When you work online, putting on normal clothing and actually leaving the house is important. This is why I work so often in cafes. Spend all day at home in your pajamas and you start to feel (and eventually act) like a guest of the state. Today the weather was nice. So I thought I’d go sit in Whitehall Garden and work on a scene that’s been bothering me for a week—change of venue, change of energy, etc.
Being by a river always helps me think. And on a good day, the various cultures of inner London can create a certain momentum as you pass through them, an electric crackle that you can use when you finally sit down and get to work. But the emotional energy in big cities also comes in waves, which can be problematic. Get enough people in the same space having a bad day, emoting at others who enter their perceptual range, and it’s going to spread like a black tide from neighborhood to neighborhood. I find this sort of thing is usually at its most repugnant in high tourist areas and throughout financial districts—places where miserable people naturally converge. Unfortunately, those are some of the best places to find writer-friendly cafes and public gardens.
So Whitehall Garden. On most days, it’s like a tiny, secluded paradise by the Thames. Quiet. Victorian fountains. Everyone keeps to themselves. There’s even an authentic Egyptian obelisk with sphinxes. And it doesn’t get much better than sphinxes on a weekday. When I got there, I felt ready to dig in and get some real work done. The gardens were as gorgeous as always. I had coffee, headphones, steno pad, and a wooden bench in the shade. Perfect, right? What could go wrong?
I was actually making progress on the scene when my bench lurched. To my right, on the connecting bench, a chubby bald man with a beard and 1950s bifocals sat next to his tiny over-tanned wife. They both wore identical cameras and flamingo-pink windbreakers and they were talking to an extremely thin woman with big sunglasses. Everything about the woman said money: cream leather jacket, white blouse, white pants, and leather riding boots that had never, in their existence, been used for riding. Her platinum blond was sprayed up in the anti-gravity bob that well-off middle aged women sometimes get to prove that they go to a salon. The blond woman was standing right in front of them, listing a little to the side, expressionless, mumbling. I took my headphones off, but I couldn’t make out what she was saying.
The man was repeating, “We don’t know. We don’t want any trouble.” And his tiny wrinkled wife was talking over him, calling the woman dear and saying it was going to be alright. It didn’t look like it was going to be alright. The three of them were still talking over each other a minute later when the blond woman lost her balance and fell forward into the man, who caught her in a stunned embrace. His wife stopped talking and blinked. The three of them froze that way for a moment. Whitehall park tableau. Then the blond woman pushed herself upright and they started apologizing to each other. Are you sure you’re alright? I’m terribly sorry. No, no, it’s fine, really. Then, as one, they looked at me. The man: embarrassed. His wife: bewildered with a little anger creeping into the corners of her frown. And the blond woman: expressionless again and, I could now see, higher than Keith Richards on the red eye to Tokyo.
I felt embarrassed for looking at their miniature drama. Then again, it was on the bench connected to mine, and this was the park. You can look in the park. It’s allowed, even encouraged. The blond woman came over and stood in front of me. “Have you seen my cell phone?”
I said I’d seen a phone sitting on a bench near the entrance when I came in.
She said, “Fantastic,” and drifted in that direction.
The bearded man, his wife, and I watched her go all the way down to the park gates, gliding between people with the grace that only comes to veteran drunks and pill-heads who know they must get home at all costs. Ghost ballet. I imagined her up in one of the elegant Second Empire hotels that front the Thames, standing at a window with a glass of scotch and a handful of Methaqualone, thinking, I’m going to go down and sit in Whitehall Garden. Or not even that. Maybe just: fuck him or nothing. Just pills and a long numb afternoon.
She came back and stood in front of me again: “Nothing, chap.” The first time in my life I’ve been called that. “But thanks anyway.”
I wished her good luck and she thanked me again before wandering off in the other direction. The bearded man and his wife stared at her, at me. Then the wife said, “If I was the one who found that phone and didn’t give it back, I’d be ashamed of myself.” She stared at me for a long moment until I looked at her. A few minutes later, I saw them down by the gates, looking through the bushes behind the row of benches like two flamingos dipping their beaks.
I didn’t take the phone. For all I knew, it was still sitting on that bench. But part of me wanted to go find that blond woman, put my arm around her, and make sure she got back up to whatever gold-leafed penthouse she’d fled; though, I don’t think people do that sort of thing anymore, not these days, not in London. And even now, hours later, I can’t decide whether I feel sad because of the emotions flowing right then through the city or because that woman lost her phone and, even high and ultimately miserable, had the decency to be polite to a complete stranger.