Sitting in the Back

Back in Demetri’s village they’d told tales about the cold in London, but he’d never believed them. You have to keep moving, they said, or you’ll be frozen to the spot. That’s why everyone rushes around.

And now here he is, outside Victoria Station, snow sneaking down the upturned collar of his thin gabardine and he thinks he may never get warm again. It’s only three in the afternoon. How can it be so dark? Perhaps God has given up on him and switched off all the lights. Get a hold of yourself, Demetri. It’s grime not God’s anger that has saturated the day with darkness; dirt, soot and fog like he’s never seen before. So much for London being the place he’d find light; the place that would save him.

He pulls his trilby down further on his head, hears a roar and jumps back just in time to avoid the splash of a passing Vespa. He’s a city man now and needs to sharpen his wits. The opportunities for mishap and misadventure seem endless.

He walks to the row of shiny black cars waiting in a line like fat cockroaches, pulls the piece of yellowing paper out of his pocket and hands it to the taxi driver. He hopes he can make sense of it. Demetri has tried reading it many times, but the letters blend together and the alphabet looks ridiculous to him, a childish pattern of curves and lines that dance up and down at will with no apparent rules to obey. Although he can speak a few words he feels exhausted at the thought of how long it might take him to read and write this language.

The taxi driver holds the scrap close then at a slight distance, as if he needs spectacles. He frowns and asks, ‘68 Worry Street? That’s where you want?’

Demetri shrugs. He knows what that word means so, yes, it seems right. The driver beckons him into the cab and Demetri opens the passenger door.

‘No, no. In the back, mate. Not here.’

He shuts the door and opens the one behind, sliding his small case in before him. So you can’t sit next to the driver. There are so many rules and customs to learn. A weariness bears down on his shoulders and he considers the enormity of the task ahead. All the things he doesn’t know, then the things he doesn’t know he needs to know.

He settles back. What would the old men in the village say if they could see him sitting behind the driver, like some prince? Nothing good, that’s for sure.

The taxi jolts alive and his hand automatically clutches his coat pocket where his bloated wallet bulges through. The wad of notes reassures him and he allows himself a small squeeze before his hand falls to his lap. The money’s his by rights. And it can’t help her now.

The taxi’s engine ticks along through the sleet and he watches the city slide past. A twinge of sadness pings his heart like a rubber band, threatening to break if he pulls at the memories for too long: the life, the newly decorated room, the wedding they’d planned. Everything in place. Everything except a faithful woman. He’d done the only thing he could and, for both of them, there was no coming back from that.

A creeping dread coats the back of his neck. Could the Greek on the train have been a policeman? Written down the address of the boarding house as a trick? He pictures knocking on the door and her mother opening it. She’s in that apron she never takes off, the one with the tiny blue buds, and she pulls it up and dabs at her tears. Behind her is the man from the train, but this time in uniform.

A wet shiver runs through him and he pulls the lapels of his coat tight towards each other, so they kiss at the edges.

As his body hurls towards Worry Street, his mind gets lost in questions. What will he do once the money runs out? Will there be other Cypriots at the boarding house? Will they ask many questions? What kind of job can he find if he doesn’t speak much English? Will someone come for him? These questions ricochet back and forth and in time they’ll be answered. Except for the last one. For how do you know if someone is coming until they find you?

Sleep must have tricked him because suddenly the driver is shaking his arm roughly. ‘Come on, mate, time to get out.’

Demetri takes his case and steps out.

The man points up some steps. ‘Number 68,’ he says.

Demetri looks up at the all brick house. The fog has left long, sooty fingerprints down one side.

‘Warren Street,’ says the driver, and that’s when Demetri sees the street sign nailed to the wall.

‘Warren Street,’ he repeats and smiles. He pays the driver and stands outside the house.

Warren, he mouths silently. A whole new proposition. Like him. He reminds himself of his new name, his new story. Then he walks up the steps and, with the confidence of a city man, gives a rat-a-tat on the brass lion’s head knocker.

A light turned on inside glows through the glass panels and, while he waits for someone to open up, Demetri stamps his feet for warmth, left, right, left, right.

You can’t stand still or you’ll be frozen to the ground. Keep moving, keep moving. That’s how you survive.

 

About the author:

Eleni Kyriacou is a freelance writer/ editor and has been published in a number of magazines and newspapers including Marie Claire, Red, The Guardian and The Observer. She lives in London.