Jay Merill

I was all geared up to be a dentist ’til I lost myself. When I went home to China I made a visit to the Reed Flute Cave at Guilin in Guangxi Province and from that moment on I was spellbound. The Reed Flute Cave was the perfect interior. I found my tongue continually licking the moist cavern above my teeth and imagining the stalactites, stalagmites and stonelike fossilised birds, taking root right there inside my mouth. I came back to London to begin work at a dental practice. Heard myself saying over and over, ‘Open as wide as you can.’

You would have thought with my interest in caves, being a dentist was the way to go. But the teeth in the mouths I peered into were a million miles away from the carved stone animals of the Cave. At night I shivered and shook in my bed, unable to sleep, my mind filled with dread at the thought of seeing and smelling the rot of incisors and canines and molars. I longed more and more for beauty in my life; was desperate to get away from the sharp stench of decay.

It got so that whenever the patient opened their mouth I found it hard to stop myself screaming. And then a day came when I couldn’t. A mouth of far gone decay opened wide at my request and there inside was the most horrible sight I’d met with yet. Rot run riot, yellow; greenish; a slimy coating everywhere; smell overpowering; a row of carious stumps. I had a fit, dragged the poor man out of the chair and threw him to the floor. Then I screamed. Soon after, I was sectioned and it took a while to recover.

When I came out of hospital I had very little money left to tide me over, my family disowned me and I was forced out onto the street. I was full of unease and my longing to re-discover perfection was at its height. I took a train to Crystal Palace, with a feeling of excitement mounting in me the closer I got to the place. Jumping eagerly off the train I then spent the next few hours walking around searching for a spectacular scene of mystic beauty reminiscent of the Reed Flute Cave. Finding nothing but mundanity I sat in a doorway to rest and was unable to stop tears from springing to my eyes. I’d come seeking beauty and had found an ordinary London suburb, commonplace and everyday. This marked the beginning of my long trek around London. I ended up near the River and at once realised this was the very place for me to make my home. I began my new life as a rough-sleeper at Bermondsey where I found a nice leafy location. As I lay there on my first night I could hear the lap lapping of the water, to my mind washing everything clean. This was a comfort to me.

A River setting reveals London at its most beautiful especially at night. Here are the lit-up buildings, both north and south, west and east. The landscape of turrets and towers was a restorative, driving away my last horrified thoughts of decaying teeth. I stay nights at various points along the River, walking through the days between them. Tonight is nice and warm. I’m aiming for the benches outside the Tower of London where I’ve always been able to get a good long kip. Tomorrow I’ll head over to Wapping or Butler’s Wharf. There are so many places to choose from where you can look out at the cityscape.

To me the buildings of the city are the stalagmites of the now. At night when they sparkle and glow I can picture the Old Man of the Flute Reed Cave making the elephants dance; the Dragon King drama in full swing. Some would say my life is in ruins because I have lost my career; the respect of my family and friends; all my prospects. But for me, this is a ruination I can live with. I guess we all want different things.

Jay Merill is the author of two short story collections – Astral Bodies (Salt, 2007) and God of the Pigeonsom Arts Council England, and is Writer in Residence at Women in Publishing. Her work has been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, Spork, The Legendary, Blue Lake Review, and Eunoia Review, and elsewhere.