Short story for 'a thousand-word photos'
I eat pens – a bouquet of broken biros sits in a cup on my desk. I love the way they splinter and jag in my mouth. The office phone rings all the time, but I’m languorous – chilled even. I’ll answer with a sort of: “heeeeeeeeeeey,” a word so relaxed you’d think it were reclining into a sofa. I’m dragging the greeting out because I can’t remember the name of my company quite yet. I’m distracted by all of the tabs I have open on my screen: the Instagram of some bloke I vaguely recognise, a recipe for quiche, a selection of sleek outfits I can’t afford.
To get here I commute, it’s the best way to feel the weight of London – clambering into its arteries during rush-hour. It heaves with dead eyed professionals: men in bleak suits and girls with their hair scalloped into ponytails. Everyone has headphones in – we’re all numbing out to something. I like the over-ground because it’s easier to get a seat. Sometimes I’ll try and mediate, but I’m distracted by my phone – it yaps about everything all of the time. It’s a relentless stream of chatter that tells me I’m not alone.
I want to be alone: alone is xen and xen is an island I can never quite get to. I imagine the crooning of wood pigeons or somewhere as soothing as that photograph of a mountain I’ve saved on my desktop. Mediating on the over-ground doesn’t get me there – it’s like eating an apple when your starving.
My fingers will itch their way to my screen – like it’s a part of my body. I’ll touch it in absent-minded fascination, I imagine this is how young men feel about their penises. I’ll unlock it and glue my head to some girls feed – a spattered collage of flesh, florals and frothy drinks. I’m addicted to these inventories of other people’s lives, I get lost in their grinning faces. I’ll spend the next ten minutes thinking about how I’m not engaging enough.
I went to stay with my Grandmother, and she told me I talk about myself too much. “Sorry, I’m a millennial,” I drawled as though self-obsession was something totally out of my control, like Tourette’s or whatever. My phone pinged, “Switch it off,” she scolded. “Sorry,” I simpered again, but it was meaningless – like I was apologising on the behalf of a beloved pet that had pissed all over her carpet, all ‘who’s a naughty girl’ as I cupped the phone to my breast to let it know that I loved it.
I’m anxious – all of the time. I read that chia-seeds might help, so I turned them into a pudding and forgot. I came back from work today and found a forest of mould; an entire eco-system teeming in my fridge. The smell was so bad I left my flat. I’ve gotten on a train and I don’t know where it’s going. I walked in a trance – gliding across the anonymous grey of a station.
The train I’ve chosen is various shades of insignificant: muted green chairs muddled with the smell of urine and antiseptic. I sit down and notice my table is coated in something sticky and orange – the dust of some lurid crisps. I pick up my phone to stare at a litany of pointlessness: an alert tells me that my screen time is up by thirty-three percent, now an average of five hours a day.
We’re moving so I press my face to the window and feel all of the towns rush past in a dizzying blur. I try and meditate. But my nerves feel like marbles skittering across a floor – rippling builds into waves until every murmur I’ve ever heard becomes a yell. All of my doubt starts to calcify as my organs feel like they’re twitching in some sort of acid. People are chattering and laughing and sniggering. And I wasn’t invited, and no one likes me, and no one will ever love me, and he never text me back. And everyone is rolling their eyes and whispering, and I’m paranoid and their plotting and I’ve always known-
I smelt him before I heard him – a heady mix of sambuca and cigarettes.
“Sorry, to disturb you,” he slurs “but my friends and I are drinking so I apologise in advance.” He sputters into laughter.
I imagine smashing something ceramic like a plate. I want to feel it scuff and crack. I am so angry. I feel it throbbing – I am insane. I need to shout at him. But instead I say nothing – maybe he thinks I’m French.
The train rattles to a halt and I get off, pushing through the barriers and moving out of the station. I feel like I might not be able to breath. I claw my way on to the streets. But I have no idea where I am, I keep passing pubs and nightclubs. I can hear the caw of seagulls. I stumble past the residue of some louche hen party: fag butts and crude confetti. I spot two animal masks – I pick up one that’s shaped like a wolf and put it on. I keep walking as my feelings gallop – all of my most primal and carnivorous appetites are ripping their way out of me.
I taste and feel the ocean – salt and stinging wind, I’m pulled to it like a magnet. I clutch onto some rails and drink it in – for a moment its immensity makes me feel calm. I think about lobbing my phone into it. Letting it get lapped up, maybe eaten by some little crabs. But I haven’t gone completely nuts, instead I put it on a timer and take this photograph. It’s of me and I’m standing in an empty car park, it’s late February. Maybe I should put it on my Instagram and caption it something like: ‘Anonymous Londoner Wearing a Mask.’ I start laughing and cannot stop. I am a mad and baying dog.