I came to a stop at the corner of the sidewalk, by the traffic lights. To my right was a small street I had never paid attention to. On the one side stood a tall modern apartment block. On the other 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 hard, propping each other up.
I walked down the street, letting the threads of time on either side caress me as I made my way through, wondering what could have taken place there 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 a few scattered dwellings.
As for the church, that imposing structure towering above me, I surmised its purpose and effect. It had probably shone as bright and natural as the apartment block now towering above it. A sign of the times, standing out among whatever lay across it, laying claim to the agency of a bygone era.
Edifices are excellent indicators of time. Reality is defined, represented, to be more accurate, by the buildings that seem natural at any given point in time. They reflect the spirit of the times. Churches do not seem natural anymore. They may be interwoven with everything else, but they stick out like sore thumbs and reused bandages.
I walked on down the road, where the two eras met, thinking about present, past and future tense. A warm rush came over me. I was swimming in the river of time, immersed in the power of two distinct periods pushing against the other, carrying me along for the ride.
I closed my eyes, letting the process suffuse me.
When I opened my eyes again, I was standing inches away from a wide town car, my shins uncomfortably close to the tan black fender. There was a man inside, in the driver’s seat, gawking at me. He slid his window down.
‘You alright there?’
‘Yeah, I’m fine, fine,’ I blurted, trying to swallow my shock and embarrassment. I crossed the narrow street to the other side and resumed my walk. My gait quickened. My eyes wide open. The warm rush had given way to a sharp chill. I wanted to be home, in my own space. The church bell rang loudly behind me. An ambulance siren blared in the distance. A garbage truck rushed by, roaring its way through, scraping the walls of the narrow streets. The whiff of garbage choked me.
I ran down the street, turned right, then left, meandering through the maze toward my part of town. A woman holding a professional-looking camera was taking pictures of an Italian cafe. The smell of coffee beans took hold of me. I took a deep breath and the woman noticed and grinned. A bearded guy with a tired face was selling the Big Issue outside a Tesco 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. I wished him a good evening and he wished me one back. Was I tending to his loneliness or mine?
I walked on down the road, Big Issue in my hand. Big issue on my mind.
Home. I was heading there. Where was that poor fellow going at the end of his shift? Did he have a home? He looked fairly well kempt, but that didn’t mean anything. For all I knew he could be going back to a stitched-up crate, the kind I see near the office, where a man has been camping during the past three months. Hell, he could be him for all I knew. I never saw his face, only a body resting inside that box, wrapped up in rags, trying to keep warm in the freezing weather.
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 resumed walking, but a sense of unease was nagging at me. I stepped into the middle of the street again, trying to rekindle some of that warm rush that had taken a hold of me earlier, but there was no old church rubbing against the modern buildings to create magnetism. Just blocks, modern apartment buildings looming around, standing tall, clean, bright, with lit windows shining warm and comfy over the street, like candle flames inside punctured tents during a dark, cold night. Scores of them and not a church in sight.
Yep, you can tell the time you live in by the buildings that seem normal. No churches and other places of worship for people to pray their problems away. Just good, solid edifices to keep them safe, providing roof, solving our problems the practical way.
And yet there are still homeless people out there, surviving on the Big Issue, going back to stitched-up crates for the night. How on earth could this be happening in the era of accommodation?
Time may have moved on but some things have not changed.