I’ve run out of baccy, I’ve run out of milk and I think I may have run out of hope. I can’t see out of the window if I sit on the sofa, so I’m balanced on the ledge with a black tea and a rollie, which I cobbled together with leftovers from the ashtray. I will raid the bin, as well, if it comes to it. The ledge is cold and hard under my backside, but if I sit on a cushion, I can’t get my balance right. From up here on the ninth floor, there is a panoramic view of the parade of shops. Parade is a very grand word for the three pathetic buildings that hang on to existence by their fingernails. They cower in the middle of the five other shops. These are all bolshie and boarded up, their angry, damaged windows covered in black, mesh metal frames; faded and bent, they shout tags and slogans. Broken windows and missing bricks are worn like battle scars.
Mrs Singh opens the launderette. She is old and frail and struggles with the shutters at the front of the shop. I feel guilty as I watch her morning ritual. She must kneel on the wet pavement to reach the mortice lock at the base. Her beautiful blue sari will be stained from the dirty puddles but her overall is too long anyway and will cover the mess and save her pride. She pulls up the shutters and stops to get her breath back when they reach halfway. Her head scarf slips off and reveals a long, grey plait which hangs down her back, limp and lacklustre. She replaces her headscarf and throws the tassels over her shoulder. She braces herself and gives another big push. The shutter clatters into the top of the frame. She fumbles with her huge bunch of keys, then tackles the three locks on the door. She shuts the door behind her and there are a few frenetic moments when the lights go on and the alarm blares out. The red light at the front of the shop flashes, creating a macabre disco on the shiny paving slabs.
Then there is silence. Mrs Singh shuffles in and out of view inside the shop as she prepares for the day. I look away. My sleeve is wet from the condensation on the window, but I can’t be bothered to move. The television flickers on the other side of the room. The sound is muted, a habit I learned from my nan. “They never have anything interesting to say, but I like someone else in the room,” she would say. I wonder if she ever told grandad that she loaned me the money to move to London. I never paid her back. Nothing went to plan.
Movement in the kitchen catches my eye. Sodding cockroaches. The irony of the situation is the lack of food to attract them and the fact that all I can do all day is clean. I should tell my landlord, but he scares me. Desmond is a giant of a man with a vicious scar on his face and abs to die for. I try not to remember how I know he has fantastic muscles and I cannot make eye contact with him when he collects the rent. He knocks on the door every Friday at five o’clock. He always comes in. He takes a huge roll of bank notes out of his pocket and with careful precision, adds my contribution to it, then rolls it up neatly and replaces the elastic band. All this while he makes small talk: he jerks his chin at me and looks around, checking the flat. Des is on edge, jumpy. Every week he offers to sell me some weed. Every week I tell him I am skint but thank him very much anyway. Another ritual I am powerless to change. Although, he hasn’t been for a few weeks. I wait in for him.
The chocolate brown walls, chocolate brown carpet and chocolate brown ceiling suffocate me like the cloying embrace of my mother. The orange sofa is the same shade as her lipstick and does not provide a splash of colour like they say on those do-over programmes. It is old and faded and sucks the life-force out the room and me. I sit at the window drawn by the light. Trapped like a moth in a lampshade, I rattle around looking for a way out.
I can’t remember the last time I went out. I should go out. Maybe some fresh air will blow away the cobwebs or the cockroaches. Balanced on the edge of the ashtray, my cigarette is poised for me to come back to it later. Coat and boots on, I rummage in my pockets for my gloves and find Belinda’s postcard. I’d forgotten it was there. The picture is an old-fashioned cartoon of a big, fat lady in a striped swimsuit, leaning on one elbow in the sand. The caption reads, ‘This is the life! Nothing to do and all day to do it in!’ Belinda probably thinks I am laughing now, at the slow-paced life by the sea that I left behind when I moved to New Cross, in the Big Smoke. On the back of the card, Belinda wrote, Perdita, I miss you. When are you coming back to visit? Ring me! Bel xx. She thinks it’s funny to call me Perdita. That’s a joke that backfired on me when I told her and my new school chums that Purdy was short for Perdita, from Shakespeare, ashamed that my mother had named me after a TV character and a haircut. I have not replied or phoned Belinda. I have nothing to say.
I try to fasten my coat and remember the zip is broken. At least that will give me something to do with my hands; to hug it closed across my chest. I am in awe of those people who can walk with their hands by their sides; relaxed and confident. The corners of my pockets are coming away, the thread split and forced apart by my clenched fists so often rammed in. Having checked for my key in my jeans, I prise open my front door. A peek down the corridor reveals there is no one outside. I leave the flat, close the door behind me and creep across the corridor. The lift is already on my floor. If anyone else is in the lift I will take the stairs. It is empty. I step in and take my reluctant place under the spotlight. The doors have shut before I see the pile of vomit in the corner. I pull my jumper over my face to fend off the smell. The textured metal on the inside of the lift has a yellow sheen of urine stains. It looks sticky and stinks of ammonia, more overpowering with the vomit. I stand in the centre and try to avoid my coat or skin touching any of the surfaces. I reach out with my gloved hand to press the greasy button for the ground floor, but the doors have shut of their own accord and the lift rumbles into life. It grumbles, groans and creaks down the shaft. It makes a juddering, unsteady descent into the bowels of my building. At the bottom the doors squeak open, as if it is painful to move. I step out of the lift and hurry past the couple waiting to get in. The front door is held back with a brick which probably smashed the electronic entry system hanging out of the wall, its wires spilled like guts.
Pulling my hood up I turn right into the maze of walkways that lead past my tower block and the next. I leave the monumental obelisk of Druid Tower behind me conscious of the shadow which looms over me. Six feet high, brick walls block out the light but give much needed privacy to the drug dealers secreted in every nook. From the safety of my hood, I glance at the men in caps and sunglasses as they loiter, huddled, making secret exchanges. They don’t even look at me. Someone whistles ‘Don’t worry, be happy.’ It’s Junior, the son of Mr Jackson who owns the newsagent next to the launderette. He walks past me but is in a hurry and does not see me or say hello.
With nowhere to go, I decide to double back and sit in the launderette for a bit. Mrs Singh doesn’t mind if I sit and read the magazines. I did take some washing in once, when my back payment came through, but I have a clothes rack in the bathroom now.
She doesn’t seem to mind if I watch her. She folds things like my nan. She holds sheets with her chin, smoothing the fabric, stroking out the creases lovingly. I will go and watch her do the washing and think about nan and soak up the warm, sweet aroma of other people’s fabric conditioner.
When I get to the launderette, I can see through the window that we will not be alone. Mrs Singh is talking to two youths. I go inside, but they are arguing, and no one looks round. They demand she opens all the machines and give them the money. She is shaking but refuses. She asks them what their mothers would think of their behaviour and tells them to go away and leave her to her work. One of them gets a knife out and threatens Mrs Singh, but she holds onto her bunch of keys and argues with them. The man with the knife spits his savage threats and insults and pokes the knife at her face. She steps backwards towards the door of her office. I am terrified but I rush in between the men and Mrs Singh and shout at them to back off. The man with the knife is quick. He thrusts at me and I can’t move out of the way and the knife disappears into my stomach.
Just like they say, everything goes into slow motion. I don’t feel anything. Confused, I look down at his arm which has gone right through me up to his elbow. Mrs Singh lies on the floor behind me. She looks surprised. Blood seeps out of her chest. There is nothing on me: no blood, no hole, no pain. The youths shout at Mrs Singh, calling her a stupid bitch because it’s not even her money. They snatch her keys and start to empty the machines, stuffing coins into their pockets. I grab at one man’s arm, but I can’t get a grip. He doesn’t even look at me. No one can see me. No one can hear me.
I was always invisible.
Jess writes from her home in Deal, Kent, in the UK. She has stories in several anthologies: With Our Eyes Open: Book a Break Anthology 2017,
Waterloo Festival’s Transforming Being (Bridge House Publishing),
The Rabbit Hole – 2 (The Writers Co-op), The Tyranny of Bacon - Anthology 18 (Pure Slush). Jess has been runner up and winner in Faber Academy’s QuickFic competition.