Madalina




Five-and-a-half years in that flat, and the day before handing the keys over, the concierge, incredulously, after a ringtone—‘Are you not in the whatsapp group?’ A whole building of residents and neighbours, reaching out for a step ladder or cup of rice, checking in on each other, requesting meter readings, reporting suspicious behaviour or cracks in the wall. No small wonder I saw strangers about the corridor talking to each other, not strangers at all but numbers or names on screen come to life. My silence of absence will go unnoticed. It will be as though I were never there, never occupied the number one-before-sixty.
    I could not sleep on the train, nor could I read – twenty pages in the ninety-minute journey and a half-arsed sunrise creeping over the power lines. In a state of lockdown, the imminent city was more daunting. My knee began to bounce, getting up to check myself in the toilet mirror, tired eyes and hoping soon the end of it. I braced myself. The longest coffee queue of three men, which I joined, and turned my ear to the crack in the plastic screens so her masked voice, fallen over with hair, could be heard; spouts of steam around the two of them like Hades in a burger van. I had already decided, on the train, that I would go out of my way to divert from the station towards the office, and then track back on myself, so that I could relive my old route home. A sucker for nostalgia, a longing for routine. It would be my favourite film dubbed in another language; what could not be understood would be remembered.
    So, I pushed between the buildings and got to the beginning of my route, past the closed shopfronts. My old coffeeshop was sealed, everything in the dim gathering dust, the stainless steel steam wand losing its lustre, a sign on the front door declaring NO CASH KEPT ON THE PREMISES. No longer any cause to visit, no longer on the path to anywhere or anything. The low ceiling dips underneath the weight of the eighties office above. I cross the road, quickly trying to recall the order & timing of the traffic lights, until the city is being left behind. I had already carefully chosen the music to accompany me, the album that rushed to mind as soon as I sought to mark the occasion. A sucker for nostalgia, a longing for routine. Quiet beyond. Quickly stepping up the curb to avoid a white-lighted van backing up; the site gates and fluorescent attendants were there at my coming & going ten months ago, and still they remain, a gang of them leaning against the hoarding with a hundred muddy curves fanning out from the exit. There are few vehicles, fewer pedestrians. I try to imagine all the times I walked that way before, the same times of day through all seasons, my anxiety or my happiness, my life, imagine walking it with Her back when it was raining, and when it was sunny I walked alone, try to imagine the lights on the churchyard trees at Christmas and the glow on summer afternoon benches as the smell of beer and flowers filled the air.

    Outside the upmarket block of flats there is a lady taking her small cloud of a dog out to the patch of grass to be clean. For a moment, I brighten and pick up my heels, certain that I recognise her, but, getting closer, my smile fades as I realise that she is a stranger, not her I had seen last year, each morning at the same time. There is a homeless woman crouched on the floor outside the cornershop, I do not recognise her either. As I get closer, she moves to the corner, hitches up her dress and squats. I turn away.




    There is a someone I am due to meet, the inventory clerk, Madalina, to whom I will give my keys, leaving her to inspect my flat and deliver a report, compared & ticked, to my landlord. Her car, among the line of silver Germans, cannot be seen, so I climb one final time up the steps, letting myself into the permanently musty entrance and sighing at the bottom of the stairs. Two men are upon me, melodramatically shielding their faces. I used to see them every day and one of them’s County Dublin accent I recognise from the phonecall we had a day previous. Again he says, maybe forgotten, maybe mocking—‘Are you not in the whatsapp group?’




    One last check of the postbox: an A5 flyer for a furniture company that I leave curled at the bottom of the flimsy tin case. Without stops, all the doors in my flat had closed, enclosing the hallway in a darkness that immersed me when I used to get home drunk, not at quarter-to-ten on a sober morning. No cat lamp, no framed photograph from Her, no shoe-rack or Persian rug stretched thinly in the middle towards the living room. The lights switched on prior to taking another step, a fumble with habit’s hand to the height and distance from the doorframe. A strange dust had collected on the unsheathed mattress, prodded and rubbed between index & thumb, a strange dust on the windowsill and tiny flakes of dead leaves and pointless blossom speckling, when the phone rings: Madalina. What floor, she asks. ‘Third,’ I say—‘or fourth. It depends. It’s weird.’ After all this time, I am never sure. They probably defined it within the whatsapp group. Waiting, I open and close drawers, the wardrobe, performatively, as though I were being observed and demonstrating that I had indeed cleared all my belongings from the premises. Taking photographs of the rooms but for what purpose? As I am lifting my phone for a pointless capture of the bathroom sink and mirror, its history no longer tangible, like imprints left in the carpet from the feet of a missing sofa: a knock at the door, and greeted by a slight and well-dressed woman whose beauty behind the mask is conveyed by striking eyes and her manner as she greets me, holding the door open, maintaining distance, politely—‘I think I pulled up just as you were walking in.’ We walked into the living room. She peered around, performatively, as though she were demonstrating she wanted to be at work during a national lockdown and global pandemic. She was the first new person I had seen or spoken to in god-knows-how-long, and so I became nervous and sad at the state of things. She came over to the table where I said—‘So, what next? … Ah, here, the keys!’ I laid them out, one by one. ‘Front door one, front door two… chubb… postbox… and windows.’ Now that it was bare, I had not lived in that flat for five-and-a-half years. I may as well have been viewing it myself for the first time, feeling that ‘feeling’ you get for a potential abode, although I am sure the landlord said he had another tenant lined up, at, he noted, a discounted rate. At the production of the keys, I was no longer required, and my presence was only interrupting her task so, playing with my hands and looking about but not really seeing anything, I excused myself and left. There was no fanfare, no final reminder or acknowledgment of the event, just a head-bowed wrestling with the front door handle as I whispered, under my breath—‘See you cats later’—and left it all, latch settling in loudly, behind me.

    There was a new tag on the wall of the shop on the corner. There was rubbish piled in the streets. There was not a single Christmas tree lying halfway across the pavement, as there usually was at this time of year, on the feast of the epiphany. There was no longer any reason for me to ever walk down that road again. I wondered, half-smiling, whether a tour group might one day be guided down there, to view, mouths open as they stared up, where the great writer, RLM, once lived, from 2015 to 2020. It was unlikely. Walking back – my train left in thirty minutes – I gazed into each shop as I went by: the bathroom shop (written about), the hardware shop (written about), the cornershop (written about extensively), the solicitors (never mentioned) and the pub (written about). My throat felt as if I were being strangled, and my eyes watered. The homeless woman had gone, leaving a dark puddle that ran in long fingers down to the drain. I looked back, out east, down the sunrise conduit of Commercial Road, the root of the A13 as it extended, piercing the underbelly of Essex.     A mile along, I called Madalina—‘I forgot to note down the gas meter reading.’ I directed her to it, and she sent me a photograph—‘Sorry, my mind was all over the place.’ Again, I walked the route towards the office, one last time, then doubled back on myself to the train station. The seafood restaurant, that has, for years, smoothed the slabs outside with cooking oil, ran the exhaust dry; the daily ejections of chopped onion, raw fish and boiling prawns were gone; the odour that made me gag like 08:34 clockwork was gone the one time I wished to heave from it!
    The fast-food restaurant was closed; a man stood hanging from the door, shaking and cursing. The majority of those stood with a cigarette at the station gates were wearing high-vis vests, cradling a hardhat and calmly in the blue light. It was a fine day, the first to break the endless rain, so no matter how cold it was, there was sun and dry. I went back to the coffee van and ordered another. I had managed to get in and out of the city within an hour, an accomplishment, if I do say, and not long enough to become reattached to the place, to keep it at arm’s length. Sat at the rear of the carriage, the heater by my ankle like a furnace and, bursting out from the graffiti’d tunnel, the sun pouring in that ranged and swept a haze over the east London I observed through a dirty window. Still, I could not sleep nor read, so I put my knees on the back of the chair in front of me and thought. Daydream, and the journey runs a little quicker. Going to the toilet, I saw, from the bowlful of unflushed watery excrement, that I was retuning on the same train that had taken me there, and I sensed that it had waited for me, its primary objective to deliver me back and forth. It was nearly noon out over the flatlands where, after seventy-two hours of rain, the rivers ran high and wide, the colour of caramel, tumbling themselves up and over their own weight. Puddles were scattered everywhere like a giant mirror shattered over the land, and at the bottom of the valleys, kidney-shaped pools of white tickled with ripples from the wind as birds pecked at the rim.
Mark

Thank you for reading. It really does mean so much to me.