Brompton Square

I have been taking photographs on the streets at night with a small group of people. I happened to capture this group of running figures and heard some shouting.  On waking the next day I found this part-story already formed in my head. I don’t know yet if there will be more to come but let me know if you find it intriguing (or daft!).

Brompton Sqaure

Brompton Square

It was a wet, cold night in February the kind of night where puddles lie full of wild reflections flickering with vivid colours. Brompton Square was a good address in a respectable area of London but if you look hard enough you’ll find something dark behind the curtains.
I waited at the Cromwell Road end of the Square the damp creeping into my shoes. I was sure that something was going to kick-off.  I knew the where and the likely when but not the what.
I had a clear view down the brightly lit terrace of stuccoed Regency houses. Rows of wrought iron railings and shiny black doors where the lions-head knockers kept their polished eyes on the street. A London cab was parked down the far end the headlights throwing everything in their path into silhouette. Two men in dark overcoats and a woman with flesh-coloured tights were strolling towards me, just as they passed under the street light, I snapped a discreet shot or two of their faces from low down by my waist hoping they wouldn’t notice. A group of dark-coated figures standing far down the street were huddled too tight to count.
The first group walked passed me disappearing into the rush hour throng on the Cromwell Road.  She gave me a bit of a sideways glance sending chills down my back, did she recognise me? Soon a car pulled up opposite No57. A middle-aged man got out, walked over to the house and with a fumbling at the lock with his key he pushed open the door. I caught him in my view finder and clicked twice, once at the fumble and then again as he slipped into the bright hallway the door closing behind him. This was the right place then, he was wearing a hat. I was expecting that.
Ten minutes later I moved out of the shadows and crossed the street to the corner, hovering for a last look, maybe this was a mistake after all. It was right then as I turned to go that it began. A figure of man with a fur-collared coat was briefly lit by the shaft of bright light as he came out into the street from the corner house. Shouts and dull thuds of punches or baseball bats on flesh came from the far end. The taxi revved and sped down the street in my direction. The huddled group had burst apart, figures were leaping the railings into the central gardens. Three more were running fast as hell towards me coats flapping in crow-like panic. It was now or never. I got just one shot but you couldn’t see their faces.  I didn’t stop for a second shot, I needed to keep out of sight. I turned quickly out of Brompton Square and up towards Harrods melting into the crowd. They’d be after me for sure if they’d seen me.

The next morning I read the newspaper version of what had gone on down there in genteel Knightsbridge and there were my photos. I had sent my three good shots to my contact and he’d passed them on.  My job had been to prove that certain people had been in that place on that night. The man in the hat from No57, the woman in the flesh-coloured tights and the running group. I didn’t ask why, the less I knew the better.  It would be a long time before the whole story came out but by then I was a long way from there.

The Orange Rose

I was travelling on the underground,  after a couple of stops  some passengers got off and I had an uninterrupted view of the young man, strap-hanging in the next doorway. I noticed his hat first, dark tan coloured felt, folded tight around his head. The unadorned, close-fitting hat set off his smooth-shaven chin and high cheekbones, his fleshy lips just a little blue at the centre. He made me think maybe he was Russian, perhaps a Cossack with his high-collared, double-breasted grey coat.
He was holding a long stemmed rose in his right hand, unwrapped and in full bloom, a bright orange rose.
It seemed odd that the rose was unwrapped, unprotected, surely not bought from a florist, had he picked it from a garden? unlikely as this was late December.
I pondered, whilst waiting for my stop, the young man’s eyes were fixed on the floor at his feet, his only movement a gentle rolling of the stem in his fingers. I wondered who he would be meeting, to whom he would present his vibrant flower, orange is a symbol of amusement, the unconventional and the extrovert.
He had dressed carefully, pressed his trousers, polished his shoes, he looked out of place amongst the majority of youths in their casual mismatched clothes, he must be meeting someone important. He seemed serious, perhaps a little anxious though not excited, eager or optimistic.
We both got off at London Bridge station, swept along by the surge of passengers eager to catch their connecting trains to Kent. I tried to keep him in my sights curious to see to whom the orange rose would be delivered, maybe here at London Bridge Station on the gleaming new concourse.

It began close to me, at first a quiet humming like the start of an overture then building into a full-throated a capella song. The young man, a few steps in front of me on the long escalator riding upward into the cathedral-like concourse, had begun to sing in a deep rich voice, a song of haunting melody, of love and warmth and joy, though in a foreign tongue the tone was unmistakeable. All around people ceased talking, stood still and listened as his voice was caught up in the atrium, echoed and multiplied as if in a great concert hall.
It was a Russian song, sung right from his heart to someone he loved.
As we rose up into the open space, the crowds parted letting the singer walk on towards the centre of the concourse where a tiny figure was waiting, dressed in an elegant fur coat and hat. He knelt at her feet holding out the rose as he finished his song. The woman smiling, took the the rose in one hand and his hand in the other and they embraced. My last sight of them was a glimpse of their backs as they made their way to Platform 2 for the 17.28 to Walmer. All seemed right with the world as the the young man slid a protective, guiding arm around the waist of his adored grandmother.

The Past

Sorting through some boxes in my loft, I found a box of letters I had written to my mother, I didn’t know she had kept them – including this tiny photo of a boyfriend from way back. (1968?) Its so interesting to see this young man – I barely recognised him at first sight, the double exposure, showing his profile made me sure.

I spent a day reading the letters, many dating from when I was 16 and gradually dwindling in numbers as telephoning became cheaper and easier. I was astonished by the fact that I seem to be the same person, the hand-writing, the phraseology, the subject matter – just as I might write today. I seem to have had a surprisingly close and frank relationship with my parents – I have always felt that it was so but its been interesting to see the proof.

Boyfriend

London, March 1959

Mr Johnston is late because he spent too long polishing his Italian leather shoes. He is carrying an attaché case containing a camera. He is walking rapidly up Regent Street from Piccadilly Circus where he emerged from the Tube into pale Spring sunshine a few minutes ago. His  Borsalino Fedora is jammed down tight on his head against the wind, his trouser legs are flapping as are the panels of his trench coat.
He frames images in his mind’s eye as he moves swiftly through the crowds, the classical architecture providing a perfect curved backdrop of honey-coloured stone accented with soft shadows in the pale sunlight.
A spotted ribbon lies forlorn on the pavement, an unexpected flash of blue with white spots in a scene of muted colours, on a whim he picks it up, thrusts it deep into his pocket as he rushes on his way.
Coming towards him twenty yards away are a child and her mother, white gloved hands joined between them, he hears the girl sobbing and her mother’s comforting words spoken with a soft French accent, ‘I’m sure we’ll find it before we reach Piccadilly darling, it must have blown away just as we came round that first corner. ‘
Mr Johnston knows right away that they are searching for the ribbon he has found, ‘This must be yours I think’  holding it out to the child. With a smile and a wipe of her gloved hand to dry her tears, she mutters a shy “Thank you” turning to look up at her mother, “You’re very kind”.  Mr Johnston’s  sees the red lipstick, dark curled hair and the green eyes, nods with a smile and walks on.
With every step he takes away from her, the image of her face is brought into sharper contrast until that moment of full focus when he remembers her. The face he has not seen since the summer of 1950, the memory buried deep to lessen the longing, the woman who had meant, still means so much to him. Mr Johnston has to choose, there is everything at stake in this instant.
In one direction lies the most important meeting of his career, an appointment with the Magnum photographic agency, in the other direction the lost love and a girl –  who must be his daughter.
He stops and looks back after them, the words of Cartier Bresson resounding in his brain,
“When events of significance are taking place, when it doesn’t involve a great deal of money and when one is nearby, one must stay photographically in contact with the realities taking place in front of our lenses and not hesitate to sacrifice material comfort and security.”

Dragging his camera from the case as he runs towards them, he calls her name and is ready when Gloria and his daughter turn around and he captures the image that takes him across the dividing line between the involved and the witness, no longer a father or lover but a photographer.

The Langland Bay Annual Tennis Tournament

That morning as we had come round the steep hairpin bend on the number 8 bus from town, the bay shimmered below us, the sea lay unnaturally still and a heat haze had thrown the scene out of focus.

I was hot, way too hot, I could feel the prickling of sunburn starting on my arms and moved further into the shade, my head throbbed. A drop of sweat meandered down my back to join its allies in the waistband of my shorts. “aren’t you hot?’  Jessica, who always looked cool and perfect, shook her head.

We were sitting on the decking step at the back of one of the beach chalets overlooking the tennis courts, waiting for the match to start. I watched Jessica eating an ice-cream, her tongue scooping the dripping stuff round the edge of the cone and sucking the chill sweetness with her unfairly generous lips. I wished I was Jessica.  I licked my fingers, sticky from the ice-cream drips of a 99 flake and rubbed them dry on my blouse. A smear of the white cream on my leg was only slightly paler than my skin despite my having spent all day, every day at the beach all summer, though I did have plenty of freckles on my nose. We lit and shared a No.6 cigarette, one of the two singles we’d bought from the local newsagent, he was always happy to split a pack for teenagers.

Langland Bay was packed that day, it was the annual August Tennis Tournament and all the boys were taking part. I wasn’t interested in tennis, just the boys, just one in particular. Andy Brown was the one, we’d been going out since the 19th of June  and it was our Summer of Love. But this day was his day, he was going to win the tournament.

I was in love in the way that 17 year olds are, I thought I knew all about love and that Andy was ‘the one”. Six foot one, blonde with clear blue eyes and soft lips framing the whitest teeth, his skin the golden brown that only blondes turn in the sun, with the fairest hairs lying along his sinewy arms. He was funny and charming and when he looked at me I felt special, made important by his approval of me. He was in peak condition, when he played he was energetic, fast and he glistened with sweat, it was a sign of heat regulation not stress. The heat was his ally, other contestants found it enervating but he blossomed, the hotter the weather the more he sweated and the better he played, he knew he could win.

Andy was about to play  the final match, standing at the gate to the court having a last fag before he began, smiling with confidence he soaked up the attention from his young girl fans. He was their favourite, all the 10 to 16 year old beach girls knew him, he was their heart-throb. The crowd was eager for the duel, people were restless in their seats, the hum of chatter broken now and then by single shouts of support.
The air felt thick with heat, the smell of sun oil, cigarettes and greasy food from the beach cafe. There was no breeze today. The umpire called for the match to begin, Andy threw me a look and shouted ‘Watch me, I’m going to win‘ and sauntered onto the court.

Jessica was the kind of girl Andy should have been with, she matched him just right, with the long brown legs and luscious blonde hair.  Jessica had other ideas though, she liked older men and Andy liked me for all my chubby whiteness, mousey hair and tendency to overheat.
We stood up straining to see the action over the heads of the people in the court-side seats. Andy intimidated his opponent, he was casual, assured and served a succession of aces. I knew he was going to win but I couldn’t bear to watch. “I’m going for a walk, I’ll be back”

I wandered off and sat on the wall over-looking the bay, out of sight of the court. I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds and breathed in the smells that made up the place. Squeals of delight from children, turning to moaning when they got hot and tired, the smells of pasty and chips with plenty of vinegar, the feel of gritty sand stuck between my toes and the hot tarmac under my feet, my hair stiff with tangles and dried sweat and sea-salt. This place felt full of excitement, the promise of good times to come, it was going to be the best summer.

Hearing the crowd cheering  the end of the match and the chanting AnDy, AnDy, AnDy, I walked back to the court to see not just the Triumphant Champion but my boyfriend tangled in the embrace of my best friend. Jessica seemed to have set aside her penchant for older men in order to bask in the reflected glory, posing as the girlfriend of the winner of the Langland Bay Tennis Tournament.
Neither of them looked up from their embrace or noticed me as I walked past trembling with the shock of the betrayal. I stood in the shade by the pines and watched from a distance, they’d forgotten me. They wandered off in the opposite direction as though they’ve always been together.
I could feel the shame rising into a blush spreading up and across my face, I felt even hotter, though I was in the shade, my blouse was soaked in nervous sweat and I felt sick. I refused to cry, I would not let the tears come, I crossed my arms and pinched the soft flesh inside each arm and bit my lip.

Later on, alone on the number 8 bus, I sat right at the back upstairs, tears seeped down my cheeks on the long ride back into town. If only I had pulled myself together sooner I could have taken appropriate action. I remembered the sand bucket that always sits beside the court, supposedly to put out fires but always full of cigarette stubs. I should have picked it up and thrown it over their heads. I imagined what all that dirty sand mixed with cigarette ash and stubs would have done to his white shorts and Aertex shirt and her smug pink lips and teeth filled with grit. I lit the last No6 and enjoyed the pleasure of not having to share it with Jessica and blew perfect smoke rings with every puff.

Postscript
Langland Bay was never the same after that day, I would go back there every now and then and wonder what had happened to Andy and Jessica, I had not seen either of them since. When my daughter was about 5, I took her with my mum and we sat on the beach making sand castles. As I was looking out to sea a man walked by, slightly stooped, a beer belly and thinning hair. It took me a few seconds to see, it was indeed the champion of the 1967 Tennis Tournament, that perfect specimen of youth and beauty reduced to a dreary Mr Average. I would like to report that I laughed so much that I cried but the only tears that day were my daughter’s when she dropped her ice-cream in the sand.

Neighbourhood Watching – The Final

This series of tales from suburbia is being withdrawn from the public domain within the next few days as I have sold the Rights to a Swiss Film Producer for a ton of cash. So I’m off to the South Seas to while away the time sipping margarhitas, swinging in a hammock over-looking the bluest of seas. I may, or probably not, be accompanied by a suitably gorgeous man, wafting me with a cool breeze from one of those gigantic fans made from banana leaves and discussing the merits of the various creative pursuits I have been exploring.

Come back soon to read more tales from my imagination . . .

Anyone who can’t bear to on go living without having read them could get in touch.

Neighbourhood Watching – Part 4

Its been a week of chopping it seems. Having been away for 6 days I was struck by my changed surroundings when I turned the corner outside No22. The tree, as high as the roof of the two story house in whose garden it resided, opposite the front of my house has been reduced to a 6ft tall stump. To be fair, it was dying, there had only been one branch with leaves this year, 90% of it was dead.  The 20ft radius of its arbour was now brightly sunlit.

This morning men are back, properly attired in hard hats, ear defenders and tough trousers with tool belts. Now the twinned sounds of two chain saws, their pace and pauses just slightly varying, are loud outside my window, one man working on the stump, the other on the finer branches of another still-living tree, one of those self-seeded nondescript trees that seem grow a foot each time you turn your back.
There is a triangular metal sign set across the pathway, reading “Tree Cutting” – helpful if you are deaf but otherwise redundant, though one supposes a legally required warning.
I hope the blind couple who often walk this way are not inconvenienced by the sign across their route.

More cutting has been done in the back garden of the Stomper’s old house. I noticed that one of my shrubs looked odd, it was leaning forward as though it might have been blown by the wind. It is a pyracanthus, tiny evergreen leaves on long waving stems, with equally small white flowers just now, in late June. I planted a dark red flowered clematis at its foot hoping that it would entwine itself through the shrub – it did for a while but no longer. I saw from the bedroom window, looking down onto the pink concrete garden, remnants of my clematis lying wilting on the pink slabs. How sad that the Landlady didn’t discuss it with me, I would have been happy to train it back my way. It is hard to believe that people are such haters of greenery that they must chop away every single bit, whether it belongs to them or not.

A note about walking versus catching the bus : yesterday as I was coming home with a heavy (wheeled) suitcase, I pondered whether or not to catch the bus for 2 stops to save some energy (mine not the bus’s) I saw a young woman with sturdy legs and a Topshop bag waiting there at the stop. As it was a lovely sunny day and I had been cooped up on the train for 5 hours I thought walking would be pleasant and “good for me” and indeed it was. The linden trees that line the route are in flower now and the scent is delicious, light and a wee bit citrussy. All the lawns had been cut and all seemed peaceful in the afternoon sunshine. As I turned into my walkway, the young woman with the sturdy legs crossed in front of me, she had caught the bus the two stops but had not got here any faster. Perhaps, had she walked more often, her legs would be trimmer or perhaps it was all muscle from all the times she too had walked, I don’t know.

The Assassins have cut their front lawn just in time, it was wild with dandelions just about to burst forth their heads of downy-tufted seeds ready to be blown across the neighbourhood.

The roses that surround the corner lawn at No.22 are glorious this year, the best I’ve ever seen them and the scent is strong and lucious with attar. I wonder if Stan would mind if I cut some for a vase?