Gills

by Gary Budden

 

2012

If you eat yourself, is it cannibalism?

There’s a perception that Islington is indelibly middle-class, well-mannered and nice. That’s true of certain parts and it always put me off. It’s not a place I’m fond of, in my eyes more a thoroughfare from Hackney to King’s Cross, an in between space.

Do all Welsh people live on a mountain?

Near the Angel shopping centre, where the metal wings of a mutilated seraphim sit, is Chapel Market, rowdy and functional, selling bundled up packs of Rizla, cheap lighters, Thinsulate hats, fruit and veg. A few aspirational stalls selling artisan burgers and poppyseed muffins. But this market remains true to itself, unlike the markets further east and I like it for that. I feel content walking through, browsing the stalls, just being there. At the end of the road sits the cheap and cheerful all-you-can-eat vegetarian Indian buffet, where occasionally I’ll stop for lunch. This bit of Islington has so much more life to it than the cafes and restaurants on Upper Street, the franchise coffee outlets that I use for the free Wi-Fi and a place to rest between jobs.

Why do people believe in God?

The family I’m now working with is resolutely white working-class. On Tuesdays around midday I stride past the Waitrose, the market and the Sainsbury’s to cut through Culpeper Park, a small scrap of green with an adjacent community garden, wedged in between supermarket car parks, the police station and a row of Boris bikes. A large group of mothers gather here on a weekly basis to talk, smoke and exchange anecdotes while their offspring chase the pigeons, jump off walls and swing on the swings. On Tuesdays, the park is theirs.

Is it true all Muslims are terrorists? My granddad says they are.

Sometimes I sit on the brick wall, toddlers scuttling and shrieking, eat my lunch before the session starts and smoke a cigarette. Once, an optimistic man approached, leaflets clutched tight in his hands and asked if I’d heard the good news about Jesus. I hadn’t.

So close to the police station, the cries of children and accents I thought had vanished from this part of London are shredded by sirens regularly. People barely notice.

Why don’t Australians fall off the planet into space?

My student is a joy to work with. He needs help with his spelling and grammar, he’s obviously gone rusty in the time that he’s been out of the system. Twelve years old, removed from school by the family for reasons they mumble and make unclear (I suspect bullying). He asks me endlessly perplexing questions, some thoughtful, others bizarre, questions I can never predict that keep me on my toes, make me laugh, sometimes even make me grapple for an answer that I realise I’ve forgotten or struggle with. How, for example, do I explain why people believe in a deity when I don’t believe? I enjoy our lessons, occasionally even feel that I’m doing some good.

He tells me about his overweight autistic brother who lives with his mum, endless football stories about the team he plays for, how Arsenal are doing, how far he’s got in Assassin’s Creed, how the cat is bringing in frogs from the garden. Then the cat falls pregnant and for a while the flat in which we work is overrun with kittens that slowly fall away as friends and family come to adopt them. Through the whole summer his dad, heavily tattooed, genuinely friendly, works in the courtyard outside. It was a patch of wasteland that the council were doing nothing with, he says, junkies hanging out in there, people having it off, someone even chucked a knife in there once, on the run from the coppers. I thought I had to do something, there’s kids round here, you know? So he petitioned the council and got the permission to reclaim this patch, turn it into a garden for all the residents of the building to use. Small victories can be achieved.

One session ends with my student asking the following, and I laugh for three whole minutes.

If I cut slits into my neck like gills would I be able to breathe underwater?

 

Gary Budden

Gills by Gary Budden first appeared in Issue 4 of Bare Fiction Magazine (November 2014).

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