Caitlin’s Aunt Barbara lived on a branch line and there was a glass box on the platform streaked with pigeon shit where commuters could huddle in freezing weather. Her aunt was vague about how long she could stay, but Caitlin vowed to move into her own place before the weather forced her into the glass box with everyone else. It would be an old place, with carpeted stairs and a residual air of the Blitz, of postwar rubble, of sixties wake-up sunlight, a cracked and narrow work of history.
A suicide delayed the trains on the morning she was due for the interview with the city publisher. She went anyway, two hours late, hoping the rush and f luster would at least put colour in her cheeks. The receptionist was a slender man dressed in an outfit that Caitlin tried to study without staring. She couldn’t tell whether it was cutting-edge or just freakish. He let her take her gloves off before telling her they couldn’t fit her in again, looking her in the eye exactly once, during the moment between letting her down and dismissing her. It sliced her down the middle.
It was hard to hold onto disappointment when there were so many things to see. Whole rooms full of famous paintings. Backdrops from musicals and bedtime stories. Rabbit-hole markets. There was an unfamiliar closeness to the sky, a dome of birds and clouds, a safe canvas for dreams. And so many dreams painted on it already. She thought of grey-suited men relaxed in armchairs, portrait men with open books. Their calligraphies of poetry on the sky, read by everyone, so elegant, so final. In an old, old city, such things were given, and the people thought of other things. Where she came from the sun bled straight down onto them all. They were always fighting it, reading it, roof less.
Caitlin was the first, the youngest in her circle to make a break for it. Her friends had waved her off, all vowing to hit her up for a couch to sleep on when they had saved the plane fare. She dreamed of their visits on those slow, rattling tube rides, of the slosh of beer and the elbow-press of clubs. She would be somebody by then.
For now, there was her cousin, Bel, a couple of years older and shacked up with her boyfriend in an attic f lat off the Ealing Broadway. The last time they’d seen each other, Caitlin had still been an English girl and puberty had begun to steal Bel away from their Christmasholiday games to somewhere baffling and forbidden. Now her aunt put them in touch. Bel’s boyfriend was Australian, so naturally, said Aunt Barbara, they would get along. A dinner invitation arrived. Bel was cool on the phone, but Caitlin tried not to take it personally. It was another London thing, she decided. Something to do with the threat – no, the reality – of being crammed into a glass box with strangers.
On the day of the dinner Caitlin bought wine at the supermarket, took the tube and then walked to Bel’s address. It was getting colder; even Aunt Barbara had put a scarf on when she left for work that morning. The road was an endless linear rumble, a string of buses and cars that slackened and tightened with every change of lights. The entrance to Bel’s f lat was via a small parlour in what might once have been a three-storey townhouse. There was nothing grand about it. There was no visible way upstairs, only a locked door, and three doorbells, one for each floor. Caitlin pressed the appropriate button and waited. No sound could be heard from the lodgings above. She pressed again, and again. The waiting made her anxious. She tried the other bells – no answer – and checked the time and the address, stepping outside to see the number on the building.
Caitlin took herself back into the parlour, out of sight, and waited, crouching on the floor. After twenty minutes, a young woman came in through the front door. The smell of exhaust and autumn air came in with her. She was shortish and brown-haired and dressed in creased office clothes. A name-tag pinned to her shirt said Marie. She hauled her handbag like a dead weight. Caitlin wanted her to be Bel, but she wasn’t even close to a grown-up version of her cousin. Marie couldn’t have been more than a few years older than Caitlin, but she looked down at her with what appeared to be complete and imperious disbelief.
Caitlin smiled and stood up. ‘Hi! ’ she said, faltering against the wall as blood needled through her deadened legs. ‘I’ve come to see Bel upstairs, but she’s not answering.’
Marie stared and said nothing.
‘I’m her cousin,’ Caitlin continued. ‘Do you know if her doorbell works? How do I get upstairs?’
It was then that a man entered from the street; the small parlour was crowded now with the three of them. The man, too, had the look of homecoming about him, though he was more heavily dressed than Marie, and burdened with a rucksack. He glanced at Caitlin. ‘Who’s this?’
‘She’s waiting for someone upstairs,’ said Marie. She looked relieved to see him.
‘Maybe the bell isn’t working,’ Caitlin said. ‘If you show me how to get upstairs I could knock on the door.’
‘Have you been here long?’ the man asked. But he was talking to Marie. They spoke to each other in low voices, as if trying to keep their conversation in the tiny space to themselves.
Marie shook her head. ‘Just got home.’
‘Well, you go in.’
Marie nodded, unlocked the door and slipped through in a way that revealed nothing of what lay on the other side. The man looked properly at Caitlin for the first time. ‘So, who are you again?’ he asked, in a tone that implied that she was the latest of many small, irritating problems he had solved for other, less competent people today.
Caitlin was determined to be charming, at least until her problem was solved. ‘My cousin lives upstairs and she’s expecting me but she’s not answering her doorbell. I’ve got her number. But I don’t have a phone.’
The man thought for a moment. ‘There’s a pub down the road,’ he said, tilting his head to indicate its direction. ‘They probably have a phone. Or I suppose you can wait here for a bit longer.’
‘Okay,’ Caitlin said. ‘But…’
But what? If this man wasn’t going to offer his phone, his hospitality, his help at a time like this, there was no point asking for it. She watched him vanish through the door and raged at the inference that she was not entitled to wait there without his permission.
The pub was a huge ugly building; a brown brick interpretation of a Swiss chalet with a tacky name to match. A lurid sign advertised cheap carvery dinners. It took her a while to find the front bar, and then the public phone; her encounter with Marie and the man had left her too shy to ask for change, and so to break a note she bought a packet of crisps she didn’t really want. The single men at the bar, grey-skinned and yellowfingered, eyed her as she paid. They were putting off going home to wives in wipe-clean kitchens, she thought, to boiled potatoes and gravy.
To her relief, Bel answered the phone.
‘Where are you?’ Caitlin asked.
‘Oh. Since when? I’ve been ringing your doorbell.’
‘Since about five-thirty.’
‘Oh.’ A pause. ‘I didn’t hear it. Are you downstairs?’ Caitlin stif led her exasperation.
Back at Bel’s building the parlour was empty but the inside door stood open. Beyond it was the front door of the ground f loor f lat and a staircase. The top of the stairs came to an abrupt end; there was no landing, only a door. Caitlin balanced on the upper step and knocked.
When her cousin answered Caitlin forgot her trials in a rush of warmth and recognition. Bel received her with a limpid hug, and accepted the wine. The f lat was mostly one big room with a sloping ceiling and a rooftop view, under-furnished with a knobbly ethnic rug, a veneered TV cabinet, an eighties sofa. The rug hadn’t been shaken out in a while. Bel put the wine on the coffee table and Caitlin noticed that there were no dining table or chairs. She had imagined more for her older, once-revered cousin.
‘Sorry about before,’ Bel said. ‘Must’ve had the music up.’
She was tall and narrow with long, lank, almost black hair and glasses. She wore a long-sleeved shirt and jeans that would have been tight on anyone else. There was something birdlike about her. Not a daintiness; it was something glassy, something beaked and watchful.
Caitlin voiced forgiveness she didn’t feel. More than anything she wanted to get stuck into the wine and relax. No one around here seemed to know how to put a person at ease. Or they weren’t interested in doing so. She decided to make herself at home. ‘Where are your wine glasses?’
In the kitchen, Bel found two dusty goblets in the back of an overhead cupboard, unwieldy chunks of blue-rimmed glass stippled with air bubbles.
‘I’ll see if Danny wants one.’
Danny had loads of long, corkscrew hair and pale, freckled skin. He wore loose cotton trousers and a singlet. He had a slouched way of moving: forward from the hips, with his chin pointed upwards. He dismissed the offer of wine. Bel rinsed the glasses and made introductions. She and Caitlin sipped their drinks. Caitlin knew next to nothing about wine but gauged that it was fairly horrible.
‘Your downstairs neighbours aren’t very friendly,’ she said. Danny shrugged. ‘They don’t like us.’
But Bel murmured something to him about the dinner they were preparing, and he ignored Caitlin’s question. They hadn’t come up with much, it seemed – a saucepan of pasta, pale under the kitchen lights, and some kind of heat-through sauce. Danny looked about for plates as though he was in someone else’s kitchen.
They sat on the couch to eat, and made the kind of conversation that Caitlin hoped would loosen up into reminiscence once they’d drunk enough of the wine. Bel was an office temp. Danny worked in a warehouse. Caitlin could probably get work through his agency, he said, to tide her over. He rambled for a long time about the agency’s blasé recruitment standards and the advantages, as he saw them, of boring but casual work. Between his drawl and his contradictory talk, he was hard to follow. Caitlin tried hard to engage with him, but found herself stranded in conversational dead ends.
The pasta wasn’t terrible. She devoured it. Bel and Danny were slow eaters. After a while, Danny put his half-empty bowl on the table and, without a word, loped off into what Caitlin presumed was their bedroom, closing the door behind him. Caitlin emptied the wine bottle into her glass, filling it almost to the brim, not caring if Bel wanted more. Rudeness was a plague on the city, she decided. But with Danny gone, Bel made a bit more effort. The wine seemed to be working on her. They spluttered a little together over childhood memories and the tribulations of living with Aunt Barbara, Bel’s mum. But by nine-thirty the brief fizz of camaraderie had evaporated. Caitlin’s glass was long empty and no more drinks were forthcoming. She thought of the cold, dark walk back to the tube station, the bleak fluorescent rattle of the carriage. She drew the wine’s disintegrating warmth around her, and said goodbye.
When she got home her aunt asked her how long she was thinking of staying there, which Caitlin understood was a polite way of saying she wouldn’t be welcome for much longer. Caitlin made rushed promises to get out of her hair. Perhaps, she told herself as she undressed for bed in the tiny spare room, it was a good thing. The sooner she got her new life sorted, the better.
She visited a property agent the next morning, and was shocked at how much six weeks rent – four as bond, two in advance – added up to, and at how much of her savings she had frittered away on day trips into the city. ‘In London it costs twenty quid to get out of the door,’ someone had warned her before leaving, and she now saw that this was an understatement. She had wasted money on clothes at Camden markets and on countless pre-made sandwiches and coffees and tube passes and magazines and buskers. It was the price of aimlessness, it was what cities were for, this endless getting and spending. She felt cheated, for the city had given nothing back to her yet.
In Caitlin’s search for a place to live, there was also the question of location. The A–Z told her nothing of the city’s social topography, of poverty and safety, of whether an address was one street too far east, one tube stop too deep into a council estate. The suburbs and their names, the entire city, were foreign to her in a way she hadn’t expected. She spoke the language, had always considered herself from here. But this was not a city interested in birthrights, it seemed.
A share house in Zone 6 sounded promising, if a little further from the centre than Caitlin had hoped to find herself. On the phone the girl sounded lovely. There would be three of them if Caitlin moved in. The other two were students who liked indie music and vegetarian food. Caitlin would need her entire remaining savings to make the bond and rent. She wouldn’t have a penny left for food, for tube fare. She didn’t tell the girl this exactly. ‘I was hoping to find somewhere a bit cheaper. Or a bit more central,’ she said.
The girl was disappointed. ‘That’s a shame,’ she said to Caitlin.
‘You sound perfect.’
After she hung up, Caitlin cried.
She found an ad in a street paper for an art commune. Low rent, Brixton. Live creatively, it said. This was the one. She dialled the number from a phone booth full of lurid cards for call girls. A man answered.
‘I’m calling about your ad,’ she said. ‘I’m looking for somewhere to live.’
‘Oh, are you?’ the man said. He had a theatrical voice, and his tone was teasing. He spoke to someone near him. ‘We’ve got one! Looking for a place to live! ’
Caitlin heard laughter.
‘So tell me, darling. What’s your name?’
‘What a lovely name. And are you lovely, Caitlin?’
‘Well…’ She tried to play along, but this sort of thing was tiring.
‘Of course,’ she said finally. ‘I’m delightful.’
‘Delightful, she says! And I suppose that means you are good-looking?’
‘Because we don’t want any fat people here. Are you fat, Caitlin?’
But the man heard it: that tiniest shred of doubt. He paused, and lowered his voice. ‘You are, though, aren’t you Caitlin? You’re a bit fat.’ She pressed the receiver into the cradle and held it there, breathing hard, as though the call might come to life again if she let go. Then she checked for the dial tone to make sure the man was really gone. The door of the phone booth was heavy, she had to lean her whole body against it to make it open, and when she stepped out into the street the
traffic was all screech and wind, uproarious.
She needed more money, that much was clear. She’d been as careless with time as she had been with her savings. She walked back to the phone booth and made another call.
The following morning Caitlin caught the tube to Danny’s agency. There was a counter, two harangued-looking staff and a waiting room full of people. There weren’t enough chairs. Caitlin took forms to fill in and leaned against a free patch of wall to balance her clipboard. The forms were repetitive and perplexing, with tiny spaces for long answers. When she handed it up, the woman at the counter looked it over and asked for her passport to photocopy. Then she told Caitlin to wait. Were all these people waiting for an interview? It would be a long morning. She found a torn-up gossip magazine two years out of date and returned to her spot against the wall, bag between her feet.
But there was no interview; just a guy with a list selecting clusters of people and sending them outside. Before long Caitlin found herself in one of the groups; the other seven or eight women in it, all North African as far as she could guess, seemed to know the drill. Soon they were in a minibus, making their way across bleary, unfamiliar suburbs. They drove for nearly an hour – out of London, Caitlin presumed, as high streets and houses thinned out to accommodate grassy fields and industrial estates.
‘Where are we?’ Caitlin asked the woman next to her, as they pulled up in a car park outside a large building of breezeblock, glass and iron.
‘Oxfordshire,’ the woman said, and then turned to speak to her friends in French. It was clear they were discussing Caitlin. ‘You work this place before?’
‘No. I don’t even know what this place is,’ Caitlin said. ‘No one’s told me anything.’
More chattering in French. ‘Razors. You know?’ The woman patted her cheek with two fingers. One of her friends lent her a word.
‘Shaving, yes. For shaving.’
‘Razors,’ Caitlin repeated. For cheeks. Legs. Wrists.
Inside the building, the minibus driver handed the women over to the foreman, who took them to a small internal room with walls of glass. Down the middle of the room ran a conveyer belt, and on either side of the belt were stools and benches. The foreman assigned a stool and bench to each of the women. The conveyer belt began to slide. The foreman came by to show Caitlin what to do. There were two boxes on the bench. One was full of single, unpackaged disposable razors; the other contained cardboard packs of four. In the packs was a slot for a fifth, extra razor. It stuck out at a jaunty angle, bright lettering alerting the consumer to its bonus status. Caitlin’s job was to insert the single razors into the empty slots, and place the packages on the conveyor belt.
She did it for eight hours. There were two tea breaks and lunch, where they all crowded into the staff canteen and coaxed instant coffee and powdered milk into paper cups from a machine at a cost of
20p. The regular factory staff heated up containers in the microwaves and spaced themselves across the tables, eyeing the agency workers. The agency women sat together at one corner table and unpacked sandwiches. Caitlin hadn’t brought anything to eat. She put coins in a vending machine and watched a nut bar clunk into the tray.
‘Is that your lunch?’ The woman from the bus berated her as she sat down. The other women tutted and laughed. ‘It’s not enough! ’
Caitlin smiled and shrugged. The woman halved an apple and urged her to accept it. There was a theatre to eating it: polite enjoyment versus obvious relish. The nut bar was sickly sweet. Savoury aromas from the other tables – curry, mincemeat, pastry – tormented her.
Back at her bench, Caitlin tried to ease time past with mental arithmetic, setting goals and dividing them into carefully counted fractions. She would do another hundred packs before she looked at the clock again.
She never made it to a hundred; she either lost count or cracked and looked up. This was boredom on a scale she had never experienced. Her mind became anarchic, willing her arms and legs to move, to get her out of there. The sugar from the nut bar raced through her system, then left her with sludge in her veins. For a while there was a real chance she might fall asleep. When the shift ended it seemed anticlimactic, to simply stand up and leave the razors there. Through the minibus window the fields turned back into suburbs and it was as though the day had never happened. It was a day full of nothing, a whole day of her life.
The next morning she was put into a minibus with different people, and the drive was only twenty minutes. The group this time was mixed; a few of them were boisterous young Londoners with rough accents. When they arrived at the factory they were sent straight to the canteen, where they waited for nearly an hour, looking through the glass partitions at the workers on the floor. Word went around that this place was always disorganised; they would get paid regardless of whether they were called out to assemble anything or not. Caitlin wished she’d brought something to read, or even that they’d put her to work. Packing razors was better than staring at walls. The others were pretty happy with the scenario. ‘We’re getting paid to do nothing! ’ The canteen was like a classroom with no teacher. Caitlin looked fruitlessly for a magazine, a tabloid, anything.
Finally they called her out to the floor. It had been unclear from the canteen what the workers were making, and now she stood in front of a large stand made of brown plastic, full of odd little holes. Across the factory floor people were putting the stands together from sections and carrying them over to her area in tottering pairs. A supervisor pointed her towards a container of small multi-coloured buttons, and showed her how they fitted into the holes. It was a case for displaying makeup, Caitlin realised, as she pushed buttons indicating lipstick colours into place.
And for the first time Caitlin realised that everything had to be made. Lipsticks, yes, but also the cases they came in and the stands to show them in, and the bits of colour that completed the stands, and the paper for the magazines that carried the adverts for them, and the televisions, and the cardboard boxes that carried the magazines and televisions, and the lights that illuminated billboards, and it amazed her suddenly that after enough people were employed to make all these things that anyone could be left over. And the people who stood here for eight hours and pushed the plastic buttons into the stands were the same people who saw the billboards and wondered whether, if they spent the money they had earned on one of those lipsticks, they might themselves be a tiny bit transformed, from someone who worked on an assembly line into something else.
On her way home she passed pharmacies and paper shops, bottle shops, garages. Their windows were all junked up with dirty light and merchandise. For every can and container, every cardboard sign, every bargain bin, she saw the heaped-up wasted hours of somebody’s life. She saw the city for what it was: a bottomless repository for made things. How did a city get made? From the ground up, she thought. Layers and layers, and lives made around the building of them. And perhaps, she thought, when you live under the weight of history – and when your own feet are the weight of history, too, on over-trammelled ground – and everything new begins to sink into that mire of plague-graves and Roman bones, under that architecture of burnings and bridges, of songs and squares, of clogged gutters, of tat and trash on plastic display stands; perhaps then you have to develop a kind of crab shell to stop it all from crushing your back, and furtive, sideways feet to scuttle more lightly over that ground.
Caitlin changed to the branch line and the train dragged itself away from the city centre, past square houses of brick and glass. The people inside didn’t return her gaze; they drew their curtains and shut their doors. Caitlin guessed now that she had come here asking for too much. But in one of those houses was a vacant room for her, she thought. A room like a box to put her things in, with a lock on the door downstairs, and a little window, for looking out.