Observational writing

Goggle Eyes

I’ve just been for a swim in my local pool, at a time that wasn’t quite optimum. The swimming club had finished so a few lanes had opened up, but it was still a touch too crowded, with some awkward overtaking and frequent breaches of the unspoken lane etiquette. I walk out of the leisure centre feeling muscle-warm and relaxed in the shoulders, my mind cleared of some of its clutter, the skin of my face stretched taught.

I walk to Sainsbury’s Local to pick up a bottle of wine for me and N. It’s a new shop so I take my time browsing the shelves. I want to buy something else but I’m not sure what, I just want to be lured by the sight of something. I stop, start, stop, cradle something in my hand to read its packaging. I notice that milk is the same price here as in the big supermarket, but that a lot of things are more expensive. Finally I choose a bottle of wine and walk to the counter.

The woman who serves me is all smiles and cheekbones. Even so, there’s an interruption in the moment when she picks up the wine and glances at me, and her eyes roam on my face for a bit too long. Her smile fades slightly: her expression is a searching one underneath its customer service mask. I realise what it is.

‘I’ve got goggle eyes, haven’t I?’

She laughs in response: a full, hearty, relieved laugh. An embarrassed one, too, that replaces the need for her to reply. I think she seems friendly and I want to respond with something witty, to build on this moment so that we’re laughing together. I like the new shop and I want her to know this.

‘I know that look,’ I say. But as soon as I say it, I know I’ve made a mistake. My tone had an edge to it that suggested displeasure. Now she is embarrassed and stops laughing, and though a smile plays around her mouth it is no longer a shared moment, a shared joke. Instead, our differences crackle between us: she is black and I am not; she is middle-aged and I am not; she works in Sainsbury’s and I do not.

‘I’m sorry,’ she says.

I say something, or gesture, or assume an expression – trying to tell her it’s OK, that I wasn’t offended. But now I’m embarrassed too and I become absorbed in looking at my purse. As I hand over some money to her I’m aware of the rings around my eyes where my goggles always press and, to break eye contact, I glance down at her name badge: VERONICA.

As I walk away from the shop I think, Shit, I shouldn’t have looked at her name badge. She might think I’m going to complain about her…

Rubbing Banana in Your Eyes

Finn is sitting in his high chair with a piece of banana clenched tight in one fist. He chews it, holding the banana to his mouth and squidging it with his gums, but the experience seems to be as much about the sensation of it in his hands as anything else. It’s a sort of rapture.

But then, something goes wrong. He must have an itch because he puts one palm to his face, covered in bits of banana, and rubs it in his eye. He pulls his hand away, thinks, starts to squirm and whimper. Then he rubs more banana in his eye. He thinks again, rubs banana in his eye once more, then his face turns red and he starts to scream.

As his parents comfort him, washing his hands and face, making soothing noises, clearing up the banana mess, I can’t help thinking how much we have to learn. This refrain repeats in my head: “There so much to learn!” Finn’s under a year old; he’s born without the knowledge that rubbing banana in your eyes is a bad idea. The only way he’s going to find out is by trying it. It’s like this with so many things in our lives; “There’s so much to learn!”

Broken Dogs

I took a glass of wine from the bar and made my way over to the only empty table, taking out my book to read while I waited for K to arrive – or at least to use it as a prop while I waited on my own. The tiny room was so crushed with people I hadn’t had a chance to take stock until now, when I realised that it was full of lazing dogs. An obese bulldog lay prostrate across a bench while a couple of people tried to make it move without having to touch it. A spaniel moved sluggishly around the room, an empty socket where its right eye should be. And a golden retriever was asleep in front of the bar, its paws neatly folded below its chin.

K arrived, and straight after her a wave of her friends who had come to see her speak at the book launch. As each person entered the cafe, people stepped aside so that the door could swing open, and I shuffled along the bench to try and make room for the new body. Each time I turned to the woman sat on my left, as the space between us got smaller and smaller. ‘Sorry… Can I just…?’

The room was filling up, and the temperature was rising. I fidgeted on the bench, trying to cool the underside of my thighs. At that point I realised there was another dog in the room, brushing its tail against my legs. It was tiny, possibly a spaniel crossed with something else – not a good mixture. Its eyes bulged out terribly, and an underbite showed a row of white teeth fixed in a gurn. Its expression was of permanent dismay.

I turned to the two women at the table to my left and said, ‘All the dogs in here look broken.’ They looked at me, startled, giving no indication about whether they agreed or disagreed. I felt this hadn’t quite achieved the conviviality I was looking for, so I added, ‘Particularly this one.’ I gestured to the dog between our feet, hoping to unite us in our pity for the poor animal. They stayed silent, so I rubbed the dog’s head. It raised its chin towards the sky as if to touch its mouth to my hand, so I withdrew. I tried rubbing its head again and it did the same thing, under the watchful eyes of the women to my left. I said, ‘What are you meant to do with a dog, anyway? I don’t understand what they want.’

One of the women said, ‘He likes it when you rub him under his chin. They tend to prefer that.’

I made an ‘oh’ expression and took a sip of wine. ‘I’m not sure about putting my hand near its mouth area.’

The women blinked at me, and I realised the one who had spoken had bulging eyes, rather like the dog. She said, ‘His teeth are about this big,’ holding her thumb and forefinger up to indicate ‘very small’. I smiled and turned back to K and her friends. A few minutes later, the two women got up to move to another table, one of them carrying the dog in her arms.

Bruised Roses

My housemate, J, had been called away to her home town in Essex where her dad’s health was declining. We heard that their family had gathered in hospital and then that J’s dad had died overnight.

J stayed in her home town for a while afterwards and then, leaving the pocket of her family’s grief, she travelled back to London. The day she got back we were in the living room. We heard the front door open and her exchanging quiet words with her boyfriend before she walked into the flat. She was wide-eyed, shocked, verging on tears. Her coat still on, she was moving through the house slowly, her arms dangling by her sides. She told us she had travelled on the Tube at rush hour on the way here and that people had kept barging past, brushing her sides and colliding with her.

She said, “They didn’t know.” She was stuck on this – the idea that something so devastating had happened to her and that rude and pushy rush hour London would carry on without knowing. “They just didn’t know.” I could imagine her in her coat, wincing through the crowds.

*

I had got up early to meet Natasha and help her carry hundreds of flowers, just collected from New Covent Garden Market, across London. They were destined for Essex, props for a performance. I was carrying an enormous box of roses – my arms were stretched out, my fingers just curling around the far corners of the box. I remember Natasha kept glancing at me, reminding me to be careful – roses bruise easily.

We were changing lines on the Tube before rush hour. We were walking along a platform as a train sounded its alarm, about to close its doors. Just at that moment I was stepping forward and came into alignment with a passageway leading to the platform.

A man had spotted that the train was about to leave and was sprinting full pelt towards it – he slammed into the side of the box of roses like a crash mat. The collision was violent and very sudden but the roses absorbed the shock beautifully. He stumbled back, righted himself, and leapt onto the train before it pulled out of the station.

The Will Signing

A few days after a police helicopter crashed into a pub in Glasgow, killing eight people, I walked into a solicitor’s office in Forest Hill to sign my Will. The events weren’t connected — I had already booked the appointment several weeks before the crash, and it didn’t make me believe a sudden, accidental death was any more likely.

I’d found the solicitor through a pro bono scheme, booking an appointment with the first one on the list, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived at their offices. Actually, that’s not quite true — when I arrived, I quickly realised I did have a set of expectations, based on films probably, and that this office wasn’t matching up to them.

There was no large, airy office on the 28th floor. No men in expensive suits with strong handshakes. I exaggerate slightly, but what I found made it clear to me that I did have a picture in my head before I arrived.

It was a dingy office on the ground floor, with a window onto the busy high street, frosted to give some discretion. Buses rattled past outside. The office was poorly outfitted and badly designed — the staff kept criss-crossing the room in front of me, edging past archive boxes heaped on the floor that were overspilling with files. Confidential files? I was taken through to a smaller room to wait for the solicitor.

This room was an awkward size — not small enough to be intimate, nor big enough to be grand. A computer sat on the round table, its screen saver on, and the words l-i-v-i-n-g-s-t-o-n-e—a-n-d—c-o scrolled past, flickering. A large pot plant sagged in one corner of the room.

A noise at the door — the solicitor stepped in with surprise and then recognition on her face.

‘Sorry to keep you waiting, Ms Leach. I thought we hadn’t… I’d forgotten I needed to bring the Will down for you to sign. One moment, please.’

She retreated, leaving me to scrutinise my thoughts. Rationally, I don’t think a solicitor need be any better at their craft if they’re in a fancy office. Fancy offices have so much to do with luck, social background, bluff and arrogance. And I would have felt uncomfortable and scruffy on the 28th floor. But perhaps a part of me wanted to feel uncomfortable in that way, would have felt more at ease. I might have been reassured if she had remembered our previous meeting before walking in the door, or if she had made a better job of hiding her forgetfulness.

The solicitor stepped back in and took a seat, shuffling through some papers. No niceties — straight to business. Had anything changed since our last meeting? Could I check all the names were spelt correctly? Here are some instructions for what to do if any details need changing, and so on.

She handed me the document and I nearly laughed out loud. It was printed on stiff, beige paper, just a few pages deep, and — weirdly — bound with a green, shiny ribbon. I’d never seen anything like it.

I turned the first page and felt a flutter of unease upon reading the words:

This is the last will and testament of EMMA LOUISE LEACH.

There are moments like this that make you realise you haven’t properly processed something. I’d been going through the motions — emailing the solicitor, booking an appointment, giving her my details. I’d stumbled a bit at her use of the word “predecease”, and had a brief cry when deciding who to leave my possessions to. But something about seeing these words on the page really confronted me with the grim purpose of this document.

Again, it’s films I draw on here. Normally you don’t see people drafting or amending their Will in films. You usually only see the document itself, with that famous first line, when it’s surrounded by weeping relatives. Or by angry relatives, shocked and disbelieving, as the executor slides the page across the table to show them they’ve been written out of an inheritance. In other words, you normally only see the Will after the person who’s written it is dead. Something tells me it would have been less weird had those first words been less iconic, less part of pop culture and just left to be the bland legalese they are.

A woman from the office was brought in to witness my signature and to photocopy my records. It all happened very quickly. For the second time in my life, I botched my signature (the first time, aged 17, was when I’d just passed my driving test,) but it wasn’t bad enough to spoil the document.

The solicitor was folding my photocopied version for me to take away, sealing the job. I felt a little tension thrum in the room, which must be common when people are suddenly faced with their own mortality. She must be used to this, I thought, an everyday occurrence.

The solicitor was pushing the photocopy into an envelope, her eyes on her hands. ‘That thing in Glasgow just makes you think…’

‘Oh yes. Terrible,’ I said.

‘…You never know when your time will come.’ She fumbled, tearing the envelope slightly at one corner. She tutted under her breath and folded the tear back down with a fingertip. Looking up, she handed me the envelope with a smile.

Nicosia

I am in the Tourist Information Centre in Larnaca, Cyprus’s third largest city. I am asking about the weather forecast for the capital, Nicosia.

The man squints at his screen and clicks his mouse. He is wearing a white shirt that is not at all wet with sweat in the air conditioned room. I feel untidy in comparison: beach-haired, dirty feet, damp to the touch. I hope the beads of sweat haven’t appeared across the bridge of my nose in the two minute walk from my hostel.

The man makes a moue of surprise. ‘It’s only 28°C there,’ he says. ‘Here, 31°C.’

I thank him and leave for the bus stop, realising only afterwards that he meant those are the temperatures now, at 10am. By the afternoon it will ratchet up to 38°C.

Arriving in Nicosia by bus I pass through streets that could line any European capital. There is more bustle here and people are dressed more smartly. As they walk they beat the refrain we-have-a-job-to-do.

I leave the air conditioned bus and step out into the walled old city, waiting for my body to acclimatise, waiting to gauge the heat of the day. I am disoriented but know I need to head north to walk into the heart of the city so I glance at my compass. North. This way.

I walk along the two main high streets on the south side of the city. They run parallel to each other, north-south, and stop abruptly at the checkpoint. As I walk I catch the odd glimpse of the UN buffer zone: quickly erected concrete barriers, barbed wire, sand bags, NO PHOTOGRAPHY signs, a jeep, a woman with MILITARY POLICE on the back of her T shirt. I imagine accidentally stumbling into a prohibited zone, the bark of voices. What would I do? Put my hands up? Shout, ‘British citizen! British citizen!’? But actually the border is clearly defined – I wouldn’t be able to scramble past that barbed wire by accident.

I walk on, following the Green Line towards the east of the city and twist through crumbling streets, admiring the metalwork of balconies.

A reminder of the north side! The call to prayer starts up and takes no notice of the border, drifts across wherever it chooses. It sounds so close it surprises me, though I have already noticed the minarets pointing skyward. It is somehow more shocking to hear the other side than to see it.

It’s after 1pm now so there is almost no-one on the streets away from the busy centre. I am glad of the hat I bought because the sun is strong on my head in the gaps between buildings. I stick to the shade where I can. It’s that time of day when the sun acts like a rolling pin, smoothing life into the corners. Life hugs the disappearing shade, removes itself indoors where it can. Feral cats yawn and sit still. If they are feeling comfortable they sleep on their backs, paws in the air.

I find a place to eat, not because I am hungry but to have some time off my feet and to stay in the shade of an umbrella. I find a cafe and stay there as long as I can.

Finally, I do it. I cross to the other side. I think at first that it’s possible to walk straight through, but it’s not quite that relaxed. I come to the passport control window and notice police to my right, sitting on plastic garden chairs and scanning the crowd over their conversation. There is a slight atmosphere of tension – slight, but it’s there. I fill in a photocopied piece of paper, a visa: name, passport number, nationality. The woman behind the glass doesn’t smile but her presence is friendly. Meryam, says her name badge. She has a stitched Turkish flag fixed to her epaulette. She spends what seems like a long time typing my details into a computer, then she stamps the paper visa and I am waved through. At that point I realise I haven’t learnt a single word of Turkish to thank her with.

I go past the line of tourists, past the two frowning at passport control, past the police sat on garden chairs and into another country. Or, as my country calls it, into occupied territory.

Immediately I search for difference. How Turkish does this feel? How occupied? How Muslim? Similarities push themselves to the forefront: signs are in English, many prices are in euros, men play backgammon and draughts in the shade outside cafes.
Slowly the differences press forward too: the language, of course, the currency, the stares in the street (more? Different?) The mosques that used to be cathedrals, the Greek Cypriot Turkish coffees, ubiquitous. The crumbling buildings, crumbling because they are badly maintained and their owners are poor, rather than the picturesque version of crumbling worthy of a photo that exists across the border. There is an oh-so-subtle mist of tension here that doesn’t settled on any particular place but seems to envelop the north side.

A market runs along the Green Line and is the only part of the north side that is thick with tourists. I walk along the street, still keeping to one side or the other to save my head from the sunshine. On my way back to the checkpoint, I turn down a side street to try to avoid the market. It looks deserted and unpromising, and I notice people glance at me as I walk along it. At the end of the side street, there is a fence made from MDF, its door swinging open on a hinge. I look either side of me and step inside, cautiously. There would surely be some sign displayed if this was off limits.

The door leads to a courtyard, wedged between lines of buildings on either side. Across from where I’m stood, on the other side, there is the Green Line’s boundary made from stained concrete and barbed wire. And in between there is what looks like a deserted cafe. There are overgrown trees and bushes that form a natural canopy over the courtyard, cool and humid. The canopy and the dead end give this courtyard a sense of peace and seclusion. Chairs surround tables cloaked in faded, checked tablecloths. I walk between these tables and cross an invisible boundary so I can now hear a thin sound – some music drifting from one of the buildings on either side. Suddenly I am spooked and I turn on my heel, leaving the courtyard and crossing back through the checkpoint to the other side.

Adam and Emily

Adam is gutsy, he is brash. He can go like the clappers. He never blows hot and cold, just cold. A cool, cool shot of air that pushes out in a bank from his wide mouth. Seagulls could ride that airstream, dipping a wing here, tilting a head there, before plummeting to the sea and drawing out – they hope – a glittering, twisting, silver morsel. Adam belches this seagull air, looking from left to right and pausing for a moment at each side. In these pauses he seems to lose some of his power, become laconic, perhaps think a little. Most of the time he holds forth without thought, but in these in between times, when no-one is looking, I fancy he stops to think.

Emily never thinks, she just keep on whirring relentlessly. She’s more petite, resting on a tabletop rather than standing apart – as Adam does – on her own island. She’s younger, smarter, keener, more stealthy. Her breath doesn’t hit you solidly in the face – it graces your hair. You feel it at your edges. She never misses a beat. At least I think she doesn’t. There was a moment last night when I thought she went completely silent, as if waiting for us to drift off to sleep and then taking a moment’s rest. But it must have been my sleep-deaf ears.

Sleepingwaking in a Sun-Hot Land

Awake.
There’s a strong wind blowing outside. Maybe it will be a cooler day. No, no, it’s Emily the fan still running. My mouth is ngh-ngh-ngh so I swallow. I move my hand from my stomach where it has left a ring of fingermarks in sweat.
Asleep.

Awake.
There’s a strong wind blowing outside that sounds like a thunderstorm coming. Perhaps a cooler day, perhaps rain, though I’m not equipped for that. No umbrella, no raincoat, just shorts and dresses. No, no, it’s Emily still running, thhhh-bwa-bwa-bwa-bwa-bwa-thhhh. It’s dark outside. I turn onto my side so that Emily’s breath can cool the sweat on my back.
Asleep.

Awake.
She is moving around the room. The door opens and closes, keys rattle in the lock. I scratch an itch on my stomach, wonder if it’s a mosquito bite, and then itches spread all over my side, my face, my leg and back to my stomach again. It’s not a mosquito, I think. It’s not a mosquito.
Asleep.

Awake.
My hair is still damp against my head and the sky is dark – there may still be hours to go before dawn. A car engine starts outside with a thack-chack-bang. Voices raised. There’s a cooler breeze coming from the open window. Perhaps the night’s heat has peaked. No, no, it’s Emily still blowing. I remember these hot nights from an August in Osaka. But actually I’ve forgotten the nights, remembering only the relief of cold showers in the morning, washing away the night’s sweat. The only time before that I’d enjoyed cold showers. At that time I was shocked my sister would leave her fan on all night – now I have Emily to spin and whirl.
Asleep.

Awake.
It’s light outside now. Then sun isn’t yet beating against the side of the building. The curtain moves in Emily’s breeze and brushes with light fingertips against my leg. What time is it? It’s not quite time.
Asleep.

Awake.
What time is it? It’s light outside and she is next to me, lying very still, her hands crossed neatly on her stomach. I crawl and shuffle over to the table and pick up my watch. It’s time to eyeball the day, dispatch the night, dirty my feet, seek wind tunnels, drink black-brewed coffee, stumble out words, sweat olive oil, walk single file in the shade, swap shorts for dresses then dresses for nothing. It’s time to wake up.
Awake.

Zero Three Two Seven

“–No you listen to me–”

“–You’re the one not listening. I’m trying to explain–”

The voices filtered through to me as I waited in the no mans land behind the ticket barriers in Liverpool St Station.

Two men stood on either side of a glass barrier, locked in their disagreement. It was impossible to gather the details of their argument because they were both talking over each other – something to do with Man 1 not carrying ID for his Oyster card. Man 2 towered above him, at least 6’6″ and clearly in a position of authority, though he wasn’t wearing a uniform.

“Give me your badge number. Your badge number,” said Man 1.

“Zero three two seven,” said Man 2.

They carried on arguing. Then Man 1 took out a notebook. “Now, give me your badge number.”

“I’ve already given it to you and I’m not giving it again. You had your chance.”

They went back and forth like this a few times before I went over and interrupted them, repeated Man 2’s badge number for Man 1. He still didn’t write it down.

Man 2 turned to me, 6’6″ of buttoned up rage.

“Can I ask you a question? What business is it of yours?”

A Pair of Hands

[wpcol_1half id=”” class=”” style=””]

I was visiting my parents’ house and my sister was complaining of some unusual activity in her swollen, pregnant belly. My dad got up and walked to the sofa. He laid his hands on her belly and began to feel it, to probe it.

Here? Here?

Here? Here?

In that action of laying his hands on her belly he had transformed from a father into his alter ego: the doctor. There was something so unfatherly and so doctorly in the way he probed the swollen belly. Not too much contact, a functional amount of contact; nothing overstepping the mark. So discrete. Distance, boundaries, a code of ethics.

[/wpcol_1half]

A doctor on the radio described walking through a hospital at the height of the AIDS crisis, surrounded by dying people. He went to check on a patient who was nearing death. As the doctor approached, the patient caught his eye and lifted up his top to reveal his chest. The doctor laid his hands on the patient’s chest.

Here? Here?

Here? Here?

Decades after the event, the doctor described how this revealed to him the importance of ritual in medicine. He didn’t need to touch the patient’s chest, just needed to tell the patient – with his touch – that he was not alone.