I’ve grown into a habit of losing umbrellas. My old one was stolen from the library a few months ago, and since working at the screen there’s been a endless supply of unclaimed ones from the lost property. You care less about them when they’re new, available at a moment’s grasp from the box under the counter, and I forget them. In restaurants, on buses, at theatre cloakrooms. This morning I found one just where I’d left it – by the table in the corner of the Chinese restaurant where I’ve been waiting quietly, ineffectually, for the last week and a half, trying to smoke out either one of Wendoll & Croom.
I’d been to drop the first draft of the manuscript at Avi’s flat, riding into Hoxton down wipe-clean cycle lanes, and caught the bright heat of the morning sun climbing up the old fire escape of her converted factory by the canal. I haven’t heard anything from her for weeks. I didn’t call. Just leaving it unannounced felt like the right thing to do. I’d wrapped it in old newspaper, tied with the last of a ball of string. Peering through the porthole in the reclaimed industrial steel door I saw glimpses of everything I expected her life to be decorated with. Thin glass vases, vintage leather couches. Ironic prints. Large clocks. I stuffed the parcel through the envelope without knocking and rode back beneath the grey-gathering sky, bold and cinematic in the expensive poverty of a stark neighbourhood.
I have the same dishes every day. Chicken and sweetcorn broth, beef in black bean sauce over pan-fried noodles, and a low, wide-rimmed cup of chrysanthemum tea. They know me by sight now. They bring each hot white bowl down in front of me before I can even open my notebook, and as I eat, I stare out at the street through the window, rain-streaked from summer storms. Even the air outside is exhausted: hot, brittle and moist, gasping for autumn. In the long days before thunderstorms the buildings ache with the electricity in the air, and I clench tight my knuckles over empty lined pages, wishing for some kind of spark. From that one table I can I watch the door, and the stairs at the back, and hour by hour I sit, waiting for anyone to come in or out. Always there’s nothing. I ask the waiters and they grunt, or shrug, refilling my tea. My mandarin isn’t as good as it used to be.
There’s a call I’ve been meaning to make. I spend hours at the table turning over my phone, thinking what it would mean to dial. I never do. I pretend to myself I’ve caught sight of something in the crowded street at the end of the alley, put the phone away and stare out, looking for a distraction. But nothing. And I think of dialing again. Of the voice I would hear.
The tiger returns next week. He’ll be tanned, grinning and gorgeous, and I think in the night when I catch moments with him on the phone how hard it’ll be when he comes back: how hard it will be for me not to crumple into him, with the weight of it all, but hold back, hold a smile, and him.
When the sunset bronzes the skyline I wipe up the last of my soup and cycle back to the screen, work through the night watching the same film over and over, sweating into a black shirt in the hot washroom and waiting, waiting, waiting for hours on box office. Fast and slow, through the late night showings, until we mop, wipe, close the shutters and I walk home on the back streets. And through all of it I think of that call I should make. Of the stubborn detectives. Of the tiger. Of friends, absent. Of all the talking I do not do.