18 May 2016

Because lying in bed when awake was inadvisable, she’d come up here to see the dawn arriving. The council left the Top Park open, even at night. The qualities of the view it offered made constant access a must. People felt they might have to nip round any time and check on the metropolis where it lay uncharacteristically prostrate at their feet. And wasn’t it flat – the city – when you saw it like this, so plainly founded on a tidal basin, rooted in mud? Strangers would remark to strangers about that. Inhabitants of the Hill didn’t need to, they were used to it. They could stroll along, perhaps through music – the Hill is a musical place, people practise instruments – and they could hope for the startle of a good London sunset, the blood and the glitter of that splashing on banks of distant windows, making dreams in the sky. Or else they might get the brawling roll of storms, or firework displays, or the tall afternoons when the blues of summer boiled and glared like the flag of some extraordinary, flawless nation. Even on an average day, the city needed watching. You shouldn’t turn your back on it, because it was a sly old thing.

She’d wanted a sunrise. Or rather, she’d wanted to be out and it had been very early and she’d had no choice about what she would get – at dawn the sunrise is reliably what will arrive, you can be calm about that, no fear of disappointments. You’re all right. She’d cut in and taken the broad path, safe between distantly dozing trees, no shadows to hide any bother. A woman by your – self – you didn’t want to feel constantly threatened, but you’d no call to be daft about things, either. You don’t like to put yourself at risk. Well, do you? No, you don’t. You shouldn’t. At risk is no way to be.

Then she’d gone round past the silent tennis court and headed – with fair confidence, even in the dimness, because she was here a lot – headed over the oily-feeling grass to the absolute highest point on the slope. Foxes had been singing, screaming, somewhere close.

It was traditional to hate foxes, but she wasn’t sure why. She guessed it was a habit to do with guilt. They always sounded injured, if not tormented, and that could get you thinking about harms you’d done to others in your past. The foxes perhaps acted like a form of haunting by offering reminders of sin and that was never popular. Or perhaps there was no logic involved, only free-form loathing, picking a target and sticking with it.

Serious Sweet

She had an interest in damages, you might say: damages and gaps. They could both be educational.

She enjoyed the warm din of the foxes, the bloody-and-furry and white-toothed sound – it was intense and she appreciated intensity. This was her choice. In the same way, the Hill was her choice. The open dark had given her a clifftop feeling as soon as she came within sight of the big skyline. It provided the good illusion that she could step off from here and go kicking into space, swimming on and up. Below her, opened and spread, were instants and chains of light apparently hung in a vast nowhere, a beautiful confusion. It was easy to assume that London’s walls and structures had proved superfluous, been let go, and that only lives, pure lives, were burning in mid-air, floating as stacks of heat, or colour, perhaps expressions of will. What might be supporting the lives, you couldn’t tell.

Then, during the course of an hour, the sun had indeed pressed in at the east, risen, birds had woken and announced the fact, as had aeroplanes and buses, and the world had solidified and shut her back out. It was like a person. You meet someone at night and they won’t be the same as they will if you see them in daytime. Under the still-goldenish, powdery sky, buildings had become just buildings, recognizably Victorian in the foreground and repeating to form busy furrows, their pattern interrupted where bombs had fallen in the war. These explosive absences had then been filled with newer and usually uglier structures, or else parks. There were also areas simply left gapped. They had been damaged and then abandoned, allowed to become tiny wildernesses, gaps of forgotten cause. Rockets had hit in ’44 – V-1s and V-2s. Somewhere under the current library – which wasn’t council any more – there’d been a shattered building and people in pieces, dozens of human beings torn away from life in their lunch hour. It didn’t show. There was a memorial plaque if you noticed, but other human beings, not obviously in pieces, would generally walk past it and give it no thought.

She was the type, though, to give it thought. She had an interest in damages, you might say: damages and gaps. They could both be educational.

Other places were more peaceable. She could pick out church spires and the cream-coloured Battersea chimneys of what had been the power station. Further off, thin trains pushed themselves to unseen destinations and details blurred. The far distance raised up shapes, or hints, or dreams of impossible coasts, lagoons and mountains. Mirages crept out from under the horizon. And somewhere, the crumpled shape of the Thames hunched along invisibly towards the coast.

Related articles