I don’t walk through Bethnal Green, I float. I literally feel light as I draw towards the Nomadic Gardens in search of Saleem. I ground myself to the moment, despite all the temptations of my mind to leak some imagined outcome and into the way I should be feeling. I somehow know that there is a lot a stake here but I know that imagining scenarios of how my proposal plays out will not aid me in whatever it is that I am hoping to achieve… if even I am not really sure what that vague something actually is.
I arrive at the increasingly familiar gateway into the Garden. it looks empty, it is a Sunday evening after all. But of course, assumption dissolved rapidly into the fuzziness of reality as I notice all the people there. Saleems little temple house is shut. Door locked. I feel momentarily deflated as I conclude that he is not in today. But if I have learnt anything over this whirlwind of a weekend is that always expect the unexpected and be prepared to change plan at any minute. As soon as one door closes (in this case, literally!) another surely opens up…
In the corner of my eye I see a motley crew assembled round a table in Saleem’s side room. Cans of pilsner litter the table as the group engages in a chilled, marijuana infused sense of togetherness. I hesitate, unsure whether or not to approach the group. To insert myself in the little dynamic they have built for them in this moment. I hestitate only for a moment, then I know only to enter and engage. To throw myself into the mix.
“Saleem in?” I ask, in as as confident a way as I can muster. To my surprise, it comes out very confident and smiley and loose.
“Nah mate, he’s out… he’ll be back in a bit” says the boy I know to be Charlie. This rough looking fella, in a beany with a haggard beard and signs of damage etched over his face. Charlie is always here, every time I enter the garden.
“Come sit down and chill if you like”, Charlie offers – gesturing to a chair. I hardly have to think about it…
“That seats wet though”, says Adrian with concern in his eyes, suggesting another. It isn’t. so I sit down to the left of Charlie.
“He’s a mechanical engineer, she’s an accountant… and I’m a cunt
He gestures me away, lager can in hand. I see his eyes through the fire and I no that this isn’t an offer, like the one I made him moments ago. He has the ‘let’s go for a walk look in his eyes’ and we end up doing precisely that… going for a walk.
Charlie is testing me, he is probing me. From the off, it is clear to me that he thinks he is too hot to handle. That I am playing with fire;
“trust me mate, you have no idea what I’ve seen… what I’ve lived through. I’ve seen it all mate, the fucking lot. Nothing surprises me. The things I’ve seen, are things you could never understand”
I breath heavily as I hear this, he has my ego vibrating with outrage at this constant putting down. That I am unworthy, that I am somehow inferior to this man, that I am not his equal. There is something unnuanced about what he is saying, a sort of clumsiness about his words comgin from a place of pure experience, almost illiterate and missing all the subtleties to turn that experience into wisdom, it feels coarse, almost punishing
But in that, there are moments, when he hands me the beer can, when he bumps into me as we walk,. it is clear that this fascinating creature of a man is drawn to me, of that I have no doubt. there is some reason as to why he is giving me this time, there is something he needs from me, something I can offer him… I feel it but in no way shape or form can I grasp it in this moment.
We turn right out of the alley and start walking up brick lane towards the subway. The conversation is light hearted as we test and probe each other, in my understanding creating a deep bond like the one I felt with Olivia, like the one I felt with Ziad only this one is different. I cant help but feel this one is different, there is struggle here, there is violence, there is tussel.
We buy our subways, him first. “Get yourself something” he says, and I tell him I’m not hungry. Just as those words come from my mouth, I am up buying myself a Chicken mayo sub, bitterly disappoiunted in my lack of conviction. bitterly disappointed that he was right.
“Man, I didn’t realise how hungry I was”, I say to him in a smile wrapped up in eager charm. But behind it, I meant every word. I actually had no idea how hungry I was. He knew, and he knew that I knew.
The game of mental chess that we had been playing stagnates as we chew down our sandwiches in silence. we are holding each other’s silence, daring the other to make the first move in this momentary deadlock. Of course, it is Charlie who breaks the hold.
“Man” he says, with a look of disappointment and self-pride in his eyes, “you’re not it.”
I let these words ring out in the silence. The invisible rope is taught around me neck. I feel like he has me.
“I think I have you sussed out mate”, he says smiling at me, playfully now, but with a deadly stare in his eyes. his gaze fixed into mine.
“Go on”, I manage to say
“You’re one of those types, you come in here and I think, nah man he’s way too nice. That smile, he’s loose, he’s open, young, a good looking bloke and I’m thinking ‘nah… way to nice”.
“You think you’re the first person to ask me for my story mate?, you come in here and you think you’re the firwst one?
I smile, because I sense now that he is leading himself down a rabbit hole, I feel the noose loosen, I feel the power shift.
“i reckon you’re one of those types, with your university degree carreer, with your life ahead of you, ambitious type… I think I know you man, but I could be wrong. You’re here for yourself, you want this for yourself and that’s why you’re here mate, for profit, to further yourself and what’s in it for me eh? You’re in this for yourself. You’ve had it east.
Bad move, he misplaced that pawn.
“Almost – I say” a cocky smile spreads across my face, I cant help it.
“but not in the way you think it to be. See, I believe we are all in this for ourselves, we are all looking to fullfill. Man I’ve not had it easy, I’ve been to dark places, I’ve been to the depths, I’ve wanted to kill myself, ive been there…
I have him hooked until that last claim where my hold breaks.
Power shifts back,
“just saying that mate, just by playing that card shows me you’ve got very little to play. that’s desperation man, that’s your last resort that you just played there.
He stares at me, looking me up and down
“you’re not it.” he reaffirms, with more certainty than before. My case only strengthened his claim.