Sunday, January 4

The Turning of Visiting Hours

WE WALKED UP the deserted street; residential, on a hill, a lot of the flats propped up by scaffolding that appeared, in the late hour, to ghost each entombed building in the pale streetlamps.
It was new year’s eve. I was cool from having recently showered – the occasion – and in one of my hands was a plastic bag filled with beer & wine. Nerves were shot so that I was out of breath and finding it difficult to maintain conversation. We were going to a house party hosted by some friends of Her, through work, although first we were to visit another friends for some drinks beforehand. I had never been to New Cross before. Its street seemed like many others to me – the takeaways, the corner-shops, bookies – but it was crooked with the taint of new year’s eve and all the expectations that were expected.
What would happen? I had not been out on this evening in many years; the celebration passed me by and only memories of spending it with my family could be recalled; the event troubled often by my own feelings of misery and sadness; another marker in time, and all that.
The flat was behind a line of trees, almost concealed; only the ground floor window alight with the recognised occupants – an exclamation, hand in the air waving – stood between the kitchen and living room.
I breathed in deeply and was introduced around to the two other couples within, as they stood around the breakfast table, cheerily accompanied by tinny music from a laptop. Cordially I was invited to test one of the beers from the fridge, emblazoned with a bear, but stuck with my own; perspiration was soaking my underarms and I studied the pleasant room and all of the religious iconography upon the freezer behind me. Those young people were very unfamiliar to me so that I struggled to understand them; often I put my hand upon Her waist but She did not respond, so I just stood there and tried my best to fit in and to appear likeable, the sort of person one might be comfortable inviting into their home. Sirens went past in the street, beyond the trees which, I imagined, would be very pretty in the summer months but at the turning of the year were only shades of black against the gold.
A couple more women arrived, and then we headed out through New Cross, around a bend in the road and up another steep hill. The odd family or group of friends went by us on the street, and pubs noisily flickered on the pavement, piercing the night with thick sound whenever the front door was pushed open between the broad shoulders of bouncers.
The party was in a ground floor maisonette on a quiet road. The host, a friend of Hers, greeted me with an embrace I was not anticipating; the kind of embrace one is only inclined, if ever, to deliver liberally on new year’s eve. All I saw was her long neck accentuated by a thick necklace.
Some women were talking on the sofa and looked up at our entrance. There were men in the garden. The place was dark but for lasers and flashing lights. I put my drinks down and anxiously stood around, wondering what to do, what the protocol was, where to begin. I followed Her and we went into the garden where we stayed for some time. The men there were friendly enough and spoke to us without much introduction. They had set up a fire in a metal bin that blazed warmly and illumined the thin, dry branches of an overhanging tree, running smoke up the side of the building.
In the distance was light pollution.
One of the young men I had met earlier was completely entranced by the fire, staring deep into it and obsessively poking it with a stick, as though the entire, long drawn-out year was simply a wait for his face-to-face with the flames. Somebody told him that there was petrol nearby in a watering can. He discovered this and, before anyone could stop him, emptied it on to the flames. The stench of petrol was thick in the air but the contents of the can had been diluted by the rain and his trigger had not produced the inferno he was hoping for.
I ran out of beer and began my wine. I was most impressed that no-one was touching my drink, which I had selfishly brought only for myself and left trustfully on the work-surface; I did not mind, really, if anyone helped themselves, as drugs were, if only just to my knowledge, beginning to circulate and the atmosphere was changing, further from what I was comfortable with and into something more alienating.
She had Her stomach out and it was getting some attention. She looked beautiful when the lasers danced on Her face. She stood very far away from me and I watched Her. When She went with Her friends to dance I watched Her and thought of all the things She doesn’t like about me and whether another would see them, right then when I was stood in that room in New Cross, awaiting the new year as though it might mean something greater than it had meant before.
For midnight, we would watch the city’s fireworks from up on the hill.
Many in the area had the same idea and all of them walked up the hill, drinks in hand. I saw the new year in with them all and – to the second of our countdown – the fireworks exploded in the distance.
I went to kiss Her and I noticed almost everything.
The women started singing a pop song. The lights in the park glowed the temperature of bin flames. All sorts were gathered around to watch the fireworks, which I cannot remember, other than they were very far off, untouchable, expensive, and that I was getting that old feeling. She lingered by Her friends, not me.
We walked back. I resumed my wine. The flashing light on the wall had changed from ‘2014’ to ‘2015’ and I knew that it was the only thing that had changed.
So I kept on with my drinking; drinking because it was there and for that reason only. I was not thinking of my family or of life or anything exceptional, and I noticed that She was not there and I was all alone. She texted me that She was talking to Her friend elsewhere, so I leaned against the radiator, not talking to anyone but watching the lights on the wall, obsessed as I am with light like a moth.
Soon She returned and the party ensued. People danced. I could only watch; it amused me, in a way, just to watch Her dance and I felt terribly out of place. I had wine.
Red wine in sharp glass.
The wine was gone. Where was the wine gone? It was in me; that was all my fault, I could deny it no further, and on top of all the beer it had made me quite muddled.
Our return home is foggy in my mind. The train station – and its free travel! – was deserted but for another small group of mute revelers. Either side of us the tracks ran, coming from one place and leading to another. The rock of the train did not bother me in the slightest, such was my strength, but I hungered greatly for some fried chicken! What I would have given for some fried chicken! It was all I could think of; I was obsessed with the promise of fried chicken.
Bow was dead with that middle-of-the-night expression. The fried chicken restaurant was closed and to not see its advertising boards all lit up broke my heart. I did not know the time but for such an establishment to be closed at such a time on such a night was certainly devilish.
We went home and I ate some cereal, feeling tremendously drunk and out of the world with myself.

THE NEXT MORNING I was hungover and all of my throat was dry. As I got up to relieve myself of sour piss, my legs were unsteady, my head hurt. It was now a new year, I supposed, and that was the weather of the new year.
The night before my grandmother had been taken sick with pneumonia. I had thought that that was it with her, as I had thought a dozen times before. This time was it, though, I was sure. I lay on the sofa until I had to get showered.
She lay beside me, out of sorts, assaulted by fits and the previous night. I did not know where I was wanted.
I showered and went to visit my sick grandmother. I did not like the new year, and wished it would go away. I only wanted to lie down and to carry on drinking, feeling the effect but not the taste; the taste would slay me, without question. All of my trail was quiet; the first.
If I thought about a century ago I became bewildered by all of the change, because even the year had changed me so much. What was I now compared to a year ago, just fifty-two weeks and I was all different, better in some respects, worse in others, but fighting my way along routes in and out of the city, steadying my hungover hands with expensive bottles of coca-cola. All around me I could hear women laughing.
It was not rush hour but I had found a tidy, quiet corner of the train, which I enjoyed until a young couple came and sat next to me. Their happiness saddened me. He was tapping on her knees in time to the music that was playing in his head; she glanced at her phone and told him things that he listened to, while all the time their reflections thrust back on me from the evening that was settling on the land.
Outside of the station aN attractive lady, all laced in fur and suckling on one of those thin cigarettes, asked me the time, then where I was going.
‘The hospital. Queens.’
‘Best catching a bus . . . bus-stop’s just up there.’
‘I don’t mind walking. It’s an all right night, and I’ve got this to smoke.’
‘It’s a long ol’ way, but if you want to then it’s just up there, past that roundabout, right, left at that roundabout and keep going. It’s on your right.’
It was a struggle to understand her, but I gave my thanks and went my way. I should have wished her a happy new year, I thought. I kept forgetting that it was a holiday and a new year.
Clear pavements. I walked out of Romford’s black town centre and along paths I had walked over a decade ago with my cousin, who I was very much in love with back then. I saw the old guitar shop we frequented and where the old cinema was, where his mother took us many times and one of the attendants his primary school teacher earning a second income. That building had stood tall in its red bricks and the quaint popcorn lobby. These were all memories now because he was in another country, and a part of my childhood had been slain by him a few years previous. I put my head down when I passed the old cinema, which had since been converted into a bingo hall.
I found my way down this street and that, not really knowing where I was going but walking, and savouring the cold wind on my cheeks. It was all roads on each side of me, but I kept walking, hopeful that soon I would reach the hospital before visiting hours were up.
I did not wish to be out, so ghastly was my hangover, but I wanted to visit my grandmother. I was enjoying being alone next to the roads and the night that is dwelling secretly in the headlights of passing cars.
Eventually I found a small, unlit passage to a large building and, thinking it was the hospital, I followed it. Sure enough, vacant ambulances were parked up and there were pay & display machines. A young man swung out of a door, his shirt ripped and bloody, his face opened up underneath the eye. Blood was down his shirt like spilled dinner. I kept walking around the crescent of hospital buildings until I found the main entrance, where I used the toilet and bought a coffee. The hospital was quieter than I had anticipated. I found the m.r.u. on the map and followed the directions. The hospital was, like many, labyrinthian.
It felt like a long time before I found bay thirteen. There were only four beds, one was curtained off. The other women in the ward looked up at my entry.
I hardly recognised my grandmother on her hospital bed. I saw the angle of her head on the pillow slid down, her mouth agape, rushing air down her throat, her eyes pointed up, her body splayed out underneath the sheets, alone, truly and holding off death with her thin hands.
I had expected – or perhaps hoped – that she would be surrounded by one of her many children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren, but, alas, she was not.
My hand rested on her wrist and I told her, twice, that it was me, as her eyes could not see me. Her blood had caked under the plaster on the back of her hand. She said—‘Hello, darling!’ to me and smiled enough for me to warm up against the cold outside. To see her! but to see her like this. There was no mood in me to talk, as much as I wanted to, and the atmosphere burned me up. I could not communicate much, stumbling over my words, repeating myself. She told me that she was better that evening than she had been at noon, that she was glad to not be hassle for her daughter while the hospital was taking care of her, and that the fish pie she had for lunch was tasty; she didn’t know what was for dinner that night as she hadn’t arrived early enough to choose it. I just sat there, listening, talking when I could think of something to say, stroking her wrist and her shoulder but with the feeling of absolute uselessness. I gazed at her skin and the age of it, how translucent it was, how many needles it could handle. I just drank my coffee.
After forty-five minutes I said that I would go, after all my girlfriend was unwell at home, too. She thanked me for visiting. I kissed her and stroked her one last time, then abandoned her.
Going back through the endless corridors, I started to weep, but brushed them away on the sleeve of my coat. I threw my coffee cup in the bin and walked out of the hospital. I saw the beaten man slouching across a few seats in the waiting room. I smelled weed in the air and went back down the small, unlit path where some kids asked me for a smoke, back into the town and the train station platform. The night was cold and wind blew across the tracks. I waited for a train that would take me home or near enough that I knew where I was. The mechanical clock over the stairs clicked its seconds into a mist that was forming over everything.

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