Looking Glass Language

a word bird reflects on life & language

Time & tide

Time & Tide


A fox slinks under the mooring ropes and disappears between pitch-blackened hulls, returning with muddy socks and a downy, green-gold gosling twitching in his jaws. He trots across the beach and springs onto the steps leading to the Chelsea Embankment, skittering on the peabright algae. The rising tide oozes up through the bubbling, plopping, stinking mud, carving its way in trickles and rivulets that swell to flood the foreshore, wrenching the houseboats from the sludge with great sucking slurps. The boats strain, lurch and rock; then steady to a soporific sway.

Cormorants settle on Stygian wooden piles and stretch out their wings to dry, unruffled by the crashing, clanging and shrieking of mooring chains and bucking gangplanks.

All this is timeless. Unchanging.
A curved carmine roof appears over the hump of Battersea Bridge (military twill-green, traced with gilt): the Number 19 starting out on its hour-long journey to Finsbury Park. Settled in my favourite seat at the front top left of the 19, lulled to semi-slumber by the rumbling, jolting motion of the bus, I’m haunted by ghost images, which blur the view outside the window.

Battersea Bridge, sari-bright in turquoise, orange, and red.

Patrick staring out from the curtain-less window of his flat in Dacre House, his only company a crucifix, a typed sheet giving dates and times of hospital appointments and home help visits, and a faded postcard sent 20 years ago from Donegal by his favourite sister, dead from cancer in 1968.

A seminarian turning his key in the door to Allen House, glancing back towards the road before slipping softly inside. The building’s handsome Georgian façade pressing up against the concrete lattice of the Chapel of the Most Holy Sacrament like a supplicant pressing his shame-flushed face into a confessional grill.

A Ferrari passing The Bluebird Café, the growling whoomph of its V8 engines drowning out the sound of suped-up Hot Rods, Mustangs and Model ‘A’ Roadsters posing in the cobbled courtyard on the King’s Road Cruise, in its 1980s heyday. Harley Davidsons crowding the lay-by by the Chelsea Registry office, motorists honking their horns at the dismounting bride, groom, and guests, all dressed in leathers. Cathy, the Big Issue seller, flagging down a taxi from her patch at Waitrose for a regular who’s laden with shopping bags.

Terence Stamp grinning down at me from an open-backed, silver-poled Number 19 Routemaster, dazzling and dangerous as Sergeant Troy in his cochineal jacket feinting at Bathsheba with his rapier.

A Chelsea Pensioner, parade ground-smart in blood red jacket and mourning-black tricorn hat, trundling past Peter Jones on his mobility scooter.

The audience holding its collective breath at the Royal Court in Sloane Square as Alan Rickman’s Valmont approaches the sleeping convent girl and slowly, and sensuously insinuates his hand under the hem of her nightdress.

Japanese tourists with asymmetric haircuts posing in front of Harvey Nic’s – crowned for Fashion Week ’98 by a monumental golden sculpture snaking in and out of the windows.

The heaving bar at the Curzon Cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue, rammed with the ‘Knit one, Pearl & Dean one’ knitters’ film club, there to watch ‘The Boat that Rocked’.

Three shades of red jostling each other on the Blackstock Road: the Marlboro packetred of the Rais News & Tobacco fascia; the old-blood-colour of the awning of El Baraka Butcher’s, ‘Halal Meat’ spelled out in coiling white letters like plump intestines; and the coxcomb-red of the ‘Perfect Fried Chicken’ sign. Mel, sitting pixie-like on the floor in the flat above the fried chicken shop, sipping cider, the sweet raisin smell of her rollie masking the stench of stale cooking fat in the flat she’ll sell in 2002.

Finsbury Park, and ‘my’ room at the home of my best friend, who throws her head back when she laughs, twists her mouth to puff out her cigarette smoke and leaves ruby-red stains on her wine glasses and coffee cups.


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