I stopped by Abney Park to mourn a dead lover I never had. Her face flapped in the wind, slipped into a plastic wallet that was speckled with droplets of the morning dew; the features organised into an expression I couldn’t decipher. On this day, I saw a look on her face that I felt like I had seen before on yours. An eye I’d until now given little consideration in terms of shape and colour, an eye I’d not allowed my mind to experiment with, projected onto interactions we’d had days or weeks ago; interactions suddenly so different, altered, turned inside out and on their heads. How do you hold that gaze so long? I projected you onto this long dead woman who I know nothing of but her face, a face that seemed to make yours more defined, spurning an intensity from somewhere, from somewhere that is either bile or care. Her unattainability, her very existential at-arms-length, made the failure of our love easier to bear. I feel sick at the thought of voicing this because it seems so fragile in its complexity – like those little stick men I bent from twigs in Dingly Dell at the bottom of the playground, only five or six years old. How can I be sure that it is real, something that will have body and weight once outside of the confines of my mind? Those men were so real to me then, so real as I crushed them under wet stones, releasing a trickle of woodlice and earwigs, grinning from ear to ear.
The leaves were mulch underneath my trainers, those not lucky enough to still be bunched on the trees in burnt colours. The privilege of life. As I coiled through the graveyard I felt great affinity with the ochre leaves still hanging onto the brittle arms of the trees, not yet underfoot like the bodies whose names only remain, not yet but not never. I just wanted to feel sorry for myself, to cover myself in a mound of pity in the middle of Abney Park and wait for people to pass and cry, or even stop and chastise me for my pernickety nature in life; that would do – just to be remembered, thought of beyond the deterioration of my own perception of self. A face carved in an ash tree told me that things could be worse as I passed him, I could have beetles or bats living inside of me, I could be damaged by fire, I could be hollow or just more so. He looked sadly over the path leading up to the chapel, a funerary chapel long neglected, eaten into by incessant weeds and corrugated iron, the Council stretched at every point, a rejuvenated chapel not a priority. That’s not to say it wasn’t worth at least a ponder or thought, it was the oldest surviving non-denominational chapel in Europe, an egalitarian ode to the non-judgmental nature of death; so it had some hook in this hyper-mediated life of content content content. I looked back at the face as I leant on the wooden hoardings that ran round the perimeter of the chapel, a dull grey adorned with luminous graffiti, transforming a functional piece of bureaucracy into a tapestry depicting ant like humans constructing an effigy to an idol the outsider can’t decipher.
I yawned, the night before I’d met my Dad at White Hart Lane, the first game we’d gone to together for ten years. The memories of sitting in the back of a Volvo or Volkswagen crossing the North Circular to the tune of Talksport were still there, but this time I was approaching from the south; crawling along on the 149, wedged between Ubers and traffic cones in Stamford Hill. I wouldn’t go home with him as I had done all those years ago, feeling indestructible with my seatbelt on and my Dad weaving in and out of flickering tail lights, as disgruntled Spurs fans’ laments came from the speakers housed in the door, my eyes heavy ready for home. As I sat on the top deck of the 149 to return home after the game, I felt the same tiredness and an unexpected yearning to return to that time, that time before I’d made all these mistakes, taken all these wrong turns. I wonder what, back then, I would have made of this ten-year-older version of myself. My eyes welled as a lady with two large Aldi shopping bags sat on my headphone cable and wrenched my headphones out of my ears, severing the music that had been playing at the red end of volume, like she was wrenching me from my solitude. ‘Sorry dear’ she said softly. I wouldn’t sleep that night, yearning to return to Abney Park.
A couple hoisting a buggy above their heads made their way over to me, keeping the child I presumed to be inside, away from the bog that had formed the night before. ‘Can you take our picture?’ The man of the couple thrust a camera towards me and I turned to show him my cheek and paced back to the melancholy tree. I passed another man sitting on the back of a bench, his muddy shoes crumbling onto the plinth on which future people would have to sit so I scowled at him as I passed, his face unchanging and blank. He was dressed in a utilitarian jacket, its cerulean colour sitting awkwardly against the yellow, red and tan leaves that populated the scene behind him; it made his sitting there, feel fake or scripted. I felt his eyes follow me up the path, a path that felt like it narrowed when in fact it was only the branches of the trees that bowed lower and lower until it seemed I’d entered an arboreal tunnel. Death on my left and my right, bowing branches overhead, the imported arms from the Fontainbleau forest reaching towards the fading light, cousins of the whitebeam trees. I turned to look back the way I came and saw that the man and his muddy shoes had vacated the bench, leaving only two clumps of mud behind. I still did not turn my entire body, the skin of my neck tightening as I tried to rotate my head 180 degrees. At the point that it felt like my head was about to pop like a cork from a bottle, I caught a glimpse of that same cerulean jacket. I had to quickly untwist my neck and peer round the other shoulder to confirm that it was him but this sudden change of direction popped something in the back of my head, and a warm unknown liquid poured down the inside of my neck. As I winced, I blinked and the sense that it was him dissipated. I walked on massaging my neck, looking tentatively left and right through the trees, assessing what was real and what was just my mind haunting me. Why had I come here on this day? What impulse had drawn me back to this place, this place that I now so feverishly wanted to escape? I thought I was walking back to the place where your grave was but I’d taken a path that seemed unfamiliar, even though they all looked the same. The path was darker, the light struggled to get through here and all the gravestones and memorial plinths all leant sadly at an angle, upended by the network of tree roots that broke the earth here and there. I remembered what you said the last time we met, sat on a bench in a desolate park, shivering from both the breeze and the awkwardness of the situation. You know it has to be like this, you said and I agreed with the sentiment but disagreed with everything you’d just said.
I fished my phone out of my pocket, a gesture so natural to us now and flicked and swiped to the message I sent to you after this interaction. I know it has to be like this, but I don’t want it to be. We can give it a chance? You’re going to die one day anyway. I wish I hadn’t said that. Sent at 11.42, yesterday, seen 11.43 yesterday. It was 11.43 today, and you still hadn’t replied. I wanted to wrench out the roots of reality, cover my battered shoes in the rich fertile soil of possibility, and make you see. Crack open this screen of pixels that separates us and reveal something, I just wasn’t sure what it was yet. I couldn’t revive you from your slumber but I could at least convince you of my sincerity. I came across the couple with the buggy again, ‘Excuse me, excuse me!’ they were flapping various limbs at me and gesturing to the pram, so I gave in and took a look inside and pondered for a moment their kid whose horns were only just beginning to show, his body laid upon a bed of straw. ‘Say hello to the funny man,’ the woman cackled as I pulled my head away from the pram, looking into her sagging yellow face. She grinned as she cackled, her smile splitting at the corners of her mouths until it tickled her earlobes. The sight of it made me feel nauseous so I swung quickly to my right away from them, taking me on a wider path through the trees. I stopped, trying to locate myself in this unmapped pocket in a city of coordinates. ‘I take up my pen in the year of grace 17 –’ my favourite line from Treasure Island, that slash slicing through time and space- how would we slice and dice in today’s hyper-mediated world? Abney Park was my slash; it allowed me to float in a liberating dislocation. But suddenly this dislocation had turned to loss. I saw the man in his cerulean jacket, clearly this time. He was clearly hiding behind a tree, I say clearly because he was doing a bad job of it. His shoulders were hunched in a pretend crouch, a feckless attempt to make it seem that he was hiding when in fact he wanted to be seen. He wanted me to see him hiding. I knew he wasn’t a threat because I suddenly recognised him, recognised his blank unassuming face, but from where I wasn’t sure in that moment. His tableau behind that tree was like a rearing horse, it was a warning not an attack and I got the message loud and clear. But as I stared in his direction and he stared back at me, I heard your voice, first softly, then clearly, commandingly, you know it has to be like this. I suddenly recognised him. That nagging familiarity suddenly burst open its shirt and revealed its bare chest. He was the flapping, soggy picture attached to the grave next to yours. You know it has to be like this, I now understood. I wanted to take a step towards him and say, why?! Why the fuck why?! but my eyes flooded with tears and his outline blurred, and I wanted to stamp at the ground, stamp at something that was stable, tangible, reliable but my foot slipped and I was tipped onto my coccyx where I crumpled. Lying on my back, that haunting couple with the kid covering my deflated body with wet ochre leaves, I knew in that moment what it was you were trying to say. You didn’t love me, you never had, I just couldn’t see it. I didn’t want to die but I didn’t know what else to do.
I thought it might at least bring me closer to you.
About the Contributor
Jonny is a writer based in East London, and has recently had fiction published in Ambit Magazine, The Bohemyth and Queen Mob’s Teahouse. He can be found online @jonnykeyworth and http://www.jonnykeyworth.com
The Notebook - Agata Kristof
Like all CB Editions' books, the three titles in this trilogy look like they are concealed in a brown paper bag, adding to the feeling you are reading something subversive, something smuggled out of a dictatorial state. These books were unavailable in the UK for over twenty years so it feels rather apt that they arrived in my hands, so wonderfully concealed. Set during Nazi occupation in an unnamed village and the sliding into the false simulacrum of Soviet Liberation, it is the brutally, matter of fact story of twins who create childish games and techniques to make themselves impassive to the suffering they are subject to, wicked playfulness that is replicated in the structure of the narrative. I wouldn't want to say anymore, as it really has to be read- and it will destroy you, word by word.
More from Issue Six:
- Give Sorrow Words by Anna Vaught
- Pull me in by Melissa Fu
- Variations on Girl with a Red Balloon by Tessa Torgeson
- Written in Advance by Nathan Fidler
- Mrs Fox by Marian Womack
- Tomorrow by Vivienne Burgess
- The Kulaks Of Chelsea by Tadhg Muller
- Some Kind Of Happiness by Heidi James
- Dust Covers and Margins by Jennie E. Owen
- Sitting, Standing, Mending by Alison Jean Lester
- Ghosts by Catherine Mitchell
- And I was filled with such delight by Catherine Edmunds