Back in November, I took part in the E17 Storywalk as part of the Words Over Walthamstow festival – which I wrote about before.
I wasn’t sure at the time whether I would post my story here or not, but I have decided to.
All six stories have been printed by the wonderful Paekakariki Press just round the corner from me – and it gave me a little frisson of pleasure to see my words in proper print.
So, here it is, my story based around Lot One Ten under the theme of change.
A time for change?
When Jane had arrived in 1997, Walthamstow had been bustling but rough around the edges. There was a worn feel to it, like an old camel coat. It was easy to lose herself into the general busy-ness of the place, and that suited her just fine.
That was why she had originally moved from Kendal to London – she hadn’t been able to hide easily enough. The lush, vibrant greens of the hills and the dancing reflections on the lakes and waterways made her feel as if she were purposely standing out. An absence of hue on a brightly painted canvas – all the more noticeable simply for being dull. Here, among the dusty shopfronts and endless commuters, she’d been at home.
Her mousey-blonde hair and pale skin helped make her face unremarkable, certainly no one HAD ever remarked on it. She always wore neutral tones too, thus almost instantly forgettable – intentionally so. She often pondered a career in robbery – no one would ever match an efit photo or grainy CCTV image to her face.
Jane had always had no hope of being anything better than, well, blousy, beige and boring. That was her lot, she accepted it. It simplified everything – from what job she did (data historian in a corporate headquarters – there were delightful days where she didn’t see a single other person) to what dreams she had (ones about misplaced filing mainly) to what she ate for supper (ready meals in front of Coronation Street). She never dreamed or hoped of more. That was until…
One grey, drizzly afternoon Jane was walking home from Walthamstow Central, along Hoe Street. This was Jane’s favourite time to be out. Everything was muted and damp. No one took any notice of who was walking by – they were all too busy trying to get home quickly and out of the rain. She also had the added benefit of being able to hide under an umbrella. But as she walked past Lot One Ten, something caught her eye.
Looking back, she couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it had been. A movement from across the street? The reflection of a car’s headlights in the mist of the rain? She really couldn’t be sure, but she glanced into the window, her eyes quickly scanning the antique furniture on display.
A beautifully detailed tapestry stool sat in front of a dressing table that she believed was probably walnut – its dark wood shining from years of polish and beeswax.
However, Jane’s eyes were drawn up to the mirror.
It seemed rather large for the size of the dresser, a distraction from the beautiful hand-carved detail on the wood. It sat within an intricately carved frame, bracketed so that it could swivel to any angle.
Jane looked closer. Although the dresser must have been Edwardian and at least 100 years old, the mirror was clear. No black marks, cracks or that ‘foxing’ of the glass that makes it look misty. Had the mirror been replaced? If so, it must have been a very skilled replacement as the frame looked untouched.
But this wasn’t what caused Jane to draw a sharp breath. As she looked into the mirror, at what should have been her own familiar visage, Jane didn’t recognise herself at all. The mirror seemed to reflect a different Jane. A better Jane. A Jane that Jane had never hoped or believed she could be.
The dull light of Hoe Street seemed to have been enhanced somehow, as if there was a hidden sun just out of the frame, and the effect it had on Jane’s reflection was astonishing. Her lank blonde hair shone with health, her skin took on a slightly rosy tinge, like that of a young lover. Her lips looked more plump, hinting at secrets and promises, and her eyes were bright – their usual pale green seemingly deeper – confident and bewitching.
Jane was stunned and moved even closer, one hand touching the glass of the window. Her reflection followed suit, but to Jane’s eye it made her look as if she were trying to escape from the mirror – pushing out of the frame.
“I’m alive,” Jane whispered to herself.
A young lad in a hoodie ran past laughing, closely followed by a couple of mates. Jane turned to watch them go past, and the spell was broken. When she looked back into the mirror, all she saw was Jane. Forgettable Jane. Invisible Jane.
Her shoulders slumped. For the first time ever, Jane was somehow disappointed with herself. Being overlooked constantly, suddenly didn’t feel like a great way of living. If she could be mirror-Jane, what then? Mirror-Jane looked as if she could do anything she wanted.
Eventually, her fingers trailing the glass of the window, she turned away, and walked down the road, the puddles soaking through her flat shoes as she trudged on, oblivious; her head filled with images of the fun-filled life that mirror-Jane would have. Mirror Jane continued to dance and flirt and laugh hollowly in her head while she wrung out her umbrella in the hall at home.
Over the next couple of days, Jane spent a lot of time looking at herself in the only mirror she had – her bathroom one. It reflected the avocado tiles she’d never got round to replacing. They were as dull as she was, which was, she now realised, extremely dull. She studied her face at great length, tried putting on a little make-up, brushing her hair to attempt to make it shine. She even bought Optrex Eyedew eye drops that promised to make her eyes dazzle.
Nothing had any effect. Her skin refused to glow – and her inexperienced hands made the make-up appear like a clown’s. Her hair remained dull and her eyes became slightly red and irritated.
Who was she kidding ‑ Mirror-Jane didn’t exist. She couldn’t change her life with a bit of blusher and some eye drops. She couldn’t become a different person. She had the life she had and she should be grateful for it. Jane threw the eye drops in the bathroom bin, grabbed her coat and headed down to the High Street.
She loved the market – there was so much hustle and bustle it was easy for her to drift through unnoticed. But she never bought from the market as she avoided talking to people – especially the loud traders who called everyone “love”. The self-checkouts at Sainsbury’s and Asda were far better – just the occasional “Unexpected item in packaging area” puncturing her idyll.
She hurried along Hoe Street muttering, annoyed at herself, disappointed at how easily she’d been swayed by the dream of a good hair day, how willing she had been to give up everything she’d worked so hard for. She might as well have moved back to Kendal.
As she reached Lot One Ten, she glanced in the window…and stopped dead.
The autumnal sun currently bathing Walthamstow in a cool, yellow-grey looked warmer and brighter in the mirror on the walnut dresser. Jane felt her breath catch in her throat as she looked once again at her reflection.
Emerald green flashed at her from within smooth, soft skin. Mirror-Jane was back, almost sparking with energy. It was like the difference between normal TV and HD. Everything about her was richer, the life bursting forth as if it couldn’t be contained, and Jane realised that this really was the woman she wanted to be. She’d spent long enough in the shadows.
She vaguely registered the insistent bam-bam-bam of a jackhammer from one of the many building sites across the borough. Far from the dreary hidey-hole she had once sought out, even E17 was changing – little pockets of the town becoming brighter, full of life and colour. Did she need to follow suit? Did she dare?
“I can do this,” she said to the mirror. “I can be this.” She looked deep into her own eyes, which weren’t eyes she recognised. “Can you?” said the voice in her head, “Are you ready?” Jane stepped back from the window, took a deep breath and closed her eyes.
“Yes. I’m ready. It’s time.”
She let out her breath and realised that she could no longer hear anything except her own heartbeat. Startled, she opened her eyes, and whimpered softly.
Jane looked out, across Hoe Street. Where the Texaco garage had once been, she could see the big blue and yellow signs for the hand car wash place. She saw a Routemaster bus drive past, its usual rumble curiously missing.
Confused, she put a hand against the warm glass in front of her, as slowly her mind tried to make sense of what she was seeing.
On the pavement, Mirror-Jane looked into the window of Lot One Ten. Jane stared horrified at her as she looked straight into her eyes, her mouth curled into a smug smirk that had never graced that face before.
After a cheeky wave of her fingertips, Mirror-Jane tossed her head back, laughed and walked down Hoe Street and out of sight, with a sultry swing of her hips.