Some of this happened like this, some of it didn’t.
Back when you’d often find me wandering the streets of Brockley either too late in the evening or too early in the morning, depending on your point of view, I wearily turned off Lewisham Way and headed up Tyrwhitt Road. The Talbot hadn’t quite reinvented itself at that point and was a boarded up husk of a pub, the front forecourt scattered with debris and leftover memories. If you had told me, that evening, of the happiness I’d find in a flat further up the road, that this would be the place where I would feel calm, I’d have laughed in your face. I was in that kind of mood, it was that kind of night and I was that kind of drunk.
Next door to the Talbot stands what must have once be a proud, Georgian detached townhouse. Placed at the end of the street, on sentry duty, its first owners must have been affluent indeed to have filled its double fronted, four storied rooms. Ever since I’ve lived in London, though, its paint has been peeling, the front steps cracked and swallowed over by weeds rushing away from their roots towards the sky. The basement windows were permanently ajar, the roof missing numerous slates; as the sun came up there would usually be a man, often with dreadlocks and his shirt off, sitting on the wall, smoking a hand rolled cigarette. Like much of Brockley was at one time, it was a squat.
That evening the music thumped, a deep reggae beat that throbbed through your arteries, a swirling red spotlight rolled gently out the upstairs window, briefly dappling the pavement outside and then swinging back inside. The door was open.
Why not, I thought.
Inside was a heavy, sweet cloud hanging just off the ceiling; the music growled up the walls, soloud it was barely audible, like a pulse. People flittered in and out, lost to themselves. I thought no-one was going to even notice me drifting in, until, in the rotten carpeted lounge, where a dozen or so people were draped across the floor, a younger lad with a blur to his face, asked: ‘Who’re you looking for?’
‘Oh, I thought Steve was in here?’ In my experience, there’s always someone called Steve.
‘He’s out the back, I think. Try the kitchen.’
In the kitchen there could have been someone called Steve or there might not have been. I took one of the warm cans of Stella from the open fridge and kished it open, before continuing my explorations.
In the garden I met a girl.
Underneath the summer stars she was luminous, her brown hair scrapped back tightly into a pony tail, the stub end of a joint between her fingers, a glint of the stud in her nose.
‘I don’t know you,’ she said, the accent faintly Liverpool.
‘No, you don’t,’ I replied swigging my beer. ‘I was just passing through.’
‘Isn’t that what we’re doing? In the end? Just passing through?’
‘This garden, or life in general?’
‘Why don’t you come, sit with me?’ I sat amongst the overgrown grass and let the tips bustle against my neck. The air was thick, sultry even. The night promised much, which was unusual for life hadn’t seemed to provide a lot up to that point. We didn’t say anything for a while; just sat quietly as the night inches towards morning and the galaxy tumbled above our heads. She smoked, I drank, both letting possibilities hang.
After a while she asked: ‘Have you ever read Aldous Huxley?’
I hadn’t, but for a moment considered lying about it, before deciding to be honest in my ignorance. She began to talk about doors of perception, about the shifting transcending nature of existence, waxing lyrically about literary and social courage. I confess, I was more than a little drunk and began to tune out. Besides her narrative was packed with failing similes, casting images with her words which didn’t hang quite right in the night. Her comparisons tripped over themselves, tied each other in inconsistencies until I gave up, leant back on my elbows, closed my eyes and remembered times when this whole scenario wouldn’t have happened, and before that times when it would.
‘Shall I tell you the secret of the universe?’ she said, after a pause.
I opened my eyes and looked at her. I could have kissed her in that moment. The angle of her neck, the way she’d moved closer to whisper to me. It would have been so easy.
I didn’t, but very occasionally I still wonder if I should have done.
The other day, as I rode down Tyrwhitt Road on a slightly different route to work than usual, I noticed that the last squat in Brockley had been cleared and was being renovated, no doubt to be sold on for a couple of million. The area keeps changing, keeps ploughing through its gentrification towards who knows what end.
‘You know ,’ said my fiancée in the craft beer bar that’s just opened up by Crofton Park station, ‘you’re going to turn into one of those old Brockley bores, moaning on about how much more edgy and cool it used to be while still enjoying the new cafes.’
‘I’m fairly sure I’m one of those already.’
I don’t cope with change well. I find it unnerving. Walking through the centre of London, the other day, I was horrified at the amount of Oxford Street, Soho Square and further up Tottenham Court that seems to be coming down. The streets are like the city’s fingerprints, when they change, so does my relationship with it. Changes to Brockley I take personally. I thought the craft beer bar was great, it was a fun night with some seriously tasty booze, but would I rather have had the old off licence back and a few less beards, trendy wool hats and, deck shoes and pale stripy trousers about? Maybe.
I think it might be there’s a tipping point. I shed no tears when the old Alpha Jazz Club - home of gangland violence with the only drink offered to strangers like me was gin and lime cordial (no ice) - closed down and became the more community minded Jam Circus, offering real ale and decent food. But maybe that was because, at the time, the Brockley Jack was only marginally more welcoming than the Alpha and served ale which was likely to leave you with an upset stomach, which left Mr Lawrence’s as the only viable watering hole up that end. These days there’s choice in abundance.
I find myself trapped between the old school working class world and the new affluent upper-middle classes sweeping through the area, not really (at least in my own head) belonging to either, wanting to take the better bits of both and discard the arrogance or the scuzz. Maybe that’s the perfection we all want in the end – and anyway I’m kidding myself if I think that all those kids in the squat didn’t have Mums and Dads they could call up for a loan when things got desperate.
And I never have read Aldous Huxley either.