Okay, we at Book View Cafe are about to start a new series of blog posts here called Spirits of Place scheduled to run on Fridays. I thought, what better way to kick this off than with a piece of short fiction about London, the spirit of London, maybe not in ways you might think. It’s an odd little story, originally written for an anthology called Intercities, but then London is an odd place…
Have you ever looked up at the twilight sky, just after the streetlights have come on, to see that yellow glow framed against the background of a blackened tree shape, silhouetted in the half light? Magritte captured it so well. That warming evening air with scent of jasmine, foretelling summer’s arrival, though it’s not come yet. Name three famous Belgians, you think to yourself. Well, there’s one. The English have a different eye, vague brush strokes or dim fantasyland. Perhaps it’s a mark of their own existence; it colors the way they see the world. And around and about, the noises, the lives of others stirring in their little box flats around you, and you sit and listen, interpreting each thump and muffled voice, trying to pretend that none of them exist, that the noises could just go away. You stopped dreaming of exactly what their lives might be like from those little clues long ago.
Across the street, there’s a large house, orange brick, probably middle of the Nineteenth Century. At one corner, there’s a tower, though it’s not quite a tower. At the top sits a dome, shod in lead, looking like pewter in the fading light with a solitary spire pointing up to the tarnished sky. The house is surrounded by large old trees and a brick wall, but you can see the graveled forecourt and hint at the movements inside. Sometimes, late at night, you can almost see the invisible gargoyle squatting on the rooftop and watching the world go by. But instead, you peer across with narrowed eyes at windowpanes and curtains, concealing the goings on from the surrounding residents. That’s unusual enough in itself, as people should leave their curtains open, laying out their lives and the marks of their affluence for all the world to see. Or so you think.
Once or twice, you wondered whether the house itself had been converted into flats, like so many others hereabouts, rented to young professionals or those who have already found their way up. But then, thinking about it, you dismissed the thought. The house was way too grand. The crested brickwork plaque above the main windows attests to that. You can’t help wondering what does go on inside though, but knowing that there’s nothing to be had from speculating, you shake your head and with a sigh, make yourself ready to go out.
There’s a bus stop at the end of the street where you can catch a bus that will take you into town, one of the old Routemasters, red, double-decker, with a platform at the back that you can leap onto if you’re a few seconds late. You’re going out to watch the world, into the midst of the grimy drab that calls itself London. Even with the approaching season, the entire city is coated with a dulling patina of its centuries of use. It washes away the color, not that the buildings are anything but cream or grey. The London life…the London pall. It’s a diversion from the same enclosing walls, all the same and you look forward to the excursion gratefully.
Your route to the bus stop takes you past the house, standing like a bastion against the passing traffic and pedestrians, solitary and almost single-eyed in its own temporal island. You glance up as you pass, touching your fingers to your forehead in a mock salute to the unseen presence that perhaps perches upon the spire, grinning down at you. You turn away and wander down the rest of the street, past the gray stone church and the earmarks of suburbia, the houses with their trailing vines and cars parked dutifully in front. The house behind, forgotten for the moment, you head into town.
This time of transition, the change of season, brings out the natural tendencies of those that live hereabouts. The girls all suddenly—as if they’ve had a secret consultation—dispense with their long coats and leather, opting instead for crop tops and little skirts or low-cut jeans. Their midriffs exposed, they wander in pairs or groups, the pale flesh hanging over their belts, heads together and laughing, or talking on their mobile phones. A couple of guys, tee shirts tucked into their back pockets, naked white backs exposed to the world, flaunting the tattoos, turn to watch the girlies pass. Further down the street, an old woman pushes a floral shopping trolley before her, hunched over the handles, headscarf in place, step after painful step. You stand at the bus stop watching them, wondering what part you have in this existence. A young black girl wanders past, jouncing, her lips a full pout, a brown bull terrier dragging her forward on a lead. The weather has certainly brought them out.
It’s the weekend, and you think about visiting a pub, but there’s been a change of late. The old traditional places have all become trendy spots with bouncers and the interiors raucous with the smoky laughter and voices of the mating game that goes on within. Those few that remain untouched are filled with dour old men, staring into their pints, slumped at their tables while they watch the world go past, and you think that it’s a while yet before you are ready to join their ranks. There’s a life to live beyond that. So, instead, you climb on your bus and head into town.
You’re grateful for the fact that they’ve thought to switch off the heating. As you head down across the bridge, you watch the people, out in force. The old bus shudders and rumbles past, and you watch the masses, the essential plainness that bustles past you in waves. And as you sit there watching them flow past, you wonder what it is you are doing there. Of course there is life and the job and the things you strive and reach for, but somehow, some way, you are disconnected from it all and you can sense the disconnection.
The route’s a good one. It passes up Fulham Broadway, and then on to Chelsea through Kings Road and from there towards Piccadilly and Tottenham Court Road. On a day like this, these local shopping streets are packed and heaving. The bus crawls along in the traffic and you watch, even more, wondering at how you might be a part of this, wondering if you are, in fact, like them.
As you leave Chelsea, and pass through Kensington and Knightsbridge, it’s all the same, really. The buildings are just grander and instead of locals, there are tourists too. You can tell the tourists. They look different. You’re not quite sure whether it’s the colors or the way they carry themselves. The city is a melting pot of different nationalities and races, but you can still tell which ones are tourists. Amidst all the hustle and bustle, when you’ve been in the place long enough, it has a way of dragging you down, sitting on your unconscious understanding and holding you in the proper place. Every single resident carries the weight of London upon his or her shoulders, making their eyes turn to pavement and street, covering them with the drab overcoat of empathetic avoidance. There is no such thing as the casual glance and you’re aware of this as much as any of them.
You alight at Piccadilly Circus, watching the traffic move past you, seeing but not seeing the edifice of Tower Records, the Burger King across the way, the clusters of tourists bunched together on the steps of Eros, because they think it’s the done thing, not knowing that it’s not. You feel like a rock, standing there, feeling the human sea wash past you and wondering why you came here after all. Because this is your life, my son; this is what you are, for now.
It only takes you a couple of minutes to shake off the passing lack of enthusiasm, and you head inside the record store and browse for a while. You purchase a CD at the checkout and head outside again. Walking quickly, and muttering at the slow walkers in front of you, you cut through the crowds and head for Charing Cross Road, determined to visit a few of the book stores and maybe see if you can pick up something to further pass the time, because that’s what this has become, your existence: a way of passing the time. There must be more to it all than this. In the window of one of the bookstores, you see a book on English architecture. The house comes back to haunt your thoughts, and though you try to banish it, it lingers, suggesting things to your inner consciousness that perhaps you don’t want to hear. Unsettled now, you leave the bookstores behind, and head up to Tottenham Court Road to catch your bus home, no books purchased, but a strange unease lurking in the back of your mind, threatening like a thunderstorm.
Oxford Street surges with more people, wandering past the clothes stores and the leather shops and you grimace. It was a bad idea coming up here after all, and you press back against the bus shelter, as if you could make yourself invisible. The truth is, they don’t see you anyway, but you are not to know that. For now, you feel exposed and alone, an unhealthy trepidation lurking. When the bus finally arrives, you climb on board, with relief.
Finding a seat right at the front of the bus, you huddle in the corner, wishing nothing more than the journey will be quick. You watch the road ahead, barely looking up at the conductor as he comes to get your fare. People come and go behind you, but you pay them no heed. The only thing on your mind is an orange brick structure, the house that sits across the street. You start to wonder why you were drawn to it. After all, it’s only a house. You reach your stop, climb off, and wait for a moment, considering. Is there nothing else to do? Knowing it is nothing more than avoidance, you head for the street that leads you home, that takes you past the house—that house. There, at last, you can deal with what’s troubling you and put it to bed for good.
You head up the hill and turn in, ambling along the tree-lined street, lacking the excuses that will keep you from returning to your little nest among the dimlight hives of others. As you near the corner, you glance surreptitiously at the house, at those opaque windows and the secret clues to the life that might exist within.
And understanding that, I see that this is my chance.
I open the door and beckon to you. Come here, I urge, waving you forward.
You stop for a moment, confused. This is the first real life you have seen from the house. How true that is.
I beckon again.
With a frown, you step through the wrought iron gates, crunch through the gravel and approach the door.
I wave you closer and step back to let you pass.
You enter the hallway, heavy with the smell of polished wood and the dust of times past, a crumpled bus ticket clutched in one hand. I stand holding the door in case you might change your mind, but you stand there, not quite sure what you are supposed to do next. It was a good entrance, all the better for being the last exit you will ever make from that meager existence you call your own.
“Did you see the gargoyle on the way in?” I ask.
You look perplexed, and well you might.
“That’s all right,” I say. “I know about it. It’s not real though. None of it’s real.”
“I dreamed the lot of it,” I explain, waving my hand in the general direction of the everything that lies outside.
Your expression now is one of blank incomprehension.
But that’s all right. We have the time. We have plenty of time.
With a satisfied nod, I gently close the door, shutting the outside dreams away for good.