L’Écran Magique

Back then, four years ago, I still possessed this adolescent habit of listening to one album over & over, not really ever tiring of it until another, by chance or recommendation, dethroned it, giving the ears a break my brain never asked for. Nowhere else was this fixation more evident than on my walks to & from work. From the roadside in Whitechapel my route to work was like something from an Etch A Sketch, stutteringly diagonal, diagonally stuttering through grey, headphones in, the ending predictable, the origin unsettling. I walked quickly, stepping over puddles and broken glass.
    The present-day version, recited live by the artist through a large room thick with autumn steam, seemed to pull with sonic fingers so vividly upon the memory that my nostalgia had no choice but to follow.
    Because I pressed play at the same time every day, the music was arranged unintentionally with my journey, only small variations in the order of automobiles, the rolling advertisements at busstops, the minutiae of pedestrian gait & fashion; the stop & starts at traffic lights evened themselves out. The same songs in the same places every day. That particular song started at the back of the seafood restaurant, pooled in a salty exhaust and residual fat sweating across the pavement towards the kerb.
    Bishopsgate severed through, one road into two. It is dull to many, important to few, but how the traffic surges & shifts, how it halts and putters underneath the red and green pendulum is of acute interest to someone as impatient as myself who wished to get from one side to the other as fast as possible without being struck or glanced. Across the other side of the road was a chain coffeeshop. It was warm inside; all the heat married steam and pastry butter until it was quite oppressive. During summer we would have queued out the door, but when the weather turned, every soul waited inside, uncomfortably close to one another, breathing through the gauze of a stranger’s scarf, huddled. Beyond its glass front, the road was barely visible for condensation, paint damp and peeling in the corners of the frame.
    Only one behind the till could carry herself with any grace during that morning rush. If anyone was struggling, she would rush over to assist or takeover, shooing them somewhere less congested. Not long into lockdown, I thought of her and how she might be getting on. It was a good spring that year; we would have been queueing out the door.

    Back then, four years ago, I was falling hard. In retrospect, I was a fool; at the time, happy. Too, the blinds in my rented studio flat were lowered, the windows could not be closed, brackets bent and the whole thing busted open. It was always dark. She was two hours ahead of me. Before I left, I messaged her. Waiting in line, the coffeeshop was an opportunity to check my phone. Our morning routines were exchanged and memorised. I was unfamiliar with making someone else happy. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that one can sometimes accidentally make other people truly happy. When you realise you are capable of such a thing, you hope that it lasts forever, but often it does not.
    I said, I paid, I waited.
    There were scattered meetings taking place in the cramped booths and balanced upon stools; people excused past each other. There were those left alone and leaving alone. There were swift espresso necks. I listened to that song, the song that would be recited back to me by the artist four years later, and I tapped my foot. The tappings of my right foot, were down low and quiet enough, like whistling in a hurricane, that it remained unperceived, or, at the very least, ignored. I tried to learn the lyrics, to anchor a bar or verse, a simile, a scrap of meter against a shift in the music.
    Coffee over the counter, thanks, a brief smile and I hastily swiped my way through the queue. Back on the street, it was drizzling still. Looking back at the junction and the flow of traffic, I could determine whether there was enough time for me to cross through the stationary vehicles, or to move down the street and cross farther along. The papercup was a souvenir to my hand from the coffeeshop’s warmth.
    My mouth was dry from the tobacco smoke, and it was something I would savour until, a building lobby and few minutes later, I was at my desk. The song was over. A good song lasts a bit longer in the mind, forming its own echo without the use of sound. After a few minutes, until I could no longer resist, I would sip the coffee. It was the opening lines’ trimmed pops that stuck with me. They still do. Yesterday afternoon as I took off into recent drizzle, the song began once more, in another time, another land. It hit differently. Its meaning had changed over time. I could not pull out a cigarette to go with it, or direct myself to that forgotten office; only the pet shop for cat food. Chances are there is a different kind of happiness with me now, a happiness that turns up when it wants, but the song remains. I sit here with it in my head now.