I progress towards the musty light. It is touching 5am. We travelled as a unit though the borough, our orange hi-vises gradually losing their fluorescence as they were overtaken by the emergent power of the natural light source. There I was, struggling against the metal stream – the night traffic – as it passed through town on deliveries to the outskirts. We snaked down peep-less alleys and clipped ghostly cycle lanes. I was always surrounded – or so it felt – by beacons, both near and far-off, in varying densities, such was the sensation. Cool rain-air. Expectant city. Even beyond the midnight slowdown, the pre-ness exudes. Old-brick railway bridges reformatted with art deco multicolour circles.
Cosmic crackle from microphone transmitter, little among the mechanical bombast. Nightfogs. Post-12, someone – a lone nocturnal stalker – slips through a graveyard. They always reside there regardless of the weather. And with them, the place becomes a perfect backdrop: headstones scenery for the soul who is almost a ghost, their meaningful life departed. (Years later, I look back and wonder: is the memory accurate? Could I have captured the after-dark dweller on camera? The timeworn memory evades clearness.) The Maudsley a mythical sanctuary at this point. Solstice songs echoing into glowing Elephant roundabout. Island Rubik’s constantly changing in technicolour patterns. Pride in the rustle of paper. Chanting together. Getting in the night mood – our lines across Southwark mini-parks, slipping through uncharted cobblestones.
There I was, an owl after a spark. Progressing into this night with an eminently sensible ideal to try and fall for something, or someone, or trick them into falling for me. The endearing safe line passing through the borough into the memory: a neon capsule. I was heading towards the centre – at the very centre of time. This wasn’t just a pilgrimage towards the glinting hospital lights deeper into the borough, it also represented a bigger journey, that of nearing wholeness, and giving even mini-joys a sense of profound enlightenment. Side-road tranquillity. Garish BMW blasts, shocking the space-borough’s serenity into small panics. Yellowwhite spheres. Diluted darknesses. Carriageways and country lanes criss-crossed, the bird’s-eye lattices. Our line piercing the squares moving in time with the past. A luminous string heading forwards and bringing the night with it: I wrote down what was done, as the strength of the colours against the dark greens and blues of the shrubbery and sky helped solidify the actuality of the event, no matter how hazy it was to become when time-trampled across the course of the subsequent months.
Holding off the traffic as we got to the other end of the route, gently sun-flecked sky suggesting at every roundabout or crossroads that the destination was approaching. That faint ghost-blue. We were scuttling nearer the climax-end of the solstice, walking into the land of the greenyellow boxes of lit-shell night buses engaged in their own arc transporting hungry night-goers back to the distant zones. Those buses now taking command of the road as the other traffic recedes, daytime drivers tucked up in their beds behind the unflinching curtains. Our flow is interrupted by those serene crossroads, where we have to wait as the signals symbolically rotate through red to orange to green. And we form the shield. By now, scores have been lost to the route. Those faces at first lively and expectant now contorted by tiredness. The group slims. The camaraderie bulges. Everyone who has survived the catalogue of obstacles, such as early morning road-ragers, snap storms, and hidden-then-gangly bollards, begins to want it more, with the actuality of the spectre of a terminus beginning to grow a feasible shape. I see it in the happy-glazed features: dusk-pasteled clearness of beauty. Primal faces imbued with glassiness, reflections of pelican-cross men and TFL-shelter striplights.
Beforehand, I revealed the night economy: what do the people do when the other people sleep? Who carries it on when we, the most-of-us ‘we’, take a break, when we enter the dream frontiers? An upside-down commuter place where those sort-of ghouls always crank it up just as the majority are going in the other direction. The solitary ones against the grain, with whole carriages to themselves. A reverse real-life. Ghost 9-5ers, revelling in their owlish schedules, on the blind spots of uniform time. I see them. Tube workers, they too in their bright-orange bibs, but with hands and faces smeared with the greasiest black oil, always in conversation, huddled and prepared to descend towards the passenger-less warrens, and the train-less grimy tunnels.
© Copyright 2017 John Maher