A mendicant began hollering on the Circle Line in a train carriage somewhere between Great Portland Street and Euston Square. It was approximately eight P.M and there were nine other men and women, scattered and insular on ugly seats, swaying.
She watched him approach an old fellow whose tilted black hat was dusted with snow. She watched him as he stumbled towards a couple dressed in pink and brown, wearing leather and lip-gloss, heels and fur. She watched his strange gesticulating exchange with an Indie kid, whose massive headphones proclaimed a love for music.
He was fascinating. His beggar’s beard thin and straggly; he carried a warning odour of a freezer that had not been emptied before a holiday. He wore a backpack: torn, held together by goodwill and bad fortune. And he carried a polystyrene coffee-cup, with which he gathered change from those he accosted. He was a derelict monument of all that used to matter about being a person.
Eventually he waved his paper offering-basket in Layo’s face, and she turned away. Partly incensed that he had embarrassed her, by posing his question so bald-on record; partly because she felt ashamed. Naturally, those who have, feel reprimanded when imposed upon by those who have not. They feel the same panic caused by a naked sneeze, as if poverty is catching.
If I give you my money, mine may go where yours went.
Dickensian sentiments put to one side, she watched him get off at King’s Cross St Pancras; the poor man alighting at the grandest station.
She was on her way home, after a long day of working for a project management consultancy in the city. Doing the kind of work she swore to her teenage self she would never do, surrounded by the kind of people she had vowed never to associate with. The very opposite of what she had always expected to be.
Idealism was, it seemed, as disposable as anything from her early youth. It now belonged in the same space as trouser-skirts, CD-walkmans and the Spice Girls. Nowadays, it was easier to take what she was given, to be bloody grateful that things weren’t worse.
When she arrived, with the gait of some wearisome traveler, a feral stare in her eye, to the modest two-bedroom flat she shared with her partner, Aydin and her three-year old son, Evren; they were both asleep on the couch, television blasting false light on their damp faces.
She didn’t touch them. She didn’t even reach over, to press her icy fingers to her chubby son’s forehead. He was so expensive. Such a very expensive investment. He needed daily love, daily clothing, daily changing, daily attention, daily warning, chastising, praising, adoring. All of it in order to become a fully-fledged version of his mother, or at best, his father. He looked so blissfully at peace. Of course he was at peace. He didn’t know what the deficit was, or the Iraq war, or the Eurozone debt crisis. In his little world, those were just sounds grown-ups made.
She deposited her bags at the doorway and washed her hands before raiding the fridge for feta and olives. The words of that beggar were still ringing in her ears, “Please, I haven’t had a warm meal in days. I’ve been kicked off a dozen night buses. All I need is something to eat. Please… Please…”
She devoured her collage meal sans utensils, her body thawing out, filling with warmth, with the safe scent of home, satisfying her hunger, killing the frigid wraith the first day back had made of her. And the warmer she became, the guiltier she felt. She couldn’t shake off the guilt from not giving that beggar a penny or a pound, or even matching his shocked stare.
Layo pulled a bottle of rose from the fridge and proceeded to pour out a glass. One stockinged foot on a dining stool, she inhaled deeply, the flowery metal scent before downing the glass. The feta wasn’t enough; its flavour was too soft, too mild. She needed mature cheddar or Camembert. She hopped off her seat and retrieved them.
Her haul complete, Layo proceeded to devour the cheese, wine and olives, draped over her kitchen, still in her work clothes, the tang of the day still heavy on her skin. As she ate, the loudness of that beggar, that annoying affectation of her first working day of the year, became silent.
It loosened its hold on her. The noose-like nature of weariness, of the knowledge that she was simply doing her best, making ends meet, doing what she was supposed to, fighting fires and enjoying good days when they came.
If they came.
She had been afforded every luxury one could expect in a lower middle-class life. Starting off her publicly educated existence very certain that she would become a journalist for The Guardian or The Independent. Unfortunately, she had not pre-empted Digitisation, Virtual Living and there being some awful fissure in natural progression.
She was the missing link, the weird gap that crossed the Anti-Racism Act and the black president of America; VHS and online exhibition; Disney and Pixar; the Nokia 3310 and the Apple iPhone; a bus ride costing forty pence, and one costing two pounds thirty-five; paper travelcards and Oyster.
It was somewhere around her twenty-second birthday she had realized that she would never be able to cut throats or soil sheets the way the industry required and, tail between her legs, huddled back to her parents for money to further her studies before settling into her ‘respectable’ management masters qualification.
Her Southern Nigerian parents had been so proud. An MA was an MA by anyone’s books. Even theirs. Somewhere around twenty-seven, a dozen very unhelpful boyfriends, unsuitable long-term partners and a broken engagement later, she had met Aydin.
Quiet, amenable, unassuming. A man who seemed to make no mark on anyone or anything, who seemed utterly blameless in all things at all times. Six years older than her, she caught him in his ‘headlights’ phase. The phase all men go through when they figure out that while their friends have been making plans and starting families, they had simply been waltzing through meaninglessness.
Those panic headlights had settled on her. And that was that. Their courtship had been relatively trouble free. At first they loved each other in that very passionate way all lovers in their late twenties usually started off with and then in the reasonable, respectable way that married people do at the start, and now, four years, sixteen counseling sessions and one accidental baby later, they watched each other live their lives from vantage points in the same house.
She had given up asking him not to eat in bed. He had given up cajoling her into giving Evren another sibling. They had both accepted that she would always earn more than he would. Their families had given up on the prospect of a shock-divorce. And the interracial nature of their relationship was neither a surprise nor a statement to anyone they knew. It was, that bane of all things, normal.
Quite tipsy from her ablutions, she left the kitchen and walked unsuspectingly into the hallway. She was almost completely thawed out. All she needed was a hot shower and a good night’s rest. And then she would be ready to start it all again. The whole process of setting, drying, freezing, solidifying and then melting once more. Just in time to freeze with the onset of day.
She wanted something smooth against her skin, something smooth and silky, with a perfume to it. A perfume that was sexy, that made her feel human and alive, like flesh. That made her feel malleable, changeable. She had spent too long as a metal cog in the corporate machine.
She went into her bedroom and dived for the under-bed drawer where, if she reached right to the back, there would be, something vaguely resembling a negligee. From a time where negligees mattered to her. She discarded her clothes like used tissues and slipped it on. She admired herself in the mirror, the pink silk against her brown skin. Her stomach gave a lurch. Probably a warning sign that she had drunk too much alcohol and eaten too little food.
There was a stir from the living room, the creaking sound of the floorboards as Aydin rose. She heard the pup-like squeal of her son, disturbed by his father’s movement. She stayed still, listening to Evren’s muffles as he was put to bed.
She was still standing when her husband walked in.
“How was your day?” he asked, running his fingers through his dark hair, misty eyes inquisitive.
She shook her head and smiled. How could she ever explain in a way that he would understand? And why would she want him to? They would remain on two sides of the answer. Like a beggar and a passerby.