Wednesday, January 20

The Aquarium

THERE WAS A WIGGLY blue line going across the map, or more accurately it had gone and was fixed in its position, a dead worm on a dry pavement. An hour of daylight left; an hour-and-a-half if you were optimistic and the clouds were not too thick. ‘Go for a walk along Embankment.’ I studied the wiggly blue line, trying to get a feel for its angles and turns, so that I would know where to walk – I purposefully wanted routes I was unfamiliar with. A last-second check at the front door: phone, wallet, watch, belt, tobacco, music-player, lighter, gum, tissue and – pulled out to lock up – my set of keys. The start of a walk is exciting because there is so much anticipation in your legs. The soles of my trainers have worn right down so that I can feel every crack and pebble. I lit up – the tobacco rolled thick and tight – and pierced Gracechurch street from an angle it was not expecting. A woman was taking a photograph of a jewellery shop window; inside was a display of two large hearts, interlinked and dotted with various glittery stock. I smiled at her. Already Valentine’s day is being advertised in shops, and I miss being in love, o.
The city – that is, the east of the city – was vacant and one could walk uninterrupted, leisurely and looking around at the grey walls of every building.
I stopped at a café, a slight detour but I had my return to route figured out. As I waited for the coffee I remembered that it must have been a year since I stood in that same café with my ex; it is strange; the world seems so different, not worse but not as kind. The coffee was revolting so that I gagged as I drank it. Comfort had been left behind; the area of London I knew like the back of my hand was behind me, revolving slowly into the distance as I kept a brisk pace by the side of the road. Unfamiliar buildings stood dead by the kerb, covered in the soot from passing cars. Soon the river would be here, I told myself. Of course the river had been here first, and the crowd flocked to it, but I imagined the city existing before a wide open river pushed straight through it and everyone opened their windows and called out—‘Holy shit! it’s a river!’ The frequency of whales entering the river when I was a child seemed higher than they did in later life; many of them died. A couple were nosing a map in the middle of my path. The man, a thickset Pole with beer on his breath, slowed me down and asked for directions but I, out of my region, was unable to help him. They both looked at me with bright eyes and that midday excitement of a weekend break. ‘I’m sure it is that way. West,’ I told him. Using a handle of the compass felt most professional; any closer to the Thames and I might have used the stars.
At the blister of Blackfriars station, the earth opened up and exposed the long legs of river passing by. I was glad to see it and a cold wind rushed over me. Welcome to the inside of my coat.
Last night I had had terrible nightmares. It would be inaccurate to call it ‘sleep’ anymore than it was seven straight hours of nightmare, one after another, unrelenting, brutal; the extent my subconscious went to torture me (as me existing as something or other) was remarkable. All in front of my mind’s eye my past, present and future was tormented. One nightmare – concerning my future, gassed by neurosis – was particularly bad and woke me. The clock’s red numbers read four-forty-nine. Wet cheeks. I wet them some more. I dried them. I rolled over to shake the thoughts from my head and the bed in my unheated flat was cold, waking me further. I returned to my nightmares and they grinned as they took me back in, put their bony arms around me. When I finally arose, at last, three hours later, I felt as though I had not slept at all. I no longer wished to sleep.
The January cold shook many things from me. I walked parallel to the Thames. On my right were buildings tall and old, grand things I had not seen before. I love walking down unfamiliar roads. Tourists went past me: families, and small groups of friends, strolling past the ornate lampposts and park benches, past the small roofed enclosures for lifebuoys (occasionally missing) and the patches of grass, bald in clumps and muddy from the rain. There was a long way between home and I, but that distance was only that which I had travelled myself, and from it I could extract a kind of joyful accomplishment. The soles of my trainers were becoming thinner, although I should avoid puddles where possible. In the clearance of unpopulated stretches of pavement, free to relax and drift off, I got to thinking about the things I often think about: romance, my ex, death, sadness, longing; all the themes of life, movements of my pitiful symphony. The thoughts led me nowhere, not to a single place nor the scent of a new one. So often I thought of my life, yet so little did I like thinking of it.
Westminster Bridge was busy and one had to be careful to avoid all sorts of business – photographs, vendors, and so forth. The queue outside the aquarium had gone, just like my virginity that began outside it. For a moment I watched the skateboarders on the south bank, before I became bored. Nothing interested me a great deal, only walking. My speed was excessive and my legs were becoming weak. I steamed on. I overtook and weaved. I was master of the south bank.
By the time I got to M—t station, I was tired and wobbly. Through the tunnels of a building site I kept a careful distance from the young lady in front of me, lest I panic her (I don’t like anyone around me, myself, but our paces were identical) and looked at the cord of her achilles, hanging tightly down from out her trouser-leg. The station lay deserted. There was nowhere to sit on the tube, although I only had two stops. I stood and beheld the blackness of the tunnel outside the window.
The walk felt like I had taken a blade to a bruise, the black bruised blood dribbling out and my own slender fingers squeezing it more. When I arrived home, I collapsed on the sofa and ate a yoghurt, smoked another cigarette and chopped some onions until the tears came fully, streaming down my face and soaking the sleeve of my jumper.

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