American Pie – an extract from a novel set in London in the 1990s

August 1993: The day the music died 

She was called Tomsk. She sometimes thought it rather stupid to be named after a Womble, but most of the time she liked the name immensely. People couldn’t confuse her with anybody else and that was the way she liked it. (Not that she looked the slightest bit like the macho Cribbins-voiced inhabitant of Wimbledon Common, although she had, until recently, been a regular at the gym.)

She lived in one bedroom in a down-at-heel house in Wood Green. She didn’t really like Wood Green, but it was cheap and better than the place she’d lived at just off the Holloway Road. Her room there had been pokey and noisy, if someone lit a fag in the hall you could smell it for days after. You couldn’t open the windows even in summer, because the smell and the noise from outside was just too intense. And he’d lived there. But she didn’t like remembering that.

Here, in Wood Green, every day was the same. Get up, make breakfast in the messy shared kitchen, then eat it back in her room as she got ready for work. Work that wasn’t much fun; she was a shop assistant in an independent bookshop. The hours were long, the job boring, the customers banal and her employer a sexist. But it paid the bills, just. She tended to switch off as soon as she got there and her mind would be somewhere else as she straightened books or filled customer orders. Then it was home, slip into leggings and a tassel top, eat something heated up from a can, watch telly, occasionally read, then go to bed.

(She never played the flute that sat, quietly tucked away in its case, on top of the wardrobe.)

Weekends passed similarly, without much intrigue. Tomsk didn’t have many friends. She was twenty-seven. Everyone she knew had moved away from town, or got married, or she had argued with them and they were too embarrassed now to make it up. (She had always liked to describe herself as strong-willed and even good friends were intimidated sometimes, especially now.)

Tomsk went out once in a while, there were still acquaintances and men she met and sometimes slept with, she was still (even with her long red dreads cropped off severely,) pretty in a pixie-like way. But no serious relationships yet, she wasn’t ready for that and wasn’t sure that she would ever be again. When she was younger she had been a bit of a hell-raiser, but now after a couple of pints, she felt tiddly and tired. Must be getting old, weary. Still, it made for a cheap night. Most of the time she just stayed in her room, reading or drawing little pictures. Usually though, she just sat by the window for hours on end, silently watching the cars go by. And she never listened to records anymore, even though she had a stack of LPs by the bed; music was just too all about him.

Sometimes she started thinking about when it wasn’t like this. A time when things had mattered and she’d gone on marches against student loans and the Poll Tax. Nothing seemed to matter now, not since that day on Holloway Road. Everyone treated her differently and she couldn’t stand them for it. Be as nice and comforting as you like, but how the hell can you understand? Nobody can. A new job, new haircut, new house and new people can’t change anything, or make it better.

She went downstairs to get a drink of coke and her gaze wandered around the back garden. It was horribly overgrown with dead weeds. She noticed the man next door still had his bonfire going. Tomsk had thought that this was a smoke-free zone, but that bonfire had been going for the past three days. They were burning something big which was taking a long time. Occasionally an old man would come out and poke at the fire and sometimes put his head near it and blow at the embers, and the fire would flare up again, refreshed. A younger man, probably his son, thought Tomsk, also came out and stood looking at the fire, (sadly, she thought,) from time to time.

I wonder where the old lady is, thought Tomsk suddenly. Hell’s bells, he’s done away with his wife and now he’s burning the body. Shit, what should I do? Take a picture? Phone the pigs? Oh shit, what if he sees me looking and comes for me too? She enjoyed the momentary sensation of goosebumps up and down her arms, then laughed. She came away from the kitchen window, took her drink off the crowded table top and went back to her room. Don’t be so ridiculous, she thought, sitting down in her armchair. But that smoke had been strangely meaty…

She wished it wasn’t Saturday. She had nothing to do and she didn’t feel like doing anything anyway. Maybe later on she’d go to the payphone and see if anybody was into going out, she doubted they would be though. She didn’t keep in touch with many of the people she’d met on her Open Access course; of those she did see, Anita was now firmly under Marco Polo’s thumb and never came out these days, and Pauly would be in bed with some guy she’d picked up last night. She’d leave it for today. She almost thought about putting one of the records onto her old hi-fi, but just looking at the cover on the top of the pile; it was New Order; was too much to bear. He loved New Order.

She watched the sky. The smoke from the wife-killer’s bonfire had crept up over the roof, to her side of the sky. It plumed upwards, making a mark like smudged pencil on blue Conqueror. A bird drifted past, carried on a thermal; a passenger jet carried people off from Heathrow to their holidays. Tomsk drifted off to sleep in the armchair with its gaudy patchwork cover.

As usual she dreamt of a time not so very long ago when she had been happy, when she had loved living in the city, when she had loved living. Before it had all become meaningless to her. She dreamt of a man too; a man who was always in her dreams and hardly ever out of her thoughts, no matter how hard she tried to make him be.

The dream always had the same ending. She was chasing him, a tall dark-haired, goateed man with eyes like the sky. She never caught him. She held out her hands to him, but he was always just out of reach. In the dream her heart beat faster and faster, she had to stop him. She nearly had him, she had the corner of his oil paint-stained army surplus t-shirt in her grasp. There was a pounding from somewhere that she could hear in her head, she couldn’t breathe, she was crying. The man turned round and smiled, then he broke out of her grasp, waved to her and then she woke up, as always. In floods of tears, as always.

She tried to light a cigarette, to calm herself down. She’d only started smoking a few months ago, because he did. Her hands shook as she held the lighter to her face. She couldn’t light it and swore. She tried again and again, but maybe the cigarette was wet, or maybe her hands were shaking just too much, because she couldn’t get the end to catch. She threw both the ciggie and the lighter against the wall in desperate frustration and started crying again. Her entire body was shaking now and she thought she might have to have a suck on her inhaler, her throat was tightening. She scrabbled for the cigarette and tried again to light it, without success.

‘Why did you have to leave me?’ she screamed. ‘Why?’ Sobbing and pulling the cigarette to pieces. ‘I have nobody,’ she mumbled.

His name was David. He had shared the house in Landseer Road. He was an artist, he was good, everybody said so, and his pictures covered the walls of her room. He was going places. That he had chosen to go with her surprised her then, and surprised her now.

They were so different and argued constantly; but the arguing was part of the fun, part of the package. He had lived his life and politics liberally, not wanting to step on anybody’s toes. Tomsk dragged him along to rallies and marches, but he was dragged willingly. He played the flute really well and taught Tomsk to play seven simple tunes. They shared the house just off the Holloway Road for a year and a half, even though it was damp and made her cough. She worked part-time, cash in hand, in a pub where her long dreadlocks and nose-ring didn’t matter, and when she wasn’t working he would draw her, laughing when she said she wasn’t well stacked enough to make much of a model.           

‘Stacked enough for me,’ he’d say grinning, as he grabbed her.

Everything in this room reminded her of David. It was a room that he’d never lived in, but was still his, filled with all his things. She looked around through the mist of tears and knew she’d have to get rid of his stuff if she was ever going to get over this. But she couldn’t; she couldn’t bear to finally say goodbye. His paintings, the t-shirt from Portugal that she slept in, the papier-mâché lampshade that he’d given her just after they met. It was hard but she knew it would all have to go.

Go like he had, that evening months ago now, when he stepped out to cross Holloway Road on his way to the all-night garage for a packet of fags. Turning to wave goodbye to her, not seeing or being seen by the obviously drunk driver and speeding car that sent him flying into the central reservation and out of her life.

c> Sam Hall, Aug 2009


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