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.