by Francesca Brooks
Steamed white fish and green vegetables: that is what Tomasz will have for dinner. There is still time to prepare it, despite the diversion through the paranoid lights of central London: Piccadilly Circus, Soho, Leicester Square.
You might have struggled already with the name, ‘Tomasz’. Not a slipping and sliding over soft consonants, as anyone who speaks Polish would know, but a hard crackle. More like ‘Tomack’.
But Tomasz will introduce himself as Patrick, a queer Anglicization of his name. Not Tom? No. Because there is something in that final smack which defines his character. Don’t pick over the details, he’ll be Patrick.
The luxury of light when I left work kept me out on the streets. The gaping ache at Sloane Square: jostling me back towards paving stones, to the open air; its stuffed clutch a repellent; more than I could bear.
It was all I had in this city.
Between the warren of white roads in Chelsea, across Green Park down the dim avenues of light and high-cast trees, to the emptied-out square of Covent Garden; I have already dreamt of my own disappearance, wondered if I could dissolve into the London crowds, the London air.
This is no place I should be, they will say. Neither where I work, nor where I live. Not on the way between, but a labyrinth, lost and disconnected. An island on the trackable map, drifting.
Patrick, a ‘mobile personal trainer’, has no prescribed route, only scribbles of shifting itineraries. A series of diversions enacted in the wake of figures cutting the light, casual-gifted smiles, the single visible trace.
Walking the city’s loud, visceral centre, he is a stranger.
Perhaps he walks at the same distance from the world as I do and senses it. In the hem of my dark green coat and my hesitation at the lights, he sees it.
Here are the traffic lights at Leicester Square, and here I am, unraveled; tendrils of overflowing pubs and street-spilling crowds curling at either side but never touching me. I turn as Patrick arrives beside me to wait for the lights to change, and smile.
It is something I give away, a smile, before crossing the road. Disappearing into the lightness of not-being, gestures barely break the surface of the night.
In a city of anonymity Patrick accepts the static of silences unbroken.
He accepts, but it is not real. In Warsaw, Krakow or Gdansk perhaps: the same. But Patrick is from a small village. Into the hands of gasps his mother passes his business cards still.
His London: a swelling mass of lights, an ever-beckoning possibility. This London arouses but never fulfils him; coat hems swishing and then disappearing into impenetrable sets of crowds.
My loneliness on this smog-hot-rich city street is a palpable scent, remnant of a life I’d like to wriggle out of.
Not now. Not at this moment is it a good idea to follow me: tracing the warmth in a careless gesture as if it were an invitation. I do not need this, now, in the deep swell of this central London rambling. I am all too vulnerable, too aware, suddenly.
To fade and evade I quicken my pace as I come around the side of Leicester Square tube station. Patrick is back-lit by cabinets of sandwiches, expensive juices, and pizza slices: nauseous glow. But the bookshops on Charing Cross Road convince me that I have lost him. I sink into myself, the unsettling rhythm of strangers on city streets.
A steamy coffee and conversation: that is what Patrick will have for dinner now.
The paranoid lights keep blinking in. They light everything like a film set, like coincidence, like fate.
Central London and his heart pounds: wilder and faster. A different rhythm to the flashing glass panels, the vegetable matter of his home near Kew. Everything moves at a quicker pace here: there is no shame in running to catch up.
Patrick wears a leather jacket, residue of sweat beneath it, the gym clinging to him. He remembers this as he sprints: an awkwardness. There are only so many routes in central London – a constellation of landmarks following a predictable thread, all converging on Trafalgar Square.
But I see no theatrics, no cinematics, only the cold glow of artificial lights on the surface of the fountains. There is no coincidence in the gathering of that smile and its weakening shadow. If you track it, it is no longer a random act of fatal London.
A little too self-consciously I sigh at the balcony of Trafalgar Square, launch my thoughts towards the fountains below. The skies mauve and crimson ripple beneath clouds and currents into other deep-metal shades. In the dark, this square belongs entirely to cold London.
In the loneliness of this city, this city beyond possession, my job. The night air in my hands: I breathe it away without even meaning to. These fragile touches of life: sprawling like the roadways and train tracks. This closed, dark centre. The soft traces of my London life: as quiet as the plash of the water illuminated.
For Patrick: a gift. London suddenly majestic: a column, a clock tower, a coat. The broad arms which clasp beneath the National Gallery, and hold, here, the thread he has been following.
So here is Patrick landing beside me, another life. That swell which pulls me, rising to a new pitch: I saw you at the lights at Leicester Square and now here, and I thought: a coincidence. I must talk to that girl.