Fiction

EXCERPT: London At Christmas

London Eye

So this is a little excerpt from the longer work I’ve been adding to for some time now. I find myself writing a lot on my little iPhone when I’m taking trains in and out of the city, or when shuttered into the cramped confines of a night bus’s window seat as a drunken gaggle of girls turns the double decker’s stairs into an acidic waterfall. In the weeks that have seen me struck down by the common affliction of writer’s block, it’s these little sojourns that have yielded some of the finest results and vignettes of which I’m truly proud.

This is only part of the little chapter, mind; I can’t be giving everything away.

My spirits are lifted walking around London in the winter. She is a city that looks ill at ease in summer, with the heaving crowds and steaming buildings, the smells of restaurant refuse drifting far and wide. But here in winter she is crisp and clean and, as we near Christmas, she reveals her true colours. And what colours they are.

It’s that time of year when everyone looks to the sky and predicts rain, but the clouds play hardball and refuse to give up their wares. Nonetheless it is cold and everywhere I look I see festive revellers already taking in the pop-up German markets that have moved into various corners of the city, warming themselves with copious amounts of gingerbread lattes by day and mulled wine and cider by night. The brisk chill is kept at bay by scarves and long coats as the summer wardrobe is retired for another year and out come the boots and gloves and cute beanie hats.

The Tube – that frenetic rusting network upon which we rely – is transformed from a sweaty deathtrap into a haven of warmth over the autumnal months and as the weather becomes worse, it seems the smiles Underground increase. A man stepped onto the Piccadilly line yesterday with a small Christmas tree and within the confines of that high-speed tin can the atmosphere lifted. Tube etiquette dictates that you find something interesting on the ceiling or scrutinise the map, constantly wary of making eye contact with another breathing person, god forbid! But the sight of this, admittedly, rather small man struggling with a Christmas tree onto a fairly busy carriage blew all of that out of the water, and our journey through London’s Victorian veins was filled with laughter and merriment.

Outside, the city dresses herself in illuminating beauty, Regent Street and Oxford Street greeting Christmas shoppers with delicate decorations hung across the road, smiling down upon the bustling crowds of busy buyers, ticking things off their lists and yelling disapprovingly at queue cutters. Everyone is scurrying to and fro, gift bags in hands. The city centre is transformed into pockets of little town communities as carollers and bric-a-brac stalls begin appearing in amongst the bustle, familiar songs drifting upon the air from ear to ear.

Children laugh as they spin and glide across the ice in South Kensington, under the sleepy gaze of long-dead dinosaurs, further east other blade-footed adventurers watch the crowds of consumers without envy from their rink beside Marble Arch. Parents bid their kids to be careful, although the younger members of society look far more comfortable skidding and slicing about than the various couples who emerge on first and second dates, with one in every party who agreed to this venture blindly, forgetting that they never could roller blade particularly well either. Still, the gloves break the fall.

But in amongst the beauty there are still signs that all is not well. Last week I was walking down past Charing Cross and there was an old man in fairly nice clothes (well, they weren’t stained rags or anything) slumped, motionless on a bench. I stopped on the other side of the road and lit up a cigarette and began counting. Ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred, two hundred and fifty people went past without so much as a glance at this fellow and I wondered why. Then my phone went and the friend I was supposed to be meeting asked me if I’d gotten lost and I forgot about the man until I got back that evening. And I felt terrible. This city seeps into your pores and collects under your fingernails…