Stories for Lent: #32 Glimpses into another world

It’s 8.30 on Angel station, and it’s impossible to progress. Train after train full to the brim of important-looking people comes, and more important-looking people elbow their way in. I stand to the side, with my too-thick coat and my scruffy sneakers, and I can’t bring myself to join the rush hour, even if it means I will be late.

I’m in London for the Book Fair, but I can’t bring myself to push to get there.

After three or four trains pass with no sign of it easing up, I give up, head back above ground, and start walking in the general direction of King’s Cross. So I’ll miss the first talk, I think. Big deal.

*

Maybe I’m a true Millennial after all. Spoiled, lazy, ambition-less.

It’s a thought that crosses my mind a lot, but especially in these three days I spend among publishers, book-buyers, bloggers, and the occasional writer. I see successful people in their business suits and full calendars and I feel like an overgrown toddler. I want to talk to speakers and panelists, to rub elbows, to mingle, but I can’t bring a single word to come out of my mouth. What have I to offer? What insight can I possibly give? What interesting thing can I say?

Every accomplishment I’ve had seems paltry in comparison.

And meanwhile, jealousy swallows me whole. I want to call myself successful. I want to be needed, to be important. Instead, I receive two more rejections while I’m listening to a discussion on diversity – one for a job, the other of my manuscript. I come back to my AirBNB and watch videos of famous bloggers discussing their designer shoe collections.

*

The last day, I can’t bring myself to come back to the fair, and I set off exploring on foot. It’s not my first time in London – not even the second – and I have enough familiar routes to look purposeful as I walk – down to King’s Cross and St. Pancras, then to Euston, and further West, to Regent’s Park. I indulge my nostalgia with a tour of the inner circle, and catching a glimpse of the black swans there. It’s been eight years since I last visited, and the black swans look the same. I take a moment to drink in the peace, and then rejoin the hustle and bustle of the main roads.

Central London is a study of contrasts. Posh buildings and graffiti art. Hip, expensive bodegas next to an “ethnic” kitchen. Street food that is more expensive than the fare at a restaurant, with seats and a loo you could use. Business people, school tours, and homeless go side by side on the streets. Buses, taxis, cyclists, clamoring for space. You need to keep your eyes peeled – one side for thieves, the other for rushing vehicles. You want to take out your camera, try to capture the spirit of the place, but you also know that one moment of inattention could cost you your wallet or your arm.

Everything is an assault to the senses. The traffic. The smells. The insides of shops, with their pounding music and colorful displays, designed to hide the eye-watering prices of the wares. Everyone is really friendly and everyone wants to sell you something. My, grandma, what bright lipstick you have!

I’m overwhelmed and underwhelmed at once – drawn by the prettiness and the shininess, but repelled by the inaccessibility. I find myself wondering, if only. If only I’d decided against doing a Master’s. If only I’d worked a little bit harder about entering a grad scheme. If only I’d actually felt motivated to join a grad scheme. Maybe I’d have a car by now, maybe even my own home. Maybe I, too, would be joining the throngs of people in the subway, elbowing my way to work. Maybe I’d be able to save up for extravagant holidays abroad, and have designer shoes, and maybe even friends to spend the weekend with. Maybe. Who knows? I would have been miserable, but at least I would have been my own person. I would have had a job title that commanded respect and a wardrobe to match. Instead, I’m a Ph.D. candidate with a rubbish haircut and neon pink running shoes, killing time before my coach is due to leave.

Eventually, I tire of beauty, and my head is pounding from the heavy air. I head to the coach station, hoping to find a coffee shop without a coin-operated barrier to the loo. As luck would have it, I only need to take one tour of the block before I find a bodega – not only one with outdoor seating, but also one that lets me pay for my coffee after I’ve had it. I sit next to a lady, working on her calendar over a glass of wine, and I muse about alternative universes while staving off a feeling of grief.

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