The old neighborhood was nearly unrecognizable. Someone had gone round with a roller and repainted fences and shopfronts in clean, neutral shades. The well-stained wall behind the Queen’s Head had been repointed, the new layer of sharp sand and cement a stark contrast to the dark London stock. Ancient, crumbling bricks, battered, but still standing. Held up by progressive layers of grim silt. Still unpainted to deter street artists from staking their claim on a once derelict local landmark, lately gentrified.
On I trod, marvelling at my surroundings. Flat slabs covered the cracked sidewalk of my childhood. Their uniform grey, an affront to my sense of self. Weeds tamed, decades of calcified chewing gum had been pressure-washed away, as if we had never stood there, disaffected youth blowing bubbles and flicking cigarette butts into the gutter, staring into the void.
The neon signage from the Adult video store across the street had been removed. A rite of passage, that pink silhouette of a naked lady, still glowing through the gloom, sometime back in the past. Now offering cappuccinos, their lunch menu chalked on a neat sign, the aluminium front door that used to rattle in the wind stood wide open, a potted plant taking the place of Ken’s half-a-brick prop.
I glanced inside as I passed and kept walking. The scratched, melamine counter with its well-thumbed magazines had gone, replaced with a display case filled with frosted cupcakes. Their glitter-encrusted sugar peaks reminiscent of a Woolworth’s toy section. Tables out front held condiments. Sugar and salt and pepper sachets all sat there in easy reach, smug in their square-edged, ceramic dishes.
My fingers itched, but there was nowhere nearby for me to perch. No crib, safe house or hideaway to drop in to. Where was my place in all of this? Doorways had been fitted with anti-homeless spikes, walls and lamp-posts smeared with anti-climb paint. Benches deemed too great a risk; likely to attract undesirable elements. Nowhere to lie, sit or lean. Slim pickings for the prodigal son with sore feet.
Even the back alley opposite Bon Marché that my mother once warned me never to stray down seemed well-lit and welcoming in the early afternoon. No one stood lurking in the shadows between the DSS and what used to be H Samuel’s jewellery and watches. No dealers in cheap thrills and bad habits. A small tree had been planted at one end to deter illegal parking. Clean cars kept to their designated spots on the road. Logged and tagged and tidy. No going outside the lines. Stuck to the beaten track.
The open-air summer shooting gallery had closed down; with persistent clientele ‘moved-on’ to offer their patronage to some other den of degradation. I sniffed and for a moment was comforted by a whiff of some less than wholesome scent that still lingered. Could it be the unsightly were simply being kept out of sight? Perhaps the whole thing was only skin-deep after all. So much window-dressing for the red-light district.
I wandered past the entrance to the old arcade. Once filled with kiosks hawking un-pasteurised imports and dubious meat, selling Nigerian Guinness under the table. The collection of plastic bowls of fruit looked as appetising as the wax cherries on a Sunday hat. A popcorn machine’s toffee-flavoured fumes covered the lack of frying fish. A glass-fronted case of mobile phone covers replaced the wig stall to my right. Where Brenda and SJ used to buy wet-look solution and listen to Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” blaring out from stalls and cars over the local radio. Brixton, back before everything changed.
Buses rumbled along the road, unconcerned at my wonder, trundling past the randomised groupings of “high street” shops. Familiar signs clustered together. Each a socially acceptable chain store, suitably generic. All offering the same displays as their counterparts on every high street anywhere in England. Bland and tasteless, from the plastic food to the sweat-shop clothing. Guilt-free, choice-less consumerism. With no subversive independent bookstores or boutiques to breach the monotony of this muted landscape.
I crossed the street. The corner squat’s busted sash windows and purple tie-dyed curtain had gone, replaced by neat PVC casements with inbuilt locks and coy venetian blinds. Stone lions guarded the walk-up apartments. Geraniums smiled from sunny window boxes; and an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia for the grime of my old stomping ground slowly began to seep from my eyes and trail down my cheeks. Shirtless Derek with his windowsill guitar is long-dead. Overdosed and eaten by the python he loved, but forgot to feed. Millie and her miniskirt moved out of town. Local colour rinsed repeatedly until it faded to a uniform beige.
What have they done to it? Why? It has all gone. The past, wiped down and washed away. These streets were once ours, mine. We staggered through carnage: street fights and riots to get home from our adventures, picking our way past looted shops with broken glass, new trainers slung over telephone wires, blood on the pavement, nodding at the working girls heading out for their evening shift. Now the streets belong to no one.
I walked, retracing familiar steps toward the concrete-and-chicken-wire fence and found smart railings. A graffiti memorial to the kid that was shot on the playground that marked a gang boundary stared back at me, innocuous, raw emotion trapped behind a protective sheet of Perspex. The day I was late to school, when the end of our street was blocked by a jack-knifed car, the driver’s brains leaking onto the upholstery… his long-dead eyes looked into mine through twenty years of dusty memory and mocked at my pale face. I had no business here, not any more.
With one last glance, I turned away from the past. Feet carrying me past the homes of ex-friends. I no longer wanted to be here. Imagining gleeful Estate Agents patrolling this, their sanitised vision of urban landscaping, surreal as any other doctored photograph in their backlit window. A show-neighbourhood, gentrified, safe. Packaged and ready for sale.
Then I spotted it. The last bastion of defence. A defiant, fading banner slung across the railway arch that once held the Portuguese deli still read “Caution. Cleansing in progress.” Someone had spray painted a mock-up of the official Health and Safety Executive sign warning of a trip hazard. I stood there in the shade of the station, breathing the fumes from a South London artery and looked at the tattered fabric with its yellow triangle, warning of hidden dangers. I knew what they meant. There was no scent of olives or spices anymore. No signs of life. With the arches cleared of traders I too would struggle to find my feet. A plastic card pinned to the viaduct read ‘Units for regeneration, inquire within’.
I don’t often post prose. This was written for a submission, years ago, that sadly never came to anything.
NB – While Brixton certainly exists, and a number of the locations in this piece are based on real places, my characters are my own and this piece is intended to be read as a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is unintentional.