Sounds of a City
by Kelsey Farish
With neither friends nor family to meet me at the airport, I stumbled out of a black cab and into central London. It was early September, and I was twenty-three.
My two old suitcases had barely survived the transatlantic flight, and were refusing to stay still. They continually found themselves in someone else’s way as I navigated through Victoria Station. I was painfully aware of each inelegant fumble I made over cobblestoned pavement and my awkward hesitations at crosswalks, uncertain of which direction to look for oncoming traffic.
Despite seeming like any other English girl with pale skin and blue eyes, I felt my face flush red as the obvious, oblivious tourist. I remember how, during that first hectic journey from the train station to my flat in the East End, I was startled by the deep reverberations of a clock tower along the river.
As autumn unfurled in those early months, I became preoccupied by my studies to the exclusion of everything else. When I walked through the cloisters of the London School of Economics, I summoned feelings of pride and prestige from the ancient floors beneath me with every click-clack of my heels. Each seminar and every note scribbled in the margins of a textbook was an attempt to distill the political and economic problems of the day. It was easy then, to feel a sort of kinship with Amartya Sen, Paul Krugman, or Bertrand Russell. Together with the hive of students perpetually busy with lectures and research, I name-dropped and buzzed on topics torn from the back pages of the Financial Times or Foreign Affairs – if only for the purpose of appearing well-read, knowledgeable, somehow worthy of belonging here.
But here wasn’t London, not really. Here was only a collection of sequestered Kings and Queens, each reigning over a private empire of empiricism. When settled into a quiet spot to read and write, I was no longer in London but in Brussels, having imaginary conversations with the European council about quantitative easing, or in Strasbourg listening to the European Court of Justice hand down another decision. I was only where the textbooks or the theories took me.
It was not to be a gentle thawing out as winter ended, when in February a phone call from across the Atlantic awoke from my dissociative haze. A girl, pathologically dissatisfied and with a stomach full of wine, jumped to her death from the roof of her apartment building in downtown Baltimore. She was twenty-three, and she was my best friend.
In the days that followed I realized I had spent six months in London sitting in the library, doing little else. It had not been uncommon to overhear barristers or professors chatting away about the legal morality of corporate tax evasion, all the while sipping coffee from a franchise particularly associated with the exploitation of such loopholes. This irony became apparent only after Stephanie had died.
In the aftermath of my grief I realized that I had been a palm reader at a carnival, drawing vague conjectures and building theories upon inference only. In the consideration of any theoretical concerns regarding a borderless European Union, I pointed to demographic balancing and variables set out in tables. I meditated on the concepts of human rights, but with little humanity. How does a permeable border between Bulgaria and Turkey contribute to or otherwise influence migrant labour markets in Germany? I knew streets don’t sweep themselves, but when did I ever walk them with my eyes really open?
Each new moon phase brought with it a different lens through which to examine the world, simply colored by whichever political scholar I happened to be reading at the time. I was a mirror refracting another source.
The further I looked ahead to map out the progression of my career, the less I saw of what was right in front of me. I started to go for long walks, never listening to music, nor paying maps any attention. I found myself with an insatiable desire to simply absorb and observe everything I could.
By the time I finished my thesis later that autumn, I had eight months ticking down on a student visa and, with the help of a part-time job at a magazine, just enough income to see me through. I wasn’t constantly being spoken at by professors, or measuring my own success against the academic accolades of my classmates. Instead I found myself on crowded double decker buses, simply fascinated by just how many languages were spoken in my periphery: Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Dutch… I always lost count.
They say London isn’t a city at all, but rather just a cacophony of villages, each with their own character, haphazardly connected by tube lines and alleyways over time. I became addicted to the novelty of each post code, and to the dozens of different versions of myself that I imagined I could be. By late summer, London for me was starting to lose her veneer as a city of well-off and well-intentioned students. I had moved into a big four-bedroom house with a journalist from Prague and a political analyst from Catalonia, two girls with fire in their bellies and so much of a secret London to show me.
And in this way, London became less of a stepping stone for my career progression, and more of a port bringing in strange tastes with each morning’s tide. I can look out on the Thames and see the tip of the mast of the Cutty Sark, once the fastest tea transport ship in the world. It suits me well, to be back in the docklands, where when I go for walks along the river I sometimes go in silence, as if I could somehow hear the echoes of stories brought back from across the oceans.
I think of all the waves between who I was and where I am today. In these six years gone, the once loud clanging of emigration or “independence” from a previous life has become something more like a rift in the middle of the ocean floor, rather than a storm. The distance I feel is unseen and often silent, but still grows, inch by inch, year on year.
Photo courtesy of the author