My name is Red.
My name is Red and I am twenty-five.
I repeat this over and over to myself as I run. It’s all I have; it makes me lighter. I became Red the moment I put the big black beast between Kathy and I and let the crowd spew me out onto Northumberland Avenue. Or maybe I’ve always been Red. Sprinting across the Golden Jubilee Bridge, I know it doesn’t matter - what matters is I chose it.
My name is Red and I am twenty-five.
It takes me an hour to jog to Bethnal Green. I take a long route across Southbank and then north over Tower Bridge before striking out east to Shadwell and north once more, skirting around the East side of Whitechapel. I don’t want to use any of the roads they might be looking for me on. I don’t want to be associated with anything I’m familiar with.
My name is Red and I am twenty-five.
I tore the milk bottles off in the crowd but only dump the itchy wig in a shadowy corner on Southbank where there aren’t as many cameras. Hopefully they won’t notice the bald girl who steps out of the shadows has the same face as the white-haired caricature who ran in. I pick up speed then. The shaved head makes me feel lighter, too. And even though I’ve broken the law and am about to disappear and break more, the anxiety that has tugged around my heart like jellyfish stingers for years and choked the chambers of my lungs far more insidiously than any smog has gone. It’s as if I caught all the strands of inauthenticity weeping from my head in among my long, dark hair and chopped them out, too.
Bethnal Green is half as rowdy as the West End and I float in and out of groups as I walk along Cambridge Heath Road, keeping my pace steady despite my quick pulse. When I see the railway line above my head I duck into a road on the left and jog through the narrower side streets to skirt into the south side of Weaver’s Fields. It’s packed, but everyone is too busy getting drunk and celebrating to pay any special attention to the boy-girl trotting through them. There’s an old nursery that juts out into the field and, without stopping, I use all the arrogance remembered from my past life to nonchalantly nip over the small iron fence and jog through the concrete grounds as if taking a shortcut.
My heart flutters with relief when I see my bag is still there, tucked away out of sight inside a giant stone flowerpot that has long been empty. I’d have been fucked if that was taken.
My name is Red, I am twenty-five and I have a bag.
I spent my last four nights in the old life following my instinct. It led me to the Outer Zones to sell many of my overpriced things for cash. I was much happier letting them go at dirt-cheap prices than I ever was having them - finally, they were coming into use in some way. My instinct also led me to the throng of late night Oxford Street, acting like any other manic citizen before their DVT. Nobody batted any eyelid when I bought five of the newest, lightest laptops one night, and the staff in John Lewis were more than helpful when I made a dent in their stock of durable sports cameras. The same young assistant even came up with me to the clothes department to deck me out in waterproofs and hiking boots; she was working on commission.
I bought the spray paint in Zone Six after flogging half of my wardrobe and stuffed the rest of the cash in the inside pocket of the bag beside a spare change of clothes and everything else. Between the shopping and selling and working I hadn’t slept much. But I thought exhaustion would probably be a welcome aid when I tried to bunker down on my first night roughing it - and I would have six of those nights before the meeting.
National Pride was the perfect set-up to disappear from. The streets were rammed with costumed thousands, and many travel in from the Outer Zones to celebrate with the City. I was just like any other resident heading East again after a day’s partying - and then there was the party darling Kath was throwing at mine which would royally fuck up any evidence of my vanishing act. God love her. Would she ever know how good a friend she was to me?
Everything had aligned with the too-obvious fatefulness of a Daily Mail horoscope, except cynicism now smelt foul on my breath so I seized the coincidences without question and turned them into an opportunity. Really, it was just another choice. And I was starting to get hooked on making them.
The bag is light despite the technological power zipped inside, but I have no doubt it’ll get heavier as the sun goes down. I’m still amazed I managed to cram everything I needed to live into forty litres. Clearly, I am made for this shit.
My name is Red and I am twenty-five. I have a bag and no, it’s not a fucking Mulberry.
Using a week’s tube pass I bought in cash at Oakwood the night before I jump on the Central line at Bethnal Green and head up to Epping. Zone Six seems to be the centre of the action. It makes sense to me - in Five, the people are too close to Four and the tantalising jump inwards that seems just within grasp; in Seven to Nine, they’re beaten and exhausted, too fearful about how to feed their own children to worry about making it right for the next generation. But in Six, they’re just far away so as not to be blinded by the Inner lights and can use them to see the echoing gulf that marks out the unfair distribution of wealth; they have just enough food and water and time to get angry at the hand that simultaneously feeds and threatens them with the mouth of poverty. Zone Six has all the potential in the world.
On the tube it’s mostly families with small children going home for the day, and the occasional drunk being dragged home by a friend with a face like a slapped arse. The National Anthem is tooting from the speakers, cut off awkwardly every few minutes for that hollow and tinny - inhuman - static: ‘Thank you for your time.’
You won’t be, I think to myself.
The screens are playing live footage of the march in the City, which is starting to dispel into a hubbub of street parties. I wonder where Kathy is and then swallow the guilt creeping up my throat. A few pairs of eyes slide off the screens like jelly to check out my gleaming, bony skull. It’s a good sign - a fucking good sign - just a tad premature when I need to be lying low.
My name is Red and I am twenty-five. I have a bag and a buzz cut that shocks you. Good.
There are only a few of us left to trickle off at Epping. The forest rears not far to my right and a tremor runs through my thighs, willing my legs to march to its green safety. I let the tremor run down until it meets the ground and flat lines, then stamp my feet towards the town centre. Passing by a window filled with teasing bottles of amber and red and clear liquid the tremor shoots through my nerves once more. I do the same again, stopping and staring at the booze until it dissipates. I have six nights to refuse being beaten by fear or addiction. Then I’ll have much more definitive ends to avoid at the hands - or commands - of others.
I can’t see past that meeting. I have no idea what will happen, who I’ll meet, what we’ll say. I do know, even if nothing happens and no one is willing, I can’t go back to Two. My name will always be Red.
Epping doesn’t have the same glorified decorations London has spent millions on; some bunting trails half-heartedly between aerials and street lamps on the main stretch of road. The people’s smiles are tough, like an old raincoat pulled over their face, and there’s a distinct lack of mania, or even cheer, in the air. Suddenly, I notice how much cleaner the air is and suck it in gratefully, imagining that little bubbles of soap are attacking the grime and grit of the Inner Zones that cake my insides.
I meander round the town looking for a spot among the small, dilapidated bungalows. Not to sleep in (I’ve already decided to rest in a tunnel further down the rail line after the tubes stop at midnight) but a spot to submit to the one genuine need that has directed me since I was a child. It has nurtured me just as I nurtured it throughout the years of filth and grey and lies. I think of Kilgore Trout and his styrofoam cup. Even the truth can be dirty.
Up ahead my eyes lock onto a primary school facing onto a long road that winds northwest around a huge residential estate. At the sight of the white stretch of pebbled stone wall, the pockets of my cheeks grow slick in anticipation. Without stopping, I turn and walk away from it, heading back into town to heed my stomach’s growl as my brain does the same in excitement. It’s not like they get a real education in there, anyway.
When the sun bleeds into the open arms of the trees I empty my bag of the computers and cameras, wrapping them in the waterproof and stashing them just over a wall on the train track. I wait. I wait until the woods grow monstrous in their veiled darkness, I wait until the birds stop cawing at each other, I wait until the streets become endless in the night as the lights are clicked off. Only then do I emerge, pulling a balaclava over my cold head.
At the primary school I snake among the shadows until I am standing before the white wall. My fingers twitch in the gloom as a devastating honesty gathers at their tips. Dropping the bag, I wrench it open, spilling its contents like intestines. For the first time ever I pause at this moment and snap my fingers together - sparking, channelling. Looking at the white wall that gleams before me like a ghost I suddenly see it. My hand plunges down, grabbing a can of blue spray paint that I can’t see, and I step forward, armed. This is not just for me.
Before dawn breaks I sneak back to the wall to rest for a few hours. The white space I leave behind is gone, replaced with the image of a man hanged by a British flag, his empty pockets turned out against a blazing background of London’s elite, laughing and toasting their champagne glasses filled with the man’s blood. His shadow on the ground spells out my signature.
My name is Red.