Read: The Fresher Writing Prize 2020 Best Student short story:

The Gulf Between Us


Do you ever have one of those days where you can’t feel your feet touching the floor? You wake up feeling like shit, you’re greeted by your shithole one-bedroom flat, you swig from the closest bottle you can find, brush your teeth, burn some toast, have more swigs and before you know it you’re standing upright on the tube, where time then decides to move glacially because everyone can smell that you’ve not had a shower in a few days, and the bitch standing across from you definitely keeps glancing at you out of the corner of her eye and wrinkling her nose up. So you start sweating. And you keep sweating, for the longest 20 minutes of your life, then just when you’re really starting to wish that you’re dead, your stop arrives and you’re plunged into a sprawling meat-grinder of mid-range suits and shit haircuts, and it’s fucking freezing, so cold that you actually start missing the sweatbox. Or is that just me?

One thing I really can’t stand about London, more than the mass of people, the complete lack of manners and the crippling expenses, is the coffee shops. There’s a fucking epidemic. Every street, every corner, every single building is an eco-friendly, non-pasteurised, not-from-concentrate coffee shop. And they all have the exact same girl serving you. She reeks of fags, she wears shit glasses, she never stops looking at her phone (even when she’s making your coffee, somehow) and has a floral tattoo somewhere on her arm that’s supposed to be symbolic of the eternal beauty of nature, which only makes me wonder which will be in worse shape in fifty years’ time: that tattoo or the rest of the planet.

‘Which roast do you want?’ she asks. I can see her looking at my teeth. I got them in Yusufiyah. You got your shitty tattoo in Brentford. What the fuck is the difference between roast 1 and roast 3?

‘Roast 2’. It seems like the safe option.

Whenever I look at a girl with a balky face like that, I just know, intrinsically, that she’s a complete bitch. She probably makes a shit cup of coffee too. That was one of the shittest cups of coffee I’ve had in weeks.

I can never be in that place for too long; the atmosphere is diabolical, and I’ve been to Mowsil. I’ve got an appointment later and I like to walk there from the coffee shop, cutting through Abney Park Cemetery on the way. I have these appointments a lot, they’re in this tall black building that seems to suck the colour out of the world around it. I have to go there, twice, sometimes three times a week, all the way to the top floor and talk about how I’m feeling. I am sick and tired of talking about how I’m feeling. There’s this new attitude in England, and now everyone wants to talk about their feelings, or your feelings. The last thing we need is people talking about their feelings. Repression is a necessary evil. Look at what talking about feelings has done for that girl in the coffee shop. Miserable bitch. It stinks of weed here, do kids have no respect for the dead these days? Feelings make for the most asymmetrical of conversations. I get bored talking about my own, let alone listening to someone else talk about theirs. Not that I’ve had a proper conversation with someone that wasn’t my shrink since dad died. Prick.

Dad had a thing or two to say about shrinks (when he wasn’t talking about Muslims anyway). ‘Never trust a shrink’ was one of his catchphrases. In fairness to the cunt, he had a point. A shrink’s entire job is to take you apart, piece by piece, in some corporate office at the top of some tower. You talk to them for an hour at a time, learning nothing about them and yet they know you better than your family, friends and pets. A person in that position could destroy your life, or whatever constitutes a life in this day and age. And they know it. They revel in it, lording it over you while you bare your soul to them. I’m desperate for a piss. One thing I do like about London, is there’s never any shortage of alleys to duck into if nature calls. I can see the tower from here, there’s a ball of nausea forming in my stomach. Two tours of Afghanistan and I think it’s the scariest thing in the world. This shrink has the sharpest eye for weakness I’ve ever seen, I can’t slip anything past her, her eyes dig into your soul. This alley will do. I like to walk quite far in, just to make sure nobody can see me. Shit, someone’s crying. Concentrate. She’ll go away. It’s just a piss for Christ’s sake. Why can’t I be one of those people who can piss in public? I can kill in seconds, but can’t piss when someone’s nearby. Nope, the moment has passed. Best get back to it.

‘Please, is someone there?’

Jesus. Keep walking. It’s best not to get involved. Oh, for fuck’s sake what am I doing. I’m going the wrong way. I’m going towards the noise. I’m going against lessons I’ve learned from ten years’ active service and an abusive father.

‘Can you please call an ambulance, I’m begging you.’

It’s a Muslim woman, heavily pregnant, with an ugly gash across her abdomen, and a face that might be beautiful beneath the bruises. A. Muslim. Woman. See, I wouldn’t go as far as calling myself a racist, but dad’s unheralded counsel and watching several of my friends die in Afghanistan and Iraq has not exactly left a positive impression of Islam on me. Just turn around, not like there isn’t blood on your hands already. But there’s a phone in my hands and I hear my voice. ‘I’m calling an ambulance, everything’s going to be alright. This is going to hurt, but I need to press this to your wound and keep it there. What’s your name?’

‘Sobia. Please save my baby’.

Everything becomes a blur. I’m sitting down, holding hands with a young pregnant Muslim woman, firing information at the ambulance like I’m back in the military. But weirder than that, I’m talking to her, looking right into her eyes and blabbing at her like I’ve known her for years. And she’s listening. As much as she can, considering. I’ve told her my name, I’ve told her that my dad used to beat the shit out of me, and I haven’t spoken to my mum since before he died. I’ve told her that I watched three of my mates die right in front of my eyes and I can’t go a day without walking past their graves and begging whoever’s up there to swap us around and the only time I’ve ever had sex is when I was fourteen and my dad’s mate gave me a lift home from school while my parents were going to the pub. I’ve told her I’ve never had a date since because I’m too ashamed to even bring myself to speak to a woman. I’ve told her that I miss my mum. Now the ambulance is arriving and I’m telling her I’ll come and visit her as soon as she’s well enough to have visitors and give her some company, because God knows we could both do with it.

As I stand and watch the ambulance go, I notice how London looks nicer in the evening sun. I’ve missed my appointment, but there’s something else I’ve got to do now, while it’s still light. There’s only one number I’ve memorised for the last 10 years. I can barely remember my bloody pin number, but this one I’ve kept forever, just in case. Call me soft, but what I saw today made me want to see my mum. Maybe squeeze a decent cup of coffee out of her at least.