Someone’s painted a box on the ground beneath a cash machine. For demarcation against intrusion. For the protection of the PIN. For the exclusion of undesirables. The slot for the card has a green light flashing on/off, begging for custom. A man and a woman approach. I can hear the click of the slot opening. The woman is pressing the buttons, the man stands in the box as well. They leave. The light starts flashing again. The screen too is busy. It advertises Halifax financial services and exhorts users to protect against fraud or theft. In the corner of the box, dropped by a left hand as the right worked the machine is the torn, curled peel of a satsuma. 9.43 am.
It’s hard to count them, hard to measure them, hard to evaluate them. All of them on their way, all of them the centre of the Universe. It’s easy to hate them. It’s not so easy to love them, but I’m going to try.
People with instruments over their shoulders – I’ve seen several. Violins, guitars common. People with their faces fixed in an outsider grimace. People with their headphones in their ears. People with bags over their shoulders, people walking with a slow strut, figuring things out.
People flicking nervously with Railcards.
Fat people with their bellies overflapping their tight jeans and their breasts lumping hopelessly over their tight bellies. People who would look more comfortable naked, stripped clean of the grime of their city clothes. People sneezing and wiping their hands on their combat trousers while they talk on their mobile phones. Fat men reaching into their suit pockets for their tickets and then struggling with the machines. A lady pulling her wallet out of her pocket and at the same time a receipt pulling clear and dropping to the ground. She dials a number on her touchscreen mobile phone.
A running man with a guitar. It could be a bass. A man walking slowly, talking on the phone, with bags poking out of his bags. A woman on crutches, bent over, in a pink cardigan, slowly making for the ticket gates. A pause to get her ticket and then through as quickly as she can before they close on her hobbled legs.
Two young girls in electric blue dress and long leather coat strut past, both earphones in and faces on. A man in a button-down shirt, pink with checks, and sunglasses on his coiffured head walks past with his telephone in his hand, looking very sure, but at the same time trying to organise his head around the station concourse. His shoes are tan brown and he walks with a clip. A man walks past in fresh jeans and a polo shirt, a jumper neatly folded on his shoulder.
A family of pink child and empty pushchair.
A fat woman dragging a red bag along the floor. Two old fat women, struggling to walk but with their feet in sports shoes. A young girl, fat, with a bright yellow Selfridge’s bag. A man delicately holding a blue coffee cup – to take away, to throw away – picking his way through this unsuited mass to his train.
Woman running, another trying to, her breasts bouncing with the effort in high heels. Another trying to walk the floor into submission, determined. A woman runs past. And again. One end to the other. A lady with curly red hair pulls her suitcase past, smooth. Two young girls flop their sandals into the floor, their bellies thrust out, forcing their path with their sexual organs. Teenagers.
An old woman reaches into her bag, a pink and white check shirt thrown over her body, sizeable but in a friendly old woman kind of way. She walks with a limp and asks the platform attendant of the correct train. A man with an umbrella furled follows her and asks the same question. A man with a pencil moustache and a matching blue bag and two-tone blue jacket strolls past with his family.
A woman in violent green shirt.
All of these people breathing and thinking and calculating. Sweating, their skin and their flesh folding around their clothes. Nothing could be further from the truth, could it? Exhausted people, with hairspray and glasses, with their chins shaved that morning, their shirts ironed at some point recently. Their shoes polished – or not.
Their hair managed. A turn, a wave, a turn. Make up. A scratch, a bite of a fingernail. Belt tightly wrapped around corpulence. Phone pressed to ear. Wrist wrapped with watch. Shoes tied, jeans pulled up and fastened. Wallet with ticket, bank card, else. Shopping bag with items. Tears. A scarf. Hair tied back, pushed forward. A newspaper. Eyebrows managed – or not.
Healthy afternoon snack. Unhealthy life. Earphones. Mouths moving, feet walking. Breast and bellies. Attraction – or not.
Walk with a bounce, with a stutter. Feet damaged, groaning under a weight. Tears. A suitcase with a telephone number on.
A girl with tears in her eyes – or is that just the way she looks? I don’t know, but here she is again, walking slowly around the concession kiosk at my back. Tears. Can I count those tears? Can I measure those tears? Can I evaluate those tears?
Sitting facing the north bank, facing the city. Hays Galleria is behind and to my left. But in front of me, with her guns aiming at the men and women responsible for the financial market crash, is HMS Belfast. She is painted in two shades of grey. I wonder who designs the camouflage pattern? Does it change with each season? Of course there is building work going on even on the destroyer. Scaffolding swaddles two structures that I can’t make out. A man walks to the bow and presses a button on the bare flagpole. I can’t see what it is. CCTV? There is a red light shining at me. Two, in fact. They give the mild impression of a very small party boat. A rope of lights are strung over that bow section, above where the anchor is run. There is the sound of a hack saw working and the lapping of water around an motorised dingy.
A man poses for a photograph in front of the HMS Belfast, next to my bicycle. The man swaps places with his friend and the taker gets taken. He wears a circular patterned pink shirt. They speak foreign, words tumbling out of their mouths. Hindi, I think. Their camera is, of course, a telephone.
The city opposite, from where the rumble of cars drifts, is a hotchpotch of buildings, vying with each other in architectural folly. The Gherkin looms over a mock gothic / modernist building. A church pokes its spire up amongst them. Spread out on the riverbank is a regency mansion, but obscured by trees, the Belfast and daunted by the stature of the buildings behind it. Two British flags peer over the Belfast. A jogger, female, pants past behind me. Red buses cross London Bridge. I can see the heads of commuters in a steady stream crossing, mostly south to north. From London Bridge train station to offices on the north bank. The gulls have no such respect and fly west to east, towards the strengthening sun. 7.00 am.
Facing the cathedral, from the opposite bank, with the Tate Modern at my back. I can hear a constant hissing of water sprinklers for the small area of grass behind me. The wind in the birch trees shakes early falling leaves to the concrete, where they tumble about, scratching. Now the patpat of a jogger. Occasionally the squeak of a small bird. Underneath it all, the steady muffled traffic from the opposite bank, like the roar of waves onto the shoreline, wipes sound away, white noise over an orchestra. Another jogger, a boat engine, a gull, a jogger, a man walking to work with sunglasses on and earphones in. A leaf. 6.37 am.
The river divides London. The sun shines in my face. Ripples of the river look confused, striving one direction, pushed another. Birds, gulls, dip into the water, crawing. The bridge is quiet. Two men fall off the horizon towards the Tate Modern. Straight ahead is Tower Bridge, a landmark. Its perfect H is broken by some construction work in the background, there’s always some construction work. The wind is blowing her way, cold, pushing my jumper into my back, bringing up goose pimples.
Just to my left are the steps of St Paul’s. To my right is Shakespeare’s Globe and Bankside. The Tate Modern, a converted power station, looking like nothing more than a converted power station. Or possibly a piece of monumental Mesopotamian architecture, the blocks of structure riven by grooves that tear glass windows through the building. A jogger walks past me. A cyclist cycles the other way. It is forbidden to cycle on this bridge and the plates of the metal floor ripple like the water below as his weight rolls past. In the distance there is the syncopated rhythm of an alarm. It comes and goes with the wind, sometimes clear, othertimes indistinguishable from the background noise. Two police sirens, one from the city, one from Parliament converge. A boat powers through the water below the bridge. A private vessal, manned by white haired old men, pointing the way ahead.
I turn and face upstream, the wind in my face now. Five cranes on trucks are evenly poised on the next bridge west. Another three, static, crouch on the banks north and south. Building work. A structure is covered with scaffolding, a train station, I believe. Floating on the surface of the river to my right is a rubbish collector. A flotilla of gulls take in the sun near the bank to my left. A man in a suit carrying a green plastic bag walks towards the city, his hair, fine and grey, caught in the cross wind. 6.29 am.