It is West London, 6am. In a few hours, the Thames will go back in on itself after days of rain. Chiswick village is scrawny, innocent, safe. The river frames it on one side, and a long, straight highway joins it on the other. On the map in your hallway, Chiswick itself is a triangle, stranded in west London. If you follow your finger further along the map to the east, you come across Hammersmith, Shepherd’s Bush. Chiswick is green, and full of sky and grand houses, and buses are its staple transport, swinging down its centre of cafes and restaurants. The map is not framed, and curls at the corners from endless touching and re-fixing. You often look at it for hours, sometimes it occurs to you that you should frame it. You dream of ironing down its ripped edges and putting it in a frame.
The front door is heavy, and swings shut with ease then clicks as it closes and you leave the flat. The building is institutional, which both sets you on edge and puts you at ease; it reminds you of halls of residence, schools, council buildings. It promises to protect you but it lords over you and lacks homeliness. The floors have been cleaned and cleaned until there is no shine to them; dulled by scouring cleaning powder. The window on the landing is open, letting in the smell of air; damp but fresh. It reminds you of the smell of apples, left in a bag too long. You know the way the sky will look today, just from that smell; a bright grey, a wind trying to separate the clouds, doing its mid-march polishing job.
By the time you get out, the sky is empty, the colour of empty bottles in period houses; clear and blue and glistening. You usually feel comforted by this walk, but today the promise of the new season is at once a welcome accompaniment and a threat, as though you are walking a tightrope: one slip and it’s winter again. The sound of trains seems to fulfil some deep-seated, industrial need; their tension and traction; something is going to happen. Trees are leaning, suspenseful, waiting to hold their arms up in surrender.
Just like the new season that is trying to squeeze through, everything seems to follow suit. You feel as though you’re on the edge of something, that pre-adrenaline feeling, before excitement decides if it will turn into elation or fear. You are glad that finally spring is joining you and when it does, you will forget winter. The passageway away from Chiswick Village towards Gunnersbury station is a grove of undeveloped berries, flowers and nettles. Everything is undercut with light and the bright sky offsets all that is silhouetted against it.
You imagine all the things that could have happened last night. You wonder if anyone else would have been so naïve as to skirt the track at that time of night, down the alleyway, and you wonder if you deserved worse. As a crop of unexpected thorns scratches your skin, you wonder if, in fact, you had liked the unsolicited attention. The thorns are a punishment. ‘I’ve been watching you’ he’d said, as he finally caught up with you near the end of the alleyway. ‘You look really attractive’. You’d carried on walking at the same pace, somehow feeling that this was best. You’d been blessed with an ability to remain calm under stress. ‘Are you single?’, he’d continued. You were conscious that silence might annoy him. He had the kind of face that could come out with something like ‘can’t you talk, you fucking bitch’ and his voice had echoes of this as well, as though he’d tried that approach, and it hadn’t worked. You answered monosyllabically, feigned naivety.
Part of you walked ahead, in a thin line, stopping to wait for you at the end of the alleyway. This was the end of the map; it didn’t go further than Gunnersbury. The rest was so far out it wasn’t considered part of London. You realised you had never been farther than Chiswick Village. South yes, but West no. He had an ascerbic smile, bad teeth. His stomach hung over his trousers and he scratched it, intermittently. ‘You can talk, you know’, he said to you. You thought it strange to be talked to so intimately.
Women and men that will take the tube into the city walk ahead you, past you. They look as though they’re one strand; an army of singular bodies. Some talk on their phones, some in other languages. You never think you’ll get old in London, nobody does. They walk ahead as though they have their whole lives ahead of them. It is the beginning of something, always the beginning of something. And this new chapter to the weather will be a sustained metaphor for their lives, nature pushing through, them pushing through, clouds being pushed out of the way as easily as if an arm was swiping them aside.
A train passes and it joins the rhythm of your thoughts, crystal grove, forest grove, it says, crystal grove, forest grove, over and over again. The patterns that the sun makes through the leaves are like crystals, with their definite edges. The sound dulls as it passes under the bridge and then wails as it stops. As you approach the road and then the other alleyway, that follows the line of the track heading to Gunnersbury station, you see that it is a hallway of petals. In a couple of weeks they will fall to the ground and melt, and stick to the ground like tiny marshmallows or chewing gum.
Later you will go to therapy. You imagine telling her. She would look at you in that neutral, concerned way. ‘How did that make you feel?, she would say, and you would wonder what on earth you could say, and end up replying with what you want her to hear. ‘I felt vulnerable’, for example, would be a good response. She would like that, she would nod at that, and take that short intake of breath of responsibility, as though she needed as much oxygen as possible for what was to come. But what if you were to say: ‘I felt it was a minor infelicity compared with others. How about walking down a passageway on your own to a building that lacks homeliness and reminds you that you’re alone, just walking along with everyone else but alone, walking in a crystal grove. Wishing for spring so you can walk together in the sun.’