She had time to watch her own enjoyment at last. She looked at it in the mirror, hardly believing. She could undress slowly, unwrapping herself bit by bit (she forgot to close the curtains but there were only trees to see). It felt different from how it usually happened- always in a rush from work, as though her previous surroundings painted their dirt in thick acrylic onto her body or in the mornings, rolling out of bed, putting on garments, splashing her face, getting out as quickly as she could.
The room was spacious, she enjoyed it now. It was so quiet, sure she could hear the dirty traffic rumbling but she was as used to that as she was her own breathing.
The mirror was beckoning. She wanted to look at herself carefully. Her and the mirror were in a kind of confrontation, a confrontation with a thin reflection. She hadn’t looked at herself for a long time- full length mirrors seemed to be a luxury belonging to the rich, besides she tried not to be vain, or so she told herself. The mirror left by the previous owner was compelling and her short spiky hair made her look androgynous, she marvelled at her hollow sharp cheeks and sallow complexion. Carefully she traced a finger around the edge of her collar bone as though she thought it might break. Or perhaps it was how she wished a man might touch her, or a woman. Or someone. But no, she didn’t want to think of that although there was a vacant space behind her for someone now. But she could not let her eyes drop any further and indeed did not want them to. It was too soon for such freedoms. Her previous narrow bedroom, with its chipboard partition through which she once heard her friend shagging her flat mate with a constant dry thwacking, the dirty bathroom, toilet, kitchen which the others would not keep clean, negated her sex, made everything outside and inside ugly. It was almost as though someone had, with an invisible hand, switched off that vital connection to herself. She had lived in the third world part of the city, the part the government denied existed, the hot dog dirt smeared pavements where fat kids collected mental health problems like they might collect stamps. Every day she travelled into another world to work where she saw nice hair cuts driving sports cars, visiting galleries, buying expensive theatre tickets. Fresh it seemed to her, whereas, in her old place, she struggled to keep her bed linen clean.
But now she was a bit more powerful, the space allowed her status to rise, it gave her a future. It could make her lazy too and desirous of things, ambitious. Ambition might only begin with simply moving a chair- dare she do that? Move it from where the landlord had haphazardly placed it in the middle of the room into the corner? That would be really making her mark, it would turn things around, it would mean she had initiative, a different viewpoint and feeling for space, it would mean she was making a punctuation mark, perhaps a comma, not a full stop. Naked she picked up the chair and placed it in the corner. It was simply done but she felt a huge sense of achievement and relief. Yes ambition might begin with a chair but who knows where it might lead to? She might begin to think about changing her job- although this would be frightening for people, they didn’t really believe she could she thought, she saw it in their eyes, in their clenched smiling jaws. But being here, in this large cool room with its tall walls she became aware of her body and how much it ached from working. How much her ribs ached, the small of her back, her sore shoulder blades poking out her skin. As she sat quietly on the bed, relishing her nakedness against clean sheets she realised she was unhappy and the awareness of it almost engulfed her like the tall dark cool walls. Perhaps she should have been glad that life was giving her this opportunity, in time she might but she only felt helpless with the unhappiness, like a small child who is told to play and doesn’t know how. What to do with it, the light was too bright.
She walked home from work yesterday and saw a man and this stopped her. He had paused on his motorbike as she crossed the road, she was on the edge of her thoughts and alone with them so she hadn’t noticed him but he revved his bike and she saw his dark eyes just staring for a long elongated moment where even the buildings seemed to lengthen. She can’t remember if she stopped dead in the road but the gaze stayed with her for a long time. It was inevitable she would see more men, it was as though her eyes had been opened. But she thought often of the man on the motorbike and searched for his eyes on the streets, walking home at the same hour in the hope his timetable was as rigorous and predictable. So sitting on the bed she had a different kind of ambition, it began with a rush slowly between her legs, it fled up her belly, pricked her nipples, made her shoulders ache for any embrace. Many times she walked that same way home.
It was raining now. A clear mist formed in front of the trees and at her window. The startled raindrops fell like tiny reflector balls against the glass, a 1,000 little hers, gawping at each other. She shivered, she was cold, she must cover herself, the light of her unhappiness was too heavy- she had a wine bottle in the corner, by the redundant fireplace but she feared it would swallow her up, she feared she might have to express herself in a way she did not want, she might find words to express the jumble in her mind, she might open her mouth and?
Her job was acting as a hostess for a photographic company in Chelsea. She had to stand on the street outside the shop and stop couples with children or perspective parents and try and interest them in having their photographs taken. She tried to have good manners, she tried not to be sentimental over the children, she was incurious, unobservant, repeating the same scenario over and over as taught to her by the proprietor.
Hm, you see, how old are your children, so sweet..
7 and 9.
So nice, so nice, so you can have a photograph like this or like this..
She felt she might be a dead loss being pushed up against the wall by the crowd. Motorbike Man must have felt that too, she thought. He probably saw it straight away, that there was nothing to her, probably she gave off an aura of helplessness, she wasn’t anyone looking like they were on their way to success with anything and that mattered, she knew.
Once a potential customer said,
Cheer up, you look miserable.
Dismayed she almost turned back into the shop crying. Later the boss took her aside.
Look, you have to change your demeanour. Otherwise I can’t keep you on, you’re putting the customers off.
But, she protested, surprised at herself for daring, This is how I feel.
I don’t care about that, said the boss, Just don’t show it.
And he didn’t care, she knew bosses didn’t care, they weren’t meant to. Around that time she started to believe she was seeing Motorbike Man. She seemed to see him driving up and down Kings Road day after day and peering into the photography shop. The first time it was quite by chance, perhaps he was attracted by the rustic interior, perhaps, she hardly dared allow herself to think, it was because he had been looking for her and had finally stumbled upon her. She wanted to believe the chance wasn’t chance.
She kept the secret all to herself, this man following her around, she planted it deep in her heart where it took root and sprouted seed. Her working days were filled with little imagined scenarios- very small cautious ones- perhaps they would meet on the street- or not exactly meet but their paths might look as though they might criss cross but at the last moment he would step back and let her go by, his eyes on her of course- or- her favourite one- she would enter the same shop as he, and he, being in deep conversation with the sales assistant, would break off mid sentence-in- she daren’t think- admiration and he would be helplessly absorbed in her.
These thoughts filled her mind. She became even simpler than before, for others she did not exist but only for herself and she was absorbed into time, she knew how to spend hours by the shop window watching the traffic, letting her thoughts sink into them so that soon enough a bus became indistinguishable from a car. She allowed herself to be absorbed so much she believed she experienced moments of transcendence, that she was at one with the mish mash of the metallic reds, blues, greys, the car horns, the pollution quivering in hot little shivers above the tarmac.
She had moments of revelations with trees, usually Horse chestnuts, her favourite being the one in King Edwards Memorial Park near where she used to live. She didn’t know what it was but that tree drew her, it seemed to ask her to come and she knew by some intuition it was male. If she was feeling sad or lonely or even nothing at all ( a permanent state more and more these days) she would go and stand under the tree and she would be soothed.
Almost as though he’s smiling at me, she told her co-worker, Yvonne.
Yvonne was always slightly aghast at the stories Isis told, aghast and uncomprehending, but Isis always interpreted it as interest. Yet she could never quite express herself to Yvonne who was blond with pretty blue wide eyes. Yvonne was a drama type and only working part time whilst she tried to get into musical theatre- Isis was in awe of her blustery manner, her wide thighs and small bum, her rather sharp pointed face and elfin ways. Isis had a secret of existence but Yvonne was too busy applying her make up and chatting about that new musical she was going to with some new man and it seemed more important to Isis that Yvonne talk about that.
Besides it freed Isis up to think about Motorbike Man. She wasn’t one for concentrating very much and after a few minutes her thoughts wandered indifferently away to her most favourite fantasy- this particular time Isis was being more courageous, imagining MM walking into her shop. She played it out that she, suddenly a chatter box and drolly engaging customers with detailed talk about the differences between matte and glossy surfaces, would be under his scrutiny as he waited quietly in the corner, not watching her overtly but quietly apprehending her reflection in the glass of a photographic frame. In time they would finally be left alone and she, dragging her eyes towards his would swallow as he whispered to her …
Is my lipstick OK do you think?
Yvonne’s words stuck like pin pricks in her dreams. Isis turned to Yvonne, she was no judge of such things but wanting to make amends because Yvonne had noticed she was not paying attention she opened her mouth to say
You look wonderful
when the shop door opened and Motorbike Man walked in. Looking at her watch Yvonne said mysteriously as if she did not know,
Is that the time already?
whilst Isis all of a sudden shrank into a corner, not that anyone noticed, MM was too busy running his appreciative eyes over Yvonne’s buxom figure whilst Yvonne was too busy recovering in the splendour. At last Yvonne gestured to Isis.
This is Isis, we work together.
Yvonne said it carefully, the two weren’t friends after all. MM, having shot only a glance at Isis nodded and kept his eyes on Yvonne’s bum.
After all, Yvonne murmured, It was Isis who led you to me.
Isis’ consciousness felt a vague awareness pricking her all over like sharp little knives. She knew what was inevitably to come and dreaded it. She’d always known it was coming somehow, anything else was too good to be true.
Zach recognised you one day just as you were walking in here and when he looked in he saw me, Yvonne said explaining. Can you believe he’s a successful actor? I mean, very very successful.
Isis couldn’t believe anything right now, only a moment or two ago Zach had been in the corner staring at her through the glass. But Yvonne had full control, she knew how to play Zach, keep him sitting on his heels, his tongue hanging out, waiting for more. They were both shiny scrubbed, from the same place, they possessed the gift for a different kind of transcendence which Isis knew she could enjoy but not participate in. It was from this stability, this security that she was excluded. When Yvonne turned her back to say something to Zach Isis found her hand stretching out and enclosing around her lipstick. She wasn’t one for stealing but as she watched Zach’s enlightened eyes she hope something of the magic would rub off on her. Whoosh, all her inner peace gained from tree and traffic watching was dismantled by the middle class theatrical glory and she saw herself as poor, a reject.
Isis thinks she doesn’t have a future, said Yvonne as she led Zach out of the shop.
We’re going to be late, was all Zach replied.
The next day back in her room, Isis fell ill. She’d spent a Zachless night, he stopped entering her dreams immediately, she forced herself not to think about him. But there was nothing to fill the space he left behind. Not even feeling.
Later Yvonne confessed that Zach had peered into the shop many many times but caught only Isis’ eyes, too shy and frightened to approach her. Isis sat on her bed ruminating over these words quietly although she felt like vomiting. If she could she would have given voice to the little tremoring circulating up from her belly in little waves of fear and disappointment. She thought, people tell lies and act dishonestly and perhaps even when they make love it is a lie, perhaps even then they don’t really communicate, they aren’t really at one, they don’t find the truth. Without knowing how to put it into words Isis knew that truth was only something one could experience alone.
Isis sat there as the shadows grew deeper, thinking about Zach and Yvonne at the opera, or a concert somewhere and grew sicker and sicker. Soon, stumbling out into the street trying to find her beloved tree she would be knocked down and killed by a red bus and after all, she may not care either. She was alone and she had nowhere else to go except there may be, she would not think of opening her mouth and crying all this out, so it might as well be that, there was no one’s conscience she could keep herself alive for- although, in her simple way, she loved him and that was all that mattered.