My name is Sam Redlark. I am a carrier of the LonB gene which enables me to perceive parts of London that exist outside of the normal human sensory range. This blog is an account of the Capital as I experience it. I hope that my writing here will encourage those who find themselves in London, whether it is as a visitor, or as a resident, to seek a deeper appreciation of their surroundings. You don’t need to be a LonB carrier to experience the best of the city. All you need to do is open your senses to what is around you.
THE PIGEON PILGRIMAGE
Greenhill Rents EC1
“The trouble with this time of year is the day’s over before it’s begun,” says Laura.
She reaches over a windowsill strewn with dust bunnies and the broken corpses of last autumn’s Daddy Longlegs, taking hold of a stained drawstring in one corner, and adjusting the filthy cream blinds defensively, so that they banish the early-morning dazzle from the screen of her computer monitor.
On top of a nearby filing cabinet, the husk of a spider plant trembles to the faint vibrations of passing traffic, the powdery dry soil encasing its roots in a slow retreat from the sides of its plastic, faux-terracotta pot.
Outside, an opaque winter sky the colour of opal has compressed the sun into a shapeless glare on the horizon that blinds the drivers on the inbound carriageway of Aston Lane. The only brief respite from squinting behind a pulled-down sun visor comes with the arc of the big roundabout at Nersha Break where fence panels line the verges, deflecting the fierce crosswinds that buffet the cars. Here and there a few vehicles peel away from the procession towards the city and head down a short service road that leads to a Holiday Inn, a call centre for The Royal Bank of Scotland and a sprawling supermarket.
The snow that froze to the steep, tiled roof of the Tesco during the night is sliding off in thin brittle sheets, exposing jagged sections of the patterned red and black slate underneath. As Alan Avis exits the store, a pair of employees dressed in fluorescent waistcoats are cordoning-off the pavement under the eaves with yellow tape.
He trails through the car park. The partially-dissolved, rust-coloured grit, laid down to melt the snow, spatters his gleaming, black leather shoes and the flimsy material of his trouser legs. A carrier bag weighted down by three multipacks of muffins thumps rhythmically against his thigh. Two slender bunches of cellophane-wrapped daffodils poke their heads incongruously between the handles, like periscopes sizing up January for signs of warmer weather.
The edge of the car park has been gritted more frugally than the area immediately surrounding the store’s entrance. Alan passes a Peugeot 106 that has come to rest at an angle, the smudged arc of its tire tread in the melting snow suggesting that it skidded to a gentle halt. A motoring atlas, spread wide-open on the passenger seat, shows the city of London in it’s entirety, the arterial roads and railway lines converging on the heart of the capital but never quite meeting in the centre, mimicking the artless, loosely-woven thatch of pigeon’s nest.
He climbs a short flight of concrete stairs to the pavement, his breath condensing into white clouds as he picks his way over a glassy honeycomb of slowly-melting ice superimposed over the red tarmac. The cellophane wrapping of the flowers crackles in the slipstream of passing vehicles as he pauses by an interminable set of road works that have blocked off one lane of the carriageway, fumbling the loops of the carrier bag around his wrist as he retrieves his phone. Behind him a solitary maintenance worker wearily shovels snow into a freshly drilled hole in the asphalt.
“Deborah, It’s Alan. Did you remember to put the heating on? Can you call me back when you get this.”
He returns the mobile to his pocket. A minute later at the pedestrian crossing the phone rings. He stops to answer it.
“I’m on my way now. I had to stop off and get a few things... They’re here already?”
Behind him in the cement yard that brackets three sides of Heriot’s Memorials, Gwen (formerly George) Heriot contemplates the mute, closed ranks of ice-encrusted gravestones. Her lungs are like a pair of hourglasses, filtering the powdered epitaphs of the London dead. It’s hard for her to breathe in this weather. The wheeled oxygen cylinder cuts a parallel groove in the snow from the side door of the showroom. Her concentration is broken by a young man with short red hair standing at the pedestrian crossing swearing into his mobile phone. A red light holding back two columns of paused traffic.
“Oh for fuck’s sake Deborah,” says Alan. “I said 9 o’clock... Well stall them... No, I don’t want you to let them in... Tell them that you don’t have the key... Show them the church.”
On the crossing display the green man blinks out. Moments later the lines of cars resume their slow crawl towards the centre of the capital. On the other end of the line Deborah is saying something sensible about slippery pavements and lawsuits.
“You know what a pain in the arse this has been. I just wanted to make it nice... Okay, let them in. I’ll be there in about 15 minutes.”
“Wankers,” he says as he disconnects the call.
The hallway smells faintly of furniture polish. As he enters he hears the suppressed whine of the toilet flush as it fades into the sound of the cistern refilling itself. At the far end of the corridor he catches a blurred glimpse of a single leg disappearing around the corner and into the kitchen. In the small downstairs cloakroom the mottled glass of the window makes a silver and white camouflage pattern on the net curtains. He pulls the door ajar as he passes.
John & Katherine Aldern are in conversation with Deborah. They are in their early 30s, unmarried and childless. They both work for a Conservative party think tank called Eximo.
He enters the confined kitchen area and introduces himself.
“We can’t find the kettle,” announces Deborah.
“There should be one in the cupboard over the sink...”
Deborah’s stocking-clad calves brush against his legs as the quartet reshuffles itself between the opposing rows of cupboards and appliances.
“I bought flowers,” he says apologetically, laying the supermarket carrier bag on the counter where it remains untouched.
“Would anyone like a cup of tea?”
“I think we’re okay,” replies John Aldern.
“Actually we are a little pushed for time,” says his wife.
“Why don’t I give you the tour then. Your standing in a traditional Puritan narrow house. The property’s spread over four floors. When you consider the location and the asking price its an excellent deal. A lot of couples are using tenancies like this as places to base themselves in London during the working week...”
“Actually Deborah’s already shown us around. Before we go I would like to discuss the flexibility of the arrangement with the church down the road. We’d also like to see the garden.”
“Ok. Um, what specifically did you want to discuss?”
“Well I understand that one of the conditions of the lease is that we would be obliged to take turns, along with our neighbours, in cleaning the church at the bottom of the road. As neither Katherine or myself is particularly religious we would be keen to opt out of that part of the agreement.”
“The upkeep of the Greenhill Estate has been a condition of the tenancy for over a century. It’s not really about forcing religion down anybody’s throat. It’s more about the maintenance of a communal building. You wouldn’t be expected to turn up for Sunday service or anything like that.”
“But if the building in question is a church then there are inescapable religious overtones. One of the requirements involves making sure that there are flowers on the altar. If I was a Muslim would you expect me to participate in the upkeep of a place of worship from a different faith to my own?”
Katherine Aldern: “Would we be able to employ someone to do the cleaning on our behalf?”
“Katherine and I work very long hours. Neither of us want to run the risk of breaching the conditions of a five year lease because of our work commitments. I don’t think it’s reasonable or legal for the owners of the property to discriminate against us on that basis.”
“But you are entering this contract with open eyes,” says Deborah. “The relative cheapness of the rent acknowledges the contribution that tenants make towards the general upkeep of the Greenhill Estate. You would be expected to consider whether you have the time to honour this part of the agreement before you sign the lease.”
An uneasy pause signifies a stalemate in the negotiations.
“Why don’t we look at the garden,” says Alan.
It takes two bites of the lock before the key finally draws back the tumbler. As he opens the back door, a cold, stiff breeze enters the kitchen.
The garden plot is as long and as narrow as the house that it’s attached to, blanketed in an almost pristine covering of frozen snow, chipped here and there by the tracks of tiny bird feet and the exaggerated paw prints of an urban fox on a meandering course. At the far end, a red brick trench, roughly four foot across and six feet deep divides the garden from the property opposite.
“This is the priest’s alley, I take it...” says John Aldern, peering down into the trench which is filled with snow to a depth of about half a foot. A discarded Twix wrapper lodged between ice crystals flaps limply in the wind.
“...When all that snow melts it’s going to be like a storm drain.”
“The priest alleys were conceived as the roots of the church, radiating outwards into the community. Most of our residents find it charming to have something of such historical importance on their back doorstep,” says Deborah.
“Only I understand that now some of them are being used a burial plots.”
“Since 1987 the church has been compensating for the overflow of public cemeteries by converting some of the alleyways into burial plots.”
“So with the church just down the road would it be reasonable to assume that at some point there will be graves along this stretch as well?”
“There’s nothing scheduled at the moment. Every year the church governing body holds a meeting where they discuss which of the brown field sites in their portfolio will be used for burials. This is done in consultation with the council and with local residents.”
“But if they did change their minds then all this would all be filled in and anyone using it as footpath would be at eye-level with our the house. Presumably people do have a right of access to it. I’ve seen these alleyways mentioned in London tour guides. Apart from the issue of privacy I’m wondering what the situation would be regarding home insurance when there is such easy public access onto private property.”
John Aldern breaks off from his monologue to address his wife:
“What do you think?”
“I’m not happy about it.”
Ostracised from their decision Alan feels the morning slipping away from him. He turns one heel repeatedly back and forth grinding the snow down into grass and the grass down into the mud. In next door’s garden a pigeon launches itself from a collapsed rotary washing line. A green glow trails in the wake of the bird as it rises and then alights on the guttering overhanging the kitchen door, a pair of small twigs clasped in its beak.
NEXT...Bluebird Way SE28 (Wise judges and fighting dogs!)