Walter Pigeon sits on a red plastic bench at the bus shelter on George Lane. He is waiting for one of the single-decker ‘W’ buses to arrive. The cool, damp drizzle of the early morning intensifies his pensive mood.
Walter glances up at the bus timetable: ‘about every twenty minutes’, he reads, and knows from past experience that twenty minutes can stretch to half an hour, depending on the sluggish suburban dual-carriageway traffic; that a bus may not arrive at all if a driver is ill and the route is short-staffed; that he could be sitting there for some time, with others around him waiting, then disappearing onto buses bound for other places. Over the years, Walter has witnessed the dissolution of queue etiquette. Who gets on the bus first cannot be predicted, as this particular triumph now depends on who has the most cheek to elbow their way past fellow passengers. No matter that Walter is a large but fragile man, his ageing, weighty body supported by crutches. Courtesy and politeness are long gone, he muses.
Walter is proud of the fact that he has never needed to own a portable music player. Walter loves the blues, sings blues songs to himself in his head. Today, his mind throbs with Lightnin’ Hopkins’ ‘Woke up this Morning’, his silent-voice riding the rolling intensity of Hopkins’ melody.
‘Wild’ Walter Pigeon dwells inside him, a lithe, long-fingered guitar virtuoso, a rebellious poet of misfortune, loss and ruined romance. Walter has never played the guitar, but he can feel the rhythm and the cut of strings against his fingers. He has never sung in front of an audience, except in dreams.
He smiles as he thinks about his secret self, so lost in contemplation that he does not notice the W12 arrive until he feels the small crowd shuffle in front of him, vying to be the first to get on the bus. He eases himself slowly off the bench to join back of the queue, when a young boy, hunched, hood up obscuring his face, stands aside.
When I first started this job, Ged said to me, What do you want to work here for? You should be out taking drugs and clubbing and fucking. I looked down at my clothes: too clingy, too red, too much boob, ass, leg? He struggles to look me in the eye. Rather than show me how to work the till, the first thing Ged did was to ask me where I’m from. I said, Cockfosters, and can you believe he actually said, no, where are you really from? I said again, Cockfosters. He thought I was being facetious.
I am on probation.
I was so bored in that dead hour before the shop closes that I was looking up pictures of spiders on the internet. I found one that’s the absolute spit of Ged – admittedly, Ged has fewer legs – but he’s the closest any homo sapien has come to resembling a Crab spider: a blob for a body, spindly legs, milk-white. The website states, helpfully, that they stalk their prey by jumping on unsuspecting victims. Spiders do what they must.
It’s one minute to nine the next morning. We’re not open yet. The phone rings. I say, Paul, can you get that?Paul says, no, you get it. I cajole, ohgoon Paul with the professional voice, please. Then I feel Ged’s eyes boring into me across the shop floor, so I pick up. A voice is competing with the sound of traffic. His tongue curls around vowels, stretches them out. The voice is spilling out of the mouthpiece of the phone. I want a tri-band router. A ZT-5300 ZonePro Tech ethernet router.Can you hear me? I say, I’ll check, hold on a moment. In a thick-tongued, bristly brogue, I say to Paul, yooou got a ZT-5300 root-orrr in stuck? Paul shakes with silent laughter as he checks the shelves behind the counter and nods. I take my hand off the mouthpiece. Hello? Sorry to keep you – hello? But the voice has gone. Ged takes one contemptuous look at me and marches upstairs to his office.
A week later, and I’m in Ged’s grubby office sitting opposite a regional manager in an ill-fitting blue suit, an HR consultant from Head Office, all padded shoulders and bootcut trousers, and Ged. I’d half-expected the latter’s monotonic lecture about my unsatisfactoryconduct – but then he uses The R Word: the one I use to describe my ex-boyfriend’s Dad who wouldn’t have me in the house; the one that sums up my maths teacher at school who outright called me thick, like the rest of my lot. Not to mention the people who moan and say the country’s full! I look at the faces opposite me: Ged’s, narrow and treacherous; the regional manager, his smile oily with schadenfreude. I listen to the HR consultant as her scarlet lips extol the virtues of training that will improve my cultural awareness. That’s when I begin to laugh. I laugh for so long that the muscles in my gut ping like overstretched elastic. I laugh myself out of the office, out of the front door of the shop, and out of a job.
i) The Runaways, June 1984
Kay and I are best friends. We’ve just left school, forever. We are three weeks into the summer holidays, and I’m walking to her house down the North Circular Road. The grass verge with its pink cherry trees that runs between the dual carriageways is beautiful, like a postcard from the country. I love the familiar smell of cherry blossom mixed with ever-present traffic fumes.
I have my homemade map with me. Kay will tease me a bit because I’ve bothered to bring it, but then she will take out hers from her wardrobe and we’ll put them together. The only roads and buildings we include are the ones that matter to us: my house. Kay’s house. The A406 from Edmonton to Palmer’s Green, the sharp left of the road onto Green Lanes. On mine, the way to Kay’s house is drawn as a sharp backwards ‘L’ with a dislocated tail. Our maps are more like constellations, felt tip dreams of our reality.
Kay and I became interested in maps when we joined the Science Club at school. It was run by our unfeasibly good-looking science teacher, Mr Forster. We were fascinated by his laborious experiments to measure longitude and latitude: building a quadrant, waiting for the midday sun. We had to take his word for it when it came to working out latitude and identifying the North Star, because we were forbidden from meeting him at night. But our imaginations soared. We called ourselves the Mappers, and spent hours poring over ordinance survey maps and atlases in the school library.
We agreed that we would run away today – only for a day. Kay thinks it will take my mind off the fact that I failed all my O’ levels except two: Maths and Physics.
‘Let’s catch the 29 bus all the way to Trafalgar Square and wonder down the Thames towards Docklands,’ Kay suggested. ‘Don’t worry. In twenty year’s time school exams won’t seem so important anymore.’
I’m not sure I believe her.
ii) A Baby, August 1992
I receive a letter from Kay. It begins,
Guess what? I’ve had a baby! It’s a boy, 7lbs 9oz. I’m so happy! The labour was hell, though, I could barely walk afterwards!! Dave’s been brilliant, he’s going to be a great Dad…
I begin to lose interest. Kay writes that they are going to christen the baby Perry, which is a horrible name. She regrets that I couldn’t come to their wedding (that was a year ago), is sorry that I missed their housewarming party.
I concentrate on the hum and trundle of washing machines and dryers from the launderette beneath my flat. I stare down at the busy street full of shoppers through my living room window.
When we were teenagers, Kay and I said that we cared about most in the world is freedom, and in order to remain free we wouldn’t have kids. We didn’t tell anyone about this. It was the Mappers’ secret. Kay has broken the pact between us. Worse, she’s obviously forgotten that we made the pact in the first place. We are no longer the Mappers.
iii) On Not Meeting, March 2004
I’m forty. My soul is lost to Barclay’s Bank and banking is what I do for a living. The Maths O’ level came in handy. I’m divorced, I kept the Mappers’ pact. I travel to work, walking from my flat to Turnpike Lane station. I get the tube to Moorgate, and walk five minutes to the bank. If I was still updating my map, I would represent this journey with one-dimensional Monopoly houses of different colours (red for home and green for work) and a tangle of felt tip lines to indicate direction and method of transport. It would make sense.
I have an account on the Friends Reunited website. I waste time scrolling through the profiles of my ex-school acquaintances, now remarkably transformed into happy, successful adults. I look at Kay’s profile occasionally, and she is now on Baby Number Four. Kay posts pictures of camping holidays and family Christmases, and nights out with work colleagues. One day, unexpectedly, after years of silence I receive this message:
Hiya! It’s Kay – great to find you on here, it’s been ages!
We send each other messages, promise to catch up, make a date to meet. But now we are plotted on a map not made by us I want to erase the timeline.
After to-ing and fro-ing, exchanging messages for a whole week, I thought it was time we met. We seem to get on, through words, anyway, so why not? You’ve seen photos of me, you know what I look like, and you’ve said you like what you see, this – twenty-something me. Slim-skinny – I think, a dream of yours. I’ve told you I’m a former model, and you’re impressed. You own properties all over East London and you’ve got a nice holiday home in Marbella. I’m mildly impressed by that.
We planned to meet tonight at 7 pm, at the Red Bar, a cavernous, best-kept secret beneath the Tottenham Court Road. You say, e-swift in your replies, yes, yes, great, can’t wait to meet you.
I put on my best silk dress. Cliché hot-red. My patent leather red stilettos, size ten, are a perfect fit. My long platinum-blond hair almost glitters against my sable skin.
At the Red Bar, I sit and watch as you approach: a mature man, slightly stooped, a little bit pink, but that could be the light. You are exactly as I thought you would be. Eager, face wide open with hope. I stand up, offer my hand. Charmaine? Charlie. Kiss. Kiss. Your grey eyes meet mine. A look, a start. I’m so much taller than you. My hand grips yours, tighter. Poor Charlie.
You say, you’re not, are you?
Deepening my voice for full effect, I almost purr, during the day, Charlie, yes. But at night, I’m all woman.