I come out of the tube into the morning light, when the sun is hours from rising but it’s weirdly light out: the street lights, the moon, the cars. There’s no darkness here. London is alive in its beast-awoken-from-a-slumber sort of way.
Moira will take David to school this morning. I hope I left her with everything she needs. She’s not one to check these things. Of course, why would she? He’s not her son, after all.
Moira lives across the corridor. We became friends smoking on the balcony. One of those communal corridor-come-balconies that look out over the streets. She offered me a light when I stepped out after a fight with David. He was running around screaming and I couldn’t make him stop. The neighbours were all shouting out their windows and the people above were stomping on their floor. On my ceiling. So I shouted at him and then shut him in his room and told him not to come out until he shut up, for heavens’ sake.
Sometimes I just want to say, ‘You deal with it,’ and for whoever you is to step in and just make David stop with a stern word or a slap across the back of the head. But there is no you. There is only me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not hard done by it. The you there was, a long time ago, was an asshole. A verging-on-alcoholic, self-entitled son of a bitch.
Sorry, excuse my language. I know I’m better than that…
My phone rings. Who’s calling at this time? Just a string of numbers, no name.
‘I’ve asked you for the rent three times. You need to pay it today.’
‘Rent? Richard? Ok, hello. Yes, I’ll pay you the rent. But I’ll get it to you tomorrow. Why are you calling so early?’
‘You don’t answer your phone at any other time. Listen to me, I said today. You can’t be late again.’
I turn a corner and then another. I walk along the river, the distant lights becoming a blur in the morning fog that drifts in.
‘But I told you: I lost my job because I was off work. The doctor said it was stress. My new job pays on the last Friday of the month. Not the 25th.’
‘Yeah, well, we’re all stressed, aren’t we? I’m fucken stressed, aren’t I? Don’t you think I am? It doesn’t stop me doing what I gotta do.’
‘Ok, ok, but listen to me, it’ll be tomorrow, I get paid tomorrow.’
A stranger in a dark coat idles past me, and hearing my conversation, gives a glance that says, You can’t pay your rent? What’s wrong with you? I turn back to look at them as they pass but no sooner do I turn does the stranger disappear in the sea of fog behind me. I turn another corner and look up at the street ahead of me. I can’t see anything. It’s all just a pale, cloudy white. I turn back. The same.
‘Sure. Look, I like you. It’s not personal. You and the kid are better than a couple of students who’ll wreck the place. It’s just, you gotta pay your rent. That’s the basic expectation.’
‘It’ll come on the last Friday of every month, I promise. Every month. As soon as it comes to me, it’ll go to you.’
‘I gotta go.’
Why does this have to happen to me? When my parents sent me here at 21, they said: this country will give you opportunities you cannot dream of here? It will set you free and you will be able to do anything you set your mind to. Now, I’m barely 28 and I’ve got a 4-year-old nightmare to feed, and rent to pay, and I’ve got a new job on reception for an office (which I have nothing against, by the way. If anything, it’s good. It allows me to think, to focus on what comes next for me). And I don’t actually make enough to pay rent, so I got an evening job cleaning at a bar. Moira takes the kid to school, watches him in the evening. And if I get one day off a week, there’s no rest, because I have to take the kid to the park or to a birthday party or look after him because he’s got himself a cold. Which is fine too. I don’t mind that. But then I started getting sick. I was always sick. I was more often sick than not sick and it meant I had to go to the doctor’s and they said I needed to rest more but I couldn’t because I needed to pay rent. The doctor said it was stress but what am I supposed to do about stress? I can’t remove the causes of stress, like they suggested, because that’s just my life. Two jobs, a kid to feed and a roof over my head. Remove one of those? I don’t think so.
I walk onwards and turn a corner. I can’t see anything. Where am I going? There’s just fog everywhere and now I’m lost, totally lost.
And just when I think it can’t get any worse, I check my watch and realise I’m now late. Only by a few minutes, but I’m not even close. By the time I get there it’ll be ten minutes, fifteen minutes late.
Naturally, I start to cry. I can’t help it. I start to sob and though there’s no one here, I start to think that I’m so loud and isn’t my crying echoing out in the street around me and aren’t all those people staring at me…?
Those people I can’t see…
I start to run. I turn a corner and another corner, and then I fall. Now it’s dark, real darkness. I hit a hard and muddy floor and I scream out in pain. A burning in my ankle. Is it broken? Is it ripped off from the violent fall? I don’t know, I can’t see but I can feel the burning. I look up to a cloud of fog drifting over a hole. I seem to have fallen down a deep well, just hidden right there on the pavement. How is that possible?
I touch the walls around me. They’re damp and dirty, mud scraping off under my fingers. I wipe the tears from my eyes.
‘Help!’ I call out. But I get the feeling that the fog at the top of this well is like a pillow or a carpet dampening the sound of my cry. I get the feeling no one can hear me. No one will hear me.
I think about David and his little smile, and how all I want for him is to have a real shot in life, where he can have a dream and pursue it like any other man. I don’t want him to have a head start, or to cheat his way there. I want him to have equality. I want him at the starting gun, ready, and to get to the finish line before everyone else off the sweat of his own back. I want him to know that his blood is equal to everyone else’s. That his kind are just as capable as the rest. And I want to him think I’ve done him good in the world.
I think about the way my parents said to me, that place will give you things you never dreamed of. And how disappointed I’ve been by this, this fog, this well. This darkness. I sit back and look up. The tears dry from my face and I reach out into the darkness. I can’t see what I’m reaching towards, but I feel a brick, and another brick, and start, slowly, to pull myself up.