The nights I could not sleep, I would walk. There is an idea that London never sleeps; this is not quite true. There is a tidal lull, a drowsy half-stillness in those hazy hours between its periods of madness. It is at its most welcoming then, almost indulgent as it casts its slowly blinking traffic lights on you, following your path. I didn’t care where I walked, wasn’t afraid of other people, of being alone or in dark places. I don’t know if this was fearlessness, stupidity, or a dare to the world, but nothing ever happened to me. I felt the safety of an accepted invisibility in a city that ignores you impersonally in its daylight hours, the way it ignores all of its denizens, rich or poor, famous or anonymous.
I lived just south of the river. I would make my way along its dark waves, sometimes lit with the starless sky or at other times only with the faint light from skyscrapers, then across it into its heart, faintly beating. At this time of night the people who come out are mainly drunk: on love, loneliness, the racing thoughts of elusive sleep. Alcohol is merely a postscript to these things, if part of it at all. We pass each other on the pavements like ghosts; there is no need to acknowledge presence even if we knew the other existed. The hour defines our reasons clearly enough. In the day, the city is a cacophony of voices, fighting to be heard above one other. At night, it is a seamless story, each ghost a chapter waiting to be gathered and written by some nocturnal watchman.
I was never physically lost with the exception of one time, in spite of my habit of walking blind to place, no internal or external compass. Soho is a tiny labyrinth; its streets deliberately shape-shifting, signs meaningless as to direction, Rorschach maps read differently by every mind. I retraced steps, looked for tribal markers. I circled and tried to get my bearings. Everything looked different and familiar, even the few people I repeatedly passed. As I walked, fragments drifted through my head from Pinter’s No Man’s Land –– Briggs’ speech about the people trapped on Bolsover Street, destined to eternally wander back and forth in a greying limbo. I did not panic, but wondered at what point my mind would give out and give in to the city; if relinquishing it would somehow bring about a secret enlightenment, or if I would simply be absorbed into the buildings around me.
There is a constant murmur running through my thoughts: the chattering of voices past and present, ones who exist and the ones yet to manifest themselves. These voices are the ones that remain in your head for all time, an intermix that creates its own symphony. Imagine if these voices were shared synapses. When we meet people we connect with, even if not in a tangible sense, are these just the secret voices whispering to each other from the depths of our bones, sparking familiarities in strangers? Picture them, pristine conductors of intimacy in every form: electricity, heat, touch and thought. Parts of the city are built on bone. Is there interference from the dead in their depths, flickering signals trying to connect with ones above? Or do their paled voices forever run in parallel longing with ours?
Sometimes I dream as I look up at the night, with its skyscraper lights for stars. There are real stars, of course; in some parts of London you can still see them, if you are lucky enough to be in a rare open space. But in London’s heart of hearts, your urban dreamtime manifests only artificial stars, but no less beautiful. Mine are created by where I walk and what I observe, constantly reshaping themselves and my perspective in the darkness and light of the city. It is something close to divine yet at times bordering on the bizarre, like visions induced by sacred potions or acid under the tongue. The divisions of sunlit hours disappear at night, allowing thoughts and memories to flow into one another, creating an alternate reality. The dreamer is at home at night, in its silence, whether it is the actual world or the one in their head.
In the twilight hours you begin to enter this Wonderland; you see the shift in people’s daylight personas. There is a pub off Baker Street, its front room normal in every bland respect. Then out of the corner of your eye, a doorway with no door, angled and less than half-size. There is a light that guides you as much as curiosity. On crawling through, it is an empty room, with the exception of the green sofa in its centre. In the middle of this sofa perches a man, who could be called solitary were it not for the empty pint glasses surrounding him that he gazes at. He is not drunk; not yet at any rate. His consumption is better measured in tones of reflection. It is mainly reflections on others, the living, he is quick to point out. This seems strange until he says that he is a forensic pathologist and his days are spent peering into bodies like a fortune-teller reading leaves at the bottom of a cup.
He is more Caterpillar than man, slowly drinking from his glass rather than smoking a hookah, dispensing broken pieces of wisdom and observations that mainly tend to fall on the permanently deaf ears of his daylight audience. He is glad to have an animated one to speak to when the sun sets. There is a lot more warm feeling in the cold dead than the living, he says. Silent bodies contain the secrets of human nature, but told too late to be of any good. People like him are unfortunate messengers, destined to preach earnestly, destined to be ignored. I have come too late to be of any confessional benefit, so I kiss him instead. He is slightly dazed, like he has forgotten flesh is anything but waxen and still.
Some of us are born with a restlessness we cannot define when we are young; this manifests itself in different ways, such as a strange need for solitude, or the feeling you are searching for something you forgot about. When you are slightly older you identify it as wanting to get away from where you are from. Escapism takes different forms; some of us escape by means of relationships, in the hope that inhabiting someone else’s heart and head is enough to forget. Some of us just get up and leave, with no regrets for what we are leaving behind, no remorse for not looking back. The people who do not understand this view it as betrayal, the ones who understand are silent beneath their persona of happiness as they know it is a lonely business.
The tidal pull of home or what represents home becomes stronger as time goes on, until its memories choke your heart and obscure your vision. This is not something I have yet succumbed to. This is home, as it has been since the first time I looked down on it during a night flight and felt a wave of relief that I had never experienced before. Growing up, I felt like the changeling, false and living a life that belonged to someone else. To try and assimilate in a place that is your natural history is jarring. There are no references other than the ones in your head, and you do not know where they come from, these strange implantations.
To step foot onto a strange land, and experience that déjà vu that makes you believe you are mad or fantasising is disorienting; at times like this trust the compass of that secret voice instead of the Bolsover Street of your memory. My bones are London, the birthplace I was not born in, the grave to be. It is the indecisive lover, barely acknowledging by day, but arms open and welcoming at night.
Tomoe Hill lives and writes in a converted lunatic asylum near London. Her last short story, “Peripheries”, was featured in The Stockholm Review of Literature. @CuriosoTheGreat.