Sitting in front of James I realised just how skinny he was in real life. He was so frail; not skinny-athletic like I thought he would be, but painfully skeletal. When he spoke he wiped his hands on his jeans in a neurotic rhythm. Up and down. Up and down.
“I’ll just go and fetch Jenna,” he said. He stood up and crept barefoot across the living room floor. I imagined that Jenna would be in bed with her feet up reading a book or writing a new blog post at her desk. She was heavily pregnant, so it made sense that he would have to go up there himself to get her, to hold her hand and walk her down the winding staircase.
He returned with something cradled in his hands. He plopped himself back down on the sofa, placing the small box beside my cup of tea like he was offering me some extra sugar.
“What is it?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Look inside.” He sat back in the sofa and placed his index finger in the cleft of his chin.
I carefully lifted the lid of the wooden box and found grey powder perfectly level inside. It took some time for me to register that it was Jenna’s ashes. I was never really sure of why some people chose for the bodies of their loved ones to burnt into a fine powder. My other once said that burning the dead doesn’t stop them from being resurrected, body and soul.
“Jenna’s dead?” I croaked.
“You talk about her like you know her.”
“I kind of do — I mean I don’t, but she’s not supposed to be dead. That picture of her…in the dress… with her baby bump —”
“What about it?”
“Everyone on her blog still comments on it like she’s still alive. And there are new pictures posted almost daily! So why would you do that? Deceive people —”
“They have no right to know.” He shrugged dismissively and cracked his knucles.
“How long?” I asked.
“And the baby?”
“Didn’t make it either.”
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered, but something in his expression rendered my words redundant. He picked up the box and put it in the pocket of his grey corduroy trousers.
“Listen, you should get away from here. You must be on the school holidays soon, right? Get out and meet people, real people, people your age. Take up a hobby, learn to drive, have your first kiss. Don’t go snooping through people’s windows thinking that you know better, because you don’t. You could get yourself into a lot of trouble.” He pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and shoved one in the corner of his mouth. His teeth were coffee-stained and chipped. He had sooty fingernails. On his thumb there was a cut still fresh and glistening. I tucked my laces into my trainers and stood up.
“I’ll go now, James. Thanks for inviting me in. I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean any harm, I had no right to peer into your home like that. I was just curious.”
“Don’t beat yourself up about it. Tell your mum you were visiting a friend or something. Here, take this.” He walked over to the shelf that lined the wall behind him and picked up a book. The History of Photography. I had seen it in some of Jenna’s blog posts alongside her decorative morning lattes. He placed the heavy volume in my hands and I embarrassingly let out an ahhh. I felt like I was gifted with a family heirloom.
“Before I left I took a good look of the living room and its plush white sofas, pristine marble floors, glossy books, and glass figurines on the mantle; a ballet dancer, a dog, a peacock. As I opened the front door I suddenly realised how stupid I had been to enter the house of a strange man and simply trust that he would let me walk away unscathed. James didn’t say goodbye when he saw me out. He simply raised his right hand and began to light his cigarette with the other.
Jenna and James Harrison of 4 Persian Place were not strangers to me, but I was a stranger to them. I knew them well, intimately even. I was privy to their industry parties, their barbecues, and their holidays to the South of France where they had a villa by the sea. I knew the outside of their home through perfectly curated photos, how the vine leaves kissed the window pane and how the white blossom trees exploded onto the street in April. Though I didn’t live at Persian Place, I was closer to them than a neighbour. And even though Jenna Harrison didn’t know me herself, I ran into her many times in the past. When our gazes met in the street I would smile. She deserved that much for igniting my unquenchable intrigue.
I was living with my family in a council high-rise block in Chelsea. Persian Place was just a few streets away and yet it always seemed to be getting further and further away every year. The chasm started as a small crack in the pavement and over the years the crack widened into a canyon between us. Them with their wealthy neighbours of property developers and bankers, and us with our decaying block of flats.
I used to wonder why we lived under the same patch of sky, Jenna and I. Why did we share the same local Marks & Spencer and feel the same gusts of northern wind if we lived such starkly different lives? It was cruel. There is no other way to describe it.
Jenna Harrison’s blog was the place where she would share her photography. She started small in 2008 and I was one of her first followers. She was working as a fashion stylist and bought her flat in Persian Place with James. Her first few photos on the blog were amateurish looking back, but highly impressive to me. It was just her photos that left me in awe at first, nothing much else. Jenna was just a spirit behind the blog and I was hardly a kindred spirit behind the computer in my family’s living room. At that age my parents didn’t let me have my own computer in my room. They were afraid of the borderless place that was the internet and heard stories about girls being lured by paedophiles in chat rooms. They didn’t let me make a Myspace or an MSN, but they did let me browse through various art blogs because they knew that I liked to paint. They didn’t know that I spent hours marvelling at Jenna’s page with enthusiasm until it became something more, an attachment, an obsession. Jenna started to let her readers into her world bit by bit. She would share things that let us know more about who she was, like her grandmother passing away from leukaemia and her struggles with fertility.
After I left Persian Place I didn’t go home straight away. I walked into their local cafe, bought a vanilla latte — Jenna’s favourite —and a slice of pistachio cake. I sat there with The History of Photography, flipping through the pages to look for any signs of Jenna’s life, like a coffee stain or a strand of her hair. I sipped and ate slowly and diligently, hoping that somehow I could get a taste of what it meant to be Jenna Harrison: artist, photographer, wife, woman.
My friend Ebyan met me the next morning as usual for our walk to school where she would show me the pictures of all the boys she was talking to and where they were applying for university.
“He looks much better in real life though,” she reasoned. “He’s going to Liverpool too.” I had to grab her elbow before she walked in front of a Royal Mail truck.
“So you’re set to go to Liverpool? That’s so far away from here,” I said.
“I know. I want to go far away.”
After school we went back to Ebyan’s house and lay on her bed to watch tv shows on her laptop. All I could think about was Jenna’s ashes and how they were presented so beautifully in that little box. He must have really loved her. I wondered if he ever put a finger in the box and licked it to see what Jenna tasted like dead. Ebyan grew irritated by my unresponsiveness to her comments about Liverpool. She could tell that I was simply not interested in moving out and after-partying in university dorms. I wondered if she could see that I was so devastatingly rooted to this place.
“Do you ever wonder how the rich live, Eb? Don’t you find it strange and fascinating that some of these places are so close, yet so far away?”
“Well, after we graduate and get good jobs we’ll be able to live in homes like that too,” she said, without taking her eyes off the screen.
“It’s not just the homes, its the lives that are in them. I want to know what it’s like sometimes.”
“Don’t they have reality tv for that kind of curiosity? Made in Chelsea and that?” She grunted when the wi-fi connection made the tv show really slow.
“Yeah…I guess.” I rolled over to face the window.
“I checked the last post on Jenna’s blog. It was a picture of her standing beside a painting of a great big swelling baby bump. The linea nigra was painted in hundreds of tiny brown flowers cascading down the belly and off the page. Once she wrote about the importance of disconnecting every now and then from the online world. She said we had to open our eyes to the present and seek aesthetic pleasure from our daily surroundings. I knew that one day she would disconnect and live her life offline.”
“I just didn’t know that disconnection would mean death.”
For a long time I grew up thinking that girls like me could not become artists. I didn’t have the space to display my paintings. I didn’t have the budget for nice materials or have someone to tell me what I was doing wrong or right. In my bedroom there was only space for my wardrobe, a small bed-side cabinet where I store extra things, and of course my bed. I prop my canvases around the perimeter of the wall and on the window sill. I put my paints in boxes under my bed. My parents wanted me to become a pharmacist or a scientist, but I don’t want to faff around with petri-dishes, I want to paint my truths and live them.
Online is where I found that I could indeed become an artist if I tried hard enough. I found artists like me, black girls and brown girls, girls from estates who grew up having to share everything. Through them I learned that you don’t have to have a studio to make art. Art is life itself. Art is what you would get up in the middle of the night for.
So with all these thoughts swimming around my head, I naturally thought of Jenna. I wondered why I was trying to relate to the life of a blonde, white, thirty-something year old woman. We had nothing in common except for the fact that we both liked to paint and take photos. Now she’s dead and her husband keeps the facade alive on her blog with a post here and there.
I had questions for James about Jenna’s death. I thought about trying to contact him via a comment on the blog but I didn’t want to blow his cover or involve anyone else. I suppose in a way I was rooting for him, hoping that his love could keep her blog living on forever. I waited months before I decided to pay him a visit.
I went to Persian Place before school one morning when I had forgotten to eat breakfast and didn’t put on enough layers against the cold. The house was dark and the vines on the walls had come away like they had given up. It was December so there wasn’t a pretty tree with full leaves, just famished branches hanging in front of the house, hiding it from something. I rang the bell and waited.
“Hey!” came a breathless voice. It was a woman in gym leggings jogging up the road, waving one hand frantically. She was talking to me. “Hey, who are you?” she asked. She pulled out her keys and started to unlock the house next door.
“I’m a friend.”
“So you don’t know?”
“That the man who lives here is currently on trial for the murder of his wife and baby.”
“I could barely stand. I had to dig my toes into the ground. I had to try and breathe steadily through my nose.
“Damn,” I whispered. It was all I could manage.
I walked back on my way to school and noticed that I felt hot inside, like something had fused together at last. I had filled the canyon between me and Jenna’s world with something warm. I looked down at the terrace of white neat homes, at the shiny cars and at the windows of those hiding things that I could never imagine. As I walked to the bus stop I noticed that a couple were having a loud fight on the street. She was screaming at him and thrashing on his chest with almost-closed fists. Suddenly everything became painfully claustrophobic.
That evening I put my chemistry homework aside and pulled out a new canvas and my paints. I painted an aerial image of a town of big houses and small houses, rich and poor, men and women. In the distance I painted an ominous molten rock on the edge of a mountain, a rock bigger than the whole town itself, something that would touch everyone without prejudice.
Salma Ibrahim is the founder and producer of Literary Natives, an organisation that supports writers of colour by sharing opportunities and hosting events. She is also working on her first novel. You can find her tweeting @salmawrites and @literarynatives.