I found a semblance of you in a tidal wave (notes from the Pacific Coast)

I arrived in Mexico from Greece, where I had in part been looking for my father, a task I had taken up and abandoned several times over the last ten years. My father never wanted to be found. This time I had the right connections and with the help of a couple of private investigators I discovered I was a little too late. He had died a penniless drunk, owing money to everyone who was once a friend. I also discovered all the family I didn’t know I had: my cousins, the aunt who had taught me to swim in the sea when I was too young to remember. I sat in their home shocked by tears which came as they answered my questions. 

“Did he have any more children?”

“Eight, maybe ten, that we know of. I’m sorry to tell you this but your father, he was not a good man.” My cousin was careful not to speak in the affirmative. He never said, ’Your father was a violent alcoholic, and very manipulative. He spread his seed like he feared going extinct, leaving women and children confused and abandoned throughout the country. If he had wanted to find you again, he could have; he just didn’t.’ He merely said that my father failed at things, namely at being basically good. 

My cousin’s diplomacy was admirable. The reason he has to spend almost every waking hour working to support his incapacitated parents is that my father had stolen the family home. He had waited until my grandparents were dying, swept in, burned the paperwork and sold it for petty cash. Then he fled south again, in favour of islands with loose regulations on guns and finance. 

I never reached his grave, which was just as well since I had no idea how to grieve something I’d never had. After months of struggling against aggressive bureaucrats across a barrier of language I had lost along with him, larger concerns cut my mission short and I left it in suspension and sought a country I could exist in while unable to return to the UK.

From Mexico City to the Oaxacan coast, my journey had been such a sudden explosion of life after what Greece had come to signify, that I didn’t realise I hadn’t been still until I reached Zipolite. I decided to stop there because I heard it’s the only place in the State which accepts public nudity. I was also told there are no police there, so I was alarmed the first time I saw them rolling along on quad bikes like toy soldiers against the back drop of semi-naked white hippies dragging their feet on the hot pavement like they’d flown too close to the sun.

Beyond that, it was difficult to move between sunrise and sunset. 33 degrees Celsius with 60-80% humidity. The town consists of just two roads and is designed to support tourists for a few days at the beach, but as soon as I stopped I found it difficult to move, so I stayed a little longer and found something like a community suspended out of time and place.

Like in many towns on Mexico’s tourist trail there is the Mexican community, and then the migrant community calling themselves expats. The expats of Zipolite are made up of US and European business owners whose money goes further there, old hippies lamenting days past, when the weed was better and cheaper and everyone was fucking everyone else, new hippies causing the displacement of Mexican-owned business in favour of white-owned artisanal coffee, craft stores and something called ‘chocolate yoga,’ and people who visited and just never left. 

I met two Canadians on state pensions who considered themselves stuck out there because paying for the mandated hotel quarantine back home would have indebted them. 

“There are worse places to be stuck,” said Ray, while Roy stared out at the sea with steely ice-blue eyes and told me he was sick to death of it. He wanted to go down to Costa Rica. I asked Ray if he didn’t want to see some of the country while they were here. Ray had been coming to Zipolite for thirteen years. 

He looked at me like I was mad and said, “You do know that wherever you go, you take yourself with you?”

I had been running from place to place. Travelling functions as a good excuse for your pathology if your pathology is a struggle with stability. This relationship, this project, this home was never meant to last; you’re just passing through. But I began my life in beach towns like Zipolite; my parents worked the tourist season on islands and I am always drawn back to the sea. 

The sea is like an amniotic sac, the sound of it hums in the background the whole time you live by it. I realised this when I found myself falling asleep three hours after I had woken up, watching the hotel residents curled up in a row of hammocks, swinging like cocoons in unison. Many of them had no intention to ever break out.

I met Ray when I asked what he was reading, it was some all-American pulp fiction which he excused himself for, he just wanted something light. He asked in return and I told him Ursula le Guin, then I had to repeat the name three times. Then he asked me to type it on my phone and show him.

 “Oh — Urrr-shh-lah!” he said. “That’s not what you said! I gotta say, I hear a woman writer’s name and I go cold.”

“What, you’ve never read a woman writer?”

He gave me a loose descriptor of a plot I could only imagine was the feminised equivalent of the trash he was reading and said he couldn’t stand the idea of a book like that. I told him he shouldn’t only look for books at airports and gave him some names to consider based on what he said he likes, which he made no note of.

In all my time there, I didn’t see anyone make progress in their paperbacks. Life revolved around meal times, as it often does, the books merely props to aid rocking side to side on the shoreline, and I fell into the rhythm of the Pacific Ocean.

One day the hotel owner told me he was taking me for lunch and I agreed because I figured he owed me for the state of my room. I’ll call him Saul. He was a tall, lanky Californian with skin like leather boots and whose teeth had seen better days. He’d had the place for twenty-two years, he told me, though I might have guessed a hundred. In all those years he hadn’t learned much Spanish and it remained a mystery how he communicated with his two monolingual Mexican employees.

The place had burned down in the nineties when a fire swept through town. Many businesses discovered their insurance plans were scams and never recovered, but Saul survived. He told me he had to sell all his properties in the States, but he managed to rebuild. He told me that his portfolio had consisted of many repossessed family homes. He was what they call a vulture.

“Family homes always sell, regardless of the market,” he preached.

“Yeah? Well, people need them.”

Saul emphasised that he used his vulture money for good, he told me he left his daughter and her husband a house in California. I asked how she was doing and he admitted he really didn’t know.

“She thinks I’m an asshole and I couldn’t be dealing with all that. You know what? She’s thirty-five, she has her own life,” he said. 

I wondered whether I would rather have inherited my father or a house. My own made sure I had neither. 

Ray asked me if Saul had taken me out and given me the story. I told him he had, but that I was not the right audience for it. 

“The wind is going the wrong way,” Ray said. I asked him what he meant. Ray had been sitting in his spot for so long, staring at the waves, that his beard had grown long and become attuned to the tides. He was right; not long after, the sea became too violent to swim in.

One day I left my spot for a moment and came back to a woman eating my food. Her name was old like a deity’s and her eyes were glazed. She told me not to worry about the food because karma meant that I would receive something in return. Mangoes — she would bring me mangoes. 

Her treatise on karma seguewayed her with ease into scattered aphorisms on everything from my star sign to current events to the mating habits of whales. She was one of those hippies who speak as if the wisdom they have accumulated weighs so heavy on them that each and every interaction they have is an opportunity to lighten the load, which they do on auto-pilot. She barely looked at me, but she smiled at the sea through stained teeth, the cadence of an oracle too detached from the material realm to be concerned with anything as banal as social convention. 

“People said I was mad because they were all coming here for sex and drugs and I was coming to have a child.” She was from Madagascar but had lived in Sweden and studied to be a lawyer. “It taught me how to lie, that’s all I took from that period. And then I thought about whales. They swim so far to find the right conditions to mate, so I thought I would do the same.” She said it with such certainty that for a moment I was swept up in her stoned swami drawl and the encroaching sea foam, but then half of me, my British half, thought, but we’re not fucking whales.

Her ten-year-old daughter was a name which floated around in her speech, but she was invisible. I asked where she was and she told me she was living her own life somewhere. 

“My voice is equal to her voice,” she told me, explaining why she had to raise her somewhere outside the confines of the mandatory schooling system. Her daughter ran barefoot around town and received wisdom by being allowed to play, and make mistakes, and spend time with her elders.

I never saw any mangoes; I never saw her again.

The sky was pink, the tide was coming in and the mosquitoes coming out. Roy was finally cracking a smile because he’d bought a flight out of there, and Ray and I sat out by the hammocks for an evening ritual we shared. We would watch people, share gossip or otherwise invent biographies for people, me with a beer and him, a recovered alcoholic, with a cup of coffee he drank tepid over hours.

We both became enraptured by the sight of a local resident, a young Mexican father, nude as the day he was born and shameless, with his daughter in tow who, at about five years old, was yet to learn shame. She mimicked his cartwheels and his yoga poses, and engaged in some sort of kinetic battle with the sea to defend the sand castle she had built. He joined in with her games and led her safely by the hand into the crashing waves, each time pulling her out so she knew she could trust him. They found a shell to crown her castle and both celebrated by leaping and howling with joy. 

Ray and I both remarked that it was moving to witness such an innocent display of intimacy, unburdened by the fear of incest which would weigh on such a thing in our respective countries, and it occurred to me that in all the time sitting like this regularly and talking to the old man about everything, I had no idea if he’d ever had children.

“I did,” he said. He had already told me about the gypsy princess he married. “Do you have them in Europe?”

“Romani? Of course.”

“Well, her mother was the leader of the tribe.”

It was a colourful story he told fairly flatly, involving the evolution of his wife, daughter of a Romani elder, into a successful and aggressively materialistic equestrian, and the mobile home they had lived in together which she had burned down perhaps trying to kill him. But he had never mentioned their child.

He was just a little older than me, he said. Maybe once a year they spend a weekend together to go fishing and mushroom hunting. 

“But he does the whole Facebook thing and I don’t do the Facebook thing,” Ray said, as if his relationship to his own offspring could easily be determined by a disagreement in user interfaces.

Ray dodged every question I had about his son. He answered in negative statements: “I didn’t want to fight in court. I didn’t want to move again.” Every response a careful avoidance of an encounter with apathy. 

“Anyway he’s married now, he has his own life.”

With those words I stared at the sea and for the first time since I had been still I was filled with rage. I wanted to scream at Ray, to throw my beer at him or just walk away and never come back. I imagined some young woman siting on a beach on Crete while my father, who would have had a glass of whiskey instead of coffee, told her he just couldn’t be bothered to fight for me.

Between mourning and rage I had been tricked into having a friendship with this useless old man who could have been my father, whose only crime was incompetence. 

I was leaving the next morning, and I went to bed hating Ray and fantasised about disappearing without a goodbye. I told myself I would be avenging his son who had been raised by another man. 

I still wanted to do it when I had a cold shower and stepped out into the tropical dawn with my luggage, when I went to hand in my key. 

I saw the back of Ray’s head in his usual spot, with his first coffee which I knew by that time would be slightly tepid. I looked at him looking at the sea, but I was going, and he was stuck there. What had looked like cruel apathy suddenly took on the appearance of fear, and I pitied him; saying goodbye was an ability I had which he didn’t.

“I thought you were going to sneak out of here without saying goodbye!”

“I wouldn’t do that,” I said.

Ray got up and opened his arms wide, inviting me to hug him. He asked if they would ever see me again. I said no, and left with a light heart, never looking back. 

Image: Salvador Dalí, Women Lying on the Beach

On the periphery of police violence: dispatches from London, Athens & Mexico City

Originally published with citations by Freedom Press.

The first time I encountered violence outside of the family I was fifteen and there was a machete pointed at my throat. My boyfriend and I used to take a long walk to the only 24-hour off-license in several square miles when we were doing pills and ran out of cigarettes. We never prepared enough in advance because we knew we would need an excuse for the adventure. One night he peed in front of the wrong house and like a flash its enormous guardian had jumped out of a parked car and had us both at the end of this huge blade. My boyfriend talked us out of it and we left with a warning.

Next it was a young man with a switchblade. We had nothing for him to take from us and we convinced him that violence wasn’t a sufficient reward for its own sake. My boyfriend also referred to someone we knew, someone who could destroy him if he touched us. There were unwritten laws of society at night, down back alleys, the underside of London, and even at that age we had some understanding of them. We understood there to be an ever-present risk of violence, and deferring to the police was something we had already learned to consider out of the question. Whether this was because he and his brother were both petty drug dealers, or because calling the police could be considered treacherous, or because police were the people who protected affluent neighbourhoods and terrorised poor ones, I’m not sure. 

There were stabbings so frequently at a bus station in our neighbourhood that the council’s solution was to have classical music playing from the loud speakers throughout the night, as if the eruptions of class-based violence could be quelled by lulling the perpetrators as if they were caged animals. Wagner was a misstep; the tactic had no positive impact on the rates of violence. 

Very rarely, though, was I more than a silent witness on the periphery of these frequent explosions. There was the time I was right behind a kid being dragged out of a bus window just smashed by someone he presumably knew, and the time I stood frozen as five men beat to a pulp a drunk who had accidentally stumbled into them. An image particularly burned to memory, because it’s one weighed with guilt, is a young man beaten on a curb in the city by men his own age, dressed just like him. We should have stopped, we should have done something, but it was 5am and we were all too high to know what to do, and definitely too high to be on the road. Someone in the car made some half-baked comment about the futility of young black men killing each other. I remember thinking we were the worse example of futility but I didn’t have the words. 

Growing up I was made implicitly mistrustful of police. If we can speak of anything like working class interests, it was clear that they were of no concern to police. But moving through public space in the body I do, I never really feared them. As police go, the UK forces are relatively tame. This is not to undermine police brutality and corruption which does occur in the UK, but compared to countries worldwide, some reassurance is granted by the regulatory constraints in place, the need to maintain the notion of ‘policing by consent’ and the relative lack of firepower. 

I learned to fear police in Greece. During 2020 the Greek government responded to the pandemic, in simple terms, by reducing public health funds and increasing policing. Greek police make British police look like children’s cartoon characters by comparison. They patrol the streets like swarms of beetles, armoured and always-armed. They look past you scanning the streets from behind visors and never say a word unless you’re in trouble, and even then, it’s often fists before mouths. 

I spent the winter of 2020 in a very poor neighbourhood in Athens, with a high rate of ‘invisible’ migrants squatting every conceivable shelter, where people rooted through bins for food and for containers to recycle, where desperation was visible and vocal, and the only violence you feared was from the police. 

During those months, Dimitris Koufodinas was close to death on hunger strike and there were large protests in response. There were also thousands of people marching against the deployment of militarised police onto university campuses, and labour unions were protesting for better wages and conditions. Nearing 17th November, the anniversary of the student uprising and overthrow of the facist junta in 1973, the government requested permission from the European Parliament to temporarily suspend citizens’ right to assemble in public, citing public health concerns related to the pandemic. This was granted, and when people still turned out in large numbers with very serious existential concerns, reports of brutal policing spread. 

The atmosphere in Athens was exacerbated when the government perpetually retracted and reintroduced convoluted Covid-19 regulations. Business relief was slashed, individual emergency welfare was made almost impossible to actually receive through complex bureaucracy, and the city passed from the supposed end of one lockdown right into another. Meanwhile, the prime minister was photographed hugging strangers out mountain-biking and enjoying a large terrace party with family and friends, and deployed armed police and helicopters to deal with citizens who turned out in outrage.

Large reinforced buses line the streets around Syntagma Square all year round. Armed police stand stoic, waiting for the smashing of a Molotov, or chanting, or just for a gay couple to walk by. The buses are mobile prisons, a jarring protrusion against the marble facades preserved for thousands of years, the Acropolis in the distance, and the memory of multiple revolutions. I rarely saw police in my neighbourhood. They only turned up once when a nearby squat was on fire; I watched them say a word to the firefighters, do a brief sweep and leave. But throughout the city I passed them constantly. 

Videos began to circulate of them assaulting young people sitting in the few green spaces left accessible, and the city began to swell with the anticipation of explosive violence. The person I was dating was terrified one day because she had been stopped while driving out of her neighbourhood for an errand and interrogated. She said she only avoided arrest by deferring to a family contact. Her mother was prevented from boarding the ferry home; when she showed the police her permit to work in the city and asked where she was supposed to spend the night, she was told that’s not their problem. 

I grew angry and frustrated by a sense of impotence. Friends asked me to join protests and for the first time I experienced the odd singularity of being a tourist amidst a political crisis: my British passport afforded me a certain kind of freedom and impermeability against the forms of police oppression I was witnessing, but joining the resistance could have easily led to my deportation and damaged my application for citizenship (even when you are fortunate enough to possess ‘birthright’ you have to pass tests of nationalism and Orthodoxy). 

I received reports from yet another protest, which, after the criminalisation of public assembly, ended in unprovoked tear-gas, rubber bullets sprayed into crowds, and many young women subjected to violent and humiliating instances of sexual abuse by police officers.

A friend of mine was on the front line every night. I had coffee with them one afternoon and they told me they were caring for a friend who had been brutalised by police. I assumed they were referring to a clash with protesters, but their friend was not protesting; he was just walking in his own neighbourhood, carrying his ID and ‘legitimate reason for leaving your residence’ as per government recommendations, when he was stopped and interrogated by police. He provided his documents, but being black and read as queer, the police searched him anyway. They detained him after finding makeup in his bag, held him in a cell for as long as they were permitted, and submit him to violence and homophobic abuse for hours. 

This is nothing new for Greece, whose culture of hyper-masculinity has survived the fall of the Golden Dawn only to be preserved by its central institutions. My heart broke. I asked my friend if the young man wanted to fight back. He was too exhausted, they told me; he just wanted to forget about it and heal. 

The day I was packing my bags for Mexico, the neighbourhood I had called my temporary home shook with the force of fighter jets tearing through the sky. It was Independence Day and I didn’t pay much attention to the pageantry. I had grieved my father in those months and decided I would have to find another time to forge a less complex relationship with the fatherland. 

I had seen a space being constructed in the city for world leaders to gather, and whilst normally there would have been a street parade, there seemed something so sad and stupid about people on their balconies craning their necks to catch glimpses of the planes through slits in the narrow urban sprawl of cramped apartments they were confined to. The previous nights there had been reports of police following people home from protests and unlawfully detaining them from their apartments, the only one of many shocking incidents which piqued international interest. 

Mexico City is a huge, beautiful and complex place, one with looming Spanish architecture, smooth roads and upkeep of green spaces, where I have watched silhouetted couples dance on rooftops. It is the best and the worst of free-market capitalism: local markets, street vendors, anyone with a roll-out mat and something to sell unrestricted from doing so. Fronts of homes opened to the public far outnumber the chains of supermarkets and coffee shops, but all the poverty which explains its enterprise is there at its foundation. Much of Roma contains a revolutionary history in street names only, many of which are beautifully lit, tree-lined rows of South American, Japanese and vegan restaurants. 

On one of these streets I sat and watched at least six police patrol cars pass in just half an hour. Many of them have the faces of missing people taped to their windows, most of whom will never be found, some of whom are found eventually in mass graves and some whose heads end up rolling into night clubs. These are the horror stories repeated by Europeans whose only representation of the entire country is provided by Hollywood. These incidents are also true, but they do not contain the totality of this city. Mexico City is beautiful and monstrous; rich in many ways and poor; both as safe and banal as many cities, and also dangerous. These binary truths have made the question of relating to the police, both actual and symbolic, quite singular for me as a tourist.

When I told my friends in Europe that I would be in Mexico for the next few months, I received unanimous pleas to be careful. It’s not safe, they said, particularly for a lone woman. But I was leaving Europe while Greek women were sexually assaulted by police officers and a British woman had just allegedly been murdered by one. It didn’t seem like it was necessarily helpful to approach the entire country as inherently risking death. 

My friend who would be hosting me in Mexico City prepared me over the phone. She gave me an extensive list of things she doesn’t do, which she might do in Europe, most of which amounts to diligence I would employ in any foreign city for the first time, a lot of which are things I wouldn’t do at home in London (don’t walk home alone late at night, be careful using cabs, don’t get too drunk alone in public). Despite all this, she said, she feels fairly safe here. But she’s an Italian woman, she emphasised, and like every city, there are layers of Mexico City rendering it real in different ways for different demographics.

On my first night alone I ended up in a beautiful, rough-around-the-edges little Oaxacan restaurant and had my first glimpse of television news. One narco killing, a woman jumping from the roof of a building, a family burnt alive in their car, a fugitive on the run, all before the regular briefing on Covid-19 cases. I digested the fact that the question of navigating risk is different here than what I was used to. When I went to leave the restaurant, the young waiter asked how I was getting home and insisted on having me wait inside until my taxi arrived. 

These early impressions meant that when I first saw those police cars drive by in succession, my body responded in a way which was alien to me. For the first time in my life the presence of police didn’t stand for an antagonist to my poor neighbourhood, or instigate mild panic; it became perverted into a signal for safety — what it purports to be but rarely is. In that moment in which I was a lone foreign woman in this place I was told to fear, the police became a vanguard between me and the unidentifiable, ever-present threat of unfathomable violence. My body was at odds with what I know. When it was over, I felt confused, and then I felt shame. 

The kidnapping and murder of women in Mexico is a serious crisis. It is visible in the infrastructure. Trams and the metro have women-only carriages, and I arrived in the wake of feminist protests which have left the windows of government buildings smashed, statues stained with pink paint and graffiti all over the Centro Histórico. Much of the graffiti is unapologetically separatist. Many women in Mexico have adopted the mantle Radical Feminist with pride, I am informed by friends. Victims’ names are scrawled on walls and appear in vigils but there is little mention of perpetrators. 

In my first week in the city, Victoria Salazar’s name was widely spoken: a migrant woman killed by police during her arrest in a way reminiscent of the killing of George Floyd. Subject to domestic violence and the cartels, whose concentrated presence in some regions determines perpetual existential anxiety (more so if you’re poor, more so if you’re indigenous), women in danger turn to the police, who then might kill you. I have little sympathy for the strain of feminism which explicitly stigmatises and excludes sex workers and transgender people, but given their conditions, I can understand why they have turned to this particular ideology. Their desperate response to what seems to be a hopeless situation is that the problem is something essential about men. 

A similar fear operates when my body defers to the presence of police on the street to defend me against something I neither understand nor know to how I exist in relation. It is a primal strategy, and as such is forgivable. I sometimes wonder how things would look if there were sufficient social structures in place to make us feel safe in our cities. The discourse around police violence against women seems to be accelerating, and I am aware that the police forces in this country are deeply corrupt, and that my Mexican friends fear them. Despite this, I responded to the sight of them in this way, in absence of a society which centres gender equality, safety, compassion and public health. I say this for Mexico City as I say it for Athens and for London. Events of past months have been clear: nowhere is safe, and more policing is never a solution to violence. 

I was alarmed by my internal conflict because it is precisely what I see mirrored in the kind of carceral policies advocated for by many feminists internationally, whether they are calling for more institutional policing or an abstract policing of gender expression. In some cases, carceral feminism is an aggressive othering, sometimes instigated by trauma, but which takes its pleasure in a misplaced sense of vengeance. In others, it is the primal cry for protection from what is already familiar, but in order to construct novel systems of equality and self-determination, we will have to explore unfamiliar terrain, because the old vanguards are not working. It is important to examine why institutions like the police, despite all the recent discourse, have been considered a necessary defence of public health and against societal violence for so long, only in doing so will we be able to do more than fantasise about organisational alternatives.

Image from Sputnik News.

Magdaleno

We both rejected the fortune teller. He said he doesn’t like his destiny determined by anyone; I think it has something to do with his parents expecting a girl and naming him as such. His grandfather was a medicine man. On his death bed, he told me, he asked him if he was gay. He responded that he didn’t think so, and his grandfather said he didn’t mind either way. He just wanted to be sure he had the right kind of relationship with the plants. His role as healer was to be passed over. 

He told me about meanings the Zapotecas assign to numbers and then he had to go. He had been waiting hours for a haircut. At the barbershop he was told they were seeing people in descending order of length. I said that’s hardly fair and he agreed. 

When he was a boy with a shaven head, someone told him that tomato juice helps you grow, so he pulped some and lathered it into his scalp. He became a lightning rod for fireflies. They lit him up like a Christmas tree, and he ran home to tell his mother that she didn’t have to catch them with a net any more. 

Never go to San Christóbal 

I sat watching people, enjoying the end of a day of ephemeral conversations in Spanish, the kind which are friendly and meaningful but never encroach on the pleasure of feeling absolutely alone. He caught me off guard on account of the fact that he read as gay and circumvented all the usual pick-up lines by immediately asking if I wanted to see some art round the corner. 

     I was busy enjoying how it felt to navigate the world in this pleasant alternative self, one which speaks with the vocabulary and therefore naïve rapture of a small child, so I was slow to realise what was actually occurring. 

     He had perched beside me and was giving me a brief history: his heritage is Italian and Spanish but he was born and raised in Mexico City, he volunteered, a confession weighted with some historical justification I wasn’t privy to, which felt unnecessary, and would have been better suited justifying everything he went on to say.

     “I took my savings and I’ve been traveling for a year now. I love nature too but it’s tricky because I need a good internet connection. I trade full time. Cryptocurrency is revolutionary, it’s going to change everything. Everything is digital now, so it makes sense that the economy is.”

     I told him that I put money in DogeCoin and chose to forget about it because taking financial advice from a cartoon billionaire tech entrepreneur you know is rigging the game is just as meaningful a move as taking it seriously, and I don’t know if he thought I was joking or not. 

     Every time I interjected he looked at me blankly and quickly filled the space with a rehearsed line. This dissociating encounter with the lines men bring on dates recalled almost every one I ever had with a man before and I realised he had tricked me into one. He hadn’t established if I was available for one, or if I was this way inclined, and he didn’t seem interested.

     “Anyway I can’t do it forever, I need to invest in doing what I really care about.”

     “And what’s that? Do you want to set up an orphanage?” 

     With no hint of irony he said, “Maybe…maybe cats or dogs though.”

     “I get it, children are a nightmare,” I said.

     Again without irony: “No! If you raise them with the right education they can be wonderful. That’s what I care about — education. Spiritual education anyway. I’ve studied yoga and in this last year I’ve seen the pandemic really accelerate people’s spiritual awakening. They want to get back to nature, they’re realising what’s more important. It’s all part of the revolution happening and I have the tools to help them.”

     I asked him what those tools were and he gave me a flurry of loosely-related fluff-brained pickings from whatever New Age dogma of the day.

     I felt suddenly angry. I didn’t know whether it was because I hated every single thing he said or because he said it all at me and not to me.

     I told him that something isn’t revolutionary just because it is decentralised, that crypto-fanatics will eventually need to account for the fact that its value is just as divorced from labour as any other currency, and that a personal spiritual awakening is just another phase in the life span of a person as disillusioned with material reality as anyone else, only they have the income and self-importance to have their road to transcendence obliviously destroy local economies and ecosystems. 

     He was so busy not listening to me that when I excused myself he said “What a shame, we’re having such a great discussion,” as if I wasn’t speaking in unrestrained contempt, and he still believes we have a date tomorrow. 

This House, A Burial Ground

I’m waiting for a train on the Northern Line which smells like a hundred years of blackened grease. The stench from the Burger King fries is worse. Two tiny mice flicker across the platform like a hallucination, which is why the old man standing dangerously close to the edge is staring so intently into the direction of the void. I think about the first time I did mushrooms. They were Thai, I was told, and bright blue. I chased them with a litre of orange juice because they tasted like shit, and sat at a platform not unlike this one, waiting to come up. I guessed they had kicked in when I watched a tiny underground mouse sprout wings and fly away. The guy must sense this about me because when he turns around, he catches me looking at them too and hobbles over. You see them? Yes, I say, two tiny mice. He grins a gold smile in relief and pats his leathery forehead. In a South London accent, he bellows thank God! I fort I was seein’ fings. 

My first boyfriend and I lived a span of intensities caught between being too young and too old for seven months. I was in Secondary School, he was in Sixth Form. I don’t need to recall the house we spent most of my truancy in; there are photographs of it in news reports and on blogs belonging to amateur detectives and people with morbid sensibilities. We used to joke about the notion of a future excavation of the house yielding a treasury of speed and weed which persistently fell through the cracks between the floorboards. Ultimately it was a body dug up from its foundations.

I was fucking his friend Bobby at the time. I’m not just being vulgar; I believed that dating would involve sex on sheets which would feel good against my skin, free from the fear of interruption by someone’s parents or a CCTV camera or the London Transport Police. But for now, Bobby was an anchor for my getting high; too simple to experience anything cerebral enough to threaten my flight. I just needed a boy to feed me water and make sure I didn’t fall into traffic. I brought him back to our house while my mother was at her boyfriend’s. I had come up suddenly whilst waiting for our train home when I saw the impossible mouse. I didn’t notice Bobby come up; he only had one frequency. He wanted to fuck, but he was a sack of breathing, bulging blue and purple veins, a heaving mass of viscera. I imagined my sinew cartoonishly bubbling against his in pointless collision, and I burst into laughter. There was nothing more absurd than bodies bashing against each other. What were his veins supposed to do with mine? There is a chance he never recovered from the humiliation. 

I met Jake when Bobby took us to a park to pick up some weed. He was a little taller than me with features just as dark, standing in indifference to his poverty or good looks. His big brown Boxer stood by his side, dribbling on the pavement and panting at Bobby whom Jake ignored him as he took his money, staring at me in silence. Bobby was an idiot, but he had money neither of us did, and so without a word, we acknowledged this new triad.

Bobby didn’t need as much weed as he was buying, he was doing it to impress me. Slinging bags to kids was a risky business, and the market was small. I didn’t want Jake to lose a regular customer. I told him this at a bus stop. The Boxer recognised me before Jake did and leapt at me in ill-mannered affection. Jake sat coolly beside me, tempering the dog, his hood hiding his eyes. I crossed my legs, hoping he wouldn’t notice me vibrating for him. When are you going to break up with him? I looked back. He had moved his long fingers close enough to mine to feel his heat, but he had not touched me once. I caught him looking down at my scuffed, salvaged biker boots and my pleated school skirt with the stain I was trying to hide until I could wash it on Friday evening, and flushed with embarrassment until I felt the cold foil on my bare knee. See you next time then. He had left me a Hershey’s bar and skulked off. As he became smaller, I caught sight of the nunchucks protruding from the waistline of his faded jeans, and for the first time since I had been a child, I felt the draw of safety.

The question of cruelty was ambiguous, insofar as Bobby was content to pass out after one too many bong hits, and was a moot point by the time I climbed over his body to roll around with Jake like dogs in heat. There was a point at which we stopped every time: it was exciting and also reassured us we were not bad people. Jake insisted it would be too cruel, with him in the room, besides, he wanted it to be special. Just us. I was liberated of having to find out how far I was willing to go. There was no melodrama; I dragged it out with Bobby long enough to keep us both in a bit of money. When I let the boy down gently, Jake lost his custom, and we articulated our relationship. 

*

Mãe is Mother in Portuguese. I can’t remember her name because that’s all we ever called her. She was taking all the benefit money meant for Jake’s invisible, dying grandmother who spoke no English and couldn’t argue even if she had known. During our entire relationship, I only ever heard her frail groans from the bedroom whose door never opened. She could have been a ghost. Mãe was nothing like a ghost; she was an alcoholic diagnosed with bipolar disorder and made her presence known every minute she was around. When she was on she smoked and laughed with us, showered me with hand-me-downs and kissed me on the cheeks, calling me her daughter-in-law. I noticed Jake let these moods wash over him, disappearing into a corner to draw or play guitar. He was adept at both but would get embarrassed and put down the tools in irritation if anyone praised him, so I learned not to mention it. She would spill glasses of wine, make inappropriate jokes and tussle his hair, all of which he hated. It meant we were free to come and go as we pleased, but the more we came home to this, the more I felt we were heading for a summit, and she was about to crash.

We got locked inside a park one night having taken pills and lost track of time. London light pollution illuminated the rusty iron gate just enough to make it look unsurpassable, and I floated, bemused while Jake nimbly hopped it. He was on the other side, great gothic bars between us, and he slipped his hands through. I placed one muddy biker boot in the palm of his hand, followed by another, quietly overjoyed that stairs were being created for me out of thin air as though I was the faerie queen of 50p pills and cheap cider rendezvouses. I reached the top and looked up at the starless sky, taking a moment to breathe. The shit of our suburb and the sweat of teenage sex dissipated; the trees shivered sounds older than any language, and I began to fly right out of the city and into nameless wind. Then my bulky sole got wedged, and I slipped. Jake caught me but not before a spire ripped right down the back of my thigh. He panicked, but I shook it off; I couldn’t feel much through the ecstasy, and we walked home in meandering lines holding hands. When we got back, Mãe had trashed the living room and there was a pool of blood in my boot. She flapped her arms, flinging cigarette ash everywhere while we explained what had happened to my leg. She grabbed the bottle of vodka within reach, rushed me to the bathroom and poured it over my wound. I felt no pain but from the look on Jake’s face.  

The house had been in gradual decay for weeks of her last relapse. Buds fell between floorboards, bottles and cans accumulated while the cupboards remained bare. Jake and I lived on a diet of drugs, food we stole from supermarkets and fresh bread and milk we took from the crates of early morning deliveries in hours meant to be barren of wandering souls. We discovered Bentley Priory, an ancient reserve of woodland, burial grounds and an artificial lake, and gradually colonised a permanent spot there. Neither of us had space to exist at home. One night the woods were too wet and violent, so we snuck back to the house to sleep and knew it was over. I slipped through the chaos into Jake’s bedroom and tried not to actively listen to what was screamed because I knew Jake would be embarrassed. What I have failed to mention is that the bedroom wasn’t Jake’s alone, which is why we did so much sneaking around committing public indecency. Josh was thirteen or fourteen years old at the time, and he had always been around, only it’s difficult to know how to introduce to a narrative a child whose memory is now replaced for me with the mugshot of a grown man with dead eyes. Honestly, I can’t recall when I first met him; I remember him in parts. I remember him badgering us for speed one evening, and then badgering us for things to do when he had emerged from cleaning the entire house, little hands in marigolds with a frantic grin and excessive energy. I remember him coming into the room where I lay on my side smoking a joint, watching Jake play a horror game, proudly declaring to his big brother that this isn’t how you treat a woman, that I deserved more attention. I remember his bright red cheeks and floppy hair as he stood in the frame of a window down one street and up two floors, in the bedroom of a neighbour by whom Jake had decided it was inappropriate for him to be deflowered. I remember him and his friends joining us and ours in the woods, him dashing into the fire to rescue some dumb wig somebody had thrown into the flames. Some other idiot had hurled a gas canister which exploded at the moment of his rescue, meaning he pirouetted in shock, face painted with smog, mouth agape, eyebrows and lashes totally incinerated, and we all died laughing. I remember putting my arm around him while Jake told their mother to get the hell out of the house, and I remember him disappearing right beside me.

We had to clear out of the Priory regularly to avoid trouble. One morning we woke to an old man snapping pictures of us on a Pentax, shouting about alerting the authorities. Jake crawled out of our tent, groggy, and pulled his boxers down to piss onto fallen leaves, calling him a pervert. We took the long route home that night, in no hurry to get there. Banished from the woods, we were heading home to a very different arrangement. Jake ran ahead down a residential road, his nunchucks in hand. I saw him hop a garden fence and attack a rose bush. When I caught up with him, he presented me with a long, pink rose with teeth all the way down. It was the end of romance; we were going home to Daddy.

*

Their father had been a child star in a series of TV commercials and fairly useless since then. He would come back to fill the void each time Mãe was in rehab or staying at the YMCA. Suddenly there was food in the fridge, and we weren’t supposed to smoke or have sex in the house, although we came back most nights to find him smoking a joint in nothing but woeful cotton briefs in front of bad television. We stood, mostly sober, for a brief inspection and interrogation, before being sent to separate rooms. Jake was sent to Mãe’s, and I was meant to sleep in his, alone. Daddy slept in the living room like a prison guard, waiting to stop Mãe coming home to wreck things, waiting for Josh to return. We had lost him to the wild. When Jake was sure his father was asleep, he snuck back into our room, and we screwed quietly and lovingly. He poured sadness into me, his head buried in my neck. He didn’t even notice the door open. My heart leapt, ready to flip us over and bury us under the covers, but there was no towering patriarch; just a slobbering Boxer looking for attention. He stood panting in the half-light, staring at us coiled like tired animals. I watched him watching us, wondering how long I should tolerate this intrusion.

When I was six years old, I dreamt a pack of wolves breached the walls of our home. With each room we retreated into, we discovered the insufficiency of brick to defend us from the outside. They ate right through it until we were surrounded, huddled in a corner faced by gnarling teeth and indeterminate, irrational violence. 

Jake and I were in a rut, at least as I saw it. There was an oscillation between feral weekends which grew longer and a return to playing house. We would remain in the Priory until either his father or my mother insisted on a semblance of propriety. We feigned domesticity at home and pretended to be wild in the woods. Each weekend that we camped and did ecstasy pushed me inexorably to the schism between myself and what seemed like everyone else. There were things he could only say to me on pills. I didn’t understand why it took the drug to crack him open until he was raw, chasing my soul with his bug-eyes, fingers electric with the intensity of first contact. Our bodies morphed into a third being in the clammy tent, and he held me tight believing he had me. He told me this was it; we found it. I could just touch you forever. But I was somewhere outside of us, and so I reflected his euphoria for him, dutifully, getting comfortable with the sorrow because I knew we were close to the end. 

In the early hours, when everyone else had passed out or dispersed, I stared at his still body in the dark and imagined his eyes were wide open. Utterly still, wide eyes. I froze, thinking he must be dead. I got right up close to his face and had to touch his eyelids. I continued to hallucinate they were wide open, staring vacantly into the dark. He breathed the way he only did when he was out cold. I sat restless and angry that he could so readily leave me with my twitching eyes boring holes through the tarpaulin, beyond our camping spot, into the wild. I slipped my naked body into my coat and took a pack of cigarettes outside. Perched a few feet away by the dying fire, I cut all the filters down on the Superkings and proceeded to chain-smoke my way through agitation. My eyes skated across the lake that at one point never existed to see wolves which almost definitely did not. One at first, just casually stalking foliage on the other side, and then more. One by one indistinguishable branch and matted fur merged to form a pack, and I was oddly still. I thought I should be scared now. Instead, I reached into my coat with the cigarette burning the other hand and delved between my legs to check if I was bleeding. From vague recollections of wildlife documentaries and sexist folklore, I guessed that was the difference between life and death. By six, I had already learned that tarpaulin was not enough to protect me from being devoured by the outside. 

*

Jake left no digital fingerprint, which meant I had no way of contacting him when I saw Josh’s mugshot below a headline about a homicide. Premeditated. Psychopath. Without remorse. Stabbed more than fifteen times. Buried in the back garden; that back garden. I saw photos of that house on my laptop screen and froze. Suddenly its walls were made of paper, or they never existed to begin with. We spent so much of our relationship high, I began to wonder how much of it was hallucinated.

The Priory remains fairly wild land that had been home to Augustinians during the Middle Ages, which means it probably would have had to be cleared of wolves at some point. This I learned when I began researching the place we called home. If I failed to discern Josh slipping away into the wild, who’s to say they really did get all of the wolves? No one else saw them, and I have no way of asking Jake whether or not his eyes were open that night I felt us falling away from each other.

*

Do ya know how I get tuh Stratford? I tell him the way, and he stumbles over and takes a seat beside me. Ahm gonna sit here dya mind? Fanks for tawkin tuh me, I swear I saw them mice an I fort I was losin’ the fuckin’ plot! I tell him about the first time I did mushrooms, about the mouse that took flight. He laughs with his whole belly. Ey this world can make ya mad yeah?

Art by Aykut Aydoğdu