If you live in London and you ever feel like you’re the only one who feels [insert your particular sorrow here: ____________ ] don’t: in a city of 8.3 million people, the chances are pretty much nil.
I’ve lived here long enough to master the chess-like ten-steps-ahead London walk and to point in the right direction when some saggy-eyed student from some other corner of the globe stops me outside Kings Cross, a rucksack on both her back and her front, and asks, please, where is Lie-cest-hire Square? I can elbow a reading space on any tube, at any time of day.
Five, seven, ten times a day, I have to remind myself that however much my sadness/rage/sorrow/despair/wonder threatens to swamp me, it’s just a feeling — one of many being felt at this particular moment in this particularly densely populated part of the world. Some of these people may be feeling better than me; many, however — and no matter how much they tweet to the contrary — are feeling worse. Is this a London thing? Or merely a life thing? At any rate, it’s what I know.
To have seen the looks on my about-to-be flatmate faces, you’d have thought I was the only forty-something woman to turn up on the flaking doorstep of a soot-blackened Victorian terrace in a not-yet trendy part of North East London on a Monday night. You’d think no other small town mother had ever, having packed her son off to University, dug out his old Duke of Edinburgh rucksack and packed herself off to London. But I wasn’t. I’m yet to meet the other women who’ve done this, but they’re out there, I’m sure of it.
I was a Mum long before I was a Mum, and so wasn’t surprised when, a few weeks into my supposed-to-be new London life, those very same housemates were queuing outside my door, waiting for me to hug them in so they could sit on my clean sheets — none had clean sheets; some didn’t have sheets at all — and cry/scream/moan about how hard it was to be the only Hungarian press assistant in the Austrian embassy/ a bicycle courier with existential angst/a dancer who earned her money at the Harrods make-up counter, fake-smiling and trying to ignore the mounting fear, which was that one of these days the make-up would cement to her skin, locking her into this person she was being for the time-being.
But I, I was going to be an actoooor.
The other students on my acting course lost no time in telling me that I was MAD; not only was I twice their age, I always went for characters wildly different from myself in age, gender, background, etc, for example: a young Estonian woman trapped in a shipping container with an unstoppable itch, a telepathic East End market trader, an alcoholic aristocrat, a schizophrenic CEO of an oil company.
The CEO role coincided with the method acting module. For a whole week, I skulked around Canary Wharf, pressing my nose against the plastic bubble ceilings of its strange subterranean shopping centre, hoping to catch some CEO’s soul when he was least expecting it. I battled the peculiar despair that comes from being consistently battered by wind tunnels. I watched clouds chase their reflections across one-way windows and foreheads prematurely wrinkle with the stress of Facebooking on their three minute gap between the stress of picking a sandwich in Pret and of doing whatever they do behind that cloud-capturing glass.
My tutors said I’d really succeeded in capturing that CEO’s soul, but between you and me, this had nothing to do with Canary Wharf and everything to do with the ordinary streets around my house through which I trudged at the beginning and the end (and sometimes the middle, and, more often than I’d have liked, after the end) of every day. Back and forth and back and forth to and from our house’s peeling steps. Past the same piles of sometimes rotten, other times gleaming fruit outside the Turkish supermarkets, same crates of empty cardboard boxes waiting to be recycled, same coffee shops (the good one, the bad one, the one I’d never try), same greasy spoon, chicken shops, pub. My mind would be awash with mundanities, e.g. will I find a fresh tomato? Did I need to buy some crucial item I’d forgotten I needed to buy? When, out of the corner of my eye, I’d see a prematurely bald boy-man nibbling a fresh olive straight from the vat. There’d be olive juice on his shirt sleeve but he wouldn’t care; he’d convinced himself no one was watching; he’d reach for another and another, and my heart would judder, and I’d forget whatever it was I couldn’t remember, and I’d think, here you are! Because souls are slippery things: the moment you stop chasing them is the moment they start to chase you.
When I wasn’t stumbling over other peoples’ souls, I was stumbling in the fluff that surrounds my own; sudden bouts of homesickness for life in the safest suburb of what was once, in some Daily Telegraph poll, voted the third safest town in the UK; the fear, lurking around every corner, that I was a TERRIBLE ACTOOOR; wishing I could text my Mum, who died long before I knew anyone with a mobile phone — the wish manifesting itself as a sharp pain all the way down the right side of my torso; that my son was right now being run over by an articulated lorry; that before long I’d turn into the old lady who, most mornings, I saw struggle down the steps of her house — which, by the way, were even crumblier than ours — batting away offers of help from available humans so as to continue mumbling to the humans who were no longer, or had never been, in her life; that I really didn’t feel like being mum to yet another angst-ridden housemate tonight. If you were burned by any of these sorrows whilst waiting to cross the high road from the opposite side, my apologies.
A year dripped on in this fashion, and suddenly my acting course was over, and I tumbled into a long, grey post-graduation shit-I’m-out-in-the-world-and-the-world-doesn’t-give-a-shit blues, which didn’t get any less blue for knowing that middle class twenty-somethings the country over were in it, too. When you’re in the blue, you can’t give or take advice; heaving your body out of bed is hard enough. The only answer was to head to the good coffee shop as soon as I’d cleaned as much or as little of my body as the blues would allow. It was a Turkish coffee shop, the air cramped with spices and baking and, of course, burnt coffee; they hadn’t bothered to put a password on their Wifi and, best of all, they gave you a syrupy little sweet with your £1 mud coffee which seeps into my dreams even now. Frequented mainly by middle-aged Turkish men who were always talking urgently about I’ll-never-know-what, you felt part of some larger, more mysterious world whilst remaining anonymous.
Not getting auditions was terrible — but getting them and then not getting parts was worse. Days and weeks of nerves, culminating in a tube journey so nervy, I didn’t dare look at the Emergency Passenger Alarm for fear I’d make it explode, a battle with some combination of Google Maps/strangers’ directions/my senses, to find some dusty staircase at the back of a warehouse/mediterranean bistro/theatre which lead, inevitably, to DOOM. Doom isn’t the black, fiery hole you see in the movies; it’s a casting director scrolling her phone a moment before the climax of your piece. It’s waiting in a corridor of women ten or twenty years younger than you, women who won’t meet your eye, so fearful are they of the prospect — shock! horror! — of losing their youth. The worst thing, however, were the parts: middle aged woman; divorced; on anti-depressants; woman in fifties with empty nest syndrome; control freak career woman, etc, etc. These were Made in China moulds: no frame on which you could hang a soul.
Eventually the day came — and it was a very clear, very sunny day, the kind where the posh bossy woman on the tube reminds you to carry water and you’re not supposed to feel anything other than happy — when I realised no one cared how many souls I could capture, at least, no casting director.
I was waiting for the Overground at Highbury and Islington, the sun was reflecting off the rails, and for a few seconds, I imagined throwing myself onto them. Then they began to throb with the approaching train, and I looked up and straight into the face of a young woman who was trying to shout at her child and at her child’s scooter and into her phone, at once. Her soul was about to burst and so I smiled; her mouth fell open, she furrowed her brows and, just as I was certain she was about to tell me to fuck off, she smiled back.
The train pulled into the station, its doors opened, and, buffered by an elegant couple/bro-sis/best friend duo, an artist carrying an unwieldy leather portfolio, a woman hugging an inflatable Dalmatian and a hairy bloke in a tea dress, I clambered on, and the idea came to me: a place to put your soul. This was what I’d wanted all this time. Hell, maybe it was what everyone wanted. The question was, where?
With the help of the bored banker’s PA and the permanently tired teacher who now occupied the rooms either side of mine— the dancer/make-up assistant and Hungarian press assistant had moved back/on to Bingley and Sao Paulo, respectively — I found an old, cold building in some administrative limboland between Haringey, Islington and Hackney, which for the last decade had sat empty but had, for most of its existence, been a cotton wool factory. The owner, a bohemian aristocratic banker — he never admitted to being a banker but the banker’s PA said she could sniff the soul of one from a mile off — who met us in its dusty yard dressed in paisley Arab pants which forced him to waddle, told us he was working on some ‘very exciting, very, very edgy’ development plans. In the mean-time, however, we could have it for free as a pop up: ‘the people we want to come here are the kind of people who LOVE pop-ups.’
A Place to Put Your Soul didn’t pop, so much as scream itself into being. When I wasn’t answering telephones and designing Powerpoints in miscellaneous offices — how else was I to pay the rent? — I was on the lookout for unwanted furniture or other items which, with a dash of imagination and duct tape, could be made into furniture. I’d Snapchat photos of said furniture to my other ‘Soul searchers’ to see whether they thought it would ‘fit with our vibe.’ They’d Snapchat me back a selfie, whose expression was a Yay or Nay. Then I’d text one of my fellow acting grads — a rich kid in denial and my only friend in London with a car —to drive over and pick it up.
A friend of a friend’s brother designed us a logo; someone else’s cousin did our Twitter and PR. Another person’s ex-girlfriend did what she could with the dinosaur electrics. And then, lo and behold, we found ourselves in the local used-to-be old man now old-man-plus-hipster-plus-whoever-else but still cheap and smelly and comfy pub, huddled round the 52 submissions we’d received. 52 out of 8.3 million people reckoned they could, through performance, create a place for our souls. Not bad, or terribly bad, depending on how you looked at it.
The entries varied from the terrible to the wonderful, from Youtube clips to scanned sketches to scripts to an inexplicable essay about foam parties and their relationship to post-modernism. About seven entries in, it was clear: we’d never decide on what the soul was: ‘this is amazing’ ‘this is offensively dull’; ‘too self-conscious’ ‘self-consciously self-conscious, which is, you know, like a meta-commentary on the nature of the soul itself?’, etc, etc.
But every nine entries or so, we’d read a sentence or listen to a voice or open a jpeg which would shut us right up; for a second, maybe two, we’d be united. Then our individualities would return with renewed force: ‘hideous!’ ‘I’ll have nightmares for a month’ ‘only because it was so powerful’ etc, etc. When I tried to point out that our collective silence had been a sign our souls recognised something, they’d roll their eyes and tell me to shut up with my 1970s hippy shit. Only my strategic buying of Scampi fries and salted peanuts at every we’re-about-to-kill-each-other-and-give-up moment allowed us to whittle it down to the final ten.
The PR, the tweeting, the Facebook, the flyers… It worked, and two weeks later, we were pouring Lidl vodka and lemonade into flimsy plastic cups and trying not to shit ourselves whilst the surprisingly high number of punters oohed and ahhhed at our found furniture and duct-taped fairy lights. What if they hated it? What if they told everyone on Twitter how much they hated it?
Well, they loved it. And they told everyone on Twitter how much they loved it, and our next show received 112 entries AND a write-up in Time Out. It was only when I got a call from an online arts magazine asking for an interview that I realised it had been months since I’d worried about the whole not getting any auditions thing. Just being me was enough, at long last.
My son took a night off his fast-paced graduate job to visit A Place.
When the performance was over, he said, ‘Mum, this is so cool. It’s too cool. My own Mum’s cooler than me!’
I laughed and tried not to look too pleased with myself.
The reviewers agreed it was cool; one even said that ‘some of it felt like art.’ I applied for a small grant and got it. Then a Drama Education Consultancy approached me asking if I wanted to work for them as a consultant; I’d have my own desk, my own email address and a salary far greater than anything I’d ever earned as a temp. It was glorified drama lessons for moral-void corporate clients, but I agreed; when I met with my fellow soul-searchers, I didn’t dare look them in the eye, for fear I’d see there the bulbous reflection of myself, as some kind of arts God.
A few months later, I was cycling to the Drama Consultancy offices in Bethnal Green when I noticed a removal van outside the house of the old lady who’d never let anyone help her down her crumbling steps. But the old lady wasn’t there. Standing on the steps was a young couple, taking their Raybans on and off and off and on, looking at their phones, looking at the house, looking at the van — anywhere but at each other. And I hadn’t even noticed the disappearance (death?) of the old lady. Nor had I kept tab on the appearance or disappearance of the other familiarly anonymous faces which, not so long ago, had convinced me these streets were home. No, instead of scanning the streets for souls, I’d been reading submissions through Gmail. Did this mean I’d somehow made it?
At this point, or maybe a few points later, I cycling right into a lamp post and blacked out.
I would like to tell you I awoke to an eye-full of souls, I really would. But I didn’t. I awoke to an eye-full of rather large nostrils.
‘She’s alive!’ shouted the owner of the nostrils.
‘Don’t move her! She might break her neck, or something,’ said another nostril.
‘Oh,’ I said, sitting up, ‘I’m alive, and moving is what I intend to do.’ I stood face to face with a Turkish-looking man who may or may not have been a fellow customer of the good coffee shop which — as I’d spent most of the last evening complaining about — was now a Gourmet Burger Kitchen.
‘You should go to hospital,’ said a boy-man. ‘You might have a concussion, or a brain tumour, or, or something.’
The Turkish-seeming man laughed. ‘Is grown woman! If she want to go hospital, she go hospital. If not, not.’
‘I’m fine,’ I said. Then I picked up my bike and, even though the place where my soul should be felt emptier than usual, I got back on it because really, what else is there to do?
A few days later, our harem-pant wearing banker/aristocrat informed that that ‘the moment was ripe’ to develop the cotton wool factory. He’d been given an offer he ‘simply couldn’t refuse’ although it was with ‘considerable sorrow’ that this would bring our ‘admirable artistic experiment’ to an end. I’m ashamed to admit this but, before the anger, before the despair and the annoyance — all that would come later — what I felt was relief. At last! I’d fallen back to the comfortable position of underdog — ok, not the underdog — you’re never more than ten centimetres above an underdog, not in London, or so the saying goes — but a dog. I could already see the protest banners; dayglo colours and elegant prints, popping up on phone screens around the city as they were RTed.
Currently, I’m looking for a housemate to replace the bored banker’s PA — she bought a one-way ticket to Glasgow — not to mention a new Place. My friends tell me Walthamstow is ‘the right balance between cool and not cool, pretty and ugly.’ But the truth is, I haven’t been looking hard. Instead of cycling, I walk. I scan every passing face for a sign, any sign, that they, too, are hungry for a place to put that part of themselves which is always a chess-like ten steps ahead, even though they know as well as I do that by the time you reach it, it’s gone.
Clare Sita Fisher writes fiction, both long and short. Her debut novel ALL THE GOOD THINGS will be published by Viking, Penguin UK in 2017. Born in 1987 in Tooting, south London, she now live in Leeds, and her heart is firmly torn between the two cities. You can see more of her work here: https://claresitafisher.com/