I came to a stop at the corner of the sidewalk, by the traffic lights. The night sky was a pale orange, the hue of light pollution on clouds and air pollution, the glare of urban progress. I rubbed my hands to get the blood flowing. To my right was a small street I had never paid attention to. I walked down its middle, its sole occupant for the moment. On my left stood a tall modern apartment block. Next to it loomed an austere church.
At least five hundred years must have separated the two buildings. They couldn’t be more distinct, yet they seemed to lean on one another, resting against each other — or perhaps pushing against each other hard, with spite — propping up one another as they did.
I paused for a moment, letting the threads of time caress me, wondering what could have taken place here five hundred years ago. The modern building did not exist at the time. What stood in its stead? Other buildings? Huts? Perhaps nothing at all, a barren field with scattered dwellings.
As for the church, an imposing structure in its own right, I surmised its purpose and effect. It had probably shone as bright and natural as the apartment block now towering above it in turn. A sign of the times back then, standing out among whatever lay across it, a symbol of authority and guidance, laying claim to the agency of bygone eras.
Edifices are excellent indicators of time. Reality is defined, represented, to be more accurate, by the buildings that feel natural at any given point in history. They reflect the zeitgeist and reveal our invisible threads.
Churches don’t feel natural anymore. They may be interwoven and meshed with everything else, but they stick out like reused bandages.
I walked down the side street where these two eras met, thinking about present, past, and future tense. A warm rush came over me. I closed my eyes, letting the moment suffuse me, swimming in the river of time, immersed in the power of two distinct periods pushing against each other, carrying me along for the ride.
When I came to, I was standing inches away from a wide town car, my shins dangerously close to the tan black fender. The driver was gawking at me. He slid his window down.
‘You all right, mate?’
‘Yeah, I’m fine, fine,’ I said, swallowing my embarrassment. I got on the pavement and resumed my walk, my eyes yanked open. My gait quickened. The warm rush gave way to a chill. I wanted to be home, snap, in my personal space. The church bell struck behind me, seven wholesome peels. An ambulance siren blared in the distance. A garbage truck roared through the narrow streets, almost scraping the walls. The whiff of garbage went straight for my throat, like a chokehold.
I turned right, left, fast pace, weaving my way to my part of town. A woman holding a professional-looking camera was taking pictures of an Italian cafe. The smell of coffee beans washed away the sting of garbage, sat on my nose and throat like balsam. I took a thankful breath and the woman noticed and grinned, snapped a picture. A bearded guy with a tired face stood outside a Tesco store a few paces ahead. I passed him by, barely looking at him, then regretted it, turned back, went up to him and asked for a copy of the Big Issue. He said he was running out of copies — would I mind paying for one without getting a copy? If he ran out, the store would chase him away. I gave him two pounds and wished him a good evening and he wished me one back. I felt warm again, but wasn’t sure I was tending to his loneliness or mine.
I walked down the street, Big issue on my mind.
Home. I was headed there. Where was that poor fellow headed at the end of his shift? Did he have a home? He looked well-kempt, but that meant nothing. For all I knew he could be going back to a stitched-up crate, the kind I see near the office everyday, where a man has been camping for the past three months. Hell, he could be that guy for all I knew. I never saw his face, only a body resting inside that box, wrapped up in rags, trying to keep warm.
How do I know it’s a man and not a woman? In all my life I have never seen a woman sleeping on the streets of London. Ever.
I looked back. The bearded man was talking to the lady with the camera. Good. Good. I felt the pressure lift, which made me feel guilty and self-conscious, but only for a moment.
I was almost home now, high street stores left and right, selling clothes and sports equipment, cell phones and electronics. I felt uneasy, as if my world lacked something. Like when coming back from a trip in the woods, back to comfort and safety, grateful to be there, but something’s missing. I turned into a quiet side street and stepped into the middle of it, just like before, eager to rekindle the warm rush that had taken a hold of me earlier, but there was no old church rubbing against the modern buildings, no historical magnetism to draw my blood. Just blocks of flats, glass-heavy apartment buildings looming around, six-seven storeys high, West-end style, clean, bright, with lit windows shining warm and comfy over the street like candle flames inside camping tents on a dark, cold night. Scores of them, and not a church in sight.
Yes, you can tell the times you live in by the buildings that feel normal. No churches and other places of worship for people to pray their problems away. Divinity had gone away a long time ago. In its stead rose shiny, solid edifices to keep people safe, providing us with shelter and nourishment, a connection to the outside via a sprawling world-wide-web, solving our problems the practical way. Technology tends to our needs. The line to the heavens is dead, replaced by billions of digital channels, our access to each other perpetual and growing, our needs met in a day, sometimes an instant.
And yet there are still homeless people on the streets, surviving on the Big Issue, going back to stitched-up crates for the night.
How on earth can this be happening in the era of accommodation?
Time has moved on, but some things have not changed.
I pushed open the door of my building and a wave of warm air hit my face. I took the stairs up to burn a few more calories, double-locked the door behind me and put on a Spotify playlist. I had a hot shower, scrubbing hard with my loofa to get the grime off my hair and skin, applied my daily dose of face balm, poured myself a triple whisky and turned on the TV. Soon I was asleep, the Netflix algorithm cranking out episodes of Crown on autoplay.