The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry
My name is Emily. Five days a week I board a large metal box that transports me to the very heart of a world-famous city called London. Upon my arrival at Liverpool Street station the carriage doors slide away and I step from the confines of the train into a huge void punctured by thin painted columns. They stretch up to support a network of deep blue arches, criss-crossed beneath a giant spider’s web of translucent panels. At the barrier a touch of my blue card allows me entry into a world that has been regaled, lauded and sung about; a place far removed from the tired and sprawling suburbs of my home town. It is my daily version of ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’ - yet our capital is no Narnia.
It takes me seven minutes to walk to my place of work, and across this short journey I experience the best and the worst of our vibrant city. I leave the faded grandiose of Liverpool Street station via a rickety escalator who’s bearings strain each morning whilst delivering vast swathes of workers up to street level. Emerging from the opening where the station sits like a gaping cavern, London confronts me, challenging my senses with its many sounds, sights and smells.
To the West the famous curve of the Gherkin lords over the financial district, but my destination lies in the East.
I turn left and move up above the street level onto the ‘high walk’, a clean, hard and precise alternative to the older mood of Bishopsgate. This is the exclusive domain of City boys and girls, who stride into and then out from coffee shops before treading the vast marble foyers of their skyscraper workplaces.
Their heavy granite pillars force upward, each cutting a solid path through the air, creating a protected vacuum of space above me. Tables and up-turned chairs litter the protruding bays, which become platforms for after-work ‘networking’ - where one can find in just a few minutes if the city has uncovered you as relevant or waste.
Returning to street level, I look above to a tall structure of steel and glass that fans outward like a horizontal wave onto a shore of empty space, where the City halts and East London begins. A little beyond this tear within the urban fabric the buildings once again come alive, but move to a more eclectic dance of style and form.
Tattered pieces of chipboard cover up old window openings behind recessed alcoves, which do nothing to conceal the city’s embarrassment. This morning I see an old man sheltering there, his lank, greasy hair falling down around his furrowed face, one that is not welcome by the networking suits.
He has a dog. As I walk past, the mangy thing lifts his head and stares at me with sombre brown eyes that have yet to see a brighter side of life. I give him a small smile, in the chance he’ll understand that although a hard place, the city can offer hope and that behind its hustle and bustle, it can offer a little compassion.
Bright, luminous graffiti screams out at me in alien words, transforming the brickwork of a past world as I make a sharp right into an undisclosed alleyway. My nose wrinkles in anticipation of the sharp smell of ammonia that hits the back of my nostrils. ‘One man’s passage, another man’s urinal’, I grimly consider, as I continue my journey past the wonky street lamps, mindful to avoid small little puddles collected between the uneven paving stones.
Tall warehouses rise up behind a high steel gate in the open space that prevails at the end of this hidden passage. Their many large and yawning openings, edged in charcoal coloured frames, are almost imperceptible against the darkness inside them. Places that were built to be inhabited and useful but now neglected, standing empty. I can only but accept their futile existence.
I cross the cobbled pavement at Fleur de Lis Street. The beautiful Victorian form of the Commercial Tavern with its high arched windows rimmed in white, stands ahead of me, set in the very heart of Shoreditch. My colleagues gather there every Friday after work, to drink gin in tall tumblers and frothy beer in bubbled pint glasses. Its shabby chic interior is atypical of East London bars; the ceilings strung with a mish-mash of chandeliers and walls covered in tiny jigsaw pieces, a world away from the ‘fashionable’ but bland wine bars of my home town.
‘YOU’VE LEFT THE OVEN ON’ claims black capital letters printed on a darkened brick wall, almost invisible… Blink and you’d miss them but not before they’ve left their mark on your subconscious.
Horizontal timber slats stand to mark my destination. Their warm tones and orientation reveal out against the vertical brick and stonework of Commercial Street. I type my entry pin code which commands a small section to move away, allowing me to enter a little courtyard. The young silver birch trees cast a dappled shadow over the bicycles that litter the perimeter, and the Ping-Pong table stands ready for lunchtime games. But this is a private space, reserved for a few, my own part of London, and this is my own secret garden safe inside, away from the frenzied City streets - my oasis of calm.
I check my watch, seven minutes until 9:30am. My name is Emily and I have arrived.