My eyes slowly peeled themselves open as the excited screams of toddlers rattled in my skull. Unlike my young half-siblings, I spent my first moments awake on Christmas morning on the tips of my toes peeking out of the tiny window in my dad’s spare bedroom. My eyes scanned over the suburban backyards of London. Sinewy branches slumped over neatly trimmed hedges and stubbled Astroturf. Flickers of muted orange foxes vanished at the sound of Wellington boots slapping together. The clouds were sleeping in as always. A dark fluff slouched over the city in a perpetual dusk. It blocked out any sliver of sky that tried sneaking through. I looked away from the window, there’s no snow. One of the few things that I told myself would make the 23-hour flight worth it would be a white Christmas. But, as I came to realise, London doesn’t share very well. The clouds sit just above, hoarding their precious white jewels and occasionally flaunting them with loud displays of torrential rain. But rarely ever sharing a slice of their winter wealth.
I made my way downstairs, naïvely expecting the house to breathe with the smell of sweet wood fire and warm gingerbread. Instead, the wood fire was played on the TV and gingerbread was served cold and tough. My brother and I sat on small ottomans and watched our half-siblings open present after present that would be broken and abandoned within a week. We came to London to visit our dad and his family as a part of the one on, one off Christmas deal he had with our mum.
For the entire 18-day trip I had to wear an ill-fitting smile, as the knowledge of my mum spending Christmas alone flashed in my head. I got off the plane in Heathrow already dreading London. My feelings were reaffirmed when I watched its streets pass by through the window of the taxi taking us from the airport to my dad’s house. Streets lined with bins vomiting mountains of trash and with orphaned stores abused by spray paint.
Dad’s house was a lanky one in an endless matching set of conjoined townhouses on the edge of Stoke-Newington. The streets of Stoke stained my foreign nostrils with the smell of beer, or piss, which is why I was stunned to find out it was one of the more desirable postcodes. Stoke is in the Hackney borough, which has the fourth highest rate of knife crime in London. Dad thought it would be nice to take us for a wander through what he referred to as ‘Stab City’.
The sun had clocked out at 3pm and grimy yellow lights tinted the puddled streets. A fumy smell drifted through the alleys carried by a bitter breeze that sliced into your core, no matter how many layers you were wearing. Kids were just released from school and it was bizarre to see them walking home in a blanket of darkness. Instead of going home though, some kids went to one of the thousands of local fried chicken shops. We walked past a crowd of teens standing outside in the black chill with sticky crumbs caking their icy fingers and snug puffer jackets. Pallid snot dripped out of their red noses which they wiped with their forearms onto their stinging cheeks. One piercing look back from the group compelled me to stare at the ground as we passed. I breathed easier knowing we were nearly back at my dad’s house. Tonight was nearly over and then it would only be 17 days until I was home. A wiry woman with one sleeve rolled above her elbow plotted down the street towards us. She walked like someone was controlling her limbs with strings. I watched her settle down for the night at the bottom of the stairs to someone’s home.
‘Let’s cross the road,’ Dad said.
That was the first time London’s homelessness issue hit me. The people wealthy enough to own homes hoard them and charge extortionately high rent prices. For the lower income population, they must either settle in a borough that is hours from central London or sleep in the doorways of cocktail bars.
17 days, I told myself.
The next morning, we were up at 5am, the sky the same shade of obsidian as when I’d last seen it. We were going mud larking. Leading up to the trip, Dad had been gushing about how much fun it was, knee deep in the cold banks of the Thames searching for what grim relics London would give us that day.
‘The guide lets us keep what we find,’ Dad said. ‘Mostly you find horse teeth and bits of old plates.’ He emptied their findings from their last trip onto a table and picked up a small metal ball, ‘But we got lucky and found a couple of bullets.’
‘I wonder what we’ll find,’ I said with a smile.
We geared up in drab overalls and knee-high black Wellingtons and followed our guide into the river. The banks of the Thames were soggy with briny sludge, perfect mud larking conditions. Immediately, I spotted a small white object sticking out of the mud.
‘Check this out.’
‘A horse tooth,’ the guide said. ‘If you’re unlucky, that’s all you’ll find.’
I frowned and dropped it back into the mud. Until noon, we waded through the mud, mostly finding shards of old porcelain, while our guide detailed his most interesting finds from previous trips.
‘I’ve found a couple of shark teeth over the years. One time I found an ancient Roman coin. What else? Plenty of torture devices.’
I listened intently as I picked up and dropped another horse tooth.
‘How do they end up here?’ I asked.
‘When people want to get rid of something, they chuck it overboard. Some people have even found murder weapons.’
When we’d finished, we laid out all our finds in front of us. Shards of porcelain with interesting designs mostly. A couple of especially big horse teeth and what I thought was a bone that just turned out to be an odd-shaped rock.
‘Didn’t have much to give us today,’ Dad said. ‘Next time you visit we’ll have another go.’
I wasted the rest of those days avoiding Stab City by wandering around in the heart of London’s business district. A skinny alleyway separated a clean-cut office building and a rugged pub that was built in the dark ages. I looked down and saw rows of people cooped up in sleeping bags under an awning. A thick stream of rain poured down onto one of the bags and the person inside shuffled like a grub out of its radius. The sky was a grim reflection of the uneven cobblestone alley. We took a short cab ride to a street that was just a quick walk from Buckingham Palace. In the distance, I could see it flaunting its privacy with tall, black gates adorned in golden crests. Closer to me was a muddy woman sitting on Tupperware handing out newspapers for a couple pence each. People in long suit jackets clutched their Apple Watches as they walked past her.
For lunch, we stopped at a pub with a tiny door.
‘It’s one of the oldest in London,’ Dad said.
I soon realised just how old he meant when I hit my head on the ceiling going down the stairs.
‘When they built it, people were much shorter,’ he laughed as he rubbed my sore scalp.
On the tables there was a small sticker that demanded you turn off your phones to respect the history of the establishment. I ordered bangers and mash as I thought it fit the tiny, brick pub’s mood the best.
‘Did you see those homeless people?’ I asked my dad.
‘Yeah, there’s a lot of them. That’s just how it is,’ he said.
‘Not back in Brisbane.’
‘A lot more people here than Brisbane. Government doesn’t care to help them.’
I thought back to being among a crowd of tourists admiring Buckingham Palace, when a few meters away at Grosvenor Place, people were sleeping on flattened cardboard. The Royal Family was just inside the Palace, enjoying their 775 rooms. With a few redesigns, it could provide living arrangements for 50,000 Londoners. I think I would get a white Christmas before the Royal Family did that.
Buckingham Palace left a spoiled taste in my mouth, so I spent the rest of the trip disinterested in perusing the many white-gold palaces and medieval courts. I feigned interest in these buildings until we went shopping, where I wildly spent my dad’s money as a kind of therapy. We raided the stores on Oxford and Regent street for clothes that I cringe at now, wondering what I was thinking when I bought them. In particular, a pair of tracksuit pants I bought, that on the outside seem normal but on the inside are lined with a thick, blonde fur. It meant I couldn’t wear them in Brisbane’s eternal summer without souring them in sweat.
On our way home we stopped at a vintage store in Stoke. An old, brick factory that was packed with overpriced hand-me-downs. We exited the store, bags of dreadful clothes in-hand, and I noticed a shattered but still operational bus stop just outside. A man was wrapped in tattered jackets and laying on the puddled pavement next to the stop. People stood beside him waiting for the next double decker to pull up, ignoring him. I wondered if they stood next to him every day while they waited for the bus. Dad handed the man 10 quid and made small conversation with him. A crusty beanie surrounded the man’s young olive face and he spoke with a Mediterranean accent.
A couple weeks after my brother and I flew back home to Brisbane, my dad called.
‘Do you remember the homeless guy just around the corner from my house, outside the vintage store?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Oh, well he passed away the other day.’
He froze in the cold overnight in the same spot I saw him, and presumably died of pneumonia or hypothermia. I don’t think anyone knew and I wondered if anyone cared to know. I don’t know why my dad told me, maybe it made him feel the same way I did. I could only remember the man at the bus stop if I crammed my eyes shut and thought hard. I felt like the people who stood next to him at the bus stop.
I was glad to be home again though, away from the piss-soaked walls plastered with graffiti and away from the sleeping bags in the rain. It felt strange the first time I had to turn my fan on in a futile attempt to combat the Queensland sun. I longed for the reliability of London’s grey, woollen clouds. The comfort that no matter what happened, they would always be waiting for me out the window. I hadn’t looked at the clouds hard enough when I was there. I only saw the glum and hopeless surface but didn’t see the warm white jewels hidden within until I was back in Brisbane, sweating through my t-shirt. The next time it rained, I thought about London. The smell of snug honey that filled the cafés and the soft hug of the wringed out skies. I chucked on my tracksuit pants stuffed with blonde fur and watched the raindrops trickle down my windowsill. I imagined them settling into a crack in a damp cobblestone street below my room.
Two more years.
Oliver North is a London-born, Australian-raised BFA Creative Writing first year. His writing meditates on the key events in our lives that have shaped our characters. He also wants to let you know that he once got thrown down the stairs at Dan Flashes.