Olive walks from Embankment station, smiling as she strolls across Blackfriars Bridge. Immersed in grey, from the concrete pavement at her feet to the arc of woolly sky above, like a dome, the lid of her world, she is on her way to work.
I feel safe in London, it’s been here for ever
Before me or the Queen or even the Queen Mum
What have you seen, my London?
Fires and plagues, ceremonies and fun runs
Westminster Abbey, Buck House et al
And when I’m dust it will be here still
So don’t say London Town,
It’s not provincial, it’s magnificent
It’s Monday but Olive doesn’t mind. She stops, takes a notebook from her pocket and looks for a blank page. Grasps a pen and leans on the stone bridge centuries old. Her face is clean of make-up, her hair pulled tightly into a clasp, she almost disappears into the landscape. White skin to the point of translucency, her attempt at invisibility is deliberate.
Olive’s love of London goes back to childhood movies of spies and slightly dodgy east end characters, against a backdrop of Westminster and red buses, black cabs and the murky ribbon of the Thames.
On Olive’s eighth birthday her mother had promised her a party, her first. Only her mother had forgotten to send out the invitations which left Olive sitting surrounded by pink balloons and sitting behind a big shop-bought cake in the middle of the dining room table.
Her mum grabs her hand, her eyes black. “Don’t look at me like that. You don’t know what I have to go through.”
Words hung in the air around Olive as she tried to make sense of her disappointment.
I can smell the sweetness of my cake
See the pink balloons bobbing in the room
But I can’t hear the shrieks of happy girls
Or feel the warm fuzzy feeling of having friends
Best keep quiet, mother will be cross
I can always share my birthday with her
As I always do
Happy birthday, Olive.
Olive longed for a hug and promises of future birthday parties. Even now she couldn’t look at pink icing without feeling sad but she found an outlet for her disappointment. She began to write poetry.
Mummy gave me lemon curd sandwiches again
No one wants to swap with me
Mummy picked me up from school
In her purple trousers
I love her, I hate her
As Olive grew older she wrote of unrequited love and later still, of requited love, equally as painful. These days Olive writes, among other things, of loneliness and her boss, Keith, the most insensitive man she has ever met. That included her father, who on the day Olive’s mother had told him she was pregnant, declared, “I’m off. Find some other poor sap to sponge off.” And was never seen again.
Olive could write about anything, the wife of the man who ran the corner shop, Battersea Power Station and a day in the life of a tube driver on the District Line. But one thing linked them all. Olive’s poetry was awful. Over twenty years her poems had improved a little, but for Olive it wasn’t really the point. Her poetry kept her sane and tied her to the world, linked her to a life that didn’t quite fit. Poetry made her feel real and it made her smile.
Today Olive walks to work, to a five story building on the wrong end of Fleet Street. Her boss is Keith, the ego-centric and grumpy head of Mutual & Friendly who sold insurance policies to unwitting victims or clients as they are traditionally known. Olive answers the phone, makes the tea, fills in forms and adds up columns of figures. Sometimes she pops out to get Keith’s shoe re-heeled. Keith walks with a half-swagger which wears down one shoe quicker than the other. Olive spends valuable moments of her life, which she will never get back, trying to find a shoe mender who is prepared to repair one shoe.
“You’re kidding me, Miss? I need to see the other shoe. My reputation’s at stake.”
This is Central London, as much as Fleet Street is Central London, which it isn’t. About as much as Aldershot isn’t Guildford and Slough isn’t Maidenhead.
Three years earlier, an unhappy break-up, a disappointing career (some things hadn’t changed), and a batty mother had sent Olive scuttling south. She knew of only one person in London, a friend of a friend who lived in Battersea, Cressida. Armed with a scrap of paper with Cressida’s address on it, an A-Z and a bunch of droopy service station roses, she knocked on the front door.
The door opened to reveal a pale woman with red hair whose purple bra straps had slipped down her shoulders. Her eyelids had been slashed with a line of kohl and she was wearing stilettos.
“Who is it, Cress?” A voice from within the flat, deep and raspy.
“Give ‘us a chance, Billy.”
She turned her Cleopatra eyes on Olive. “Who are you?”
Olive blushed, taking in the sight of the disheveled woman in front of her. “Sorry. Bad time.” Olive turned away, Cressida grabbed her arm.
“It’s alright, love. Are you in trouble?”
“Yes, I suppose I am.”
Cressida dragged Olive in from the door step. “Shut the door on your way out, Billy.”
Over tea and digestives, Olive told Cressida about her recent break-up, her odd mother and Jenny who’d given her Cressida’s address.
That night, over a dinner of cocktail sausages and anecdotes of a single girl’s life in the city, Cressida gave Olive a quick initiation to city life. Such sage advice as never wearing your stilettos with jeans, taking your chewing gum out before kissing a man and what sort of hat to wear on a bad hair day. A bemused Olive fell asleep, confused.
Olive slept on Cressida’s sofa and ate the strange but comforting meals that Cressida provided, pilchards and curry powder, cold cuts and crumpets. She found a job working for an accountant and made friends with a girl called Sally whose flat mate had plans to travel to Australia, following a bloke who did shifts in the post room at her work. He came from South Australia and wore t-shirts with iron-on transfers of endangered animals. Bilby’s, bandicoots and dugongs. Sally needed a new flat mate. Olive and her suitcase moved in on Sunday after a tearful scene with Cressida.
“What am I gunna do without you?” wailed Cressida. It was a shame that Cressida couldn’t have crossed paths with the guy from South Australia, thought Olive. They would have made a better match and Sally’s former flat mate tired of him before their flight landed in Adelaide.
It’s the colour of her; bright, brash and buxom
Just when I think life is black and white
She comes along and puts me right
I don’t know what she sees in me as a friend
But she does.
One day, bored beyond measure with her job at the accountants, Olive found herself in a pub just off Fleet Street, staring into her Cinzano and lemonade, looking for the future in its pale effervescence.
“Hello, young lady. Why so crestfallen?”
Olive looked up, but not very far. A short man with blow-dried hair wavered unsteadily above her head.
“Sorry, do I know you?”
“Allow me to introduce myself, Keith Morris.”
“Olive Preston. Do you always talk like this?”
Keith shoved a business card in Olive’s face. It said ‘Keith Morris, Managing Director, Mutual & Friendly, Central London Branch’.
“Yep.” Keith, sitting at Olive’s table by now, flipped a beer mat and failed to catch it. “I need a new assistant.”
“How did you know I was looking for another job?”
Keith’s head dropped to the table where he protected it from imaginary hazards by wrapping his arms around it. Olive wondered if insurance could be any less boring than accountancy. She left Keith to his stupor but took his business card with her.
Olive has the flat all to herself since her flat mate, Sally, moved to Abergavenny. Olive’s landlord travels overseas a lot and rarely remembers he owns the flat so the rent doesn’t get raised. Most people would be whooping for joy but Olive isn’t most people. She feels as if she is living on borrowed time and the day will come when a man, possibly in uniform, will place a heavy hand on her shoulder and say, “You’re nicked, young lady.” Olive watches too many black and white films and has a preference for Ealing Comedies.
Despite this imaginary timer Olive sees dangling above her head she has made the best of her home. She has painted the kitchen wall orange and hung a picture of a woman in a rowing boat next to the stove, the stove where Olive cooks stir-fries on weekdays and pancakes on Sunday mornings. Her face creams and a pink disposable razor sit haphazardly on a glass shelf in the bathroom. Her books pile to overflowing on an old wooden bookcase, arranged in colours, warm colours to cool, starting with reds and ending in blues. Piles of small notebooks are heaped on the coffee table like a burial mound. In each notebook you will find poem after poem. Olive is now manic with them, picking up ideas from all around her. Eavesdropping in coffee shops, sitting on park benches and people watching. It is all there, she just has to get it down on paper as quickly as each idea sprouts.
Apart from her book shelf, Olive’s home is messy. She gets an idea and she leaves the gas on, forgets to turn taps off. She doesn’t have many visitors. Just her mum when she travels down from Luton and keeps her coat on, handbag balanced on her knees as if she may flee screaming at any moment, which happens from time to time when Olive wants to talk to her.
Olive doesn’t invite many men back to her flat. The dates she goes on rarely get that far, they find her too strange. And Olive fails to see why she should use the word date which conjures up images of something plump and sweet. Why does she never meet kind men?
Fleet Street is a shadow of its former self since the newspapers moved to Wapping but the buildings haven’t changed. Brick buildings of shabby grandeur. Olive takes the lift to the fourth floor where Keith is already behind his desk, pretending to be busy.
“Hi, Cherub.” Olive grimaces at his choice of endearment. “Bring in a couple of coffees and we’ll go over the post.”
His marriage has ended and he doesn’t get to see his kids as often as he would like. Olive knows about loneliness and she’d feel sorry for him if he wasn’t so irritating
She endures another day in the office, it’s only the thought of drinks with Cressida after work that gets her through it, that and her notebook. Olive pulls it out and starts scribbling.
Eating up my own shoe leather
Looking for a cobbler
Who will take Keith’s single brogue
Is it my fault he walks like a game show host?
Where do I find them?
These misfits drawn to me
Are they a mirror of me?
I bloody hope not.
She turns up 10 minutes late due to a last minute meeting with Keith but she still arrives before Cressida, who falls through the door in an assault of colour, magenta and gold, as Olive sits down.
“Sorry. Got my stiletto caught in the escalator. I had to be rescued by a very good-looking man in uniform.”
Olive takes her purse from her bag and goes to the bar. She returns with a Malibu and pineapple juice for Cressida and a Cinzano and lemonade for herself. Cressida looks guilty.
“This fell out of your bag, Olive.”
Olive recognises a scrappy piece of paper on which she had written a poem and hopes it’s the one about Keith, not The Ballad of Cressida & Billy.
“You should do something with it, send it to someone. You could be the new Elizabeth Barrack Bryning.”
“Elizabeth Barrett Browning.”
“I think its great, Olive. Wish I had the gift of creativity.”
Olive laughs. “You have quite enough gifts already, Cressida.”
She takes the tube home and picks up a copy of The Evening Standard. Olive loves the obituaries and makes up stories based on the names she reads. In the ‘opportunities’ section she sees an ad for a magazine called PoetNow. ‘Attention all poets, submit your micro-poems to Alan Laing, Editor. Don’t be shy.’
On Thursday morning she sits on the train, trapped in a tunnel between Waterloo Station and The Embankment. Avoiding eye contact with her fellow passengers and trying not to look at her reflection in the blankness of the window, words spiral through her mind.
Stuck between stations on the District Line
Buried under the city
In a snake of metal and glass
At least the lights are on.
At work Keith is due to attend a big meeting. He keeps changing his PowerPoint presentation, re-arranging the order of his slides until it makes very little sense. Eventually Keith leaves Olive with the office in chaos. She makes herself a cup of Instant and sits for a moment.
Boss man left in a whirl
Has a point to make
Swagger, lurch, swagger, lurch
What will they think of him?
Dunking custard creams in their bad coffee,
Who are they to judge?
Who am I?
As the week progressed little verses came to Olive; walking in the rain without an umbrella, buying a single-girls supper at the corner shop, pondering on the merits of getting a cat. At home the opportunities section of The Evening Standard lies open on the kitchen table and she is ignoring the three by four inch ad. Even when Olive can’t see it, she knows it’s there. When she starts to talk to it she knows it’s time to make a decision.
My name is Olive but I’m not bitter
I work in an office but I have another life
A secret life where words spill out of me
Gushing and pouring, fizzing and frothing
In my head and scrawled on paper
They hum with life and intensity
My words need hope, they want to live
I can’t give them what they want
She presses send and tries to forget about it.
Olive tries not to build her hopes up. And when she’s barely finished constructing her ship of hope, it develops a leak and sinks within the hour. Who is she kidding? Who would want to publish her third rate poetry? But still she found herself playing with words which flap through her head like bunting.
“You’re a natural, Olive.” Cressida’s words encouraged her but she wasn’t sure that her friend knew what she was talking about.
“Let me read that.” Her mother had said when she was little more than 10 years old. “What nonsense. No Preston ever amounted to anything.
And Keith who had one day caught her writing poetry when she should have been typing letters. “Don’t know much about poetry except it’s supposed to rhyme. What’s this one about?”
Every night she rushed home to see if there was an email and every night her inbox started emptily at her. By Wednesday she had given up looking. Olive picked up the newspaper from the table and shredded it viciously. She turned off her computer to stop herself checking it. Friday she arrived a home, after a drinks with Keith, just so she didn’t have to come home early. She fired up her pc and stared at her inbox. Sitting there, dated two days earlier, was an email from Alan Laing.
I’m no magician but I’ll try to help
To set your words free
To see them dance and dip and sway
They must live in stranger’s heads, trip on anonymous tongues
Meet me in the Red Lion & Pineapple, Acton on Thursday
I’ll be dressed casually but my intentions are serious
Yours Alan Laing.
Thursday night swung by with the velocity of wet concrete. Olive walked from the tube to the Red Lion and Pineapple, to clear her head. She ordered an apple juice and didn’t hear the door open and shut but she noticed a tall shape looming. The shape had brown hair, wore sneakers but no tie. “Hello, Olive. I’m Alan.”
They sat and talked. “I can’t pay you I’m afraid but I can get your work out there, read by people.”
Olive the poet. She’d have to get a long flowing scarf and of course she already had a floppy hat, a red one, waiting in her wardrobe for an occasion such as this. She would wear both, riding a bicycle with a basket on the front.
“You see,” continued Alan, “what makes you different is your voice. It’s fresh and innocent.”
Olive looked down at her grey suit and white blouse and felt suburban. Alan offered her a toffee from a crumpled bag in his jacket pocket, she took one. He had tufts of hair growing in different directions from his head but he smiled at her without a bored expression in his eyes, unlike most men she met. Alan raised his glass of ginger beer. “To Olive, the poet.”
And if you see a young woman dressed in scarlets and emerald greens, with a faraway expression on her face, carrying one shoe under her arm, don’t say hello. You may be interrupting poetry in progress.