I set out to post the letter at quarter to nine on a Monday evening in June. It’s still light but the sun is setting.
I am wearing jeans and a T-shirt and slip-on sandals. The T-shirt is the oversized red one that makes me feel small and tomboyish. The sandals are silver with sequinned bunches of flowers. I wouldn’t have bought them myself, but Lan was getting rid of them. They remind me of the Chinese green velvet slippers with the bead and sequin peacocks on them that Mum bought when we lived in Gibraltar. I feel like a child, leaving the house without looking in the mirror: no make-up, no contact lenses, hair scraped back. My glasses don’t seem to be quite the right prescription, despite actually being the right prescription, which makes me feel like I’m not quite genuinely out here walking along in the evening sunlight.
It’s the first day of the year I have been out this late without needing a coat.
A man is talking on his mobile, walking in a circle.
A huge bush of white roses bows down over the top of the high, grey-brick garden wall. The insides of the flowers are blushed pink and the petals are starting to drop. A long trail of them has blown all along the back of the wall.
I walk along by the river and turn down the road.
Shiny hoardings have gone up around the flattened piece of land on which apartments are going to be built. The hoardings show photos of the kinds of people the backers would like to buy their flats: smiling as they loop their hands round large mugs of coffee, smiling as they hold out a camera phone to take their photo. One of the images shows a mixed-race couple, to show that This Kind Of Thing Is Fine Nowadays. I think it’s about time they stopped showing photos of the kinds of people they would like to buy their flats, because it’s too bloody patronising.
I go down to the row of shops and post the letter into the red post box.
I turn around and head back the way I’ve come.
Five boys in their teens come out of the convenience store, talking loudly, their long, erratic spider-crab limbs stretching out into my line of vision as they walk to the side of me.
I scrunch up a plastic bag that’s blowing around in the breeze because the waste annoys me.
As I come back up the slight hill into the road that leads to the riverside, my stomach lurches; I’m struck by the beauty of the feeling that, just for a moment, I could be any age from about eleven onwards. At this moment, I could genuinely still be a child. I can see the curl of a piece of hair in my eye line. I can hear the whistle of the wind through my hoop earrings, which always seem to make the wind whistle, small and thin as they are, and gentle as the wind often is.
I cross a stretch of grass dotted with daisies. Only one pigeon flies away as I get closer. I walk along the narrow pathway bordering the rows of old, dark wooden ribs, the remains of the slipway on which the Great Eastern was launched in 1858. The cost of the ship bankrupted Brunel and he died a couple of days before its maiden voyage. The Great Eastern itself was broken up in 1886. All that work, for twenty-eight years of use.
A woman stares after her Alsatian, who is wandering away from her down the grassy slope.
“Come on, Gary. I’m going to give you a smack in a minute and I’m not joking.”
As I pass the expensive apartments of Burrell’s Wharf I look through patio doors to the tasteful decor of the living rooms: wooden flooring, an elegant Japanese carving of a stork.
Burrell’s Wharf was once a dye factory. The smoke billowing out of the boiler chimney showed what colours were being made inside – that, and the workers’ skins at the end of the day, as they trudged out in shades of red or blue or aquamarine. I want to believe, as the heritage sign says, that pigeons with pink-tinted feathers once strutted on the rooftops round here, but I’m not sure I do.
As I’m thinking still of the dyes, the bright piles of pigment laid out inside the shadowy workshops, colours burst in buds around me. So many roses spilling over the grey walls: deepest crimson, orange, brilliant pink.
Three Muslim children, one boy, two girls in headscarves, pull down the white roses so they shower petals like snow over their heads.
“I like these,” says one of the girls.
“Come on, they’re after us,” says the other girl, looking at a far-off point behind me.
“Arooooo!” shouts the boy as the three of them run off with the clattery, over-excited running that children do.
I am thinking: how did I get to be a twenty-nine-year-old woman? And in ten years time I will be thinking: what was she complaining about, only twenty-nine?
I get back into the house. Lan and Scott are lying on the sofa together, watching TV. They haven’t turned the living room light on yet; I can see the blue shine of the twilight across Lan’s legs.
Once, a long time ago, this part of the Isle of Dogs was known as the Land of Promise.
[This piece originally appeared in Smoke 11.]