It all started with a coat.
I got off the underground in a part of town I didn’t know very well (I don’t know any part of town very well). It was about 5.30 in the afternoon, already dark out because it’s January, and cold, too. Really cold. Cold because… it’s January.
I scrambled in my bag for my Oyster card, sliding out of the way of people getting impatient behind me. They side-stepped in Commuter Dance around my shoulders and I said sorry and dropped a glove. Then I interrupted the flow of people again because I bumped into the arse of a man when I went to pick it up. I found my Oyster card and joined the troupe to exit stage left, but I wasn’t as practised as everybody else playing the game.
I swiped myself through the exit barriers, looking up for the first time since getting off the train. Busybusybusy. Look at the ground, count the steps, don’t hold people up. Be somewhere fast. This is London. I glanced up, and saw the masses of people in a line, waiting to enter the station. I wasn’t headed where everyone else was.
They were all being held back by a man in a luminous jacket who looked harassed and cross and a bit troubled with deep lines in his forehead that reminded me of the patterns a tractor makes in the soil. He was trying to control the flow of commuters to the platform without making eye contact.
It occurred to me that not one of them looked like me. The people waiting were all men. All had dark skin, dark hair, dark eyes. I pulled my headphones from my ears and listened to words that weren’t from my language, spilling fast and loud and with more rhythm than my music. (I don’t have very good taste in music.) I realised the people getting off of the train hadn’t been like me, either.
Outside was insane. Different. Exciting. Through shop windows I saw women in salwaar kameez and saris take down jewelled dresses and headscarves from shop displays, hands unhooking bits here and bits there diligently and rehearsed, whispering at each other and stealing glances at their men who were the other side on the glass.
On the pavement white tarpaulin sheets were coming down, the day’s market stalls dismantled so that in another four of five hours, when I came out of the cinema and walked down the same road, I wouldn’t have known that fruits and vegetables and clothes and electrics and books and ‘SCUSE ME. ‘SCUSE ME. ‘SCUSE ME, MIND YOURSELF LADY, COMING THROUGH, had ever existed at all.
I’d told myself that I’d find a café to sit in with my laptop and imagination before I met my friend in a while. Writing is solitary, no matter how interesting your characters, so I like to sit somewhere public and be with real people, too. For company.
Every café was a hookah bar or halal restaurant, nowhere I could really settle down into with a politically correct conscience. I walked and walked. I crossed the road. I changed direction. I knew I wasn’t going to write. I’d changed my mind. I was exploring, instead. It happens that way.
How does this exist two tube stops from my house? I marvelled. It was like being in a Sri Lankan street market or Moroccan bazaar. I felt like I’d discovered something special, something new. Something mine. Adventure happens that way.
When I walked past the Islamic charity shop I saw it right away. I peeped through in passing, seeking out somewhere to eat. I’d gotten hungry. As my eyes searched for food and empty tables I clocked it, and my brain took a second or two to register. I had to take three steps back to look again. I stared some more through the window.
The shop assistant saw me, and beckoned for me to come inside. We’ve just opened, she said, we’re open late on Tuesdays.
I don’t know whether that’s to my luck, or my detriment, I said. I have no money and expensive taste.
I walked over to the back of the store where it hung at the end of a rail. Floor-length. Black. Lined. Shoulder pads. Fluffy. It was like a bear hug in a coat.
It didn’t have a price tag.
There was a similar one next to it. That one said £7.
The black one is the same price, the lady said.
I didn’t even try it on.
The coat happens to be magic. Everybody stares at the coat. People ask to touch the coat. The coat made me feel powerful enough to walk into a room full of strangers and say, yes, I want to join your volunteer club.
The coat had me call the boy, and tell my boss no, and meet the kind lady off of the Internet. The coat got me to email the competition a whim, and then win it, and then it had me cut off all my hair and buy a bowler hat because the coat just looked better that way.
Some weeks see all the things happen, that all at once mean nothing and everything and that somehow, you feel different.
It all started with a coat.