Prose + Photo By: Benji CWK
I check out of the Hotel at 5.00 AM, exiting through the automatic doors and onto the streets of London.
I am halfway between the accomodation I rented in South West London and my destination ahead – a return to London City Airport. It feels surreal. My old life, and my older life, are switching roles. I’m leaving my second home for my first.
Despite the completion of this circle, I sense I’ll be tracing its perimeter, thickening this line I have walked, for a long time to come.
I had wanted to stay somewhere else before I left, though. Just once. I made the necessary provisions in advance, organising my funds. It was part of the purpose of the placement – to see things, and people. I’ve seen just over a year of London mornings. I will add this to my final report.
In South West London, the morning soundtrack consists of the call-and-response of birds in trees along the street; the indignant whine of a Milk Float as the driver spurs on its battery pack to complete the journey before cars arrive; the solid echo of heels and the wheels of a travel case, bounding between paving stones.
It’s different in Central London. There’s always something humming, always someone shouting, always an engine. But not indoors – you’re insulated, detached. It’s a sleep affected through preparation.
Perhaps that’s just what the Hotels offer.
Across the road, there’s a row of benches beneath the canopy of Vauxhall Bus Station. Soon, there will be many Buses gathered here, each growling in quick succession from the last. It’s the sound of London clearing its throat for the day ahead. Christmas has passed. Mornings begin anew.
I jog across the road, parking my travel case beside a bench before sitting.
It’s been that way for some time. Maybe it’s just these seats. I don’t think I’m meant to be especially comfortable on the seating at a Bus station. I shouldn’t be this concerned. I’m being pedantic. I’ll be off them soon and onto something more comfortable.
I’m only here to check the route. I think it might be from here.
I am told I must take three Buses: the N87 to Trafalgar Square/Charing Cross Station, the N15 to Canning Town Station and the 474 to London City Airport, in that order. I have to avoid the Docklands Light Railway. It’s easier to escape from a Bus.
Despite the seating, the Station is nice. Built on an island surrounded by roads, it bears several stops for Bus routes in all directions, facilitating the circulation of these vehicles. Its thick metal roof covers the Station, lengthways, from end-to-end. At one of these ends, there are what appear to be two great lengths of cantilevered track, risen at an approximately forty-five degree angle, pointed towards the skies.
There’s something almost charming in seeing them come up with something like this – slinging their vehicles around the curve at the end of the Station to a new heading in another direction, as if using some hidden gravity well in the Station itself, represented in intent by what appears to be a Shuttle launching ramp.
The construction feels appropriate. While it couldn’t launch Shuttles – being covered in Photovoltaic Solar Panels – it does symbolise the London atttitude. Londoners are also proactive, highly ambitious and warmed by contact, even if they usually seem glassy-eyed and steely-faced. Their architecture should reflect that.
Professional adults are taught to lace themselves up into emotional straitjackets; to be taut, succinct, fine-tuned. But they’re not alone.
I feel the tapping of a distant foot.
End of Placement Evaluation…?
My right leg itches. Irritated, I fling my right hand against the affected area until it stops. I should’ve chosen cleaner clothes.
It doesn’t matter. I’ll change soon.
An N87 swings into position at the curb. I extend the handle of my travel case, step aboard, tap through and take my seat.
Goodbye to all the parks I discovered, to my pleasure, were lined with fountains. Goodbye to all of you who give up your seats for those who need them, seconds after they board the Bus. Goodbye to my closest friend in the world.
I look out the window as Vauxhall Bridge passes beneath us. The sky is the colour of concentrated cooking grease. The River Thames is its drip tray. The quantity of artificial light kills the stars. It’s difficult to imagine the Cosmos existing beyond it.
It must’ve rained overnight. There’s a glaze on scaffolds and signboards; on metal shutters yet to open. Despite their drenching, bricks and mortar sustain their sooting, invisible to naked eyes and unreaching hands.
I look towards the London Eye. Despite myself, and all that I know, I try to perceive the slightest movement; a guided series of eyelines, sighting me, pinning me down in the absence of a lunar spotlight.
We’re waiting at the lights behind a heavy truck, shifting on its hydraulic bed. Why haven’t we driven around it?
London feels restless. I can’t be here when it wakes.
I’m being paranoid. I try to think about something else. I think of Jen; of the coffee she’ll be grinding herself in an hour or two. A handful of roasted beans from the little brown bag she gets from Camden each month.
I try to think about something else. The words start to arrange in my mind.
London is built on layers of itself, accrued over time. You already know that, of course, but it contributes to a homeliness attained only through sight and inhabitation. It goes beyond data. Sediment and…sentiment. London’s streets have risen by inches over time, but it’s the people who underpin it, who make its foundation. It’s them, really.
It isn’t wrong. I resume.
In South West London, the terraced rows of flats upon shops along the roads are pushed together in a way that – over time – I’ve come to see as a comforting stodginess in shape. It reminds me of traditional steamed English pudding served with Pub lunches on Sunday afternoons. I remember when…well, to the point, the top and bottom halves often look different to each other, despite being hunks of the same dessert, because the top gets all of the Custard from the ladle, initially…
I need to focus…but do I? Really?
Isn’t this what the assignment was all about? I don’t think I’m…it wasn’t unreasonable, trying to get along with others. I learned more in immersion than through observation alone. You can’t simply spend your days with a notebook, putting yourself in parallel with everybody else. It’s not enough. You have to live through a life. That’s what I was doing…playing a role, being a part of things.
I’m a twenty-three year old man. Soon, I won’t be. What’s done is done.
Was it a mistake to come here? Have I become too involved with these fears? Am I seeing dynamism in the people, or in the City’s basic operation? I don’t know if I did things right. I don’t think I was ever certain…I know it’s a long time to not correct my course, but really, who could guide me? How successful is living at this moment supposed to be, for me? Is this what adulthood should feel like?
If I don’t feel like one of them, I don’t have to treat them as an other.
They are subjects. Not objectives. Not attainments. People.
I pretend. They pretend. There’s no distinction between us.
Observing them for this long…I can’t dismiss their lives anymore like I once could. We don’t have to be the closest of allies.
In some ways, the ones who are my age are as alone as I.
Many are in excessive debt for what – in some cases – amounts to a Seal of Approval for employability; the kind that’s supposed to let you live well in the first place. They’re not confident in themselves, unable to do what they’ve been told to in adulthood – and not even for want of defiance.
The world around them is uncertain. To the West, by the unforeseen hands of many, the once-New World has fallen onto old crutches of bigotry and exceptionalism. To the East, a dictator attempts to claim an old-world Empire in an age of international personal identity. And somewhere between the two, there is London : a sanctuary, but one in which few will have a home of their own by the age of thirty.
Maybe I can be at peace with them – and I don’t have to be the only one.
From the window of the N15 to Canning Town Station, I see lights at the edges of curtains; hear shutters rolling back. I’m running out of time.
Information is about so much more than measurements. I kept my body in good enough shape for the past year. I always paid the rent on time. I can recite the route to the workplace – my placement – in Regular and Striking conditions.
But did I do what I needed to?
I remember when I first arrived. I wasn’t used to standing for so long, so often. Some of the passengers looked towards me; at what I was looking at, before I realised their scrutiny. To them, I was an interloper on this journey. I didn’t behave in a regular, or even regulated, fashion. There was foxing on the cover the Seller hadn’t told them about. I was a nick on the canvas of the commute; a skip in the usual music. Wasting time.
But they were the precious few. They didn’t speak for everybody.
I remember the cold in the months before Spring. I always buttoned my work shirts to the very top. I would run my finger around my shirt collar, relieving the stifle and flare of heat contained there for a few moments. Sometimes I risked undoing the button. Too much cold, every time. But I always hoped for the possible, and breathable, alternative.
But then, there came the freedom; of undoing three at once on Friday nights, going straight to the metal venue, headbanging for hours. Its practitioners shook me from my resignation whenever I wanted to slump over, convincing me I hadn’t run out of energy – that this reserve of fuel needed a flame that burned hotter than most. Jen didn’t join me, but she didn’t begrudge it, either.
We did other things. Over the Summer, we went to a Fair near her flat. In the Autumn, she showed me the Great Parks of London. And when the first snow fell, she wore her ankle-length navy blue dress. I remember how the snowflakes rode around her, like mats on the Helter-Skelter.
We can’t stay in contact. We’re going to be at too great a distance – especially considering the way we were going. We’d need time.
Time would be all I have, if I could stay. But this confident twenty-three year old is a disguise. I don’t want to lie to her.
She told me once that roses live off vehicular exhaust and pollution. I couldn’t stop smiling at the strangeness of that.
I climb aboard the final Bus.
I wouldn’t want to be alone in this world at this time of year. The last week before the Holidays, people didn’t just go back to their lodgings. They’d head home. Families walked, talking and laughing together in groups. Couples dithered on purpose, enjoying each other’s company in the knowledge of time together.
I pinch the distressed, nerveless skin of my cheek, acutely aware of the lights above me. I feel like I’m in surgery. I feel like they’re about to put me under.
If I don’t behave awkwardly, that motion won’t be carried.
I haven’t broken the skin. I could’ve…it’s an older face than it once was, cured with the alcohol and the late nights, but not with the beating sun over the Nevada Desert.
And yet, despite that place being of this Earth…for London, I would stay.
Its atmosphere, culture, attitude…these exist for all. Every colour, every body, every identity, can meet here. People can truly learn about people the world over. Beneath great Gothic walls and windows, behind the realm of ceremony and Monarchy, along the halls of power, there are Londoners – of business, pleasure and time.
It is a testament to beauty in unity, a bedrock for the best we…the people…can be to each other.
The phosphorescence of the signs over Piccadilly Circus. The buskers on the Southbank, playing the soundtracks that stop couples for three minutes or more, living out their love through their steps. The British Library, taking the nexus this Capital represents as its cause and gathering the written knowledge of the United Kingdom and Ireland.
It’s the most hopeful and vibrant city on Earth. Probably.
I think of those I’ve met. Despite the passage of time and my very nature, they’ll remember me. I’ll be like a flyposted advertisement for a gig they’d never attended; a half-scuffed-away memory.
I step out of the Bus and begin my walk towards the Airport.
Suddenly, an icy wind pummels me. I feel it rend through my clothes and flesh. I feel lean, cut down to the bone. My free hand slaps against my face, fingers scanning for a loose thread, trying not to pull at the skin but fearful of…nothing.
But I will be vulnerable – somehow, and soon. I’m running out of time.
I stuff my free hand into my trouser pocket, breaking into a lopsided jog. The adrenal intervention within my chest becomes an accelerant for the combustion of excitement and fear. I stumble into the Airport and land on the nearest seat, catching my breath. My luggage clatters down beside me.
I feel unburdened, moreso than the eyes of the Airport staff would know at present. My ship is waiting for me. I can feel the others nearby. One way or another, these humans will know better, soon enough. Running out, onto the tarmac.
As I ready myself, I feel a pang of nostalgia. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that it’s almost over…perhaps I’m safe enough to want to go back again…
I could be a twenty-three year old, one more time; strip it all off, seemingly-inebriated, sprinting towards something only apparent to me. I wouldn’t be caught and detained, because I wouldn’t be drunk. I’d be a confirmation of extraterrestrial life.
And if I can’t escape?
For my last days on Earth, I think I’d be right at home.
Benji CWK currently studies Creative Writing at the University of Westminster. His short stories – usually in the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres – are often set in London, exploring how the very particular history and culture of the city could inform the lives and journeys of fantastical and futuristic beings.