Friday, 26 November 2010
Piano keys in London - A short story
Sophie Johnson lived on her own in a basement flat near Primrose Hill, and operated her life with a series of sub-routines, for she liked to think that if nothing at all, she was a creature of habit. She arose everyday at six fifty-five, hit the snooze button on her alarm and allowed herself the extra eight minutes it took for it to ring again. Whilst she waited, she permitted herself the small luxury of pretending to think of what to wear to work that day, and then invariably, she would burst out laughing at the very thought - because she would never have been able to fall asleep without knowing what to wear the next day. If for some reason Sophie became the subject of CIA surveillance, it would only have taken seven days to work out her movements and habits for the rest of the working year. Having had her inevitable breakfast of bran flakes and banana, she would leave her basement flat, glance briefly skywards to see if she needed to keep her umbrella handy, and, regardless of the weather, begin the thirty-minute walk to her job as administrator at a literary agency.
She would take a tea break at eleven, and over her second cup, read the feature articles of the previous day’s Evening Standard (having left them for this very purpose), and return to her desk at a quarter past eleven. At five-thirty on the dot, she would lift her handbag from under her desk, bid a cheerful ‘bye!’ to her colleagues, and be out of the door in time to see the shutters of the hairdresser’s across the street from the office come down. This was how Sophie’s life panned out in the course of the year. Needless to say, she had separate routines for weekends and holidays.
But a chance encounter was about to change all that.
Life is full of coincidences in ways that are almost unbelievable. And if everyone wrote about theirs, it would appear to others as pure fiction. On the weekend that one of her friends organised a party to celebrate Ghana’s independence (a party which Sophie had attended after a reluctant re-adjustment of her weekend routine), she had come away feeling happier than she had been in a long time. It had felt good to meet up with friends and reminisce, and for some reason, she basked in a renewed sense of being black. Suddenly, she was aware of her kinky hair, the dimple on her left cheek, and her hour-glass figure. She was a black girl and proud of it.
So it was that when November 4 rolled by and every newspaper in the world screamed Barack Obama’s victory in the United States presidential race and its implications for black people, it coincided with Sophie’s recent self-pride, and she too celebrated.
In retrospect, Sophie realised that that day had not began any differently from previous days. It was a crisp autumn morning, the sun was out, and it was one of those days that made you feel as though London really was the best city to live in. She had read in the week’s papers that Borders, a bookstore, was closing down, and though she was sad that she would soon not be able to spend countless hours browsing through the books there, she was heading to the Islington branch to hunt for bargains. The one passion in her life was books. She devoured everything from Chinua Achebe to Jean-Paul Sartre, and considered herself well-versed in the works of Guy Débord. When she came out of her flat that Saturday morning, she swung her red and green print tote bag over her shoulder and joined the throng of people on the street, heading for the underground station.
Within a short time, she was at the station, swiping her oyster card, and slipping it smartly into her bag afterwards. As she made for the down escalator, a huge advertisement caught her attention. Or at least that’s what she told herself. Over its black background, she caught sight of herself, and gave a small ‘oh’ of pleasant surprise. She had put her hair in braids to go to bed the previous night, and this morning when she’d undone them, it had made a halo around her face. Now, she held it back with a black band. She looked girlish…almost beautiful, in fact.
Sophie realised she was still rooted to the spot, transfixed by her own reflection. Giving it an uncharacteristic cheeky smile, she made her way down, a spring in her step.
The tube was unusually empty when it finally came. Perhaps it was this realisation, or the fixed indifferent masks that people wore as soon as they entered the tube, or even still, her acute sensing of a presence opposite her that made Sophie raise her head.
Whatever it was, she saw him at once.
It was his shoes she noticed first because her eyes were cast downwards as she rooted through her bag for something to read. She saw immediately that he had stepped in what looked like dog excrement, and even before she had lifted her eyes, she felt her nose twitching, and a sudden need to quell laughter that was building up in her. Raising her eyes further still, she noticed that his jeans sat rather nicely on him. Hastily moving away from that thought, she clocked his t-shirt which had the inscription; if you can read this it means you have had the benefit of an education. When she finally dared sneak a look at him, she did a mental double take.
Blimey...he was what one of her friends would have described as ‘mmm..yummy’. Sophie hastily averted her gaze, but not before she saw a flash of – was it amusement? – on his face, as though he knew exactly what she was thinking. She pretended to study the tube map on her lap, even tracing the length of the Northern line with her finger. To anybody else, she was the very picture of indifference! Surreptitiously, she lifted her eyes again, and to her consternation, locked eyes with him again. He was openly staring at her, and this time, he was exposing perfect white teeth in a smile.
Sophie felt her quickened heartbeat, and cursed her treacherous body. What did he have to be so bloody smug about? She groped about mentally for a scathing putdown to wipe off that self-assured smile and bring him down a peg or two.
‘You stepped in dog poo!’ she said defiantly, and promptly regretted it. What was she doing? He could have been smiling about anything, Sophie, she told herself.
‘Ah..so it’s not my cologne then…’ he trailed off, a teasing smile creeping back up his face.
His voice was dry, with an accent that Sophie couldn’t quite place. He had dark curly hair, and as he leaned slightly forward, she thought his eyes might be a molten brown colour. Her eyes followed his hand as it dug into his shoulder bag and brought out a book.
‘Huis Clos!’ Sophie exclaimed before she could stop herself.
‘You read it?’ he asked, a surprised smile on his face.
‘Only about a thousand times!’ Sophie replied. It was her favourite of Sartre’s plays. Peering closer she said, ‘Is that in the original French?’
A sheepish look appeared on his face. ‘Guilty. I tried to read the English version, but I enjoy it more in French.’
Of course now he’d mentioned it, she could hear the unmistakeable French accent, but she was almost sure that he spoke other languages because his accent wasn’t so pronounced. But before she could dwell on it further, she became aware that the train had pulled into Angel station where she was meant to get off, and it looked like it had been there for a while. Scrambling frantically, she dumped her book back into her bag and made for the door. The alarm had already sounded the warning for the closing doors, and even as she hurried, she had a mental picture of being crushed in the doors. Needless to say, she was relieved when she made it on the platform in one piece. Amidst the throng of people on the platform, she paused by one of the seats to gather her wits about her. That was really close she thought. I could have been -
‘Hey..uh..’ a hesitant voice interrupted her thoughts.
She felt a warm glow when she turned and saw that it was him, the guy from the train.
‘So, I had my lines all ready…I was even going to say, ‘I bet you’re getting off at Angel, because you look like one’…only you run off so fast…and it took about four guys to hold the doors back for me to get out…’ he trailed off, a mischievous little smile playing on his lips.
Sophie threw her head back in laughter.
‘So, I think you have to make it up to me…’ he continued, eyes boring into hers ‘it’s only fair. What do you say to a cup of coffee?’
She had really been looking forward to Borders, yet her response was immediate. ‘I’d love to.’
His name was Jude Phillips. He was twenty-eight and a photographer for Discoveries!, a travel magazine. Over steaming cups of coffee across the street from the station, she said,
‘Tell me about yourself.’
He laughed. ‘That would probably take all of five minutes.’
Sophie pretended to consult her watch. ‘Hmm..I’m not going anywhere right this minute…’
He took a deep breath. ‘My parents have lived all over the world. Dad is English and Mum is French. My father spent about twenty years as an English teacher in a secondary school in Kenya. My mother was working there already as a doctor when they met and fell in love –’ he paused ‘it’s where I was born.’
She stared at him. ‘You were born in Kenya? Wow! Do you speak Swahili?’
He gave her a look that told her that he’d experienced that kind of reaction countless times.
‘I sure do.’ There was obvious pride in his voice. ‘We moved to France when I was about seven, but I found the life a little different. I missed Kenya terribly, I had no friends in Paris, and when I went to school, the other kids teased me about my accent.’
‘Did you not speak French well, then?’
‘I did. My parents had always made sure that both English and French were spoken at home. They never actually tried to help me with Swahili, because they were sure I would learn that anyway. But you see…kids can be mean. I guess to them I was just some exotic kid from Africa.’
Sophie could not help the indignant emotion surfacing for the poor seven year old Jude thrust into a new life. She took a deep breath. ‘Did you always know you wanted to be a photographer?’
His eyes lit up. ‘Yes. My dad gave me my first camera when I was eight.’ His tone had gone soft, ‘We had left Nairobi then, but I vowed to myself that I’d return as soon as I had enough money. I wanted to capture the stunning beauty of the Kenyan landscape and bring it alive through my photographs –’ He looked at her, suddenly embarrassed. ‘That sounded corny. Sorry.’
‘No!’ Sophie protested ‘That is absolutely beautiful.’
‘You could say I fell in love with capturing things on camera –’ he gave a little shrug. ‘– and well, here we are.’
Sophie was thoughtful. ‘What’s it like photographing London?’
‘It’s never dull. Mostly I like to capture everyday scenes…interesting things that draw my attention and make me think. You know how sometimes something jumps out at you in a way which makes you forget that it had been there all along, only you’d been too preoccupied to notice?’
‘Er..yes.’ Sophie replied uncertainly.
‘I mean that type of photography is what I do as a hobby. Work, though, requires me to capture photographs that make a place look like the place to be. Outside of it, I fancy myself a bit of a situationist on a dérive…’ he looked at her to see if she had understood what he meant.
‘Ah, I knew there was more than a passing resemblance to Monsieur Débord himself!’ came Sophie’s impish reply, and he smiled broadly in return.
‘I wish I could experience the city like that…but work, life, gets in the way.’ Her tone was suddenly wistful. She marvelled at the turn of events that had brought them to this point. She, who never made any unplanned move, was surprised by her own impetuousness and warming to this new side of her. For now she lived for this stolen moment, this charmed piece of time that was a sharp difference from the drudgery of routine her life had come to be. It was as if there was no past or future, but just the beauty of the present.
He was silently looking at her and then abruptly, he grabbed her hand and practically hauled her up.
Sophie was startled. ‘Hey! What are you doing? Where are we going?’
He was bounding towards the door of the coffee shop, taking long purposeful strides. ‘We’re going to people-watch at Piccadilly Circus. How else can you let your imagination run wild?’
‘Er…apparently no other way,’ she said meekly, allowing herself to be dragged back to the underground.
Coffee had turned into a people-watching session, followed by a long leisurely lunch which neither had wanted to end. At Piccadilly Circus Jude had amused her immensely by creating a ‘storyline’ out of each chance phrase they had heard from people walking by them. So there had been the 'honeymooners', 'the barbecuers', 'the shopaholics', 'the anally retentive' and many others.
She began to see what he had meant about experiencing the city in a familiar yet strange way. How could she never have noticed the buzz and activity that brought the city piercingly alive and made it rich with possibilities? Now as she made her way home, she recalled the last moment with Jude as they parted, she to get the underground, and he to Notting Hill.
He had come up to her, standing close and looking down with dark intense eyes. Her senses were assailed: the smell of his body, the sound of his voice, at once teasing then serious, and his incredible nearness.
‘Kwa heri.’ He had whispered. ‘Goodbye.’ And then a moment later he added, ‘This has been the longest first date of my life.’
And Sophie had raised her eyebrows, suddenly conscious of a pleasant warm feeling. Had they been on a date? She did not know what you called it when you spent the whole day with a very attractive stranger who had quickly made an impression on you.
‘And you know what happens at the end of every date?’ His lips were moments from hers.
‘What?’ she asked breathlessly.
‘Show, don’t tell,' he whispered, 'didn't your mother ever teach you that?’ And then he’d kissed her.
Now as she let herself into her flat, Sophie remembered how Jude had described the two of them. Piano keys – black and white and ready to make music. Corny, she knew. But she liked corny. She grinned goofily at her reflection in the hall mirror. No amount of careful planning could have accounted for the day she had just spent. And that, she realised, was the beauty of it all – the sheer unexpectedness.
She felt her phone vibrate. Her smile widened as her caller id showed it was Mmm..yummy calling. It was the sound of the start of something new.