An hour in Kilburn

It is one. The light is green. A man walks with a stick: both his anchor and his buoy. Each step’s half a foot. First he pauses at the kerb, rests heavily on this bollard as he catches his breath from these last seven steps. Then he sets out into the road with as much purpose as a hobbit leaving Middle Earth, led by his stick into the unknown at tenths of a mile per hour. A car approaches, pauses cordially, but so does he and standing not yet even to block the first lane, waves to the driver. A second car pulls up behind the first pulsing beats from its windows (bwaaw, wakkawakka bwaw) and slows only as much as necessary, before pushing on, pulsing air its wake.

This is Kilburn.

It is never still.

There is a group on the corner. Grampa, mum, daughter (preteen), and two hypothetical dads. I have a guess as to who not-dad is, but as to whether he is uncle, friend, or corner-of-a-love-triangle, that is beyond me. Question-mark-dad is on his phone, looking lost, head swivelling periodically like a compass needle fallen foul of some hidden iron’s trickery. Someone drops the magnet and his head rests, facing north. They move off as a single something, many-legged, many-armed, uncertainly advancing towards the station.

Constantly new faces appear. I can’t possibly keep track of them all. Appear and go, appear and go, some catch my eye. Disappear under me or behind corners and bus stops ahead. Two motorcycles come. One hums low, one is screeching for attention (the smaller sibling), loud a moment, then both their voices fade. I close my eyes I’m on a beach where water laps. Over and over and over and over. Splash, return, splash, return. Does it happen to you too that if you sit a day on a beach, by nighttime in bed the waves are in your chest and your head? The waves of my street are in me. High, low. Roar, and pass. Doppler’s singsong falling tones repeated ad infinitum. The beeps of the crossing pierce the low voices.

A woman in a purple hat, wrapped warmly, is walking away from me. A man approaches her from behind, seated high on his mobility scooter, as if surveying territory. As he nears he steers a lazy swerve to avoid her and suddenly I realise that he’s checking her out. One hand on the wheel, the other coolly lain over the back of his seat [my imagination interrupts, excuse me] he turns to her to say:

“Hey there. How you doing?”

The light goes red again. Beepbeepbeepbeepbeep. A double pram, a single bicycle, and an armful of shopping boxes cross. 332s are waiting to continue their respective trundlings north and south.

Let’s talk about the vehicles. They, after all and above all else, dominate this landscape. Buses cars vans bikes trucks cycles and scooters. Constantly they concertina: squish and stretch. Contracting, gathering potential, like an earthworm, before spurting forwards, inevitably stalled by yet another red light or siren or pulling-out bus. This road seems invariably choked; a clogged artery.

I turn back to the humans: two, precisely, fifty years between them. I watch the (profound) differences in movement. Her body looks as if — if my window were open — I’d hear it creaking. As if it has taken on so much weight that it’s sinking. His so light it flows from fingertips to trainer. Can age be perceived simply through differences in how we move? Is life an amassing?

It is quarter past and I feel overwhelmed. How to possibly make sense out of any of this? Is it a natural way to live? (Seems it cannot be.) So together and apart. Sewn together, each facing an opposite side. (Let me assure you that there are, in a large enough dimension, enough opposite sides for everybody.)

A man carries a stack of three crates (700 mushrooms) and a sack (80 onions) across the road.

She’s back (glimmer of—of what? of hope that she may bring, in returning, sense, or order to this all?). Purple hat as firmly in place as before. Mr Mobility is nowhere to be seen (thwarted, perhaps) but somebody new replaces him. He looks (I am sorry sir to describe you thus) creepy. Grey-white hair hangs down his back to his shoulders. A comic-book moustache coming away from the edges of his mouth just enough to begin drooping ought to add something jovial to his manner but instead appears grim; a white slash across his upper lip. His slightly uneven walk is seemingly too slow to keep up with her (is this a ploy?). He conjures in me cutthroat double-crossing vagabond. I am so sorry sir, you are probably a lovely gentleman.

So engrossed was I by my new muse, I missed purple hat. She disappeared underneath me. He, loping some way behind, follows.

He’s back (550 tomatoes in two tubs). He wears his beard big and square: that cut popular these days amongst muslims and hipsters. His taqiyah helps me classify it. He is wearing a large loose grey jumper from under which beige skirts flow.

This is a jigsaw I’ve been gifted: no box; fourteen edge pieces and four hundred middles. I’m constantly on the lookout for more edge whilst trying to fit together any middle I can but all I receive is a stream of new pieces with strange interlocking shapes on every side, new faces and vistas and colours on each, and barely ever any link to what’s already laid out before me.

Boy: four. Blur coat fur collar. Runs in spurts. Bravado and fear deadlocked in tug-of-war.

An hour? Too much. An onslaught. I should have tried five minutes.

I wrench my eyes from the bodies. Let us inspect the unmovable. What about the rocks onto which the waves come crashing?

Red bricks, mostly. Parts grim, others characterful. (It is nigh impossible to watch the buildings alone. Try watching the frame around your television set next time the beast is on.) Well with great restraint then, come, on, here are the four sides. Bottom: asphalt. Black, grey, red (bus lanes). White and yellow lines slide and zigzag their way north. Rarely are there open, tyre-less stretches of road. Weekend mornings sometimes, caught early enough. So rarely that, when I do look out to not-cars, I wonder if the end has come. No other end of the world will there be.

The sides: here are bricks and signs. The signs (no matter how I try) suck my eyes and divert my gaze, so hard it is to look beside them and see bricks alone. JAMES CROOK FUNERAL DIRECTOR, Lycamobile, PLANET PIZZA, Brondesbury Medical Centre. Public houses: The Black Lion; Sir Colin Campbell. Unlock my eyes. Bathed in day light there is no point, but at night I gaze ever eagerly into lit windows, seeking any affirmation of life.

The bricks beget roofs. Somehow more distinct, relatively far from most movement, perhaps, and, moreover, relatively close to the sky. And the sky? Well, if something is to calm me, there she is. Few bodies (parhaps just her and the sea) are too fickle to ever faithfully colour in. All brushes fail. If the commotion panics me, then this is my relief. Soothingly distilling the day into shades of grey that are at once hazy and distinct. Daggers and probes punctuate her edges: arials, chimney pots, prongs of a rooftop fern, and (my favourite) the weather vane that tops the Black Lion. Rust has spread its long fingers I suppose, unless a sturdy Southernly has blown with the utmost fidelity since the day I arrived.

Not so far below, a lady is fighting with a lighter. That is, she does not fight the lighter, the lighter is her method of defence against the world. I think perhaps she could have chosen better. The breeze is chuckling as her weapon sputters. Finally the cigarette’s lit. She uncurls her body only partly before she continues to walk, her vertebrae barely stacked, the upper ones are creaking under the strain of a head. My head is heavy. I close my eyes.

Ears stay open. Every noise is a rumble: low growl to high hum. Our own washing machine joining in to sing its own part in a diesel-engined chorus.

Ten minutes left.

I can’t make anything out of this jigsaw. Somebody, find me the box!

I open my eyes. He’s back (no vegetables). Walking more slowly, without the heaviness in his gait, he is wearing a jacket and has changed his shoes. A companion walks beside him.

A boy (yellow bike blue jeans white headphones) swerves to avoid a lady as she completes her crossing and steps onto the kerb. Black curls burst out from beneath a tight black hat framing her brown face. She is wearing orange. Her winter coat is punctuated by two black buttons like eyes upon her chest. She pauses outside LycamobileOfflicenceOPENTILLATE.

From behind her, towards me, comes a whirl of activity. There are three children. There is one maroon hijab. They orbit her like planets, taking five skipping steps apiece to each of hers. A boy on a BMX wants past, but he cannot navigate this solar system. Going the opposite way walks a little group. They are four: she has a handbag strung over one arm like an overcooked piece of spaghetti; all three men walk the same way, as if they’ve been doing it a long time. The man in the middle wears a brown stetson. There is no room to pass.

A twelve-year-old appears behind the stetson, smoking a cigarette. The planets haven’t stopped but their orbits are shortening as the space around them shrinks (what big bang?). White man comes, sporting red cheeks (shining brightly at me three floors up), shorts, goatee. I wonder how has it possibly gone so smoothly until now? as such a sudden impasse is presented. Orange coat turns, she is caught between hijab and spaghetti-bag. She looks surprised. A black girl wearing very tight leggings and a loose woollen jumper appears next to BMX.

A pigeon, almost-black but with white wingtips, flies in, perhaps to advise.

I hold my breath.

Just as improbably as came the assembly, so the dissipation. The waves rolls out, another in. An ambulance passes lights on siren silent. No one turns.

It is two. the light is green.

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Catching an edge

Picture the scene. The air surrounding you has teeth. You slip off right hand glove for just a moment to zip jacket, immediately feel your fingers bitten by the cold and quickly enclose them back into their shell, balling them to help warmth spread. Like the crown of the greatest ice queen who ever lived, an immense circle of sharp spiked mountains surrounds you, tens of kilometres around. Each peak is its own kingdom; each col a battle and a treaty. Turning slowly, you catch your eyes on one particularly alluring face, a white blotch in the distance with sheer rock above and below it. You imagine how your turns would look on it, then zooming out you see them disappear so quickly, and you feel unfathomably small.

A tingle in your left toe returns you to your body. Here you are. Here you stand. Nothing below you but white snow; nothing above you but blue sky. Yes, that’s better, you feel yourself again. You can feel blood in your limbs, warming them, alerting them to impending action. Your legs separate into a lunge, one way then the other: feel the stretch along your calf and up into your hamstring. It feels good. Your legs feel warmer, ready.

Oh and I forgot to mention one more thing: this mountain, this morning, is yours. You are alone. The signs, the structures of humans exist, but they themselves do not. Nobody would hear you scream. You want to. Looking down at what lies before you a sudden grin bursts across your face. Corduroy lines the piste. This run, perfectly groomed overnight into a thousand tiny ridges, now waits for you, expectantly. It is steep. It swoops down and left concavely, before curving itself into a rolling hill, then disappearing over its edge.

Something vibrates down your spine. You begin to push off with your poles, listen to the sudden scraping of snow as your skis grip the mountainside, doing the hard work. Then, before committing, you brake and stop still. Quiet again. As if you were not ready to break the reverie. Oh well, too late now. Your focus has been shifted. Away from those kingdoms and queendoms, brought in like fishing line to within the boundaries of flesh. More specifically, to within your feet.

Oh feet. Oh glorious feet. Surely we do not cannot thank you enough. How you carry us so surely. How you devote every ounce of yourselves to being stood on. When have you ever been given full attention? For a few seconds in the shower, perhaps, as we go in and out between the toes? Even that much, probably not every day. With a glance, as we put our socks on? Oh feet, you deserve so much more. You deserve hand-crafted slippers of silk and soothing baths and shrines and stars and symphonies. Instead you get ski boots.

Now, for these seconds, you notice them, your feet. No, you inhabit them. First the right. You feel its bulges and crevices, smoothness and skin stretched. You feel where the weight is. Inside arc of the heel base, fourth biggest toe, on the ball right below the big toe, and the very tip of the big toe himself. Then your attention shifts into the left. You become aware of the desire to rub and apply pressure to the cleft that lies between big toe and ball of foot, but it goes unsatisfied. You take a breath. Your feet know what to do. Thus you know what to do.

This time with intention, you push. Shins press into plastic as you drive your body forwards. This is what it means to commit. Picture the first turn. Finally, say your muscles. Find a way, say your lungs. Now you’re thinking, quickly. Four turns ahead. Between each turn you release the edges and spend a nanosecond symmetrically balanced before engaging the new ones, impossibly, uphill. What a crazy dance of gravitational and centripetal forces are at work here, you do not say to yourself, not right now; it is not the time.

Over the rolling hill you slide. No, hurtle. Gone are the speed checks; gone is the allure of safety. You are gripped by energy; it shudders your legs as you hold a sharp turn, it vibrates in your rib cage.

You are still accelerating. You (just) hold everything together. You hold everything together. You know this is it: the limit of your balance, the limit of a ski’s strength. The mountain? She is limitless, as always. However fine the line, you hold it. All is smooth, all is calm. At exactly this treacherous speed you are at peace.

Thwick. Half a second.

You fly towards oblivion. By the time your brain understands your legs are hard at work. You caught an edge. During a transfer of weight, some imperfection in the snow-skier circus found your skis and sent them off course. This, resultantly, sent you off course. Calm shattered, your stomach’s bulging in your mouth. Every cell that makes you seems to be holding on. To what? Thin air.

Just as suddenly, it is over. It wasn’t up to you. It might have come up one side, and you’d have fallen, but this time it came up on the other and saved you. Just as suddenly, equilibrium returns. The speed, still treacherous, feels calm again. No danger. Relief passing, forgotten almost already. Unimaginably one second ago, your run goes on. You take the next left turn, and the next right turn, and the next left turn, and the next right turn. The frozen air whistles through your teeth and past your cheeks.

Last

Shit it’s cold here.

I’m the last one, waiting.

Next door they’ve all been gone a week or more, almost two now, I suppose. Actually yes, I remember, it was last Monday. Started calm and almost-bright, but the clouds rolled in at lunchtime and with them strong gusts. Took every last one of the neighbours. Brutal to see them go, really. Always liked those guys. My own lot I wasn’t so pally with. They looked down on me, you know, from their upper floors, a few of them loved to gloat about their superior view. Well last Monday, you should have seen those lofty bastards fly. Sure made me chuckle. By the end of that day we were two, me and J. He was a good guy, real good guy actually, but he didn’t stick around. Must’ve been just holding on, because the next day, bright and calm as it was, quietly, with no words, he left. So lightly he went, as if he simply floated off. So that’s it then. Here I am, numero uno, hanging in there.

Of course there are others around, it’s not like I’m the last on earth or anything. Hyde park’s west wall is in sight, and you know, other side of there is always gonna be a party. You got em all packed in. Even the perennials who don’t know how to leave at all, let alone gracefully.

No we never mixed much, kept things local, on the street. There were a few other side of the road I got on well with, lived just beside The Champion, but I’ve not been good at keeping in touch. It is such a damn pain to hold a conversation with the Red Beasts hurtling past every coupla minutes. You wonder if it’s worth the effort. I don’t even know if they’re still around or if they’re flown off too. Helped on their way by those bloody Beasts.

I shiver. Tell you what, I might never have been best of pals with them, but they sure did keep things cosy round here. All tucked in we were. No shelter now, not a hint of it. Kinda surprised I’m still here, I gotta say. Ten days since J left. Ten days alone. Really got me thinking you know, questioning things. Like, what is the point of it all? I know, I know, bloody philosopher right? Well I didn’t have much company, did I? Then that got me thinking, maybe there’s a reason why I outlasted all the others. Maybe I’ve a job to do. Well I pondered that for all of a morning, then it just kinda passed. I went on admiring the skies, and enjoying the sharp sensation of cold on all of my exposed bits, even though it hurt too.

It is almost time now. I can feel my grip sliding. As it happens, night is sliding into day, frosty blue light with just a tinkling of breeze. Caught by a sudden urge, and after many days of silence (well, who was I to converse with?), I speak aloud.

This is my home. Here. The tree by the bus stop in Notting Hill. This is my home.

I’ve got this warmth spreading through me. You see I have worked it out, I know what I’m going to do. I am going to descend to earth now, and as I do, I am going to carve out the most beautiful arcs through the air that any leaf has ever carved. I just hope that somebody’s going to see them.

Brief moments on a glacier

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The wind is a sculptress, her canvas, my face. She carves, she carves, she carves.


     

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Sound is what hits me. Nothing. Then squeak squeak creak. Nothing. My gasping breath. Gone from never-before to done-this-always in a day. My left heel lifts. Left toes push forwards through boot — slight twinge of pain — and ski slides. It fits snugly into the track others have carved for it. Thud my heel lands back on the ski as my right hip drops and my left hip rolls. I feel ski grip the snow reassuringly as, fleetingly, all sound vanishes again. My right heel lifts.


     

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Every snowflake is a galaxy. Each milky way not milky-white but burning-bright. I squint into one and spiral twinkingly down a black hole before bursting back out on the other side of my retinas. I sway, but I stay in the track.


     

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Yet I don’t feel small here. In their vastness is an offering: grow. Expand your edges and let them grow fuzzy too. Until all is snow. Until all is white.


     

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She came to a stop, as did he, in her tracks.

“Did you hear that?” she said.
“What?” he said.
“Exactly” she said.

     


All photographs by Adam except the last by Dave Hollinger.
Thanks to Dave and Alpine guides for the path.

Your mum

I am going to call you Isaac. I don’t know your name. About three years old you are, maybe two-and-a-half. I am crossing the Penrose paving as I leave the maths building. You are approaching on a bike — the handlebars of a bike, to be more precise. Onto these is fastened a simple seat. In its simplicity it contains you rather impressively: you ride at the very bow of this vessel. I am jealous.

Behind you is your mum. She is actually a mom. I hear it in her long vowels are she calls out to me, but I’ll stick to my habits and call her mum. Rolling slowly, with only a hint of wobble, you both approach me. Your mum pedals once more then puts her feet down. Her eyes are bright, like the bike; yours are distant.

The helmet covers most of them anyway. Your nose pokes out from underneath, sleepily. Your mum is dressed in a smart winter coat.

“Excuse me”, she calls. Twice, again after I remove my earphones.

“Excuse me, are you a mathematician?”

I pause a moment before answering. “Yes.” I feel in parts proud, reticent and undeserving of the term.

“Great. So we have a question for you.” She takes a breath. “If you have two apples, and another one falls from a tree, how many apples do you have?”

I pause again, longer this time, before answering. Is it a trick?

“Three. Three apples.”

“Yes! Three apples. You see?” She says to you. “That’s addition!” And to me, beaming,

“We’ve already done subtraction.”

I grin, widely. Enthusiasm is an undervalued gift.

“Thank you! Thank you.” Your mum says. She begins a three-point bicycle turn. Still smiling, I wish you both a lovely evening as I step backwards towards my own bike, parked against its post. She returns my greeting. You still haven’t spoken, and aren’t going to it seems. You look disengaged but I have a hunch otherwise. After all, it is rarely the loudest person in the room who has best understood the problem.

I turn my back, look towards my padlock, and listen to your mum’s voice fade as you depart. Her ‘three’ sounds like a child on a slide saying ‘weeee’:

“You see. Two apples plus one apple makes three apples. Two apples plus one apple…”

I pedal for the gate heart light and head full. Would she have rejected the answer of a non-mathematician? Albeit odd, I like the way she bestows authority upon the world. I like the practical way she does lessons. And what about me? My answer? Confronted by you and your mum, her face full of earnest, I held back from answering in case it was a trap. Too easy, I thought. Can’t be right.

Well it can be right and it is right. When you have two apples and another one falls to you from a tree, then you have three apples. Nothing is too easy. Or, anything could be too easy, relatively. Maybe next time I’ll manage to answer without mistrust.

Your mum is cool, Isaac. I guess that’s all I want to tell you. Keep riding along with her. Keep listening, too.

Drag

The lights turned amber first. A quick calculation: I can’t make it. I change modes to brake. Slow gently, stop on the line. Right foot rests on the ground. I hear him approach, his engine is powerful, sounds sick. He stops; it stops grumbling. For a moment, nothing, then I hear him toot, gently. I turn, his expression almost apologetic. Not those fuckoff eyes you see on most guys. Especially behind a wheel. Funny what power does. His gesture, clear. Over to the side mate, give me space ahead. First, I rise. Then I smile and lower my eyes. Fair enough, he asked nicely. Though riled I am, I know he will pull away faster.

Unless…

Unless. I look over. Sideways now, not behind. I did a wiggle over to here, cut left and forward onto the crossing, then reverse roll-stepped myself back into place. Clear space ahead of him now. He relaxes. It doesn’t even make sense, the half-question in my head. Maybe important that it doesn’t.

The pedestrian lights are done. Cross lights green. Taxis and vans trundling over the junction. Damp, dark, mild night. Almost there. I feel my legs shudder.

They change. I hear his revs. Red-ambe-…Green. Squeal. Of course I’m never going to match it for more than a second. Still, my toes have never been more poised. Now they push. The connection from thigh through foot-pedal-wheel to the ground feels glorious. In touch. The bike responds like it knows me. He’s accelerating off, of course we’ve no race.

We are racing. His power is great, but my wheels are doing something that I cannot explain. 30mph. 40. 45. I’m both just holding on and in utter control. I look over to his wide side-turned eyes. I grin manically. My wheels are off the ground now. Still pedalling, I wonder vaguely where the lift is coming from. Still nose-to-nose with auto. Pupil to pupil, his turned upwards.

Ground resistance gone, things really start to move. Wind ripping through me, muscles singing. I fly on. In this state of elation, language fails me. Fuuuuuuuuuuuu Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeah is all I muster. His face changed. I’m close enough, can still see. Pale, eyes shrinking. Then it gets dangerous to look over, past 90° now. I AM AHEAD. I know its over. My gaze straight, concentrate on this trembling steel frame don’t let it fail me. He is creeping, creeping out of my periphery. My fingers are screaming.

This is it. My nitrous hit. Up til now’s been a board game. The bike rears. I pulse. We go. Into the night up and out. First floor. Third floor. The road beneath, the city beneath, him beneath. Laughing shrieking spinning high. Tonight we raced and I won the sky.

Californian Faces

The teens of Newport

Beach blond. Eyes bright. Moving in small packs. Clustered around the octangle at Balboa, they congregate.  I marvel at them.  What is it that intrigues me so? I watch as more and more roll in: many wheels.  I listen to conversation snippets.  I get the feeling that as tenuously as this peninsula is connected to the mainland, so too is their connection to a world outside of here.  A microcosm of lost identity.  Kids dress like adults; adults do themselves up to keep looking younger and younger, stave of ageing and keep up with the kids.  Million dollar houses and million dollar haircuts.  Everybody is  beautiful.  Nobody presents their own awkward face to the world.  Here I sit amidst this.  Trying to look cool, too.  Well ok, not that but trying not to stand out too much. Well ok, not even that, just sitting in the corner, wild hair windblown and filled with sea salt, eating fried cheese on a stick.  With a funny sort of smile on my face, watching.

 

The otter of Monterey

The water was too still.  I kept checking myself and thinking no, I cannot be at sea.  Then looking up and out over my shoulder I saw the horizon that lies drawn out forever and on, the most delicate of lines, telling me that yes, this is ocean.  I am in a stubby open-topped kayak.  These are perhaps my favourite kind of boats, for they are the closest one can get to the water without being in it.   I am at the same level as everything else.

This evening, everything else in an otter.  He looks at me looking at him.  Both of us we’re just eyes.  His face is round and furry. Long whiskers poke out from under his squished up nose.  Floating on his back, toes pointed out towards me, he cricks his neck to get a better view. My paddle lies in my lap, fingers on it softly.  The cramp I felt from a long day of driving is gone, all the dust washed away.  The expansion from car-box to here, where I stretch out beyond this boat, beyond the soft swell and the kelp seaweed arms and my new friend to some place that is allplace, it makes me giddy.  It takes my breath away.

A breeze is sending me past him obliquely, we’ve passed our closest point now.  Like at the end of an embrace our fingers are slowly separating until only their tips touch. Then nothing. Just me, the Pacific, and the departing light.

 

The park ranger of Marin

“You need some help?” His government-licensed four wheel drive pickup pulled up beside my bike.  I was surprised to see him.  Up until now, the road had been completely deserted.

“I’m looking for the best route up to Stinson beach.”

“Helluva ride that is.” He squinted at me.  “Helluva ride.”

Each ‘e’ he spoke was way drawn out, lazy, like a day on the beach.  He turned his back, reached into the truck and pulled out a trailmap. And with a sigh he spoke,

“Well. Up Milwok, past Wolf Ridge then all the way on over Bobcat.”

The park ranger handed over the map then squinted at me again. “Long way that is”, he said, “real long way”.

“Ok” I answered, “well, thank you”.  

I paused; he waited.

I saddled up. “Thanks again” I called over my shoulder.

“Or I suppose you could hike over Mt. Tam” came his reply. “You’re talking hours though. Hours.”

But his voice was already fading away, being replaced in my ears by the delicious noise of tires crunching over gravel.