I watch the man in the crumpled white shirt take a swig from his can of Stella and remember that anything looks beautiful when set against a pink September sky. I catch his eye through the smoke trails left behind by infinite Marlboro Lights; he picks up his guitar and I notice that there are flowers painted on its body, which feels unfair as he will never see the roses inked on mine.
I am unknown here. Nobody here knows my name / my secrets / my “situation.” Strangers here actually are strangers. Here, nothing is expected of me. I can hide what I like, reveal what I want. I don’t have to say a word; I can also say them all. Whatever I say or do here exists in its purest form, for here, at Camden Lock, I have no history. All we have are first impressions and I can be anyone I want.
I laugh out loud at the group of young girls who look exactly the same from behind, pretty clones with their Instagram lies and bad blonde highlights, all wearing the same beige trench coat, drinking the same sugary cocktail, taking photos of themselves pretending to drink it, no delete that one / delete it / OMG I look disgusting / take another one! / no, I don’t like that one, delete / one more / Ergh, no! / One more. One more, one more, one fucking more: I despair: I wonder what the girls look like without their glued-on spider-leg eyelashes, without their lip fillers, without their Ronseal fake tans. Who are they trying to deceive? Who am I trying to deceive, sitting here, lonely as sin, as if I am not wanting of their supposed sisterhood, the memories they’re so keen to create and share with friends?
A group of males sporting tragic haircuts and too-tight designer clothing approach the girls, and I shake my head in disbelief. I don’t know why they’re here: they don’t look old enough to drink. I wonder why their parents haven’t told them that they look ridiculous. One time, when I was leaving the house, my mother told me that I looked like prostytutka. She meant it as an insult, but I took it as a compliment because that’s what it is. If only I was mentally strong enough to make money from my body: I was, once, but now, I am not. My stupid body: broken, betraying me, housing this brain that doesn’t work properly, this heart clogged with grief, these wounds, internal, external, in various stages of healing.
The most grotesque PDA is taking place to the left of me. The woman involved has a blade of grass in her hair. I’m the only person on this planet who knows that it’s there. The guy keeps staring at me, leering. He has a horrible laugh. It is false and it makes my skin crawl. He bites the girl’s bare shoulder and keeps his eyes fixed on mine the whole time and everything suddenly feels a lot colder.
This place is saturated with vague memories of the midsummer evenings of our glory days. We love to sit here and pretend that it’s not all over. We sit on the dirty concrete, lockside by the green water plastic cups / pink vomit / a dropped kebab. The sun cringes away behind the buildings, embarrassed, not wanting to stick around to witness our demise into debauchery. The summer has gone but there is a lot of skin on show. Heavy winter coats are being thrown on over denim shorts and tiny vests, and the more we drink the less we notice the temperature drop. The degrees fall away with our dignity and self-respect until there’s none left.
This is a tourist hotspot. I can spill my soul / steal a wallet / fall in love / punch someone in the face in the knowledge that any witnesses will soon be gone, so the damage will be deleted. What happens today never happened tomorrow. Ah, Camden Lock: where you never see the same face twice. Unless, of course, you want to.
Everyone around me is chatting away in various languages and smoking and laughing and I am reapplying angry purple lipstick with a shaking hand. The guitar man is still playing: we didn’t pay to see him, but we clap when we’re supposed to. The police will probably move him on soon. An old man who looks like a shit version of Iggy Pop dances around the guitar man, spilling his can of Scrumpy Jack’s on the floor. He gets on down on his hands and knees and licks it up, pink tongue lapping up pissy poverty.
So this guy is playing a free acoustic set for the ignoring masses and suddenly I feel so bad for him, like I’m the only one who’s really listening. He plays songs that I know and love by Cash, Dylan, the classics. Then he points straight at me and says, “Your boyfriend will probably come and beat me up for this, but I’ll take my chances… this one’s for you,” and then he starts singing ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ because of course fucking of course because that’s the song He always sang to me, about me, for me. Tears rally on the edges of my eyelids, my trembling hands lift the wine glass to my lips, my throat constricts, and I don’t want to remember anything anymore, please…
I can’t look at the guitar man or Shit Iggy Pop or the PDA guy or the chav youths with bad haircuts or the girls pretending to drink their drinks.
I just stare into the canal and let myself zone out:
light a cigarette / ignore my heartbeat / wonder how many people are rotting away at the bottom of the lock / attempt to conjure x-ray vision to look through the algae to the bodies below / fail to remember what the Camden Ripper’s real name is despite having watched a documentary about him fairly recently / curse my trauma-dented memory / guestimate how cold the water is / map the canal route in my head / decide that I’d rather drown than be burned alive / ignore all thoughts of Him with Her / Her with the swollen belly / Him excited to be a daddy / Him saying how he’s sorry that I didn’t give him a baby / Him Him Him ignore Him and Her ignore Her ignore it / stop it / stop it / and then everyone starts clapping
because the song has finished and I smile half-heartedly at the guitar man (no teeth) and he winks at me and then looks away and starts to play ‘American Pie’ and I’m fine again, I’m fine. I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine.
Originally published by Expat Press (August 2021)