In this post I come dangerously close to violating my ‘No arty nonsense’ rule. You have been warned…
A cold evening, with the dark pressing down around me. The sky is black, just a hint of dark blue left, and has the washed out look that comes after rain. I leave the library, and feel the wind cut deep.
Waiting at a crossroads, I realise that a man in a car is staring at me. Is he threatened, concerned, curious, attracted? The lights change, and the car behind him hoots. He takes off, looking startled, and embarrassed. Because he was in his car and I’m a pedestrian we stared at each other like we were in different worlds, but we were only feet apart.
Past a theatre, a few minutes to curtain-up. People are gathered outside, some trying to suck a couple of hours worth of nicotine into their lungs in a few minutes, other waiting for friends to arrive. People wait in almost-silence, murmuring their conversations. As the sound of a passing bus fades, I realise I can hear a choir singing. I assume it’s from inside the theatre, but then I realise it’s coming from the opposite side of the road. Some of the people outside the theatre are looking up at a lit window above a darkened shop, and following their gaze I see a conductor, baton waving. She brings the choir – all female, by the sound of it – to a climax, and an abrupt end. An ending like that demands an outbreak of applause, and one group of people do that, quietly, breaking off immediately to laugh. They’re keyed up, excited, ready to appreciate a performance.
Down a side-turning as a short cut, and past the police headquarters. A huge building, in the daytime made of dirty red brick and dirty grey concrete, but at night made of darkness and shadow. Two brick towers stretch up, windowless, to the sky, a bare flagpole mounted between them. A deep-blue floodlight flares up each tower, but fades to black before it can reach the top. Outside the main entrance, an illuminated poster. A young lad standing in profile lifts up his shirt to show a vivid wound carved into his side. It’s shaped like a stretched italic S, running from just above his waistband to just below his armpit. The stitches make it look like a railway track. I wonder about a police building that exposes the injuries of the innocent, as though it is powerless to capture evil, and can only note where evil has left its mark. I wonder about a police building, shuttered and dark in the early evening, leaving the knives free to flash and glint in the streetlight glow.
Walking sharply downhill, in front of me the lit windows of an empty office building. A huge, open-plan floor, desks clustered in circular groups, with electronic signs hanging from the ceiling showing number of calls waiting, longest call waiting. Call-centre hell, where the voices of customers rant, oblivious to the minimum-wage workers who sit hunched under signs flashing red with angry callers, hemmed in by productivity targets, sales targets, timed toilet breaks, and, above all the rest, the ever-imminent threat of dismissal. There are no redundancy payments here, no pension schemes, no unions. There will be no concerned BBC reporters standing outside on the pavement when hundreds of jobs are lost overnight. The office is empty now, except for a cleaner emptying bins.
Among the deserted office buildings, two restaurants, one after the other. The first is filled to bursting, the sound of conversation and the chink of glasses and cutlery reaching out onto the road, the people inside red-faced and sweaty with heat and alcohol. The other is empty, except for one table. On each side of the table a middle-aged couple; on one side, a younger woman, and on the other a younger man. They sit looking at each other, but do not seem to laugh or smile. The young man leans forward in his chair, drinking red wine. Behind the counter, a black-shirted waiter stares out of the window, making eye contact with passers-by.
Onwards, now, into busier streets, with busses and taxis and bicycles. Pubs with neon signs and huddles of smokers outside the doors. Half-heard phone conversations. A guy with a guitar case hoisted on his shoulders stalks past, screaming look at me with his studied don’t-look-at-me pose. At opposite ends of a bus-stop a group of teenagers laughing and an elderly couple trying to ignore the teenagers, but tensing every time they laugh.
Into the station with its sour smell of coffee gone bad. Tired commuters with ties loosened stare up at the departure board, willing their platform number to come up, while pigeons and Burger King wrappers chase each other round their feet. Sleek flat screens show moody black and white images of gleaming railway tracks, mixed up with notices informing of service alterations and essential maintenance work.
I climb onto my train, and find a seat. I listen as a recorded voice, sounding so weary at the end of the day, tells me about passenger safety information notices, and instructs me to check for any unattended items. I do not check, and I watch the other passengers as they also do not check.
After the train has pulled away from the platform, the doors between carriages hiss open, and we all look up to see who is disturbing our peace. A flustered lady with too many bags asks, ‘Does this train go to —–?’, and I answer, ‘Yes.’