Camille, 12:12 a.m., 14 Masson Way (basement), SW9, London.
Any minute now, she’ll be back. Samia. My sister/mother/best friend/worst enemy/trust me, you don’t want to know what else.
She’ll trip down the stairs and knock over the bins and, Putain!
She’ll jam the key in the lock, rub against the door like it’s the lover she wishes she had. She’ll rub until it gives. And when—like the only lover she has had—it drops her on the mat like she’s another buy-this-pizza leaflet, she’ll be all: Tssh, mon dieu!
When she’s got a few more putains out of her system, she’ll swish across the tiles, shedding shoes and coat and cardigan and scarf, her face already silly with the baby-baby thoughts. Hers.
She’ll peer into the rag-lined banana box that she calls a cradle—she believes it, too, the mental bitch—and for the first time today, she’ll smile. She’ll smile at her baby in the twilight that never leaves this mouldy hole of a basement flat. She’ll stroke his cheek.
Don’t wake up, she’ll whisper, don’t you dare wake.
She’ll kiss his chest, tickle his feet, scoop him up and jiggle him about, and if he’s still not awake—which he will be, he must be, he always is—she’ll shout, What’s wrong why won’t you wakewhat’swrongwakeup!
And then he’ll cry. He’ll scream.
Fuck’s sake, I’ll groan.
She’ll be all: Look what you’ve done you woke him you’ll give him nightmares for life, you stupid girl you are so stupid are you too stupid to go back to sleep?!
Mon cul, and you know it, you know you woke him on purpose, you do this every night you conne you folle you putain of a bitch!
How dare you, you, you little… putain! You think you’re better than me because you talk like the rest of London now? If maman was here…
But she’s dead like your brain!
And so on. It happens every night. Tonight will be no different. It will be no different it will be no different it will be no different. I’m almost looking forward to it.
No way will I tell her about my walks. About tonight’s walk in particular. How it happens. How I can’t stand him. I can’t stand his wah-wahing, his gimmegimmegimme fat face, his cute little old-man feet. How I feed him until he falls into a milk-coma.
How I can hear every word every scratch every sigh every fart from upstairs. How I try. I try to get comfy on this lumpy bed and read my school library books in this fuck-up-your-eyes light. I try to pretend I’m at the Hilton. That I could order room service right now if I wanted to but I don’t because I’m stuffed from my three-course dinner.
How I try to remember that the baby is a baby is just a tiny little innocent baby is not an evil monster that has fucked up our lives is not a gremlin is a virgin to the world who in better times I love and who needs my help. I do try. But you try believing this when you’ve only six feet of air and a few centimetres of ceiling between you and episode 109 of the Andy and Gemma Show.
TV: Honey, we need to talk…
Andy: I might do some work.
Gemma: Shhh! Dale’s about to break up with Dwaine!
TV: Hell, let’s make mo-HEE-tos first. Because what I’ve got to tell you sure ain’t so sweet…
Andy: We’ve seen this episode.
Gemma: Shut up!
Andy: Yeah, Dale ends up proposing. And then they fuck on the veranda. They get mojito in their hair. They—
Gemma: Wow, Andy. Thanks for ruining it for me.
TV: Have you got unmanageable debts?
Andy: I thought you’d be pleased. You know. That I’m inspired.
Gemma: Well good for fucking you.
Gemma: Don’t jeeee-sus me.
Andy: I didn’t know you felt so strongly about Two Top Hill, jeeee-sus!
TV: Dwaine, I haven’t like got you a ring yet, but let’s do it. Let’s go to Vegas tomorrow. Oh, and there’s a dust bunny in your bangs.
Gemma (laughing like a mental case): OMG I love you! I love you I love you.
Footsteps and fumbling and smooching.
One of these days they’ll fall through the ceiling and onto my head. I can think of worse ways to go.
Gemma: You inspired me! I’m going to work, too! Performance art: you and me, right here, right now. Or maybe a collage. Video. Or mixed media. Whatever, I know the title: We all need a little bit of jeeeez-us in our lives.
ANDY: Brilliant! Can you guess what mine’s called? All artists belong in Room 101…
TV: Exaggerated puffing and banging and crashing.
GEMMA and ANDY: Exaggerated puffing and banging and crashing.
GEMMA and ANDY and their BED: Cr-CREAK, cr-CREAK, cr…
And wondering whether I exist, or whether I’m just a ghost at the edge of these strangers’ lives, I go out. Out into the not-so-fresh air, into the street, into the cold, into the dark that’s never too dark because there’s always someone up to something, somewhere.
For instance, tonight, from here to Stockwell Grange Road (Stockwell End):
—Red-faced women dragging their asses home from the gym. Wondering how many low-fat yoghurts their workout justifies.
—A couple doing things against a lamppost which made it clear they had convinced themselves they were at the Hilton.
—Some guy with his hand in a bin. The weird thing was that he was just standing and frowning up at the street light. Like he’d forgotten what he was up to or why or where. I crossed the road at that point.
—Some guys about my age trying to look older by smoking on the baby swings. It backfired.
Stockwell Grange Road to Croften Way:
—Portuguese guys crammed into the world’s skinniest bar to watch the football on the world’s tiniest screen.
—’Tough guy’ telling off his dog for crapping in the middle of the pavement. (But he didn’t pick it up.)
—Guys from everywhere else watching the same match in the Croften Arms. Well, apart from the guys who were out in the car park—which someone has decided to call a ‘beer garden’—and were more interested in smoking, or in women who smoke, or in kissing them, or maybe more, or maybe love.
Then, like every other evening, I turn into Clapham Manor Avenue, and the dark darkens. I hear my breath, my feet, the clap-clap of my jacket zip, and I remember that it’s the end of the evening, the beginning of the night, that I’m fifteen, and alone, and no one knows I’m here, and I get scared, a bit.
So what do I do? I squint through the gaps in every fence and hedge. You’d be surprised by how many there are, and how much you can see through them. The people in the houses probably don’t notice them, or if they do, they don’t imagine anyone would stop and peek through, so they don’t bother with those lingerie-like white curtains that normal English people (i.e. who don’t live in mansions) love so much.
You can see all the way into their rooms, which are about 1/10th of their whole house, about 10 times the size of our basement, and 10,000,000 times more beautiful. They contain varying arrangements of squishy sofas, hard chairs, chandeliers, huge paintings, Turkish rugs, African wood carvings, and a grand piano. Always a grand piano. But there’s only one house where I’ve ever seen anyone play. It’s this girl with hair so red it burns your eyes, and when she plays, she burns your ears, but in a good way. I hope she gets famous so I can say that I knew her first. She’s always getting to the darkest, most belly-flipping finale of her piece, when her Mum leans over her shoulder and shuts her music books. The girl carries on playing, but her elbows stick out at crazier and crazier angles, and her notes grow clunky and distracted, and she stops. She slides off the stool, and for a few seconds, I see her face. I want to knock on the window and tell her to keep going. Before I met Faiza—in the corridor: we’d both been sent out of maths—I thought of her as my best friend. Sad, but true.
At the end of Clapham Manor Avenue, there’s a choice: left to the Common, right to the Port. Left, and the houses get smaller and scabbier; the gardens fill with soggy sofas and terrifyingly huge microwaves from Victorian times, or whenever; rows of buzzers and letter boxes appear to the right of doors. Some even have dirty steps leading down to basement flats, and I always try to see round the bins and the rusty bikes, to see whether the people who live there are at all like us. Like me and Samia. Me and Samia and the baby. The baby. The—
The Common freaks me out at night. I only went there once. I stood at the edge of its darkness and wished that it would swallow up me and my wrong accent and my wrong school bag and wrong school shoes and wrong sister and wrong life, this life that was surely meant to belong to someone else. I walked into it and out the other side, by the lights, by the pond. A face popped out of the darkness. Followed by a man. A big man with a bigger bag. He opened his mouth, and I saw brown teeth and a cracked-up tongue, and I ran—way faster than I’ve ever done or will do in PE. I guess part of me wanted to stay here, after all.
I ran towards a strip of blue and red lights, which turned out to be a Londis and a Chickin’ Lickin’. I leant on the door to Chickin’, Samia-style, and flopped onto the nearest stool.
“Are you OK?” called the man behind the counter.
I said I was fine, although I’d just seen a very scary man on the Common.
“There are many bad people, here in London.”
He told me how his landlord had cheated him out of £350, and how his two degrees and ten years of experience in IT counted for nothing, and all because they happened in India.
“So now I am stuck here, waiting for better times, just like everyone else. I wait and I wait. But they never come.”
He stood up straight, and cleared his throat. “I’m so sorry. I have been talking talking talking. What do you want?”
I was starving. But I only told him the other half of the story: that I’d no money.
“No,” he said, laughing. “I said, what do you want?”
When I hesitated, he added, “You know we might as well make the good times in the way that we can. And this is my way, my little way.”
I ate half of a family bucket, gave the rest to him. It was my happiest meal since arriving to London. I’ve been back a few times but he’s not there. I hope he’s in better times, I really do.
Tonight, I craved the Common, craved its dark, earthy fresher-than-usual-London smell. I really did. But I kept thinking about the baby. I kept seeing his face; those huge spit bubbles he blows in his sleep. I thought, This is strange. And: I better get back quickly. Which were pointless things to think when you know how it ends but of course I didn’t, I had no way of knowing, which is the annoying thing about life.
I went home the quickest way I knew: through the Port. The Port is meant to be all scary and ghetto, but when you look at the people and things which are there besides the concrete, it’s alright. There are balconies stuffed with broken toys and balconies-turned-mini-jungles and empty balconies; boys in hoodies riding too-small bikes; women standing and chatting and shivering by their door; old men in vests smoking and looking up at the sky which would be full of stars if it wasn’t for all the people and their light.
Gemma was sitting on our gate post. Smoking and looking up at the (imaginary) stars. Gemma from upstairs. It was the first time I’d seen her in the flesh. I stared pretty hard. I stared at her wide freckly cheeks, at the strip of pale skin between her jeans and her t-shirt, at her frizzy hair. It was like going to see a film of a book you’ve read, but worse, much worse. It was a while before I realised that she, too, could see me.
“There are no stars,” was what came out of my mouth.
She smiled and jerked back her shoulders, like I’d given her some unexpected gift.
“Aye,” she said. “But at least there’s space, you know, up there.” She nodded towards the sky.
“There definitely isn’t down there.” I bowed towards our basement steps.
She sighed. “I’m Gemma, by the way.”
I was about to apologise, when she laughed, and said yeah, she should probably have guessed, and that judging from my age and the sound of my voice, I was Camille and not Samia.
Our faces wriggled as we tried to work out how much the other knew about our own lives. I’d never even wondered whether they could overhear us as much as we could them.
“Andy knows a bit of French,” she said, “but not enough to understand your fights. It is French, right?”
“Sort of. When she wants to piss me off, she shouts in Spanish. When I want to piss her off, I shout in English. When we want the other one to actually understand what we’re saying, we use French. We swear in all three.”
“This is my fourth country, her fifth.”
“That’s so cool.”
“Cool? Not really.”
Watching her watching me, I got a funny feeling: warm, and strange, and nice. It was the first time I’d spoken to anyone who wasn’t Samia outside of school. Well, apart from the Chicken’ Lickin’ man.
She jumped onto the pavement and stretched her arms above her head. “I better get back. But, I tell you what, I’ll tidy up, and you should come round, I mean come up, some time.”
“Thanks.” My throat buzzed. My head felt light. I was happy! I’d forgotten what it was like.
Now is the minute the second the moment she’s back she’s back she’s here. Her last cleaning job of the night: scraping our steps free of soggy kitchen roll tubes, crisp packets, chicken bones, plastic bags. I don’t know why she bothers; come the morning, the wind will have blown them back.
Putain, putain, putain… I lose count by the time she falls onto the doormat.
My nose is overwhelmed by the stench of bleach and fake-lemon. She gobbles cold rice from the fridge, sniffs, wipes her nose on her sleeve.
She is pulling off her shoes she is unbuttoning her coat she is walking around the mattress towards the banana box towards the end of the story of my walk. She is leaning over the box. She is stroking his cheeks. She is trying not to wake him she is hoping he will wake she is hoping he’s asleep that the only thing wrong is a very deep sleep. She is picking him up, she is dancing him in circles, talking in circles, trying to scream, trying to wake him.
“Camille? Please, what have you done?”
I can’t move. Can’t tell her what I did. The walk, and then my fun little chat with Gemma from upstairs. That I was so happy when I got back, I forgot to check him straight away, and when I did, when I did…
Episode 110 of the Gemma and Andy Show
Gemma: At least use a plate.
Andy (chewing loudly): None left.
Gemma: Then wash one up!
Andy: Too much stuff in the sink.
Gemma: I can never get to sleep when there are crumbs on the sheet.
Andy (gulping): I’ll eat them.
Mattress springs creak as he moves around, presumably dabbing up crumbs with his finger.
Gemma (laughs resignedly): It’s ridiculous! We eat, fuck, fight, laugh, make up, work, procrastinate, sleep on this bed.
Andy: We watch Two Tree Hill here, too, remember?
TV: Have you got unmanageable debts?
Gemma: I thought you were too good for that show?
Andy: It’s shit, yeah. But in a good way, you know?
Gemma: Bit like this bed.
Andy: No. This bed is just shit.
It wasn’t until Samia slapped my cheek that I accepted that the Gemma and Andy Show was going on upstairs, whilst mine was horribly, horribly stuck down here.
He would not move he will not move he didn’t want to wake up he wasn’t so hot as usual and I held him and kissed him and hugged him and danced him and tried to shove the bottle between his lips but he didn’t want it. For the first time since I’ve been wishing it, he didn’t want a bottle, he didn’t even know whether anyone was there, and I wondered was this my fault and then I realised that yes, of course it was, of course. I’m full of holes, just like she says.
“Wh-what have you done?” French.
“Open the light.” English.
But I lie here a bit longer. I cling to this moment, which, when I think what’s to come, almost feels like bliss.