Jul 122013

Henry Wilson

We set out after lunch, hurrying along the quiet dusty back streets of West Hampstead to the Overground station on West End Lane, just in time to squeeze onto a Stratford train. Body heat radiates through summer dresses, T-shirts, skirts and shorts in the sun-drenched carriage. A sense of expectancy and excitement rises out of the chatter and laughter; a hundred disparate journeys blend into one.

We tunnel under the Finchley Road and on through the lower slopes of Hampstead, bursting out into the light at the little station by the Heath. Through the open doors, the train ticking in the heat, we glimpse an antique platform canopy, white and still against the birch trees cascading down the embankment. We pull out past overgrown allotments to an open view of Parliament Hill, its grassy slope rising above the deserted athletics track, then pass over offices and empty depots and enter a cityscape of slate roofs baking under the hazy blue sky. Reflected sunlight flashes into the carriage as we sweep by Camden Lock.

We get out at Hoxton, passing through the cool brushed steel interior of the station and stumbling out into the sunshine. On the other side of the cobbled road, the Cremer Street Garage boys are gathered for a Saturday-afternoon social, sorting out each other’s cars and taking their ease.

On through the parched expanse of Haggerston Park to Broadway Market. At the canal, cyclists and lovers lounge in the sun outside Lock 7 café-cum-bicycle-repair-shop; across the bridge, Market Café diners spill out onto pavement tables. Two men are larking about on tea-chest bass and snare, laying down a blues soundtrack for the pork pie hats, A-line skirts, checked shirts and summer frocks. We weave our way past racks of vintage clothing and tented stalls of organic vegetables, oysters, fresh meat, patisserie, olives and fruit.

In London Fields, concert-goers relax on the grass in front of a small stage, waiting for the music to begin. We join the queue for the lido and find ourselves in a dazzling confusion of sunlight and spray, splashes and shouts, our bare feet warming on the concrete. The pool is enclosed by neat rows of changing rooms, red roofs hemmed in by the trees beyond. A three-piece jazz band strikes up at the far end, marching through the paddling pool, instruments held high, flashing in the sunlight. As we swim, we see the London Air Ambulance flying low overhead. We eat Portuguese custard pies from the little café and head back out into the park.

A cricket match is taking place on a small, roped-off pitch, watched by waiting batsmen in whites lolling under a clump of trees, chatting with friends and families. We head past them to an open area at the northern end of the park and start a game of catch with our children. A wedding reception is being held a few yards behind us, the bride and groom and their guests grouped around a fold-up table, eating cake and drinking from plastic cups. Suddenly, my daughter dashes across the grass, just in time to catch the bride’s bouquet.

We head back down to the gate. The park is now bathed in the soft golden glow of the late afternoon. The empty concert area is surrounded by blue and white tape and we discover that, while we were in the lido, a couple of local gangs took out their guns and accidentally shot a man.

We walk back to the Overground. The shutter is down on the Cremer Street Garage and the boys have moved on.

Without speaking, we retrace our steps through the empty streets of West Hampstead, the wedding bouquet hanging by my daughter’s side. Over the roofs of Sumatra Road we see the gibbous moon, cold and pale in the darkening sky.

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