Thursday, 20 March 2014

Along the Southbank

The water in the Thames is never as blue as it appears on the underground maps. It isn’t as angular, either. As the trains rumble beneath your feet, you’re immediately hit by the cold at street level. People bustle about you, rushing, waiting, bashing against each other. No one ever showed you how to get out of the station – somehow you always knew which way to go – so you turn right and climb the steps of the Millennium Bridge. Here, halfway up, Alex once stopped to help a mother with a pram. You’re still proud to think about it now. At the top of the steps sits a man with no legs; he’s always there with his little cardboard sign begging for change, and you always wonder how he got up here. You walk with your head held high, even though you are secretly terrified of bridges: you’d never survive if it collapsed, or you fell into the water – that disgusting, disease-ridden water of Dickens’ novels. So you look straight ahead and concentrate on getting to the other side. Don’t look down. Don’t look down. Don’t look down. The smell of the dirty water mingles with the heat of roasted chestnuts. You look down. A wave of nausea hits you, and the bridge feels like it sways, and you reach out for support. How did all those skateboards get down onto that pillar? Looking at the view across to the Oxo tower, out to where the shiny Shard stands tall and proud, a photograph flashes into your memory of three friends eating bratwurst on a warm summer evening, reminiscing about university. You all got so giggly about Herman ze German; it seems childish now. Later that night, whilst you were cut off from the rest of the world, London burned in the heat of summer riots. Your idyll was broken by that call from Alexa. You thought it was a joke, but you struggled to get back to Matt’s house in Sutton because Croydon was ablaze. Across the bridge, the old concrete walls of the Southbank Centre rise high, and you know within those walls hides a room full of poetry where you could waste away many a day. You hesitate before descending, torn between wandering towards the London Eye and the Aquarium, or up past the Book Market. But you hate crowds and there are too many people down river, gathering around street performers and food stalls. So you turn left, and think about that trip you took with Robin, when you sat in the sun and he told you he loved you, and later you took him to see Emmy the Great. You wouldn’t have guessed that just six months later her lyrics would take on a completely different meaning. The book market makes you infinitely happy: there’s classics and contemporaries, great tomes of history and tiny poetry leaflets. You spend hours here, circling the stalls like a preying tiger, negotiating with yourself until you find just the right thing to buy – a token of this day. You take your new book and hold it like a precious stone. Further towards London Bridge, you remember a day spent waiting for a phone call, watching the world go by and wondering if you might be able to stay in Sheffield or if you would have to leave the city you love. When they told you your application had been unsuccessful, you pretended it was fine, but you questioned whether you and Sam were cut out for long distance. A sweet, sugary scent tempts you, so you treat yourself to a bag of mini donuts. The balls of dough melt on the tongue, warm and comforting. “What makes you happy?”, Chloe asks; and you wonder if it sounds cheesy to tell her that she makes you happy: her friendship and her conversation and her love. So you tell her about Singin’ in the Rain, which never fails to cheer you up when you’ve been down, and how you’ve been filling your weekends all months to ward off January blues, and, before you know it, you’ve said the cheesy thing you didn’t mean to say. What makes you happy? Moments like these.

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