
single conversation with Jared, an ex-soldier, and Yeneta clocks this, and also
sees them stealing away from the bar together before Judy returns alone (within
Over the years, so many thoughts unspoken. So
many people kept waiting for dates by careless partners who will arrive and apologise
so loudly and profusely that the very bar itself believes their words to be sincere.
So many messages left on cell phones, or at the reception desk in the cavernous
vestibule, including many for Judy from Jared (all of which naturally go unanswered).
There were rumours, tensions of
course, and everyone knew the potential capabilities of Al-Shabaab to strike in
the heart of the capital. But nobody saw it coming in the way that it did.
A newspaper with the headline RIP The Wondwossi lies face up in the
rubble. Now in their fifties, standing in front of the ruins and attempting to understand
what has happened, Oliver and Habesha feel as if this is already old news.
They had seen the story of the
series of strategic explosions which had taken out different parts of the
historic hotel. They had watched it on television in their small Jijiga flat.
They had acted as one and driven over to Addis Ababa the next day.
The walls are collapsed.
Historic artefacts destroyed. Oliver and Habesha know that thirty seven are
dead and dozens more wounded.
Their grown-up daughter, Lola,
is with them. She is training to be a chemist and they have many hopes and
fears for her future. They point to the entrance where they first met – “is
that really the remains of the revolving door?” – and they hold hands, the
three of them, they actually stand on that spot once again, but are moved on by
a security man.
“This site is not safe,” he
says. “Please. Please move along.”
I hear his feet on the jetty. There he is; hands on
knees, peering into the water.
‘Stacey? Are you there? Can you hear
I’m well camouflaged here among the
dappled water-shadows. I slip between the ticklish waterweeds to wait at a safe
distance, wondering what he’s got to say for himself.
‘Okay. You win. From now on, no more
staying out all night.’
Huh! Bet that wouldn’t last more
than a week. Two mates with a flimsy reason to celebrate and he’d be off with
his best shirt tucked into his jeans.
‘I’ll be a new man. Even put a wash
Occasionally? Half the stuff’s his.
Greasy boiler suits. All those towels. And t-shirts dumped in the hamper after
only an hour’s wearing.
‘And I’ll remember to put out the
bins, rather than wait to be reminded.’
That would be something. I hate the
way he turns me into a nag.
But what do I care of such mundane,
land-bound matters? I’ve left all that behind. These days I settle for quiet
hours on the pebbly lake-bed, letting the cool water ripple over me.
Life is lovely now I’m a fish. I
twist my body to admire my new rainbow iridescent scales. My fins grow stronger
each day. I own every single drop of this lake. I’ve forgotten what breathing’s
like. So much better than that time I was a bird. Water is safer and quieter
than air. But then he found me and talked me back down. I should’ve stayed
higher and gone further.
He’s sitting on the jetty. His toes
dip into the water. I always liked his toes.
‘Your boss called. They need you
back. He can’t hold the job open much longer. What should I say?’
Of course. They’d have to employ
some other mug to open up in the mornings and take in the deliveries. I bet the
cases of tinned stuff were piling up in the yard and no one else bothered to
flatten the boxes for recycling like I did.
Like I used to. I shake my head to
banish these irrelevant work-thoughts.
‘Stacey? Are you there? Or am I just
a fool talking to a lake?’
This makes my giggle. A few
bubble-pearls escape from my mouth and shoot up to the surface.
‘I’ve looked everywhere for those
light bulbs. Where did you put them? I have to go up to bed in the dark. On my
I told him several times where those
bulbs were. I wish he hadn’t said that last bit though. Bed. I do sort of miss
our bed. The lake-bed isn’t quite the same. I miss waking on a Sunday, knowing
we don’t have to be anywhere all day. I miss his feet warming mine on cold
Down here I never have to be
anywhere and I don’t feel the cold. I wake when the sunlight filters through
the water, banishing the shadows I’ve rested in all night. I swim to the
surface to feast on the small flies that gather there. Those flies are
surprisingly delicious. A few gobbles and gulps and I’m done. No preparation.
No washing up. And to think I used to plan meals, go to the market every day
and follow recipes.
‘Instead of just watching cooking
programmes, I’ll make dinner.’
He must’ve read my mind. He used to
make me laugh, criticising the chef’s choice of ingredients and presentation
style. Acting the big old expert even though he only ever made cheese on toast.
Just last month I had to get up and switch the grill off while he lay snoring
on the sofa.
‘And I’m sorry about that time … you
I know what he’s referring to. He’d
been drinking all day and night. I should have left him alone. I know he felt
bad when he saw the bruises on my cheek and arm.
‘But you came back then.’
Yes. My week as a bird was so hard.
The air currents scared me. Here, the other fish just leave me alone. Not like
those birds with their screeches and sharp beaks.
‘It won’t happen again, Stace. Tell
me you believe me.’
I peer upwards. He’s letting down a
line. Something on the end of it plunges through the surface of the water above
me. I inch-swim towards it. Caught in silver light-ripples, it glints as it
drifts into my eye-line.
A diamond. My tough little
fish-stomach does a flip of excitement. I recall the box of chocolates he
persuaded the bird-me home with. I fell for them.
But this is something else.
‘I know this is what you want,
Stacey. Come on.’
I gulp. The ring’s beautiful.
Exactly what I would’ve chosen for myself.
‘Please come back. I love you,
He loves me? He never said that
My gills prickle and my fish-eyes
add a few more drops of water to the lake. I glance up at his feet dangling
above me. He still has those calluses on his heels. I once told him he had
beautiful feet. It made him blush. They’re still beautiful, despite the rough
skin. I wish I had hands still, so I could reach out and touch them. I’ve
told him over and over to keep using that cream. I even offered to put it on
for him but he waved me away like I was making a fuss.
‘So are you going to stop sulking
now? Come back where you belong?’
Sulking? Is that what I’m doing? It
doesn’t feel like sulking. It feels wonderful. The water on my fish-body is
smooth as silk. I wonder if I’ll ever stop marvelling at how beautiful it
And … back where I belong?
I belong in the water.
I flick my new tail and, knowing I leave
a trail of silvery bubbles in my wake but not looking back to see them for
once, head for the deeper part of the lake.