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Whispers in the Distance

4 Feb

None of this was written in stone… — Kate Tempest

Perhaps it’s the photograph in the hands of my childhood neighbor, Ivy.  She and her sister before the war.  No sky, no grass, just a dark world of cobblestone and brick out of which smiles her little-girl face. “This is London, “she says.  “This is where I’m from.”

Heathrow, this morning, is an efficient surprise.  Passports scanned and I’m out the door in a matter of minutes, humming along on the Piccadilly line with its armrests and padded seats in the early morning darkness, blowing past the suburbs, straining to catch a glimpse of a slowly illuminating England.

It’s hours before I can check-in so, traveling light, I hop off the train a couple stops early.  Coming above ground to walk the streets of St. James I am reminded of the city’s scent, which I love.  As a young man it seemed an elixir of European cigarettes and the perfumes of foreign women.  But there’s more to it now.  The vast number of trees, the long standing buildings with their aged masonry and wood,  and the river.  These aromas I recognize, but of course there are others, still deeper, less familiar.

Passing St. James Piccadilly, I see the doors are open.  A sign says Friday prayers: 8:30 am, which just happens to be the time.  Stepping inside I take a seat toward the back and, lulled by the gentle call and response of a handful of parishioners, take a moment to settle amidst the warmth and simplicity of this, Christopher Wren’s favorite church.  I say a prayer of gratitude for this gentle welcome, then quietly leave through the door opposite the one I entered, left open to allow the neighborhood a shortcut from Jermyn Street to Piccadilly.  Passing through the courtyard and its preparations for the Friday market, I step through the gate and into the world.

The great illuminated signs of Piccadilly Circus stand precariously above the famous intersection, the buildings that have long supported them largely gone, supported by little more than scaffolding and cloth.  The world behind has been hollowed out, leaving London’s famous landmark little more than a facade.

Always a whirlwind of traffic and tourists, this has never been a place to linger.  But it has been a shared space, where friends meet and newcomers find their feet.  This morning it is largely empty, and as the gray skies brood and the lonely neon glows above the wet pavement, I feel a little lost. It all seems so small.

I long to be here, but it’s hard to say why. There’s mystery involved, which makes it hard to talk about, tending to exasperate those who, having made a religion of certainty, pretend to answers that are beyond them.  This would be funny were it not such a efficient way of pushing a pin through the butterfly of life.

I head off in search of Air Street, find it, and turn back for the view through the arches.  Life, framed by structure, to create beauty well over a century before I was born.  And here I stand.

No longer lost, I head into Soho.