Understand that you are alone. That in order to write you must be alone, no matter how dark and murky that place is, no matter how terrified you are, because only when you are on your own, indifferent, for those few hours, to judgement or love, can you see into that place before words. You’re on the cross-trainer when you realise this, scenes from some music video flashing on the TV screens, men and women dancing Capoeira on a beach in Rio, the gym almost empty at this time of the afternoon.
There’s a lot of September light out there when you’re back up on the street, your body freed by that realisation, that you will emerge from the darkness, from that crater where writing happens and where you must go – you have to! – if you want to make anything worthy happen. The children cling to the high fences in front of their school on Conewood Street. It is a prison, and we must entertain ourselves for the duration, forced to play, forced to be with others. No fences when I was a boy. The children, drugged, don’t notice when you pass, their eyes concerned with balancing, their eyes on the ball on the caged bitumen playground. If you want to fly, kiddies, you’re fucked.
Everything will be written into a little spiral notebook, 99p at the newsagent, 50p for the pen. And the Park a short walk away, the sun on the right-hand pavement, a red carpet to Whitehouse Gate, and from there you’ll have safe passage to the café. Dead leaves already, the grass – parched. In Africa – ah, back in Aafrika – our lawns were like that, not always, but we remember the yellowed grass, dry, and the boy we were in love with, us and him using our spectacles – your goggles, Four Eyes – like a magnifying glass to burn small circles round the lawn, as if tears could burn, singe black aureoles into the earth.
You’ll taste them all, you tell the guy behind the counter. Young men who work in cafés, there must be something to say about them, their willingness to serve, to see to your needs, to give. Why won’t they give men more opportunities to show love. Be a man. No, but I want to serve you sweet things – brownies, and shortbread, and an Eccles cake, freshly made, and coffee, just for you, unsugared, but sweet in its richness, and dark. Let’s be in Europe. Let’s be in North Africa. But the Eccles cake is England.
Not quite Christmas, but the combination of sweet, cooked fruits and a crisp flaky pastry, that is something you’d never eaten before. Happier now, the syrupy fruit in your mouth, candy always a comfort, and the flavours – exotic. It’s true. And this mild sun, too, simple in its warmth. Not heat, not enough for that, but as simple as not needing more clothes, nor shelter. The beginning of hibernation is the cold when the sun disappears. Not for long. There, it’s back. You can peel off layers, as if your skin were drying like a snake, ready to shed, like grass that dries to leave the earth bare, a brown canvas to be painted over with snow.
But wait. Even if they’re packing up, even if he’s stacking the chairs, there’s still an hour to go. You can’t close yet, can’t fling me out. I will not go into exile, not again. Two girls in school uniform, grey and lime green, come in for tea and cake. We’re women now, grown up, we sit in cafés and talk about boys, and love. A child cries, a dog barks, birds sing. And always the sun, directly on you, onto the porch – portico comes to mind – and you know the house was built for this, for this time of day. Jeeves, build me a house with a portico to catch the afternoon sun. Snap snap. I want to watch the blue of the skies unravelling, erasing clouds, making way for the awning of night.
“It’s funny,” the woman says to her friend as they climb the stairs to the cafe. “Juliana and Anna and Felicia all fancied her.”
The little girl likes to eat peas. Her grandfather’s friend interrogates her. Who’s your teacher? What is your favourite thing to eat? Do you like your cookie? Miss Penny is her teacher. And Miss Leah.
It’s a buggy-free zone now. Fathers more than mothers. Take her for a walk, let me get the baby settled. Come back for dinner.
The words keep getting reborn when the son appears.
I mean: The world keeps getting reborn when the sun appears.
He carries two folded up tables at once, one under each arm, pausing at the foot of the stairs to let the couple pass, thanking each other, cute (Sri Lankan?) man who works in café and straight couple heading home. Boyfriend pulls girlfriend to him, kisses her on the side of the head. You’re mine. He may be more beautiful than me – yes, I saw you looking at him – but I don’t work in a fucking cafe, and I don’t have to clear up after myself, and I don’t take orders from nobody.
Judge a place by its brownies. Gail’s makes the perfect brownie, although it’s probably more soft brick of chocolate than brownie in the traditional sense. But it does make you feel lucky, the way it radiates out into your day, mending whatever went wrong before, promising splendour till bedtime. Not here, not heavy enough, not dense enough. More cookie than brownie. A bite from each: Eccles cake, brownie, but first the shortbread that melts in your mouth. It does, literally, melt, some of it gathering at the base of your gums. You’re not sure what the ideal shortbread should taste like, but you would come back for this.
Quick. Pictures before you leave. Of the table-top, the display of cakes, the young man’s hand – but I want more, now that I’m not alone anymore, now that I’ve been to that place where writing happens, now that I’ve calmed myself with words, each word a story, each story a translation, each translation a creation. Are my feet lighter, my body nimble, even porous? Shall I walk or fly back home?
The boy is about five or six, whizzing down the path on his scooter, turning sharply and bang, onto the tarmac. Don’t run to him. He’s not your son. (A man on the train talked to the girl’s parents about his wife’s horses. She owned stables, trained horses for show-jumping. He’s an actor, heading home from White City. I miss my daughter, and he will not see her again, not really; he’s thirty-one, but already he feels excluded as a grandfather.) You stare at the boy, his eyes growing wider, his body fighting tears (oh, you coward for not trusting your instinct, for not rushing to comfort him). Then the boy opens his mouth to reassure you: “I’m okay.”
“Are you okay?” you say.
“Yes, I’m okay,” he says. “I’m not hurt.”
Which is when his mother appears and the boy starts to cry.