Jessica E. Wragg

Tag: london fiction

Upon my body.

Take me in your hands of sugar
and kiss the tepid light, sweet
to the tongue and rhythmic on my tastebuds
like a samba dance.
Read my laughter lines and my love
lines and then tell me I’m going to die.
My life line disappears, somewhere
around my thumb.
Tell me honestly if I am sunburnt,
and I’ll let you know if I think that
you spend too much money on jeans
and beer and fast food. Peel back
the dead skin, make way for new life
upon my ankles.
Heal the scar on my kneecap with
your mouth, leave a kiss print in spit
on the joint.
My lips are dry.
My skin has stubble.
My nails are bitten.
My hands are rough, but with you
they glide softly across your back.

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Origins

I wrote this piece as part of a larger project, imagining the origins of London and some of the world’s other biggest cities and the effect that human emotion could have taken on it. The environment and its decline, to me, is one of the biggest issues facing our civilisation at the moment in time, and it’s influenced a lot of my writing recently. 

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There is an ocean, which laps at my shoulders
softly. Prodding me, sending foam sailing across
my skin with every wave. Dull green weeds clamour
the base of my neck like a crowd at the gates.

Forcefully treading water, gently paddling the surface
for four feet deep in ten, my toes curled so as to
not catch the snuggle-tooth coral below, or perhaps the church
spire pushed from the sand like straight, proud shoulders.

And yet, for all the salt, I still taste the dead city.
The sea took it, replaced it with nothing, built water
on its rooftops, covered its head with a bed of sand hidden
between the kelp that travelled here by accident on a current.

The smell is not salt water and plastic and scum it is
saffron, jasmine, myrrh floating through the water on
a bubble of air from the deep. With every shift of
earth comes the perfume of a lost civilisation.

There is an ocean, which laps at my shoulders,
whispering a secret that I already knew. The stories
of children climbing buildings to escape the water,
their fingers scrambling on smooth marble to get higher.

Of the elderly women, so taken by the flood that they
took cups from their kitchens, scooped them up in their hands
and tried to drink it away, expectant and wrinkled fingers
grasping at the china, realising when it was too late.

It did not take minutes for the water to rise, it took
weeks, months – so long that the King himself
did not see it until he got out of bed one morning to find
his slippers not where he left them, but floating by his dresser.

Thin like matchsticks, thick like fists, buildings toppled down
like pins against a giant ball. My father told me the stories whilst
my mother hushed him through the violence. I came here first
looking for survivors but found only schools of fish. My brother

had told me that they were the people – turned into creatures
by the Gods for disobeying them but I know that they are just fish.
I know the stories too well; of a city up in flames, rotting from
the inside outwards, crumbling slowly into pieces like Sodom.

I know the stories of a city which did not see the flood until the
King had lost his rabbit fur slippers. I sometimes see them
on the horizon, still floating on the surface,
heading out in search of a new pair of feet to keep warm.

Rations

I have said ‘I love you’ seven times.

Sometimes I feel like a green glass bottle; thick, sharp, hard. A white and red label wrapped tightly around my midriff, a lot of pseudo-French words and then LOVE RESPONSIBLY stamped on the back. A red picture of a pregnant lady, a warning sign; LIMIT, DO NOT, PER DAY.

I ration myself like alcohol, like the sweet nectar of white wine enjoyed in the kissing sunlight of summer. I talk myself into extra helpings of you, savour the bites until they grow fur and mould whilst still clinging to my tongue.

I am sick of comparisons.

But you, you kiss me with your hands around the back of my neck like the brace position. Like a tumbling aircraft and a steep descent; gasping on borrowed oxygen and feeling my heart plummet into the chasm of my ribs.

You told me that you love me on the top deck of the 453 to Deptford, surrounded by Spanish schoolchildren who got on at Piccadilly and off at Trafalgar. They were loud whilst they were there, and then the silence was unbearable thereafter. I feel like you said it to fill the void. You apologised afterwards.

I looked around at the bus lamps, the orange plastic handles and the threading of the polyester seats. There was chewing gum on the floor, empty cola bottles, a Subway rapper with marinara sauce streamed across the linoleum. I was suddenly hungry and thought about dinner. I was somewhere, anywhere else but there and I could not hold your hand because my palms were too sweaty to take a grip.

You could force my face to look at you, but not my eyes. But like you’d grasped them with your fingers I couldn’t help it.

It was the second time anyone had said it back, and the first time I wanted you to have meant it.

There’s Your Problem

When you leave the hospital, the air is metallic in your mouth; on your tongue you can taste the car exhaust, the cigarette smoke, the stale rubbish rotting away in industrial sized bins. You, yourself, feel like a motor engine with cogs and gears whirring inside of you and some turn in the wrong direction with no way to fix them. The doctor talked to you as if you owned a car. There’s your problem, he said. Only one works.

Once, years ago, you saw the skeleton of the Elephant man in a museum around here and where you expected to see smooth bone you saw what looked like jagged coral on the mandible and the femur and the ulna. Your boyfriend sat down, half watching a grainy film about keyhole surgery, half listening when you told him to come and look. Look at this, you said; you wanted him to see the fifteen inch metal pole that was used as a catheter and you wanted to laugh as he, like everyone else, imagined it getting inserted into the end of their own penis.

The thought of a penis makes you scrunch up your eyes. Reproductive organs and eggs and fallopian tubes and wombs and lining and ovaries and only one works.

Over the road, as you walk past the Post Office collection point, a small boy crawls along the floor outside the underground station. You watch as his mother, phone lodged underneath her chin, stumbles frantically after him with her arms stretched outwards and her fingers just about managing to hook him from the armpits. As if flying, he is in the air, feet flailing five inches above the ground. He enjoys the feeling of hovering. When you were small, your father would put your small body in a blanket and gather up the corners in his fist. You would be in darkness for a second, making a peephole for yourself, the rough cotton smothering your skin and swaddling you like you remember as a baby. In the blanket, he would pick you up, and swing you around and you feel weightless, flying past the light wooden cupboards in the kitchen and narrowly avoiding the flat stool that rested against the ‘breakfast bar’. Your heart would feel like it was being tickled on the inside, you know now that what you felt was adrenaline and it was the same adrenaline that you felt when you found you were swinging too high and you couldn’t get back quick enough to the ground.

It is only through a younger memory that you can remember an older one; like you remember remembering.

Do you want children? He had asked you.

You thought of your mother. You thought of lying on her chest in the morning after crawling in from your own bedroom. She was warm, her nightdress a soft cotton. Her heart beat was slow, peaceful, timely. Her small eyes scrunched up in the daylight after a heavy night’s sleep, and you would often wonder how she could recognise you so early in the morning. She held you tight to her chest, and you drifted away again. When she got dressed, she would hoist on her underwear as if strapping on a parachute. Deep, straight veins of pink skin from the rubbing of her bra strap developed after a few hours; she would constantly adjust it. She told you that before you were born, her breasts had been much smaller. Your first bra fitting was with a woman who felt too handsy and gave you something you didn’t want. Young ladies wear cotton t-shirt bras, she had said, but you wanted one with a strap that would rub just like your mother’s. Somehow it signified to you what being a woman was like. Opposite the doctor you realised this was not the case.

On the way down the steps to the underground, you are met with a disgruntled rumbling of a train.

CHESHAM (Metropolitan line) 1 min.

Your oyster card does not have enough money to board. By adding five pounds you have missed your train. You feel the inside of your handbag, the photocopies. Dr Mann had printed off six sheets on a black and white printer for you; they were detailed, with diagrams and flowcharts and the first one he had handed to you was a quiz; get mostly As and you should freeze your eggs now.

Now, the platform is rumbling with the sound of two trains arriving at the same time. The breaks hiss and screech, and you watch as the doors open simultaneously, a familiar jingle as they do.

EDGWARE ROAD via VICTORIA (Circle) 3 min.

This is not your train. The doors jam shut, lock themselves. You breathe. You hate to spend time down here, in the pit right at the bottom of a staircase that ascends to the summit. You can’t stop thinking. Then, you are nervous and your heart skips a beat and it reminds you of when you used to get panic attacks. You went to therapy and you didn’t do your exercises at home. You couldn’t ride the tube because somehow it set you off. You couldn’t drink or get drunk because you didn’t feel in control and then you would go again. Therapy didn’t work. You grew out of it. Your mum bought you something from Boots. It came in a bottle with a pipette and you dropped a few drops onto your tongue and it was meant to calm you.

Princess Diana used it, your mum said.

What good did it do her, you asked. She’s dead, now.

Sssh, your mum said and scolded you. Don’t speak about her that way.

And then you wondered why all older people, mostly women, are obsessed with Princess Diana.

EDGWARE ROAD via VICTORIA (Circle line) 4 min.

This is not your train.

You pull out the leaflets in your bag; all six of them, and shift through them slowly. When someone drags their suitcase by your feet, you pull the papers away from view and wonder why you are looking through them in a train station. The colour is off; this is not black and white, this is grey. You wonder if you should call your doctor, tell him to invest in some more ink, in some office toner, in something to fix his shit printouts. You wonder how long it has been since he printed in colour.

A carriage roars in to the platform next to you, and it is only when the train begin to warn its departure that you realise that this, this is your train. You run, get your bag caught in the hungry doors, they chomp; open and close until you manage to snatch it free. As you pull away, one of your printouts flutters on the platform in the breeze. ‘FREEZE YOUR EGGS’.

The train pulls you away as though you are hovering, and you can feel yourself loosening. The carpeted seats scratch at your back through the shirt, and you cannot put your arm upon the rest because of the broad man sat beside you, but still you are easing. You are melting into the metal, re-moulding into another person on another train. You pick up the newspaper, slot your printouts into the middle in between the television guide and fold it away under your seat. The train grinds to a halt.

‘I’m sorry about the delay ladies and gentlemen, but we’re just waiting in the tunnel whilst they fix something on the train ahead. We should be on the move shortly’, he says.

And then:

‘Ah, there’s your problem! There’s a signal failure up ahead. We might be here for some time.’

Life tracks

It is not early. It is not her first.

She walks barefoot across the train tracks; the oval pads of her toes hug each jagged edge and smooth line of the pebbles that lie underneath the metal. Every so often she feels the rumble of earth as a high speed train takes the connection half a mile away. The vibrations begin softly in her feet, jiggle the fat of her calves. It careers eastwards. She is standing north.

She trembles, takes a deep breath, and begins the wait again.

She sees herself above, watching the train snake the bend, gliding quickly on rolling wheels, cutting through vast stretches of beige farmland and brown thicket, splicing the country with chrome steel and iron. Away from something, away from her.

Reluctantly, she takes the bank and heads south, crouching low in the bushes at a level crossing. The barriers are up, splayed and pointing at the sky. A single SUV with tinted windows and tired paintwork thunders through the gates and over the line, bumping up and down on hydraulic springs. She cowers in the hedgerow, hands gripped tightly around a thorned branch; smooth, glossy spikes sliding easily into her skin. Letting go, her palms speckle the white cotton of her dress.

The tracks hum lowly. In the soft light of the day, blurred in spring sunshine, small stones beneath the wires jump and kick. Her nightdress blows quickly around her legs, whipping her knobbly and boney ankles. The grasses in the field flatten, the wind picks them back up again. Somewhere, on a breeze, the song of a platform announcement sails gently in.

The 11.46 to Bedford is late. It is 12.05.

Even as a child she was surprised at the speed at which cross country trains move. There had been afternoons in the standard coach carriage; shooting through empty stations and grassland her eyes had struggled to keep up. Her tiny, sweaty palms pressed against the glass. Her mother asleep, a can of Smirnoff and lemonade crushed empty on the fold down table.

The 11.46 is slow. It creeps, crawls through the bend and northbound. Then, with a mighty whistle that she feels shake her bones the trains sprints towards her lights blazing, even in the day; one long, dark window seating two people in navy blue shirt.

She takes the moment. She turns to the wind, and she runs.

As the train careers near, she begins to run in front of it, begging it to give chase. She is dreaming, sprinting faster than she ever has, her heels bashing the backs of her thighs, kicking as much ground as possible between her and the locomotive. She hears the driver apply the breaks, pistons hissing. It is just a matter of time before the train grinds to a halt.

For now, she runs just ahead. Her breath is heavy, blood pounding within the quickening sweeps of her arms.

She has never run faster than the train. Usually it is a case of giving up, of jumping down from the tracks when she knew there was no chance of carrying on.

The train screams in protest. She can no longer feels her legs.

An ambitious leap. Her body falls on the gravel. It scrapes the skin from her calves and forearms.

Carriage A. People staring, fingers against glass, men in white shirts.

Carriage B. The buffet. A pair of train staff bookending a food cart.

Carriage C. Nothing. A whirring generator painted light blue and green.

Carriage D. Missing.

Carriage E. First class, sooty windows and a toilet spilling out on to the ground.

Carriage F. The train stops. A child stares from the lap of his mother, eyes pale and wide.

The door slams and the operator starts towards her. She scrambles to her feet and darts through the thicket. There is blood on her chest and arms. At least she knows she is alive.

Grapefruit.

I am lying on your table; all chrome, steel, polished metal. My back is cold, slipping downstairs in my hospital gown of turquoise polyester; like a child in their mother’s clothing. Your eyes are cased behind thick lenses, magnified, large and questioning. Thick rimmed glasses. All the while I am watching your hands.

They are soft and ageing badly, tanned on the back and pale palms with yellow cuticles. You’re patting my forehead beneath the hair that I did not push away.

It is a strong blade, a sharp one. Cutting slowly you slice me in two, straight down the middle, and open me up like a grapefruit. I am glistening; my pink, red, purple innards looking upwards towards the ceiling of styrofoam squares and oddly placed light bulbs. I blink madly in the false light.

My middle is off-centre, my legs splayed outwards like the thrown down toys of a child, my stomach is a round thing. Peel back my skin – the shrill sound of cutting echoing back and forth against the plexiglass. I watch, you reach inside. Past the wet warmth of my liver and stomach, which spit like a spoon bursting the sweet flesh of an orange; bitter rind and sweet insides. You are smiling behind the cotton face mask, I am waiting for you to lick the juice from your chin.

Destination – I forget, now.

We sit together in rigid seats, backs slumped, resting on each other’s spines for support. My leg across yours; my fat thigh spreading outwards, your hand on my nylon tights. We watch every single person who came up the stairs, neither of us mentions anything.

On the bus to Streatham Hill. Destination: Telford Avenue. Destination: Somewhere. Destination: I forget now.

Playing thumb wars with no space to manoeuvre, our grubby thumbs in a spiral, caressing the pads of our fingers, trying to squish the other’s appendages. Sometimes you win, most of the time, I win. I flatten your thumb under mine until it turns a yellowish white. You give in, mostly, and deny that I beat you.

I forget that it’s a someone driving us where we are going, caged in behind thick Plexiglas yet so excited to see a familiar face. Once, when we were alone on the night bus, the voice spoke to us through his speakers, started a conversation about its favourite route, it’s favourite bus, it’s favourite wife. We spoke back to it; answered its questions when it asked us, apologised when we spoke over it. We both knew he couldn’t hear us, but that’s the thing with lonely people – they never do.

Somehow, we are in the station. Thick, sighing buses lined up like a conga, and the voices are now the men and women, wearily plodding down from their Plexiglas cages. The hiss of the doors on hydraulics as they open, the hiss of the doors on hydraulics as they close. The lights go off, and we are on the back seat.

The first thing to do, you say, is hide. You let your legs slide beneath the seat in front, and disappear downwards. You remind me of a razor clam; spending hours poking them in the supermarket until their glossy tongues retreated into their hideaway. I think I killed one once.

I do the same, and we are all shoulders, all double chins, folded up underneath the bus seats, dangerously close to chewing gum and empty bottles of Fanta.

I’m unnerved, because I know that if you wanted to, you could fall asleep, and we’d be trapped in the bus all night. I would not sleep; too antsy to move in case my hair caught in dirt, too awake to sleep because we are in fact, trapped on an empty bus.

Do you think they know? You ask, and I say: Why would they?

You shrug, as much as you can lying flat beneath the seats. I do the same. They are the men and women in fleece vests. They are the men and women who spoke to us through the megaphone. They are the men and women who forgot they had passengers. They are the men and women, who probably didn’t.

I don’t remember if we moved or not, now. Did we stay there all night? Destination: Telford Avenue. Destination: Somewhere. Destination: I forget, now.

The Magician

It was as though the magic had worn off, like the sheen of silver and trickles of gold had dulled into copper and brass. I began to hate you when you were around and wished that you would disappear.  My mother said that’s what happens to all couples, until the hating takes too much effort and the loving isn’t worth it. Then there is just fondness.

Someone, and I don’t remember who, asked me what it feels like, to love someone that way. I told them that it was like eating an orange; sweet, little bites with snaps of bitter peel, smelling you on my fingers for hours after you had gone. They told me I was being too arty. I thought the description was good.

Letting someone in takes time and we were not very good at it. We tried lying on our sides in a park in Brixton, in silence. Not a park as such, more a stretch of grass outside a housing estate, feeling the hum and rumble of the underground below us. I placed my palm on the earth and felt it twitch. The idea was there. We looked up at the sky but the brown brick got in the way, and then it began to rain. Only a little at first, but then a lot, and we couldn’t ignore it any longer and took refuge in a local café; the kind where locals sit outside and eyeball you not to come in. It wasn’t inviting, but it was warm, and that seemed to be all that mattered in the moment.

I think I much preferred you when I was 12. When we were children you took it upon yourself to learn magic tricks. You told me in Drama group that it was going to help you become famous, that your mother had bought you a kit from the back pages of the Argos catalogue. I had wondered at the time how, if it was so easy to buy magic at Argos, there weren’t more magicians we knew; our classmates and teachers. My parents had it drilled into me from a young age that magic does not exist and neither does God, so I told you not to be silly. Then, outside the Shalamar chicken shop at Easter half term you told me to pick and card and pulled the same one out from behind my ear and suddenly I believed in heaven and hell and all that’s in between. I asked if the card was lucky and you said: ‘No, Emily, I’ve been practising.’

A few months ago I found the magic kit in a suitcase behind the wardrobe that we share; sponge balls and metal cups and hoops with links in them. I left them out in hope, but you tidied them away; ‘God, where did you find these?’

Back in the café, whether you knew I was watching or not, you turned your empty cup upside down over a lump of grubby sugar and dragged it around in a snake on the table top. When you picked it up again, the sugar was still there, and you watched it for a little while, wondering why it hadn’t moved. I stole it from you, popped it into my mouth, crunched on it until the sweetness became too much and shook the nerves in my teeth. I looked up at you expecting to see your eyes. You were staring through me at the posters on the wall. Perhaps you had made me disappear.