Conversations on a London bus #2

Two girls on the top of a bus.

Girl 1: So we went to the hospital and I couldn’t stop crying. They told me I have to start the injections on the first day of my cycle. But how do I know which is the first day? It’s really difficult to tell. I got really technical and looked at my tampon and I think, you know, the flow started properly at half past eleven. So does that mean the first day of my cycle was yesterday or today? The nurse said wait until your next cycle if you’re unsure, but I can’t wait! So I couldn’t stop crying and I asked her if it was today or yesterday. It’s really important that you get it right, because otherwise it might not work. The nurse just said I had to make up my mind.

Girl 2: It’s really difficult to know, I know.

Girl 1: And then they sent me to a male nurse and I told him about the tampon, he told me I had to choose, but what does he know, he’s never used a tampon in his life.

Girl 1: So I’ll have to inject myself once a day. You have to put it all together yourself, it’s a really big needle, and you have to tap the syringe and get all the air bubbles out and inject yourself. I don’t like needles in the first place. Then you do that for two weeks and then you have a scan, and if they think you’re ready then you do two injections a day. Then you go to the hospital, and I’m not joking, you have to shove a massive suppository full of opiates up your own arse. I hope they have some lube or something. Then they give you a huge injection and after that they pluck out your eggs. The weird thing is I haven’t actually told them that he’s not my partner.

 

Peeling away the layers

After a week the bed bugs came back. They were a surprise left-over from the previous occupants of the house. The mysterious rash that could have been a bite, the inky spots on the wall in the spare bedroom, the bug we saw scuttling over a pillow on the sofa. None of these things seemed like a problem until a late night Google binge told us they were the signs of a bed bug infestation.

It was becoming difficult to sleep. So we decided to rent a steamer and buy bug killing products. Gerry tackled the industrial steamer, a blue robot from a seventies science fiction movie. I wore a mask and big gloves and followed him with the bug spray. Then we set off some smoke bombs. A couple of nights passed. No more bites. We thought might have won.

Then they came back and it was time to phone a man with access to more potent poisons and pesticides. The man recommended stripping back the carpets. That was last Saturday. A brief conversation over a cup of coffee. “We’ll just take this carpet up”.

The green, sticky mess crumpled in our hands, the rubber fell off the bottom and left mounds of fine sand-coloured dust on the floorboards. We tore up more carpet. More rubber sand. The floor boards were a pale grey underneath. There were gaps and holes, patches and some blackened bits. A mysterious dark shape revealed where a piece of furniture had once stood.

The floorboards clashed horribly with the salmon pink wallpaper. We peeled off a small corner. A big sheet came loose, like a sail catching wind. It felt good. I could almost sense the house shaking off the weight of the years. Another corner, another sheet of wallpaper and then small finicky bits that didn’t seem to want to come off at all.

Gerry used a screwdriver to pry loose one of the polystyrene ceiling tiles. It came off in one go. The next one was a bit more difficult, but he hacked away at it. I kept peeling wallpaper. After a couple of hours the first layer, the one they must have added in the sixties and seventies, was gone.

We found the local dump near the prison where they keep terrorists. The road that runs past it is wide and fast. Scrubby industrial wasteland, low warehouses, a large garage full of wrecked cars. This London is a different London.

Back in the house we keep peeling away the layers. We’re now down to the plaster, once painted a dark forest green. The last layer of wallpaper, a yellow geometric pattern with ghostly imprints of large white flowers, is the most difficult to remove. We sponge it down with a mixture of hot water and fabric softener and scrape away at the stubborn bits.

It takes time, the peeling and scraping, but in those moments there is nothing else than the wallpaper. Thoughts of work and worries and the political situation slip away. I can feel the room sighing with relief, the walls can breathe again. The bugs have stayed away for a week. We will keep peeling.

The first Saturday in the new house

This first night in the house we hammered through the plaster in our bedroom. Big chunks flying everywhere. There was a hollow-sounding area on the lower part of the chimney breast and it seemed like a good idea to find out what lay behind it. An old fireplace, full of rubble and ash. The draft from the chimney stirred the dust. We covered up the hole with a small piece of thin plywood.

This is the first Saturday in the house. The old boiler is roaring next to me. It’s quiet outside. I’m sitting in the office looking out over our garden. The words still seem alien to me. The office. Our garden. Yesterday two cats walked across the lawn, the short-haired tabby one sat on the roof of the shed for a long time, staring at the garden on the other side of the fence where a lady appeared regularly to smoke fags and check her phone. The neighbour on the left has placed plastic tubs full of seeds on top of her fence. The only birds that seem interested in them are the pigeons. When they’ve finished their meal they swoop towards our house, wings outstretched. This is my new life.

There has hardly been space for anything else than the new house during the last seven days. We moved on Tuesday and it feels like half a lifetime ago. It’s a steep learning curve of boiler-lingo and electricity-lingo, getting locks changed, issues checked, reading up on asbestos. It’s an old house, the carpets are threadbare, the wallpaper is peeling, everything smells very strongly of curry. I love it.

Not much has been done to this house since the seventies. During our first night here, when everything was still very chaotic and dusty, we discovered that the old doors had been covered up with cheap boards. We prised away the boards and found mustard yellow and pea-soup green four panel doors underneath. There are several different holes in them where previous owners have moved the handles around during the last century.

Is this what middle-age is like? Will I now bore people to lip-chewing despair talking about doors and floorboards and all the other stuff we discover when peeling away the layers that have been added to this house since it was built?

The floorboards creek, the boiler roars, but otherwise it’s quiet like London’s never been quiet before. I wake up surprised. No trains outside the window, no traffic, no sirens, no airplanes in the sky. I’ve never realised how much spaciousness there is in the quiet. I feel at home, I feel at peace. So bring on the mess and the chaos of ripping everything out and starting again.

An intimate knowledge of the Blackwall Tunnel

I can smell it before I see it. That’s when it’s time to turn on the button that stops any air coming in from the outside and starts recycling the air inside the car. At least that’s what I think the button does.

For eight months we’ve been driving from north east London to south east London almost every day. We live in the north east and the studio is in the south east. The drive takes around forty minutes and it crosses the river. That means going through the Blackwall Tunnel, the exhaust-fumed Victorian tube linking the East End and the south.

On the A12 going down to the tunnel there is a lot of bad driving. Cars changing lanes without indicating, cars gliding across three lanes without looking, cars speeding faster than all the other cars which are already driving too fast in the first place.

I don’t drive, yet. I tell myself that I will learn and dare to get behind a British car on a British road sometime soon. But motorways like the A12 frighten me and I wonder how it’s possible to keep an eye out for all of those things that might go wrong. I’ve been promising myself that I will take a few driving lessons and then get behind that steering wheel, but just not this month.

Gerry drives and without the car our commute would take about an hour and a half. We need the car. We also need the Blackwall Tunnel.

A couple of months ago there was fuel spill from a faulty hydraulic crane. The northbound tunnel had to be resurfaced and was shut for 20 hours. We drove to the studio in the morning, wondering why the roundabouts were jammed, the traffic curdling on the roads. The south east seized up.

During the day each car that ventured out added to the problem until most roads around the studio were at a standstill, queues of traffic stretching from eastern Woolwich to Tower Bridge and for ten miles down the A2.

We waited and hoped the tunnel would be fixed later in the evening. Around 6pm they were still working on it, around 8pm they were still working on it, at some point someone announced on Twitter that the tunnel wouldn’t be open until the next morning. So we waited some more, thinking people would start taking their cars and their exhausted selves home. We waited until 11pm and traffic was still bad, but we had to get home ourselves.

It took us thirty minutes to drive a few miles. At the junction to the A2 a tired police officer spoke to each car that crawled toward the traffic lights. He told us there was no point continuing, that the best way to get home was to drive east, take the Dartford tunnel and continue on the M25 home. There was hardly any traffic further east. It took us about an hour and a half to get home.

We were lucky. In 1996, on my birthday, someone drove a Mercedes truck into the steel frame supporting the tunnel. The accident caused one of the worst traffic jams in the city, 250 000 drivers were brought to a standstill for eight hours.

The tunnel is stinky and slow. The sign at the mouth of the northbound entrance telling drivers how many cars have broken down in the tunnel hasn’t changed for months. It’s one of the least safe tunnels in Europe. No one talks about it fondly (“commuting through the tunnel? You’ll learn to hate it”), but without it London freezes.

And almost every morning and evening we use it to dip below the river, sometimes I count the green signs along the walls that tell me how far it is to each exit, sometimes I swear at the car ahead for swerving close to the other lane or the motorbike zipping through traffic and roaring ahead, sometimes there’s a traffic jam and it takes ages to get through to the other side, sometimes a wave of break lights turn the whole tunnel red.

When you enter the tunnel there is a wooshing sound, like the sea crashing against the shore or waves rolling overhead. The murky water of the Thames is just above us. I never think about that in the tunnel.

Image by Caleb George.

Back to the river

Every day stuff floats in on the tide and then out again, empty coke bottles, plastic cups, tennis balls, pieces of wood, condoms, plastic bag, the left-overs of life along the Thames. The tidal movement is called ebb and flod in my native Swedish. Not so different from the English, but those are the words that find me first. Nature is where I stumble. I know what a buzzard is in English, but I have to use wikipedia to translate it into Swedish. Ormvråk. I know what a Gös is, but a Zander means nothing.

We went back to Finland for two weeks. One day we visited my grandmother and in the afternoon we stopped by the cottage in her garden, the bagarstuga. There is a great bookshelf in the bagarstuga. The shelves look like half-smiles and the books look like unruly teeth sticking out in all directions. I went there to try to find some extra things to read during the holiday, but most of the books were in Spanish, French, German, Russian and Finnish. My grandmother learned and tried to learn many languages.

The attic at the bagarstuga smells of dry dust, a sweet grainy smell that takes me back to being seven or nine and making up adventure stories in family attics. We looked at the glass vats my grandmother used for making wine and at the old hammers and saws and the spinning wheel that must have belonged to my grandmother’s parents. We also found a few large leather folders wrapped in old newspapers, unwrapped them carefully, untied the strings holding them together and found a selection of pressed wildflowers. Next to the flowers was a tidy description of where and when they had been picked and their name in Swedish and in Latin. My grandmother’s brother’s homework. My parents also picked and pressed plants during their summer holidays, that’s how they learned the names. Today it’s different. We’ve lost the names so we look at nature without seeing it.

At the summer house I read Ryszard Kapucinski’s reportages from Africa. In one chapter he talks about the difficulty of describing and understanding the nature around him when he doesn’t know the real names of what he’s seeing. Without knowing the local name, how could he understand the essence of the tree he was sheltering underneath. It was a good book and it was a good holiday, but now I’m back in the studio next to the river, trying to remember the English names of some things and the Swedish names of others.