This is a small excerpt from the short story Angel, available now as part of the book London Eyes: Short Stories. Please note there is swearing in the following extract. I hope you enjoy the story...
It didn’t take Tim long to realise what made life in London colder than in his native Edinburgh: loneliness.
Standing in his apartment, a sharp wind was whipping its way through the gap under the door and Tim felt it bite the toe that popped out of a hole in his sock. Trying to wiggle his toe back inside, he wrinkled his nose at the worn carpet on which he stood. There was no denying it; it was distinctly poo coloured.
“Remember, you get what you pay for in London,” the estate agent had said.
Tim had been in no position to argue so he’d signed a one year lease and told himself he’d ask about changing the brown carpet just as soon as he’d built up the confidence.
Two months later, at 9.30pm on a Saturday evening, the brown carpet was still there. Perhaps more depressingly, so was Tim.
Before moving there, Tim knew three people who lived in London. One was his Uncle Mack, an eccentric drunk who’d left the family stronghold of Edinburgh to marry an unsuitable English woman. At least, that was Tim’s mother’s version of events, as she warned him not to make contact. He was, however, permitted to contact Marie, the second person he knew in London and the product of Uncle Mack’s seemingly successful thirty year marriage to the unsuitable English woman. So Tim did. He emailed his cousin and when that went unanswered, he sent her a text message. Eventually he called and to his surprise she picked up.
“Yeah, who’s this?” A high-pitched voice asked.
“Hi Marie! This is Tim, your cousin.”
“I don’t have a cousin called Tim. Oh wait, are you one of the Scottish ones?”
“Er, yes. I’m from Edinburgh, but I live in London now.”
“Did Dad give you my number?”
“Well, no. My mum did actually…”
“How the hell does she have my number?”
“I’m not sure, but I called because I’ve just moved down here for work. I’m living in Angel, do you know it?”
“Yeah, ‘course I do…” Tim found it strange that someone related to him had such a strong London accent.
“Well, I thought it might be nice if we met up. One day, or evening. Whatever… You’re a student aren’t you?”
“Yeah. St. Martin’s. Fashion.”
“So, it’ll be my treat, you know. Seeing as you’re a student. You could meet me after work one day?”
“Where do you work?”
“Serious? That’s far!”
“It’s actually pretty quick once you get to Bank, you just take the DLR and -”
“Yeah but my Travelcard only covers Zones 1 and 2.”
“That’s fine. It’s in Zone 2.”
“No, it ain’t.”
“I’m pretty sure it is,” said Tim. “Never mind. I’ll come to you. Where do you live?”
“In halls. Students only. Maybe I’ll just text you if I want to meet, yeah?”
“Okay. Well, anytime should be fine…”
But she’d already gone.
The third person Tim knew in London was an old school friend. His name was Malcolm and he’d been the only person in Tim’s high school science lessons who got higher marks than him. Rather than this leaving Tim a little put out, he was deeply grateful, appreciative of the fact that someone was more of a nerd than him. He’d had other classmates who had headed south for university, but Malcolm was the only one Tim had kept in touch with. That was until a few years ago. At first they’d exchanged emails comparing their computer science courses, but eventually the contact had dwindled and Tim never really knew why. However, he still had Malcolm’s email address and, much to Tim’s pleasure, Malcolm emailed straight back suggesting they meet for a coffee the next day at a place in Dalston.
After a long stop-start bus ride Tim only needed to check his A to Z twice before he walked through the doors to the coffee shop and felt instantly hopeful. This was exactly the place he could imagine himself and Malcolm hanging out. There were piles of board games in one corner, a pinball machine in another and rows of old leather sofas in between. Tim ordered a black coffee, found a seat and waited. And waited and waited. Some forty-seven minutes after their agreed meeting time, a tall skinny man marched up to him, a wave of hair slicked back atop shaved sides, and a metal bolt skewed through the middle of his nose.
“Malcolm?” Tim stood up to shake his hand.
“Yeah, sorry I’m late. Had a nightmare journey here - on my bike, fucking traffic - and well, I also totally slept in. Bit of a late one last night…”
Tim watched his old friend talk. The sheepish lad he’d sat next to in physics was now a pierced, confident and colourfully dressed young man; Tim had to blink a few times to adjust to the brightness of his neon yellow T-shirt.
“Yeah, two of my flatmates just secured funding for their art gallery so they insisted we all stayed up smoking to celebrate.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“Yeah, it was, man. Wild night… Actually, every night is a bit wild, these days…”
Tim thought it was great Mal had come out of his shell and he liked his friend’s new confidence. What he didn’t like was Mal’s English accent.
“Sounds cool. Can I get you a coffee?”
“Yeah, that’s the thing, man. I can’t stay. I’ve got to be somewhere.”
“Oh, right. No problem,” said Tim, feeling his shoulders sink.
“It’s for a tattoo. Getting this filled in.” He pulled up the sleeve of his T-shirt and wrapped around the small curve of his upper arm was the outline of a man with a beard, his arms outstretched. “I know what you think it is, but it’s not.”
“Exactly. You think it’s him but it’s not. It’s just a guy with long hair and a beard. Cool, huh?”
Tim didn't really think so, but he nodded regardless.
“You got any tats?”
“God, no!” Tim raised up the palms of his hands in instant dismissal of the idea. “I mean, they’re not really my thing.”
Malcolm shook the bunch of keys in his hand and took a couple of seconds to look Tim up and down. “Shit, mate, you’ve not changed one bit.”
“What’s this job you’ve got then?”
“I’m an assistant IT lead in a foreign currency exchange firm.”
“I have no fucking idea what you just said.” Malcolm shook his head and laughed. “Sounds intense.”
“It’s a good job. I like it. I just… I just don’t really work with anyone else. My boss is based in Switzerland and I work in an office on my own.”
“That’s pretty sweet.” Malcolm turned towards the door of the cafe. “Hey, walk with me to my bike, tell me about it.”
“Well, that’s all there is to tell really.” Tim followed his old school friend. “I don’t really mix with everyone else so it was cool to connect with you again, Malcolm… Sorry, Mal.”
“Yeah. Do you want a fag?”
“Oh, no thanks. I don’t smoke. So, what are you doing for work?”
“You know, a bit of this and that. I’m in between jobs at the moment, just got to build up my portfolio and start networking…”
“Portfolio? What’s that for?”
“Graphic design. Posters mainly. Music posters, you know the ones you see around for club nights, DJs, festivals and all that.” Mal gripped his cigarette between his lips as he bent over to unlock a chain that was securing a racing bike to a metal railing. The bike was completely white, apart from the tyres, which were fluorescent yellow, just like Malcolm’s T-shirt.
“Posters? I didn’t know you also studied graphic design at uni?”
“Uni? Oh mate, I fucked that off a long time ago. Yeah, dropped out during the second year.” Tim noticed that Malcolm sniffed a lot. Perhaps it was that piece of metal bolted through his septum.
“Hey, I know you don’t smoke, but do you smoke?”
Mal stood up again. “You know, mate, weed?”
“Do you want some? That’s kind of my thing now, you know. Just to tide me over now and again.”
Tim nodded, understanding. His old school friend was a drop-out, a drug dealer, and had an English accent. Tim didn’t know which was worse.
“Thanks but no, I’m not really into that much.”
“I can sort you out with other things too, if you have other, you know, interests.” His bike unlocked, Malcolm took a long time squeezing his keys back into the tight opening of his jeans pocket. “I’ll give you a good deal. Like an introductory offer?”
“No, thanks. I’m fine. But we could go for beers one night this week?”
Mal climbed onto his bike. “Yeah, maybe, I’ve got quite a lot on at the moment.”
“Or next weekend, if that’s better?”
“You’ve got my number,” Tim called out to Malcolm.
But he was already gone.
Tim never heard from Marie or Malcolm again and it was with a nervous energy that he tried to contact both on more than a few occasions. He also continued to try and strike up conversations with colleagues in the cafeteria at work, not once being rewarded with more than polite smiles or one word answers. His boss had warned him that “…nobody likes IT, until something needs fixing.” So Tim stopped trying so hard, told himself to be patient, and he began praying for hardware problems. But that wasn’t proving very successful either as it was a Saturday night in London and all Tim had for company was the brown carpet he so eagerly wanted to get rid of.
He sighed, opened another can of beer and started reading a book he’d already read before.
The following morning, Tim woke early. Opening his eyes he saw the sun pushing through his thin curtains, filling his room with light, and this made him think that perhaps today could be a good day.
Struck with the urge to feel the warmth of the spring sunshine on his skin, Tim showered and dressed quickly. He stared at his empty fridge briefly before deciding to find breakfast in a nearby cafe.
Though his flat and building were a tired state of affairs, the location he lived in couldn’t have been better. Nestled in the far corner of the busy triangle squashed between Essex Road and Upper Street, Tim liked saying his new home was in Angel. It sounded like a gentle and special place. Of course, the reality was a bit different. But Tim saw past the sirens, traffic and lost souls who liked to zig-zag across the pavement talking to themselves, by reminding himself that according to Time Out magazine his forty minute journey to work was better than the average Londoner’s commute.
Emerging onto Essex Road, Tim found that being a Sunday morning, most places were closed. The streets belonged to runners and dog-walkers, and two girls with holes in their tights and hair spilling in all directions who walked past Tim giggling and smelling of last night’s alcohol. As they did Tim felt a little bit jealous.
He eventually found a chain coffee shop open near Angel station. After ordering an over-sized cappuccino and a pastry, he sat in a chair opposite a young blonde woman who was wearing a man’s jumper and reading a broadsheet newspaper. Tim considered the ways in which he could start a conversation with her. He was still looking at her when she sneezed. Without raising her gaze from the paper she wiped her nose with one of the sleeves of the thick wool jumper. Tim stared at the stain left on her sleeve as it soaked into the wool.
Then Tim opened his book and picked up where he’d left off the night before.
Two hours later, the girl had left, his second coffee had gone and he found himself craving a change of scenery, so he took the long way home. He walked north up Liverpool Road before taking a wrong turning that led to a dead-end, rather than back on to Upper Street as he had expected. A little confused, Tim began to dig into his backpack for the A to Z that he had grown to feel naked without. It was then that he heard the sound.
It was the sweetest sound he’d heard in a long time. It was a chorus of people laughing. Laughing aloud and freely. He looked at his watch. 11.20. Was this some new London concept he’d not yet read about in Time Out? A Sunday morning comedy club perhaps?
There it was again and he walked a few steps in its direction. He found a driveway at the end of the cul-de-sac. It was shaded by the new leaves of old trees and led to a one-storey, grey brick building. Stepping closer, he noticed a blue sign at the entrance of the driveway.
St. Anne’s New Voice Church
Sunday Celebration 10.30am.
Reading those last two words, Tim thought about taking a few more steps forward, but he didn’t. Instead, he turned, ready to walk back the way he came.
Then there was more laughter, like a blast of happy birdsong. It was followed by the scrapes of chairs being pushed back and Tim heard the beats of drums, the strum of an electric guitar and, suddenly, singing. Tim couldn’t make out the words or the tune, but he listened to the chorus of voices singing the same song.
Then Tim put his A to Z back in his bag and he walked down the driveway.
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Frances M. Thompson
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