Washing and roaring and thrashing, pushing in and dragging out, scores the room. Laura lies in half consciousness, letting it wash over her, as the image of her Aunt Gwyn miming at her to brush the back of her teeth fades and warps, leaving just the feeling of furred teeth and a heavy, warm cocoon around her. Her small head of dark tendriled hair burrows under the pillow, aware of the moment lifting and trying to climb back in.
People always claim to sleep better by the sea, or to at least feel better as they wake up to it. The sea stroking along with the moon, stroking along with some intricate timing arrangement that our bodies remain in sway to. Always expecting the completion of the circle as it turns to cycle, always content in continued completion. The beats were off though, out of time. She’d been hearing the sea in the morning for a few days now. Dragging in and pushing out. It’s not a flat calming sea, but it ssshushhss as it moves in and back.
As the air in the room chills and fug lifts from the bed, Laura feels the throbbing starting down her right side. Her esophagus widens a little as the acid nausea waits at the back of her tongue. It tastes and feels like the side of a brick wall.
Laura twisted the rooms noise into a rhythm, and for long stretches it follows (but it doesn’t, really). It fakes in and out, and rumbles, growls, clockwork grinding, making the sound heavy. Days that turn intelligent design to poor handiwork. Days lacking oil.
Aching sigh and eyes opened, Laura pulls herself into sitting position, and watches the room clarify. A children’s room, a map on the wall, old stickers peeling off. Blue tack on the wall where pictures got old and fell and no one replaced them. Scribbles on the wall. ‘Know Thyself’ scrawled by a hand that saw that prospect as simple and completed, as 13 year olds are wont to do.
Looking around her old bedroom Laura felt less sure of any self of her own than she may ever had. She hated more of this room than she related to, and hated much more those things she still related to. Clothes now unsuitable, books she was afraid to read again; to spoil her impressions. Bible by the bed. Bible by the bed. Tradition followed, in case her mum visited, or could see somehow. Or if God could see. If he saw everything though, he was a sadistic pervert.
The judo belt hanging above the mirror, for want of elsewhere to hang. She had never fallen ‘correctly’ outside of a judo class, nor had she ever tackled someone to the floor since she’d finished her lessons, around 11.
Voices break in on the room, she recognises them, not as related to people but as related to the other times she has heard them. Reaching under the bed Laura pulls the crutch level and in 1 long stride is by the door. In 3 short hop strides, she’s on the other side of the door.
Outside, moving across the pavement under matching sky’s, people stare. Laura can guess why, but it doesn’t stop the worry that grows when multiple people keep staring at you. Is there something on my face? If there was, she can check when she gets to the shop and has a spare hand, it would be better somehow. There are less predatory male stares, which was at least a blessing, but more suspicious stares. Questions being written over her movements, irregular. Know thyself – if that were possible – which self are we supposed to know? The self others see through us in anonymity, ‘first impressions’, that self that people barely recognise when it’s described back to them by a friend who once saw them that way, and does no longer? The self that lovers see, secret selves in comfort, our worst and best selves, screaming flying stars, whispering caresses, the self in relation to the loved one, dependant on the lover? The self each person we know sees differently, the hated self, the comic self, selfish self and all? That secret self that philosophers believe in, a solid self seemingly separate from experience, either ego or id, backdrop or the entire set; that self no one seems to find in time? Laura thought of that self, sitting under shifting emotions, environments, interactions. She had thought it was there. How can it stand apart from everything unless it’s created by nothing, connected to nothing? A bump to the arm knocks her elbow down had on the plastic, leaning on the pole to support the leg. Like one of those dancing souvenirs that sway side to side. The grey balloon of puffa jacket continues to orbit past her, and everything makes less sense.
Laura knows what she is not. She is not self-sufficient, independent, or strong. She is not weak, but she is far from invulnerable. She is not confident. She is not cruel, but she is not always kind or forgiving. She is not a genius, she is not entirely brainflat. She is not one extreme, nor the other. She is not different from everyone, she is not the same as everyone. She is not transsexual, she is not a typical woman, she is not sure anyone is, she is not male, she is not a leader. She is not immortal, she is not George Sand, she is not sure that she is Laura, she is not sure that she is not Laura.
The traffic sea no longer rushes in and out in cycles. Now it’s right up against her it just bursts and growls and honks and intimidates. She keeps picturing herself slipping into it and drowning. She moves closer to the buildings. Laura is not suicidal.
Passing a T.M Lewin she looks inside. A couple browsers, in after work, too nervous to buy anything. She’d never been inside that shop before, she never really considered it. She pictured herself in a blue and white pinstripe shirt, like the girl on the pillar smiling blandly. A snort erupts from her nose and she smiles a no holds barred wide childish grin. One of those signs of madness, laughing in public. Laughing at the accepted and unquestioned is madness truly madness, unless you laugh with a crowd. Madness, truly, madness. Having several selves is madness. Acting how you do with friends or family with strangers = madness too. The more inescapable it all grew to seem, the better Laura felt. People stared harder as she smiled.
Rivulets of people run along the roads tidily, the rush and roar of traffic sweep Laura along with them. Out of, step. Know thyself through comparison, through questioning those things which you are not, is that correct? She was certainly not the one who injured herself, she knows that without comparison. Could she say she was certainly not the nervous woman she passed smoking outside of Topshop? Is there no space for a ven diagram? Is she certainly not the woman behind the headline ‘Mother kills children ‘for their own good’’? Or the man smiling about insurance on the left of the headline? There’s something about London at rush hour that makes stress tangible and testable. Easier to build self-serving membranes between people you’re pressed against.
Laura’s palms are red raw and white mottled, bruised past purple. Her pits are sweaty and keep her warm, while she hasn’t felt her fingertips for a while. She’s sick of not fitting through the gaps people open for her on the pavement. To dip into her bag and check the time means stopped to take it off her back, but it has maybe been an hour, two? Mannequins’ hang in windows, or are propped by a metal rod disappearing up when their rectum should be. There are two types, one alien thin, a tall drip of water, the other slightly wider, maybe by an inch. All chalk-white or black plastic, mostly headless. No one walking in and out or around looks like them, they all have heads and hair and pores and bumps and breath and sag and scar and taut and fraught and very few have anything in their rectum. Laura knows she is not that.
Walking by the sea, each wave washes the feeling of a gasp, memory of being dunked under as child in the bath, hair scrubbed. Water dripping cool down the backs of ears. The wash of the cars driving up and away made Laura feel dirtier with each wave, bin water spilt on your arm, black bits that come from London noses. Bright puddles reflecting sky turn to grey sludge as dark drapes over them. Each step punches bruised palms, each glance trowels on top of her; each missed gap, pushing elbow, makes her sad, and today is not a day to be sad. Out and moving and watching should not be sadder than sat and still and waiting and thinking.
The big shops and fast food joints are inserted into bigger buildings once for committees and collections and houses, made to look imposing, and to be used for imposing, from on high. Once they were sparsely populated with residents or businessmen or Lords of influence enough to guarantee personal space. Now they run packed, on a Tuesday at 5pm NikeTown and Topshop and Office on Oxford St look filled with a slightly more discerning type of looter. Is that breathing life into old city buildings? It could almost appear democratic or socialist for so many to fill buildings made for so few. Though the many are only parts sweeping through aisles. The profiting heart is still made up of the few. They just no longer need to be in residence. They can ‘reside’ somewhere convenient, like the Canaries, and this will all happen of its own accord. Shop girls save clothes behind the till, to spend their salary over, to make the most of a discount that makes the clothes only 20x their production and import value.
Laura’s head is too caught up in buildings and rats to see her way, and her crutch hits a woman’s ankle in front. The woman turns with a face of Hades. It falls to a face of sniffy anger when she sees Laura whole, and the closed face turns back to its destination. No words. Burning on cheeks, and edging her knuckles. It got dark so quickly, sick tinges the back of her tongue as she sees just how dark, how quickly. Rush hour is in full flow. People keep moving her along, towards the underground, but the steps are hidden under masses of feet and she just can’t. She can, she reminds herself, she technically can. But really, she just can’t. One push, misplaced crutch, and she sees herself lying on the floor, unseen, her quiet high pitch voice asking the boots and heels and trainers that climb on to and over her to please walk a little to the left, to please leave a little room for her to get up, or maybe to just avoid her extremities, the little crackable fingers, toes and nose.
To turn away from the station, the steps starting soon, Laura has to break some crowd, cut out a slice. Angry shoulders knock her side-to-side, rocking in the waves, breath and warm coats squeak against each other. The crowd pants. Half a metre till heights start dropping down the steps. Just lift up an arm and turn and say something. Muggy panic. The crutch escapes the feet. Up there is still sky. Laura points the crutch – right out to her right – breathes deep and shouts
‘PLEASE LET ME THROUGH. THANK YOU. PLEASE COULD YOU..? THANK YOU…’ until the people begin to thin and fall away. There are no benches here, so she leans on the ridges edging Niketown’s displays and pants. Washing in dirty London air she feels elated, exhausted. The sun breaks from under one cloud, for second, before hiding under another. The first cloud climbs over the rest. White cloud over grey. No leaking.
Words by Alice Louise Wadsworth
Alice Louise is a freelance writer of fact and fiction, English literature graduate, co-founder of the Lemon People collective, and contributing editor at The New British. Alice chats breeze for several print and online publications, such as i-D and the International New Media Gallery, and her fiction has been published by Brighton Literary Society. Alice is currently residing under a pile of paper in Peckham.
Photography by Sophie Le Roux
Sophie le Roux, 22, is a film school graduate, specialising in editing, turned Casting Agent from London. Her recent work under the moniker ‘Sludge World’ epitomises her eye for the uncanny and aesthetics of absence. Sludge World is a trip across Europe, through ‘situations’ made of previously disconnected objects that are recategorised away from the mundane, into to the esoteric.