I’m huddling from a cold Spring rain on the fire escape; smoking my 22nd cigarette of the day. Thus far I have resisted the urge to break into a dance scene from West Side Story. Even my slightest movement on the steel stairs makes the inter-connected structure rumble all the way up to the top of our seven storey building. My perch is 20 feet above the courtyard at the back of our flat. I am in the heart of London’s Theatreland. The view is London in microcosm.
The only safe path is up or down. Even at 49 and with creeping arthritis I can easily jump over the hand rail and onto the flat roof of the ground floor building below. To navigate further requires the balance of a Great Wallenda. Narrow ledges run off of the roof at perpendicular directions; only our two cats have ever negotiated them. I often spot at least one of them sprawled much further along the ledges connected to buildings facing the next street. They lick their paws in the weak English sun, unblinking and staring down into the courtyard below. They are little lions, surveying the savannah from a great rock, waiting for the wildebeests to pass.
Everywhere is brick; brick and grey steel fencing and barbed wire. The bricks are a 20th century timeline of this space. Orange bricks defining the newer flats built in my lifetime. Paler bricks turned dark with the passage of time and London’s poor air adorns the buildings of great Edwardian redevelopment.
A large crack in the wall runs at waist height to my left. It is this view’s war medal. During the Blitz, a V2 rocket exploded about 150 meters to the southeast. It left a crater and reverberated throughout these inner-connected buildings. The crater is now a major traffic island but the crack remains, a monument to resistance.
Our building sprawls the patch once claimed by a maze of narrow Victorian alleyways and bawdy theatres. The area was cleared in the late 19th century as our neighbourhood was deemed to be decadent. The labyrinth of whore houses, pubs and poor housing was replaced with a small school and the tall, narrow structure I call home today.
It is the school where I gained my first teaching post back in 1986. It is the school my children attended. It is the school where I met my wife. The school playground’s green, cushioned surface is the only relief from the sea of brick. It is our family’s cradle. It is the place where our life together originated.
The green spongy playground covering is in juxtaposition to what lays beneath. Twenty years ago, as the surface was being prepared, builders uncover a Saxon burial ground. Archaeologists form the Museum of London excavated for a year carefully removing dozens of ancient Londoners who first claimed this site more than 1500 years ago. Every Londoner since has added their layer on top.
I still have a sign signalling our flat’s former use as a library. We live in the building shouldering up to the school. Initially these rooms housed the offices of local government officials, tasked with bringing electricity to this part of the city. Later it became a library. My wife attended the school as a young girl and clearly remembers sitting on the floor in what is now our bedroom, listening to stories.
The library closed and the building was redeveloped into its current 6 flats, each occupying an entire floor. Twenty years ago our home was a transvestite brothel. We moved in 15 winters ago and spent the first week discovering artefacts such as size 22 corsets tucked in cupboards. There were mirrors everywhere; to this day we pay a nod to the place’s lascivious past by keeping solid walls of mirrors in situ. Now it is just home. Our two youngest daughters were born in the bedroom next to where my wife sat as cross-legged 6 year old listening to tales of happy every after.
I finish my cigarette and flick it into a breeze. It circles in the strange drafts and currents; on the winds trapped in this brick canyon. An aria from Madam Butterfly echoes off the surrounding walls from the restaurant downstairs. She is abandoned, but a thousand ears hear her.
The fag ash settles on the white stone courtyard, burning its way through the dusty layer of Edward VII, through Victoria’s, through Knut’s.
I imagine an overlooked Saxon skeleton, flesh picked clean in the London clay, empty skull filling with the smell of tobacco. It smiles as it realises far above London goes on and on and on. This was his home. I am just the custodian, keeping it warm for generations undreamed of.
Keep the Faith,