April 30, 2009 § 3 Comments
I always thought I hated London. It was the mornings – a feeling of being nothing more than cattle, smashed up against at least four or five of God’s other children, iPods blaring, babies screaming, windows closed; my temper flaring into a silent, white-hot rage as my girlfriend watched on in disbelief at how I could let it affect me so badly. The sheer numbers of people ghosting through the streets of London frightened me. Each one of them oblivious to everyone around them, wandering along in their own sheltered world, making minimal eye contact, not even contemplating the thought of a smile.
I paused once to sit on the smooth stone steps of some theatre near Charing Cross station. It was early spring – a wan sun was radiating its final rays of the evening. A steady stream of humanity poured forth past me, a ragtag bunch. I watched in curiosity as a small group of women in pink feather boas floated past; I caught the staccato snorts of high-pitched laughter and the clickety-clack of high-heeled shoes punctuating their movements. As I watched, bits of feather would peel away from their necks and float away on the wind; the flotsam and jetsam of their passing hanging around until the road sweeper would come and brush it all away.
It was only in these quiet moments, usually borne out in solitude, in which I learned that London could perhaps offer me something else entirely. Perhaps we didn’t have to make uncomfortable bedfellows after all. Maybe I could use the Big Smoke to reignite my sense of wonder – a long-forgotten emotion buried under the detritus of several years’ worth of identikit workdays and the slow decline into an endless sea of monotony.
I reached into my satchel and pulled out a baguette I had bought at Pret. It was a pretty fancy one, as baguette’s go – Italian prosciutto on a bed of rocket and sun-ripened tomatos. I unwrapped it slowly as two burly guys strode past. I bit into the end, tomato exploding into my mouth, as they swore at someone down the street; full-stopping their string of expletives with a long chug at the beer cans they were holding. One of the hen party girls (as I assumed they must be) looked back at the commotion. The shorter of the two men winked at her salaciously, prompting her to turn back to her friends just as quickly.
I was detached from the throng. I sat there on that step for maybe fifteen full minutes, taking slow deliberate mouthfuls as I watched the blood of London flow past me. From this vantage point, the city was tamed, it couldn’t bother me. My mood was almost tranquil, serene; like I was watching a movie unfold before me, a film that I knew no plot details about. I thought about the unbroken string of workdays behind me. They blurred and coalesced into one indistinguishable period in my mind, all computers, home-made lunches and unbearable train journeys.
A young girl was heading towards the steps, her head bent over her mobile phone. I noticed her belt, bright white and chequered, just below her waist length jacket. She climbed the steps to my left and disappeared out of my vision, lost in her digital conversation. I felt an instant of keen sadness, one of those dreadful moments where your stomach drops out from where it sits and descends all the way down to your toes.
‘My life is slipping away.’
Five little words, intonated in a voice of utter clarity in my mind. I couldn’t refute it either. The years were ticking inexorably forward, the grey hairs on my head were multiplying, and what did I have to show for it? Other than a daily dull rage at things that were beyond my control. I finished the last of my baguette, the taste of which had turned to ash as this realisation dawned on me. I rose slowly, uncertain. I hitched my satchel higher up my shoulder. A bright pink feather blew past my feet. A little pool of them had gathered in a puddle away to my right; the remnants of a cleansing storm that had swept through the city the night before.
I made my way to the railway station. The dread was beginning to subside. In it’s place, a new feeling was beginning to replace it. A steely, almost stoic resolve was starting to form; a silent, almost desperate promise – no, not a promise, a plea – to not let any more of my time pass in this grey, murky twilight. I took my seat next to the window and reached up to unclasp the latch and let in some air. Around me, the train began to fill, inevitably. A hundred other people, maybe some purging the same demons, poured into the carriages from the platform. They were going home to wives and husbands, daughters, sons and dogs, debts and dreams, to happiness, or to misery.
The train began to pull out of the station. The flutter of a dozen newspapers filled the carriage. A stale wisp of air wafted through the crack in the window. I looked out. An expanse of brick and lattices of steel expanded out to the horizon. I began to drift. My mind began to disconnect, synapses that were firing only seconds before were being snuffed out. Below me, on an expanse of green, a black dog and a white dog stood facing away from each other. A cyclist, helmeted and masked. A man in tan brogues coughing violently on the dying embers of a cigarette. A church steeple rising hopefully from the horizon. Further down the track I noticed, somewhat startingly, another black dog and another white dog, this time embroiled in fierce play. Finally, my senses began to overwhelm me.
I glanced at the woman in the red coat opposite me. She was staring out of the window too. But what she was seeing, I couldn’t tell you.