Extract from This is a Canvas by Jackson Martin

Chapter One

The first time you saw her, in person, was from the top of a red brick office block. You’d climbed the scaffolding that had gone up all around it, knowing the roof was just about the tallest spot in the area. Site is electronically protected. A cartoon portrait of a falcon or eagle. Where Provost Street met City Road. London Borough of Hackney. N1. New, light-reflective road signs everywhere.

[private]You were sat smoking a roll-up, hot tip of it curled into your palm, forearms on knees, back pressed against the chimneystack. The low parapet hiding all but the top of your head from street level as you watched hi-vis vested workers, gripped in the fist of a cherry picker, wrestling with huge posters above the Old Street roundabout. The glowing hoardings cradled between dark arches, the structure like a huge beetle. Dried and wind hollowed to sparse skeleton but somehow still alive. Liteyed. Crouched and guarding the intersection between where you’d come to live and the rest of the city.

Then there was a flicker, some not quite right movement on the pavement below. Where, leaning onto one knee, stubbing the cigarette out against cracked mortar, you found someone walking, casually, under the eye shaped clock. ROYAL LONDON OPTHALMIC HOSPITAL inch-deep in the granite lintel, (MOORFIELDS EYE HOSPITAL) a goldleafed afterthought underneath. There must have been twenty or thirty others on the same pavement but you latched onto that one capped and hooded head. 1898. 1805. The ground floor window boxes she’d just passed spilling ivy tears. Knowing, somehow, it was a girl, a young woman, rather than a teenage boy. A name or message scrawled where the window boxes stopped.

And, tracking back along the pavement, having to grab hold of the concrete lip of wall to stop yourself from standing, she was doing it again. Something bigger, hand and arm blurring against the head-high brick wall. All those people bustling by behind her. The odd double-take and long glance but no-one missing a step. She simply stood and moved in a certain way. Slipped into a few seconds of grace. You felt trapped as she finished and moved on. Peerless Street. Baldwin Street. The Old Fountain Pub pincered between them. Real Ales. Beer Garden. Your head darting around uselessly for a way down, picturing a plane’s inflatable emergency chute just as something else in your periphery made you crouch and grip the wall again. Two police, thumbs tucked in stab vests, walking slowly up City Road from the roundabout. The girl painting again, on the north-facing side of a bus stop. Hidden from view but only a hundred or so metres from them. Working even more slowly. Stepping back every few seconds to check what she was doing, the shelter a plastic-glass pebble separating her from the stream of pedestrians.

So you shouted. More of a noise than a word. And again as she couldn’t hear, or refused to acknowledge she could. Then a third time, carelessly loud, willing the pocket of sound through the air. Somehow pocketing the can before she turned and found you waving then jabbing frantically towards the still oblivious pair as they closed in. Might have directed a little nod up to you after tipping her head to look. Then seemed to slouch into a new self on the plastic bench, gently gripping and tucking her bag out of sight with her feet. Bus waiting, weary. Chin nustling behind her zip as a cupped mobile lit her face a weird green.

You squatted back down, watched her swap brief greetings as they strutted by. One of the men leaning in to whisper something to his partner a few steps on, the murmur of a chuckled reply carried up on the breeze. You rose again the moment they turned onto Cayton Street, trying to wave less manically as she stood too, slipped the small black bag over her shoulders. Peering up. Hands hipped. Not walking away as you checked through the tarpaulin, scrambling down as quickly as you could. Weirdly aware of your limbs as you started to cross the road through a brief gap in traffic. Council Electricity Board hopped over, the square grate cut across by the double white lines. Arms forgetting what to do. Legs uncomfortable on the too-solid ground. Trying to replay what you’d seen her do. That turn to the surface. The flawless combination of movement and stillness. Then, stepping onto the pavement a few metres from her, looking from the brick wall to the shelter side, you heard yourself say, ‘Know you.’ Mumbled and half swallowed, as usual. Had become usual. But there you were. And there she was. As striking as all the other versions of her you’d already seen. Realising as you spoke that you’d seen those four letters in that combination hundreds, thousands of times.

‘What you mean you know me?’ she said, knocking back her hood with her left hand, tiny phone still clenched in the right. Wiry arms crossing. Pale skin almost white in the night’s strange light. Milky blue eyes flitting you up and down. Summer London dawn blue, for all the handful of those you’d seen. Not much shorter than you. Skin and bones though, as your mum would have said. FH DUCTILE. Another metal grate, heavily dented under her right foot. STANTON PLC H WARRIOR. That odd urge to warn her. ‘Where you from?’ she asked, squinting at you. Trying to work out a first impression, guess at who or what you might be beyond a six-foot something string bean, as you used to be called. An unplaceably brown man-boy. Flinching at every raise of her eyebrow, every almost smirk or smile as her gaze found nothing to tell her anything for certain. Then, realising you’d frozen, she said, ‘Thanks though, for that,’ cap tipping towards where you’d shouted from. ‘Wankers, right?’ OPTOMETRIST. You shrugged, not quite able to speak. Gilray House. The bank spotlessly white. Then, looking past her to where she’d come from, ‘That, those. Seen them everywhere. Seen you all over.’

‘My tag? Should hope so,’ her attention dragged away as siren tones wrapped around the corner from the west side of Old Street. Chicken Cottage. The paramedic bike only second behind. ‘Four years of Cusp now,’ she said to the distance. Then, looking back, ‘What you write then? And what’s that accent, you northern?’

‘Don’t. Write, that is. Looked it up, cusp,’ stumbling as she frowned at your initial response. Not the first to claim you northern.

Something in that flat simplicity you’d practised that made people think of Manchester or Leeds or York. Though it never last more than a few sentences. Could always see the guessed at distance rocketing away the more you spoke. Thousands of miles in a few mangled syllables.  ‘It’s a nice, you know, nice word. Nice tag.’

‘You definitely don’t,’ she said, forehead still creased even as her body relaxed. Some set of decisions falling in your favour. ‘Chose it for the letters, mostly,’ arms loosening above her stomach, Weight rocking back onto her right hip. ‘What you want then? What you doing here?’

‘Seen you everywhere. There’s tags everywhere.’

Unimpressed, as you looked back to her. ‘And other stuff.’ Even less so. ‘And live here. Work, mostly. Most nights. All around here. Hoovering,’ trying to clarify, her not seeming to understanding, ‘bins, and – even in that place,’ looking to where you’d seen her from, ‘a couple of times, that was –‘

‘There’s cars everywhere,’ she said, almost smiling, ‘you chase them too?’

‘Wasn’t chasing you, it’s just,’ having to shake your head, flashes of those you had followed over the last few months making you blink. A banker to the door of his house in Balham. A dentist to his Camden loft. Others who didn’t seem to go home. The lawyer who didn’t emerge from the pub she went into. The postman who boarded the train for Edinburgh with no luggage, still in his short-sleeved uniform. Then, somehow, you said, ‘Don’t know, didn’t – it’s just – didn’t think girls did this,’ stomach knotting, bile creeping up even as you carried on, ‘thought it was too, you know, dirty, or dangerous,’ cursing yourself even before her eyes dropped you, as what you’re still sure will be the worst chat up line she’ll ever hear rattled in your ears. ‘There’s all sorts, up on roofs, in drains, storm tunnels,’ trying to dig down to them with a shuffly, awkward dance as you tried and failed to backtrack, justify.

‘Don’t write in sewers,’ her gaze pinging around behind you, ‘keeps my nails clean,’ bony shoulder angled into your upper arms as she barged past. You followed, a few metres back, unsure what else to do, the part of you that should have told you to go home having already thrown in the towel. Rubbing your bicep. So unused to speaking to people during those nights and early mornings you worked. Almost all spent without a word said, beyond a few to yourself that no one would understand. Tried to smile, as she turned, checking you were still there, or just looking. Her head moving constantly, sounding out the surfaces all around.

The Colour of Summer. One of the workers smoking up in his crow’s nest, a wine bottle bigger than him floating next to a glowering sun. The windowless brick of the side of the petrol station shop. OLYMPICS BUDGET IN TATTERS behind the fence-like mesh of a newspaper board. WA DO Chinese Food to take away – Kebabs Burgers Chips & Pies. Ring road. SAMEER suppliers of classic & fashion lines to the trade. For sale and to-let signs cluttered on buildings like butterflies. Came gingerly alongside her as she paused to cross Old Street towards Great Eastern Street. Multiple lanes of traffic in both directions separated by a thin concrete island. An electric pink moped ripping between two black taxis. Staring straight at you after she’d watched it go.

‘Didn’t mean that,’ you pleaded with her hood as you reached the island. ‘About girls, women, painting, tagging.’ You breathed, blinked. ‘It was a surprise. A good one. It’s just – why do you do it? That’s what -’ She shot you a sharp, sceptical glance as she stepped off the next kerb, ‘You honestly don’t write?’ Then veering off around the large stone monument towards Tabernacle Street. Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association full of half dead plants. She slowed a little though, let you walk in time. Eyes still scanning ahead.

‘There’s loads out there,’ you tried, ‘see it everywhere out walking, climbing around,’ her glancing at you as you said that. ‘Could show you some great places that -’

‘That an occupation, climbing, walking around?’ her eyebrow raised at a lamppost as you turned onto Leonard Street. She never seemed to look straight ahead, where she was going. Mostly, you soon found out, because she most often didn’t know where she was going. ‘Pay well, decent pension?’ Lingering on a fresh looking ELMO. ‘I know all the best spots. All the best are gone, till they’re buffed. Wait there. Give me one of your shouts if you see them.’

Already spraying across the blue painted board surrounding an old shop as you turned to ask who. It sold handbags, when you first arrived. Wholesale or walking customer. Handbags, belts and shoes, all leather. Unique Designs 1978. Or 1979. You can’t find any photos of it. Regal Homes. 1, 2 and 3 bedroom apartments available off-plan. The plastic sign nailgunned to the blue.

‘Coming?’ she asked. From £75k for a 35% share. There themselves, now, when you check the street view. The Cusp she’d left almost identical to the others in proportion. The shape and weight of the letters, the relation between each. The whole thing wider though, stretched to fill the long, landscape board. Turned to see her walking away, yelled, ‘Wait.’

‘How old’re you?’ she asked, squinting at you again as you caught up, then yanking open the heavy metal door to what you thought was a disused building. Her head shaking slightly as it traced around the rusted frame, checking the marker and Tip-ex scribbles. Her hand shifting higher up the door as she held it open. ‘Not that they’re going to ask. After you.’

You ducked in under her arm. A moment’s trust you’ll never forget.[/private]

Jackson Martin has a BA in English with Creative Writing from UEA, and an MA in Contemporary Approaches to English Studies from Goldsmiths. He lives in Hackney, where he works in his local pub. The above is an extract from his first novel, This is a Canvas, which explores the graffiti and street art scenes of contemporary east London and was written with the help of an award from the Arts Council. He is represented by Jamie Coleman at Toby Eady Associates.

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