Fall

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.

Telling Times

Wedged into the sofa cushions

Gazing at other people’s parroted opinions

Wasting precious moments on Twitter

My daughter asleep in my lap

Waiting to hear more news

From the hospital

Wondering if grandma

Will need brain surgery

As her Googled symptoms suggest

The paramedics were not optimistic

Though they thought it was just

Concussion at the last visit

Repeating the same tests

Hoping for a better outcome

Can we allow ourselves to believe in miracles?

Or will she, like grandad

Go downhill quickly

Seduced to eternal sleep

By a mundane global nightmare

Transmitted in a hospital corridor

After a fall.

Strange these parallel lives

It is barely a week

Since the last funeral

And already I fear

There may soon be another.

Will my employer be willing

To suspend their disbelief

In the cruelty of the Fates

And lend grudging credence to the notion

One family could be the seat

Of such frequent misfortune?

I cannot say

Only Time will tell

And I continue to offend

That elderly gentleman

Numbing my senses

Scrolling past the paltry nonsense

That passes for news

A political procurer of

Public opinion is protected

By his powerful protégé

After a very public breach of policy

Big whoop. Conservative tastes

Do not lend themselves to

Common causes. He’ll not swing

Unless someone else has something

Sleazier than he can sell

To buy themselves his job

Dead men’s shoes, don’t you know?

The anxiety mounts with each beep of the phone.

We are all waiting

Sick of this virus

And the dread

And the endless grind

Working from home

Trying to focus on the Big Picture

Alongside the minutiae

While kids run amuck in the background

Leap-frogging over the broken and unwanted objects

We can’t yet take to the tip

For a decent recycling

Attempts to home-school abandoned

In the face of reality

They are creating new patterns

In the junkyard of our

Once orderly home

While the pile of dirty clothes

Mounts ever higher

Overspilling the laundry basket.

We have an excuse

We have forgotten whose turn it is

To do chores

All days blurring together

In this strange world of lock-down

At first we were industrious

To a fault

Clearing the decks of any

Half-assed DIY projects

Every evening and weekend

Buying improbable shades

Of garden paint online

Two months in

It’s a matter of sheer chance

If we remember when to put

The bin out.

The phone vibrates with news

And as the hopeful message

Trickles down the airwaves

Past the sleep deprivation

Bypassing nostalgia tinged with fear

To sink slow, clawing relief

Into my foggy brain

I am alerted to a new sensation

The damp embrace of a child

Whose nap time has now

Exceeded their bladder control.

At once I am reminded

It must be a Tuesday.

Bugger.

The bin will have to wait another week.

Cue to Queue

What is the proper etiquette
For declining to bypass security
Measures by walking through
Perspex barriers two-by-two?
I don’t recall, but forcing the issue
By swiping your card made me
Choose – to hesitate and lock
Us both out, or to cheat
And leave you too little time
To cross the line and make it
To the toilet. In my defence
The cat woke me at 4am
Breaking through the bedroom
Door, my lunch leaked in my
Handbag, forcing me to alter
My commute, omitting the exercise
Portion of the early part of my day
So I was barely awake
And very keen to pee
Somewhere other than the
Carpeted corridor. In short, true
Gallantry’s all very well, but
Don’t do it again.
My bladder may not support
The dilemma.

Feathered Misfortune

What came first, the bird, or the egg?
Well, I spotted the dead pigeon on Monday night
As I was walking down the embankment
Trying not to breathe too many fumes
Still shivering from an over-chilled office
And shocked at the sight of mangled grey feathers,
A broken neck and damaged wings
I wondered if it had been hit by a vehicle
Or disorientated, had flown beak-first
Into a mirrored tower block
Before plummeting to the pavement below.
I had no answers. Nor did anyone seem
Too interested in the fate
Of an earthbound, flying sky-rat.
I walked home, pondering
The funeral rites of a feathered pest.
The next day, passing the other way
I saw it was still there.
Must have been missed by the road sweepers
Or deliberately ignored as someone else’s problem.
That evening, Tuesday after work
I felt sure someone would have mentioned it
And had the bird disposed of
But no.
Nudged off the pavement into the gutter
At the side of the road
Still a crumpled heap. Grey feathers dirty
From the road dust and oil residue.
I walked on.
By Wednesday evening, the bird was gone.
This morning, I took a different route to work
Staying on the bus to the museum
Then walking the few blocks North to the river.
As I passed under a bridge, I saw an egg
Shell cracked, yolk scattered on the ground
Dirty down feathers floating
While trains rattled above, shaking the shadows
A lone pigeon fluttered overhead
As if mourning their loss.

For Harry Rabinowitz

My grandfather died last week at the age of 100.  Unfortunately, thanks to the French law requiring cremation within six days of death, and to generally poor timing, I, along with several other members of the family can’t get to the funeral.  Only a member of my family could manage to die in the middle of a European football tournament, my cousin’s GCSE exams, immediately prior to the collective insanity of our EU Referendum, and find his funeral being scheduled abroad at the whim of a disinterested foreign bureaucrat, on the day of a national transport strike.  (To explain my mild cynicism, another member of my family was once genuinely late for their own funeral when the hearse got lost… some days my more theatrical relations do seem to be living in a situation comedy.)

As I cannot be there in person tomorrow for Harry at his final send off, I wanted to write something expressing what it meant to me, growing up, to have this person in my life.

“Not everyone can be bothered to charm a child. For someone who loved an audience, Harry was, rare in a musical obsessive, also someone who knew when to be quiet.

I have fond memories of long walks in the woods with a battered basket, hunting for edible mushrooms, my sister getting her wellies stuck in a bog and needing to be rescued, then watching in fascination as he insisted he cook and eat what we had picked. Other adults wringing their hands, forbidding us from partaking, convinced he would suffer the consequences of his own stubborn refusal of natural caution.

I remember piggybacks and very serious games of pooh sticks using the stream at Hope End. I remember visiting Mr Pumblechook, looking for sweets in hollow trees, and I remember my earliest form of musical education, when Harry used to ask me to help him find all the Cs on his piano.

A lot of people knew him as a serious, charming, professional musician. I knew him as the charming joker who taught a shy, seven year old girl to clap polyrhythms and tend bar, and who preferred his favourite music, clothing and even footwear to be loud.

He surrounded himself with laughter, and enjoyed wine, women, and orchestral music wherever such delights were to be had.

Little doubt that he will start organising some sort of a gig surrounded by friends, old and new. Woe betide the third desk violins if they miss the F sharp in the third bar of the second movement. The maestro’s grimace will not balk at halos.”

Harry’s obituaries can be found on the BBC, the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Jerusalem Post, the Classic FM, and the London Symphony Orchestra websites.

Harry’s Desert Island Discs episode can be found on BBC iPlayer Radio here.

A portrait of the artist from memory

The langorous lids, drooping softly over his twinkling, tired eyes, and that mischievous grin, wryly twisting the lips as his tongue darts out to enter the silent debate.

How did I ever stand a chance? With one plaintive eyebrow I had lost the argument, all thoughts of resistance winging their way to hardier climes.

He looks up, and I feel my heart leap into my mouth, ready to fall at his feet. What a world I find in that face, one glance and I am forever undone.

Oh how I both bless and rue the day I ever laid eyes on you.

To turn, or to lay them out well?

The spoiled child is a great burden, and one which does not know how to carry others.  The weight of the world’s perceived expectation may prove too much for those narrow shoulders.  The very mass of their own fancies may yet oppress them, and, shamefaced and fearful, they crumble, unable to comprehend the sudden power vacuum that occurs when their providers are no longer there to do the hard work on their behalf.  It is sadly our own unwitting folly that renders those we have need of, those who were born to lead us toward a better future, into lazy, bitter, faithless followers.  Something must change, or with the weight of their burdens, the blindly oppressed will be driven into their graves by those they work so hard to support.

A dystopian vision

A country left to go hang, its policies blowing in the wind like so many dead leaves, rolling across the bloated corpses of those yet clutching the reins of power in their vice-like grip of death.  The fetid air issuing from their purple cheeks only serving to stir up a small cyclone, spewing banknotes in a circle to help scatter the blame far and wide, sowing discord and discontent unevenly across the land, oozing mistrust and perverting the course of the rivers of truth to ensure every citizen has their rightful opportunity to know the bitter taste of fear.

Is this my land of plenty?  My Jerusalem?  This green and pleasant land has become a granite-grey terrain, a place of howling apes in media zoos.  Where once the sun shone down, reflected in the shimmering seas and rivers, upon the citizens at work, now we see, but dark skies and troubled waters, from the defeated couch-potato throne of the unemployed.  We gaze with disinterest at the hopeless perspectives issuing forth from the hi-tech plastic box in the corner.  We mark the passing of time, not by the seasons, or the light of the stars, but by counting the unnatural, tallying the vanishing wrinkles on each ‘celebrity’ face, and we wonder… What is to become of us now?

To those society forgot, an apology

To those without an education, those who yet remain our hope for a future we daily pray will never come, please know we are truly sorry – sorry that your future will be our present and that you, in your untrained ignorance, may not know enough to help us when it comes our turn, or that you, remembering past slights, may snub our pleas for aid in our dotage.

To those without a job, those who yet remain our hope for the future of the welfare state, please know that we are truly sorry – sorry that we shall never enjoy the fruits of your labours and that you will never know the peace of retirement, of rest after a good day’s work.

To those without their health, those who would be well, but for the want of a penny to pay the person to sweep the floor of the operating theatre, a penny that was pinched for a politician’s pocket-lining, please know that we are truly sorry – sorry that you will not live to see tomorrow and pay the new taxes that it brings to fund the paper improvements we will make to a service no one may use for it’s rightful purpose, but those who pay for the privilege of avoiding the laws and lists of the land.

To those without a pension, those who fought for their future, our present, who elected us and believed in our pompous, empty promises, please know we are truly sorry – sorry that those days will never come again, that more of you did not lay down your lives in glorious sacrifice for us to cry crocodile tears of hypocrisy and lay cheap paper flowers upon a slab of rock to honour the memory of the young, the foolish.

To all those society forgot, please know we are truly sorry.  Now please go about your business and stop bothering us.  After all, you have no one to blame, but yourselves.

A sudden sharp blow to the brain

The vice-like grip, at ten a.m. is but a warning, a presage of what is to come. A small twinge, a twitching of muscles, a lightly furrowed brow, then silence. You count the seconds, watch the tumbleweed jump and dance, twisting in the wind as it skips across the hastily vacated brainscape, and you pray for solitude. Eleven o’clock comes and goes, bringing with it a mild headache and a growing sense of foreboding that has nothing to do with the glowering boss lurking behind the advised (and advisable) plate-glass partition. It starts. Twelve thirty sees you staggering toward the cafeteria for a polystyrene cup of boiling monosodiumglutomate and a hunk of stale foam, encased in concrete, and sadistically coated in sesame seeds to provide you with the government-recommended daily requirement of gum-disease. The clouds pass by the window as you pick at your teeth with a ragged fingernail. Your email states that it’s nearly three, but time has little meaning here in the land of artificial light. The phone rings, your ears pop, and suddenly it hits, blinding, terrifying, hideous. You clamber out of the pit and cradle the receiver. Hello? A list of pointless instructions issues forth without provocation. The knife slices vertically through your skull, leaving nothing.