London as a Twenty-Something, Upstart Reprobate: Vol.2.
The bell chimed quietly for a second time, and the door slid obediently shut behind me. Was this the place? A witch-haired, gypsy-eyed woman suggested it might be. She watched my approach with a beady eye, placed the mug she’d been drying with a dirty cloth to one side, and crossed her arms.
‘Hey,’ I said in a low voice, for surreptitious places demand a covert manner of speaking, ‘is this the place I can talk to strangers?’
I smiled as I finished speaking, and she smiled knowingly back at me. She held out a jewelled finger which led my gaze to an open door. It had a downwards arrow painted on the wall next to it.
I crept down a spiralling staircase, and with every step became more aware of the unmistakable hum of human voices below. I found myself in a cold brick basement, where the only light emanated from a crack underneath a closed door. As I reached for the handle, a crow of laughter erupted from within and I hesitated.
‘This is what London is about,’ I reminded myself. I turned the handle and entered.
In the half-light I made out a den of thirty people sitting cross-legged on cushions, and a silhouette of a woman addressing them to my left. Sixty-two eyeballs all turned questioningly towards me, entreating me to explain myself.
‘Sorry I’m late,’ I offered, ‘the buses were a nightmare.’
A common excuse though it was, it provoked no reproach, and I folded up my leather jacket to sit on en lieu of a cushion. I sat with my back to a radiator, as all attention reverted to the orator at the front. She spoke:
‘This one,’ said a just-audible voice, ‘is called “Peas”’. She had a withdrawn demeanour, and the edges of her body seemed to curl inwards like the petals of a flower. I could just make out the erratic handwriting on the paper she held, made transparent by the dim light. She looked at it now, and began after a measured pause.
“The ink of a poet’s pen is their soul in liquid form, and to comment upon their work is to comment upon the profoundest element of their character.”
She read a poem. Her quiet voice crackled like a war-time radio, like sandpaper drawn lightly over wood; it was in all senses coarse, and yet somehow fragile and crystalline. She captivated. We listened. A poem would end, the applause die away, then she would swiftly start again. Her body unfolded in the warmth of each reception, and she grew bolder.
Her poems were simple, and all seemed tailor-made to the whims of a child’s imagination: after ‘Peas’ came an elegy about mermaids; after that, a love poem called ‘I Love Your Strange’. The latter was laden with lyrics evocative of early Arctic Monkeys songs, ending with an ode to post-night out fast-food. I would ask her later if I could steal it for my own writing. The poet smiled cumbersomely at the final round of applause, though she seemed embarrassed. She announced a ten minute break, and departed.
I found her outside on a pavement, iced under the January freeze, and told her how I liked her poems. Sylvia (as I name her in this story) laughed, but said thank you sincerely; the ink of a poet’s pen is their soul in liquid form, and to comment upon their work is to comment upon the profoundest element of their character. The smoke from the cigarettes of the other poets circled upwards into the night, and we discussed the works of our favourite writers, Wilde being mine at the time. Seemingly alone at a University that champions efficiency and straight-talking (Bath is a STEM-orientated institution, without courses such as English or Philosophy), it was as much a relief as it was enjoyable to connect to someone that enjoyed thinking abstractly too. Sylvia told me the rest of the night’s agenda, apparently the one who organised it. There was a surprise item up next.
“She pointed at me, and motioned to a wooden stool now placed in front of the audience.”
‘We call this part the Stranger’s Chair,’ Sylvia announced in her unobtrusive voice, once everyone had reassembled. She turned to her accomplice, a short, balding young man, and whispered something in his ear. Then she pointed at me, and motioned to a wooden stool now placed in front of the audience. Encircled by the others in what now seemed like an amphitheatre primed to interrogate its stage, I sat down and tried to look at ease. Sylvia explained that I was the interviewee and the crowd could ask me anything. It was only then that I realised why the event ‘was called Talking to Strangers’. Questions ranged from ‘do you wear hats?’ to ‘what is Time?’ and even, simply, ‘why?’. I answered all ensuing questions, however personal, honestly, and was therefore slightly concerned by how much laughter my responses provoked. A blonde Lithuanian girl, Louise, asked deliberately difficult questions.
I enjoyed my ten minutes as the epicentre of attention, maybe because I’d become accustomed to life as an intern; at the law firm where I worked it was easy to become lost under mounds of spreadsheets and thankless tasks. I had been yearning recognition without knowing it. Apparently, I’d been fairly entertaining. Afterwards, someone actually asked whether my responses had been scripted. Still, I took it as a compliment that anyone should think my interview entertaining enough to be premeditated. Music and comedy followed, as I settled back into a crowd I now felt more a part of.
We fled the basement in a flurry of coats, scarves, and trilbies; the gypsy-eyed woman who’d greeted me now brashly hurried us out, for reasons still unknown. We got drunk at a pub around the corner, then headed to Roxy, a nightclub just off Tottenham Court Road. I had work the next day, but wanted to middle-finger the rat race for as long as possible. Around 3am, one of Sylvia’s poems permeated into reality, as Louise and I bought some cheesy chips near Soho square. She and I would go on to see each other for a fortnight, then break apart after her past came calling (and her past was the jealous type). But it wasn’t she who inspired the words underneath.
Sunk below a café,
Thick with spoken word,
Grew a voice like glass:
The only sound I heard.
You, so quietly cocooned,
Feet shyly set a-twist,
Whispered soft soliloquy
As mist might settle on lips unkissed.
A sound so brittley cast
So beautifully crafts
A thread of sound
Whilst run a-ground
All fear of such boldness becoming unmasked.
You unfold your wings again,
And with the poise of a crane
Grow through the room
Words built upon tune
Bring strange life to a world mundane.
After cadenced crescendo,
You shrunk from warm applause,
An embarrassed modesty, in shy refrain,
From the very sound you sought to cause.
For such callow verse you’d wrote,
You hastened to atone,
But of all the lines I asked to steal,
‘Can I buy you chips and take you home?’