One-way Traffic

He asked if I had any children, and I responded—‘Nah…’ yet he kept his eyes fixed on as though he expected I had not finished my answer. I did not return his gaze but looked up. He shrugged a small but perceptible shrug. His daughter had my name, but spelled like the American actress, and she—‘Guess what’—was dating someone with the same name, but spelled like mine, the Welsh way; an enthusiastic bachgen. I asked him why that name. ‘She got—my wife just liked it—you come up with this list of names before they’re born, yknow? And then they… It suited her.’ ‘My mum just saw mine in a romance novel,’ I said. He called out four numbers in quick succession—
    ‘Forty-seven, forty-one, forty-nine, forty—’ he lingered on the ee—‘Forty—yeah, forty.’
    ‘They’re down.’
    ‘It’s all the dust and dirt.’ He picked up his things.
    White spittle had collected in the right corner of his mouth, his beard wirily brushing the air as he stared about, hair in waxy strips stuck to his forehead from the hardhat. ‘No offence,’ I told him—‘but you don’t look old enough to have a daughter who’s dating.’ He told me her age, grinning softly and small, like the shrug.
    There had been a moment, almost as imperceptible as the shrug or the grin, when he warmed to me, understanding that I was not just some cunt on a building site. I offered to lighten his load, one animal to another; he declined at first, then handed me his laptop. The view of the palace and the cathedral dimmed, my hangover, too; I would neither vomit nor faint. The union flags that swam breaststroke in the air soon disappeared into dusk, as well. Being on my feet kept me awake. It is perhaps unnerving to tell a stranger of your children if they have none of their own to respond, so when he told me that he had to leave to visit his wife in the hospital I did not ask him what was wrong, as though our emotional transaction was settled, but nodded solemnly and carried his belongings down five floors.
    When I arrived home, the cat greeted me at the door before walking into the lobby and sniffing around. I watched her, saying to come inside now, and she meowed at me, rolling, stretching, putting her claws into the weave. ‘Come on, angel.’ It is cold now and I sleep with the windows open. The night has its fingers against the glass, wants to be inhaled. She gets in with me, one animal against another. Her eyes are black. She sleeps by my feet and when I wake she moves to claw at my chesthair.
    (‘Fuck knows what road this is.’) Things were not going well; it was unusual for things to go well. I counted my lucky stars, all twelve of them, that I had slept longer than six hours. Take the lucky stars and cut them in half! I entered an abandoned office down near Blackfriars bridge. It did not smell terribly, insulated as it was from the outside world, but there was a scent that came to mind when one imagined it busy with people. All signs pointed to lockdown; history faded as the union flag. The floors and work surfaces were strewn with painkillers, documents, Post-Its, patch cables, loyalty cards from a local vegan café, facemasks, out-of-date peppermint teabags, flyers for a local reprographics company, memos for a company-wide strategy, instruction manuals for wireless mice, a holiday brochure.
    The only difference between me and ghosts is the latter appears paler. I walked through the busy streets to the empty office and stared at the milk in the fridge; it had separated like Rothko.
    ‘You seem happy today. What happened?’ said a young man behind the till in Pret A Manger. I told him I did not know, and, hands to my face, I noticed that I was indeed smiling. For someone addicted to cinnamon, the swirl is a big hit. ‘I dunno, geez,’ I said. Is it the hours sleep? the sunshine? the purpose that had penetrated me once again after too long? was it the colleague who had playfully punched me in the arm upon entry?
    ‘I’ve never walked down this road before in my life and I’ve walked down it twice today!’
    Her, buoyant—‘O, I’ve walked down it loads. I used to work down there, and there, and another place a bit further along there. So yeah—walked it—I’ve walked down this road loads.’ Part of me was nervous to be with a strange colleague, but she had worked previously with an old friend. His father-in-law had just died after a long battle with cancer; I thought to tell her, but it was such a beautiful day with the sunlight shoving between buildings like Henge. I should not ruin it. Really, we were comfortable and it was not long before I felt familiar with her. She said we should sit down, and there on the District line we discussed property prices and engineering, a loose tumult of firms, she spoke of her partner and, again, I had nothing to offer in return. Maybe I could lie, dream up some partner of my own, perfect but for faults I endowed her with for balance. She did not seem to mind that I had nothing with which to reciprocate. Schoolchildren filed through South Kensington station, a trunk of fluorescent jackets and held hands, uncaring of the rush around them.
    She and I walked to site, a vacant townhouse. ‘An old woman. Died in it. It has been empty for years.’ The stairs wound up & up. Wallpaper still remained in patches, seventies at least; otherwise it was bare plaster, and then there were holes of fallen plaster, exposing uneven wooden slats. It was a sunfilled afternoon. All sunlight collided with the foliage of the square’s planetrees, rustling golden in through the tall windows. It did not occur often but there were moments when, for whatever reason, everyone quieted, be it in the overgrown garden with a cigarette or poking at the copper pipework wrapped in hair, and all was still and truly wonderful.