London has this thing she does, whenever I step off at St Pancras and – sternly setting my chin – look up to the gleaming skyline of steel and glass. I’ll tell her of my plans, of the route I have in mind – concocted on a slalom-sway journey down the line, on the inimitable cattle-trucks which always make a ferry crossing on rough straits seem like a mermaid’s dream. I’ll tell her, Now, you behave yourself. No siren swoops and RTC’s, no too-loud faces and aggressive buzzing of earphones. My own will be plugged in, usually tuned to Metric’s London Halflife, which is my morning-song for the city. You know, how certain music fits a certain time-frame and place? I always break in new ‘phones with the Smiths, The Queen is Dead. It’s that opening drumroll.
London, well – she’ll smile, showing the wink of highrise teeth, and the wide-eye blue of her sky. She’ll shrug a breeze full of clotted air and thoughts through the green-gold of trees, and say, Hey. This is you and me. We don’t get this intimacy so often anymore. We’ll go wherever you want to go.
And, taking me by the elbow, she’ll tug me along the cracked pavement, beside churning roads with traffic in full voice and ground to a standstill by the almost imperceptible chink of one car T-boning another. Full of dust and hot winds. I feel like used flypaper.
Before long, she’s got me on a roving course, down by the water’s edge, in and out of the golden alleyways, following cats around corners. Look at that, for a Mercy Street!
… And I’ll fix her with my red-rim gaze and say Fine. But I’m not going potholing in Croatia, if that’s what you’re thinking. We’ll wander down this side-street and cut across to that one, to end up Here; to find out what’s on the other side. But I need to get back to the main road at some point, to keep my bearings.
She’ll sigh through the trees and the hiss of pigeon wings, skirling in bars of grey and white. I’ll hear the voice of Sealink the calico cat again, lifting to admonish Tag in the tide-swell of her New Orleans accent:
The journey is the life.
Without her, he would only ever have looked for the horizon, never knowing the feel of the wild road beneath his paws.
So before you know it, I’m lost, and damning her to hell with these shimmering heatwaves, and bells tolling out the quart –
And – Where were we heading to, anyway?
Narrowing my eyes, taking a swig of lukewarm water from my (slackening) backpack: We are finding a map, now.
She’ll nod, glittering so sweetly in stars off the steely Thames. Whatever you say. It’s your feet.
And my own meandering mind. The city knows it too well.
By this point, my feet will feel like someone has tied anvils to them. Concrete isn’t kind. But still, we’re back on the open road full of garnered flowers in pots suspended outside pubs, some with windows chequered by fingerprints and the puckered press of made-up drunken lips; others are smooth and clear as a baby’s face, or the skein of cirrus clouds overhead. Every voice winds with another, to make a slip-stream of colours for latching onto; I’ll siphon off one from many, if the topic is interesting. This is where chromesthesia comes in handy. It’s like following a cotton-ball through a labyrinth.
London is my creative sanctuary and my weakness. She is my sticky mouth, sore feet and black-crescent fingernails. She is my Mercy Street, taking the time to show me the hidden places of the world where some may not care to look; down in the drains where the petrol rainbows go; through the flaking shards of paint and crumbling brick, to where the mason bees work at gently unravelling the ancient bones of the city. Always, there is productivity, revitalization; always, there is decay and departure. Arms clasped about one another at the depot; hands letting go, fingers splayed as though to catch a falling star, a last kiss, a memory of What Was.
London in the rain is a romance of sin and monochrome, scuffling feet and skirling leaves; wet winds to rake through the hair and embitter the cheeks.
London in the sun finds a woman graceful in her blue and brown scarf of silk, with monuments fading under the hard kiss of the sky. Her eyes remain ever-bright, set into the shine off the water, the pinches and domes and brackets of sky caught between buildings and parks.
I spent a good hour or so of the morning, wandering the streets and watching the green shadows move between golden light, grinning up at the skyline and forgetting to watch where my feet and the time were going. When I glanced over the river and realized I was closer to Westminster than Piccadilly, I shook off the tugging fingers at my elbow.
People are trusting me to be responsible – and polite – in turning up with some form of punctuality, and less dust in my mouth than is currently on my feet.
Those little stars, twinkling back at me from the Thames. Sorry. But it’s your feet, after all.
She gives me a wave-off at the platform, where my head hangs like a heat-riddled dog, eyes fading to grey with the weight of hunger. I’d forgotten to pack enough to eat, so stopped off on the convoluted route back to St Pancras, to grab something – anything – to make the hippy-shakes quit.
The woman behind the counter eyed me.
“You’re a tourist?” she asked, carefully.
I gave her a lopsided grin. “Always.”
I love the way different patterns of colour can fill any point of the day, until it seems the air itself has form; how the ravages of time will send a song of sliding shingle to some forgotten alley; how the dazzling tapers of silver and white sketch a beacon of prosperity into the sky, to humble my eye and curve my mouth with an iron smile.
Upon arrival, I am Last Shadow Puppets and film noir, in neutral gear and with wary eyes. An hour or so passes by, and I am livid with the colours of creativity again. London never fails to invigorate, when ennui has had my head on the writer’s block.
When I leave, it is to Ralph Mctell’s love song for the streets, skeins of purple and magenta over cream in my mind; the pale half-life of What Was and What might never be. Rattle-bang back up the line, to a world of glacier petals spread to the peach-soft evening air.
Butterflies may wander and rove, singing riddle-songs with the stickiness of amber breath; they return for the dreams of a rose.
Happy Solstice, my friends.