A short story I wrote to accompany a vlog which you can link to here.
‘A person swayed by pretence, while carrying out an enterprise of small importance, vanishes mysteriously, baffling every attempt of the police and his friends to find him. For reasons of his own, he craves peace and quiet and finds his ideal retreat in a vacant house where he secretly takes up his quarters. There he seeks to rebuild his life wasted in dissipation, along the lines of exemplary ideals and, after an absence of many years, returns to his old home town as an unknown and discovers that no one recognises him.’
On the internet, he had learnt yoga. The cafe, a breezeblock building with long windows over-looking the pebble beach, had a sign stuck with sellotape to a board. ‘FREE WIRELESS CONNECTION’ was written in green felt-tip alongside an advert for pre-natal birthing classes and a small note that offered affordable piano lessons (from beginner to intermediate). He ordered a lime milkshake, sat himself in the corner away from the group of youths who were sharing loudly a portion of chips, and logged in. He was not recognised.
The next day, he repeated the ritual. The lady at the counter nodded and, as he found his way to the corner and opened the list of available connections, it occurred to him that what had begun as the indulgence of a passing whim was destined to become a routine.
He was fourteen, and on the bus to Peckham library, when someone had first pointed out the similarity. Sitting on his own behind the Whittaker twins, he kept his head down as they informed the back of the top deck about the details of their exploits at the weekend. ‘She’s a right slag’, one of them said of a girl named Chantelle. ‘So’s her Mum’, piped up Tyler, a small boy whose bag took up more space on the seat than he did.
Normally, he sat next to Ashiq but his bespectacled friend had come down with a bout of tonsillitis and was to be away from school for at least two weeks.
‘Oi’, said a large woman in a colourful headscarf. ‘It’s bloody Prince William’. One hand gripped the pole at the top of the stairs, the other pointed to the back of the bus where he was sitting.
Although he did not miss the life that he had left behind, he was not immune to the temptations of virtual social networks. Whilst careful not to leave any trace of his presence, he found himself signing into his old accounts to see if there was any new activity. His profile page, a flurry of anxious posts in the weeks after his disappearance, was now relatively static; an invitation to a Halloween party in New Cross and he had been tagged in a photograph outside Nobu by his friend Bryony. ‘Miss you babe XXXxxx’, she had written underneath. He clicked onto her profile. But after several days of rummaging through the pictorial lives that his past acquaintances had chosen to upload, he found himself searching further afield to fill the time.
Her name was Janet and he had found her after typing, ‘why can’t I touch my toes?’ into a search engine. His time alone had led him to become more aware of his body. Her online course claimed to promote ‘well-being on both the spiritual, emotional and physical planes’. The message had struck a chord.
Daily, he would plug in his earphones and watch as Janet demonstrated poses and breathing techniques. At home, he had visited the gym but had found the mirrors in which protein-filled vests would preen themselves unsettling. Janet, in a collection of coloured unitards, was soothing. To the edge of one’s comfort zone and not beyond it was as far as she suggested one should stretch. She reminded him of his mother.
No one could say that he hadn’t made the most of the unlikely similarity of the combination of his parents’ genes to those of royalty. By sixteen he had signed up to an agency in West London and, while his contemporaries were selling trainers or gaining stars on the badges for flipping burgers, he was earning more than either of his parents by making public appearances at which he needed to do little more than wave.
He soon found other benefits. With the right shirt and an air of confidence he was quickly ushered to the front of queues. The doormen of west-end clubs verged on reverential. Once inside they were invariably ushered to the VIP area where a table, in the centre of which was placed a bottle of vodka, was waiting. Girls were easily won over. Even when he was still in the habit of revealing his true identity, the semblance of royalty was enough and he willingly played along with the pretend fulfilment of long-cherished childhood fantasies.
He couldn’t remember the first time he had actually lied. At public appearances, it was part of his job to talk about his ‘granny’ and the fact that one of the corgis needed worming. He would make sure to pronounce his consonants. A vocal coach had told him to imagine he had a hot potato in the back of his mouth. But, at such events, everyone was in on the joke. He had long since abandoned the attempt to disillusion wide-eyed shop assistants or waitresses and he learnt to lower his eyes with bashful modesty on being addressed as ‘Your Majesty’ (a technique which he had learnt from his surrogate mother’s late televisual appearances – RIP).
‘We can’t really go back to mine’, he remembered telling a girl whose father had recently bought her a flat next to Harrods. ‘It’s just a bit tricky with the press and everything’. She had understood. The next morning he ordered a taxi to Buckingham Palace. On the way he asked the driver to drop him at the bus stop for the 36 to Penge.
Back at the cottage, he laid down a rug on the wooden floorboards and attempted the position that he had watched Janet do. His body felt better for being pushed into unfamiliar shapes and he found that the hours passed quickly when he concentrated on connecting action to breath. He was, as Janet hoped for all her viewers (the video in which she demonstrated the downward dog had over 200,000 views), ‘leaving the past behind and allowing the door of the future to open without pre-supposing what lies beyond’.
Northumberland was cheap and in the winter it had been easy to find the small letting set back from the sea on a side road. To begin with, when anonymity was still unexpected, he had made the four-mile round trip to the out-of-town supermarket to get the supplies that he needed for the week. He tried not to leave the house except after dark when he would walk down to the beach, lie on the pebbles and watch the stars. He had worked out that, without working, he could maintain this parsimonious lifestyle for six and a half years. With time, however, he had grown more confident in his interaction with the locals. He bought avocadoes from the local shop and treated himself to the occasional fish and chips. Three years later he was running out of money. He breathed and pushed himself back into the downward dog position. Perhaps it was time to think about going home.
‘Pretend Prince Wills Promised We’d Wed’ was the headline, under which was a picture of the bikini-clad model in question. She was not unknown, having had a brief fling with a footballer and appearing on the red carpet of a Bond premiere in a fishnet mini-skirt. She had approached him on the dance-floor.
Janet said that the key to inner peace was acceptance.
She was a nice girl who craved attention. He knew what it was like to find oneself exploiting the advantages that nature had unwittingly bestowed. She cried in his arms and told him that she just wanted someone to love her. He reassured her that her common roots need not affect their relationship. He recognised her attempt to speak proper. ‘I feel like a princess’, she said as she stared into his eyes. ‘You are a princess’, he said.
Janet said that once you knew your body you knew yourself.
He hadn’t meant the deceit to continue. Normally he muttered something about security issues when they asked for his phone number and deposited the scrap of paper which they had invariably slipped into his pocket in the bin at the bus stop. This time he had paused. She appealed to him and he called her back.
‘We have to be careful’, he said. ‘If anything becomes public, I’ll have to deny it’.
He met her mother, who had put a table cloth and fresh-cut flowers from Marks and Spencer on the table. She stood up when he came into the room. ‘My Ruby’s a nice girl really’, she said. ‘I thought you were going to be right stuck up’. He lowered his eyes to the table. She offered him another Viennese Swirl.
They spent most of their time indoors. She had pictures of ponies stuck on the walls of her bedroom. Without make-up she was pretty.
‘Why don’t you just let people see the real you?’ he asked one day as she was applying her false eye-lashes. ‘Because the real me’s ordinary’, she replied. ‘And who wants to be ordinary?’
Janet said that the only person you should compare yourself to is you.
He only realised slowly that he was falling. That he didn’t want to let her go. ‘When am I going to meet your Dad?’ she asked. ‘Do you think he’ll like me?’ He tried to deflect the question. ‘He’ll love you as much as I do’. She seemed to melt.
He hadn’t had much to pack. A small rucksack and his yoga mat was all that he took with him to the station. He had grown older. His hair was long and the beard, that had begun as a disguise, now was a part of his face. He had done his sun salutations and felt centred, grounded, serene. He was ready. He bought himself a pro-biotic smoothie and found his way to the reserved seat.
It was when she started throwing crockery that he decided it was time for him to leave. ‘I don’t even know who you are’, she screamed grabbing a mug that said, ‘Chocolate or sex? I choose chocolate.’ He had managed to dodge. ‘You told me I was going to be a fucking princess!’ There was no point in telling her that she was.
It seemed a long time ago now. He could hardly remember the boy with short back-and-sides in a pink shirt who turned heads wherever he went. The train pulled into the station.
It was in his local corner store that he saw the front page of the News of the World. His Mum had sent him to buy milk. He never returned.
He rang the buzzer. A man’s voice answered. ‘Is Mrs Fowler there?’ he asked. ‘Who wants to know?’ the man asked. ‘It’s Liam’, he replied.