The difference between my life now and my life at Uni could not be more pronounced. I used to think nothing of waking up at noon after a heavy night, getting in a few extra hours of sleep in a chemistry lecture, grabbing a snack of fish-finger sandwiches, starting work in the bar in the afternoon, then spending all night at a rave in some broken-windowed warehouse in Finchley. Now, if I have a half of lager in a country pub AND play music in the car on the way home I think I’ve overdone it. Now is peaceful; then was wild. But, because of what I do for a living, both existences offer a remarkable opportunity to observe life in all its strange glory and be inspired.
Meet Cindy Chang, a Chinese student I bumped into in a queue outside a rave beneath the famous London Bridge arches. I was alone (I went to a lot of parties with and without mates) and so was she. She expected me to believe her name was Cindy, but it was obviously to cover her true identity. I didn’t mind. What’s wrong with a pseudonym? Her clothes, hair and personality were wild and I liked that to begin with. We gelled. Then, at the door to the rave, she discovered she had no money. Again, this didn’t bother me because I often paid for friends and vice versa. I coppered-up the small fee for us both to get inside and we danced to loud techno, I bought a few drinks and we chatted to a few other people. Half an hour later, she vanished. I guessed she’d gone home or found someone she knew better, but another two hours later she found me again and she was very different.
Ranting, high on drugs and completely wired, Cindy went nuts. I wasn’t phased. I’d never seen eyes like those, but I’d certainly experienced my fair share of weird shit. Then she told me someone was ‘after’ her. She shook my arm and wailed and knelt on the floor and begged me to help her. I was laughing at first – it seemed like an act – but she was deadly serious. Apparently she’d never taken a drug in her life before and had temporarily lost her mind. I gave her cold, fresh water, helped her to be sick in the toilets and protected her from the ‘two-headed people’ she believed wanted to hurt or seduce her. In return? She stole my wallet while I washed my hands and the next day sold hundreds of pounds worth of textbooks taken out my Uni library card.
Meet Howard, a neighbour of mine. He’s retired and walks his two border collies past my house every morning. A permanently disparaging expression clouds his tight features and the walking stick he carries (but doesn’t really need) flicks out at his feet with every step hiding a deep-seated, secret frustration. He mutters a lot, to himself or the dogs. He recently moved from his home of thirty-five years to a smaller dwelling down the road, but he can’t stay away. His past nags him. Every day, using the dogs as an excuse, he walks up the road, turns onto our lane and positions himself within viewing distance of the old house. His hands twitch at his sides as he fights the urge to look. He pretends not to care, looking down at the dogs, the wall, the grass opposite, but it’s always too much to bear. With a sharp tug on the dogs’ leads, he starts walking again, as if he’s going to make it, then he succumbs, turns and steals a wistful look into his youth.
I met Howard once. He’s not the friendliest of men, but I also felt sorry for him. A frown ate at his eyes when he spoke to me. Heavy things weigh upon him. Our brief conversation was about the area we live in – a pleasant place, but with its secrets. I think Howard has a secret, too, but I’ll probably never know what it is. There’s a guilt beneath his frown, or perhaps a fear that’s curtailing him. I think he probably had a sense of humour, a lightness, once upon a time, but now it’s gone.
He told me, “People round here talk.”
I took it as a warning, even as help, but I also saw it as a window into his personal history. Then he said, “And if they can’t find anything to talk about, they invent it instead.”
I smiled at a secret of my own and said, “Maybe they’re all writers.”