It was evening, but it didn’t know it yet. Light was still caught in the tops of trees, still bouncing off windows, and street lamps, and buildings, too sleepy to turn corners sharply.
Not long after arriving in London, I had secured a job at the coffee shop at Shakespeare’s Globe, but the position turned out to involve far less Shakespeare than I had envisioned (i.e. none) and additionally, to feature heavily the presence of an unpleasant, permanently enraged supervisor. This hadn’t been part of my plan. So when I wasn’t foaming milk and slicing brownies and struggling to lift enormous vats of juice, I made sure also to walk around near the Thames, and visit the theatres and galleries — partly in search of cultural edification and partly in pursuit of free wifi, for jobhunting. I didn’t have internet at home yet. I didn’t have a home yet.
New Zealand isn’t really that diverse. I only realised that now, being here. Here I walked among so many kinds of people, each carrying in their bodies their particular memories, habits, and loves, collected in places that only existed for me in blurry parts: the name of the capital city, a film I saw once, a half-remembered news item. A pick ‘n’ mix of faces, all speaking different languages, or differently accented English, to their children (or someone else’s children; here there were lot of nannies).
For my first three days in London, I had stayed with a high school friend of my father’s, who was going through a divorce and made it clear she was only taking me in out of duty. In my haste to avoid further overstaying my non-existent welcome, I took the first room I found nearby, even though it didn’t have a lounge. Most flats in London don’t have a lounge, I found out. I wasn’t sure what was normal anymore. So when I didn’t have a duvet or sheets, either, I was too embarrassed to mention it to the landlady/ flatmate. I passed a chilly night lying awake under my bath towel, telling myself this place was temporary.
The next day, I still felt like I was dreaming, but the ground pushed back against my feet, hard. I had been walking for hours, and the pressure from the ground seemed like a personal affront in its relentlessness. I was in the scenic vista from biscuit tins of my childhoon, but if this were a picture, I would like to float along right in the middle of the canvas sometimes, or at least have sky and walls press on me sometimes as well. How lovely it would be to lean upwards, against one of those clouds.
If the adults were all from somewhere else, those children were all English, and practically identical. They started off singular, quiescent: imperiously sipping juice and watching the world pass or roll by from their enormous prams. Later, they would burst forth into flocks of school kids, uniformed, who pushed and spilled onto the streets and around the museums and theatres.
The young girls here were especially astonishing. They wore a lot of makeup, but not in the smeared-eyeliner way I was used to. They reminded me of those medieval representations of children; miniature, perfect adults. I was all insecurity and pimples at that age, at this age too — but these creatures intimidated me with their tiny, immaculate, assured selves. Diamond encrusted nails, swishing hair, perfume. I could do nothing but gangle and gape.
Finally, I reached the bus stop, in Euston, on the route of 73, and waited. The buses announced in bright yellow kept coming by, but each of them was packed to the doors with people and the steam that comes from people when they are squashed into buses.
Soon it began raining heavily (yes, this is the UK,) and umbrellas, mackintoshes, and groans appeared. People huddled under the shelter of the stop, and anywhere else they could find. Each time a bus appeared, there would be a kind of Mexican wave of excitement; then a smaller one of disappointment. Everybody who had spilt out onto the street from the stop pause to watch forlornly as another full bus carried on past us. Everybody shuffled back under the eaves of Sainsbury’s.
A man in a dark blue coat turned his large white face to me.
“It’s a joke.”
The sides of his face wobbled expectantly. His eyes were watery and directed, steady as laser beams, straight at me.
I paused for a moment, unsure of what to say.
“Mmm. Terrible.” is what I decided on, trying to sound natural.
Secretly, I was overjoyed. I had just been reading a description by Salman Rushdie of how British people used this expression, with utter humourlessness, when they were really, really angry. It was the first time I had ever heard it said in real life. It was a little bit thrilling.
The man was still looking at me. My contribution didn’t seem to be enough, so I nodded enthusiastically as well. Then I scratched my ear and stomped a bit as if this kind of exchange was normal for me. It seemed to work.
“A joke. We can’t even get on the bloody buses. And they’re getting worse. They’re raising the price of the Oystercard. Soon there’ll be more people on the bloody buses. A joke.”
“A joke.” I agreed, trying it out. He looked at me, I thought, a little suspiciously.
“A joke. A bloody joke” he muttered again.
Now I was worried. He’d seen through me, somehow. Why else would he keep repeating the expression?
Luckily for me, just then, a bus with enough space for two and a bit more people pulled up. The man removed his face from its former position a few conspiratorial inches from mine and strode towards the bus. As he was leaving, he turned back to hastily spit out:
“Them over there, they’re not even from here. Not even bloody born here.”
I couldn’t see who he was gesturing too but he seemed pretty certain someone was there, so I said “…” to his departing back, and then he was gone.
He had spoken in exactly the same tones as before as if carrying on our “it’s a joke” exchange. Did he think “these” people were the ones filling up the buses? Running the bus network? Raising Oystercard prices?
Or maybe it was a dark hint. Maybe he had heard my Kiwi accent as I mangled the “it’s a joke” expression, or perhaps I had a uniquely Antipodean way of standing. My feet hurt. I would never be English.
I looked at the figures, and tried to hear the languages. Those people were Somalians, maybe, and these others…Polish, I guessed, and then all kinds of others, melted together in a uniform misery.
The rain went on. The buses went by. I went to the pub — deciding I’d prefer to go for a beer by myself then go back to my flat. I’d eat chips. How English. And, as I stepped into the golden-lit, warm space of the pub, I felt almost as if I belonged.
This work was published in the Coldnoon Cities (Mapping the Metropolis) Vol II, as part of the Coldnoon journal.