There’s something liberating about standing at a window naked, knowing you can’t be seen.
I was glad of the optical safety of voile last week as I stood in a hotel room, reassured by the friendly obscuring science of early morning light pressed against the dimness behind me.
It was a typical London hotel, a huge Georgian townhouse that had seen better days. And worse no doubt. Staying over after a gig because of an early start in Soho, I had felt a little lonely in it at first. It was a big room for a girl on her own – it had made me feel small and wistful. I’d kicked about in it for a bit pretending I was preparing for a ball. I pottered with the generic supplementaries; the dubiously dateless UHT milk, the stationery that nobody has a use for anymore, the tiny square of squeaky soap. I touched the wallpaper, swirled my toes in the carpet, wondered if the fireplace had dislodged bricks concealing a tin of scandalous love letters from a mistress to her only love, a tall dark handsome lord. I wanted to peel back the layers to see what it had all been, once. Then I slept deeply in the drowse of heavy starch.
In the morning, water boiling indignantly in a one-cup capacity kettle, I dried off from a shower so savage it had almost sent my nipples skimming like marbles across the tiles. While my body was alert from its aqua pummelling, my brain was still lost in an indistinct fog before the day took shape as something more lucidly belonging to my life. I allowed my towel to slip to the floor, gazed out at the rooftops, watched the sun unfurl itself over the wet grey tiles. I heard the trundling of a street-cleaner’s cart, the clip-clop of hurried heeled feet, the cooing of a pigeon on the sill. It could have been London at any time in its history. People, industry, bird poo.
I like those vague morning moments, when you haven’t quite walked into yourself yet. I looked out at London and tried to picture all its scenes, to conjure it all like an incantation of time; a carousel of Hogarthian sketches twirling before me.
Pretty girls pulling on dresses a size too small, serious men shaving and doing James Bond gun fingers, children smearing jam on freshly painted walls, secret lovers squeezing hands goodbye in parked cars, a professor with a wondrous discovery in his briefcase licking cappuccino froth from his moustache, the world’s greatest unknown songwriter shuffling unnoticed on the tube, homeless people leaving the grand steps of city churches to sit by ATMs, tired workers in debt who haven’t had a day off since the month before, a queen’s guard sneezing in his fluffy hat, a beefeater feeding his pet raven and missing his dead twin, students and their wrist-snapping books feeling they’ll inherit the world, a mouse at Mornington Crescent re-padding his nest with a scrap of Pucci scarf, a lost wedding ring rolling down a drain and plinking onto a sewage engineer’s helmet, a proud barista with an unexplained shaky hand, the headless window ducks of Chinatown, the first mutating cancer cell of a lady feeding the Hyde park squirrels, the echo of Nell Gwynn’s laugh caught in the crystal ringing of an antique glass in a Marylebone shop, a crumb of Samuel Pepys’ best cheese in the cement of a Southwark pub, a bus driver sitting with Tolstoy open in his lap just in case the traffic’s bad, tourists who feel their hearts swell in this great place and try to carve their initials in its bustling heritage by buying a sweatshirt saying “I Love London”, a Zimbabwean woman feeling cold for the first time walking up her first English garden path in Hackney with a broken suitcase, a man splashing wee on his shoes in a Charing Cross loo as a pigeon flaps in, a gust of wind through a broken window of the Palace Theatre blowing a wig to the floor, a rich exec having a wank behind his new desk in the gherkin and not caring if he gets caught, a bruised thief spotting a poster for La Boheme and remembering her nan singing, all the many stowaways that London harbours moving unseen behind the countless curtains – all the people, all the ghosts, all together.
The room somehow felt different that morning. I didn’t feel lonely; I felt free. Grown-up. Deserving of the space. I lay diagonally on the bed looking up at the ornate ceiling rose, and wondered how many other hundreds of women had looked up at it, less fortunate and less happy than myself. Lost women, paid-for women, women not free to love who they love, women who’d never had the luxury of being alone and knowing that that’s alright. I was here, in a room I’d paid for myself with a job I loved. I wasn’t vulnerable in this big room; I was independent, I had choices. I was about to thwack my key on a desk, smile at a man who’d been sitting sentinel over nothing in a suit all night, and march out into the cold Soho sun.
London boiled its kettles, scraped its knives across its breakfast plates, tossed its toast crusts into its bins. It had its cross words and its kisses. It kept me company.
I got dressed, put my make-up on. I shook off the blankness and became myself for the day.
But I left a small part of myself in the layers of the room; a shadow of myself standing at the window, naked and knowing I couldn’t be seen. One of London’s eternal stowaways.