The Prodigal Son (29/80)

Tuesday 23 April  – Elm Park (Square B9 on the Tube map), Elverson Road (E7), Embankment (D5)

Assiduous followers of this blog will have noted that, despite the posts coming faster, the dates of the posts are still trailing the posts on TubeforLOLs by a fortnight. For instance, I’m writing this on Wednesday 24 April but you won’t be seeing this until Sunday 5 May. When is that cat going to catch his own tail, I hear you say. When is he going to find time for the important things in life, like cheese for example? Doesn’t he have a life outside TubeforLOLs?  

Alas, dear readers, I’ve been suckered by an idea. What Richard Dawkins calls a meme – the cultural equivalent of a gene, the sole driving force behind natural selection. I have been captured by a daft postulation which has turned itself into a manufactury of meaning. And, just as for Dawkins, all life-forms are but empty vessels at the mercy of their gene-replicators, so I am but a hollow shell commanded hither and thither by the TubeforLOLs meme. It’s not so much a meme as a good old-fashioned virus.

Actually, I’m trying to make up ground. I’m hoping through May and June to get ahead of the game. Then I can take a holiday.

In the meantime, here I am in Elm Park way out east on the District line the other side of Dagenham. It’s warm today. Thoroughly warm. Blissfully warm. This time it has to be Spring.

Platform and platform at Elm Park station.

Platform and platform at Elm Park station.

Classical music welcomes me at Elm Park station (Square B9) at quarter past eleven. I saunter through Elm Park’s small town centre perfectly arranged around a roundabout sponsored by Obsession Bait Shop. I weigh up the pros and cons of the two Bridal Ware shops. I pause at a shop that promises to repair just about any piece of electrical or gardening machinery. I marvel at a place without a Costa. I cast a non-jaundiced eye at a Percy Ingle. I thrill to the number of hardware and we-sell-everything shops selling multi-coloured floor and scrubbing brushes.

There’s a splash of green on the horizon ahead. I reckon that must be Elm Park but are there any elms? There’s a primary school ahead and all the children and helpers are out in the playground in the sun. A good half-dozen of the children have their arms stretched out through low hoop-top fencing stroking a rather fat long-haired sheepdog.

I stop and talk to the sheepdog’s owner. The dog is called Bryn and was born on a sheep-farm near Ruthin in North Wales.

Bryn, The Wee Professor says half-asleep, Welsh for Hill.

How come there’s a sheep-dog from Ruthin living here in Elm Park? I ask.

It’s a long story. A friend of John, Bryn’s owner, worked in the building trade with him but gave it up, went to be a sheep-farmer in North Wales and married a Welsh lass. A nice lass, says John, meaning ‘a nice lass even though she is Welsh’. An outsider.

I wander on and find Elm Park. There are many trees on the other side of the football pitches – willows, evergreens, oaks. But no elms, I think.

Elm Park - but no elms in sight.

Elm Park – but no elms in sight.

I leave Elm Park at around ten to twelve. I get the Jubilee at West Ham, change at Canning Town, get the DLR for Bank and change at Poplar.

I’m at Elverson Road station (E7) by a quarter to one. West of the station is the Stephen Lawrence Centre, Brookmill Park and the Ravensbourne. It’s a lovely pocket park and yesterday was the twentieth anniversary of Stephen’s murder so a kind of remembrance would be in order.

But I’ve never been to the area east of Elverson Road, a Bermuda triangle of beaten down terraces, new-build social housing and brutalist sixties tower blocks, squeezed between the Ravensbourne River, Blackheath and the A2 leading to Shooters Hill to the north.

I’m walking up Nectarine Way towards Orchard Estate. A black guy is coming down the steps that lead through the estate. He’s trim but looks a bit hyper. His clothes look as though they’ve been slept in a few times.

Soldier, man, he says as he approaches. I am a soldier.

Soldier, man, I reply.

He holds out his fist and we tap each other, knuckle to knuckle.

He spots my camera. Hey, man, you’re a photographer.

Eventually, he persuades me to take his photo. I don’t realise it at the time, but that’s the point on which everything that happens later hinges.

My new-found friend is delighted. Hey, wait here. I’m gonna be just two minutes. I’m just gonna buy me Mum a TV comic, I’ll be right back. I want you to come and meet me Mum.

I wait on Nectarine Way and, sure enough, he’s back in less than two minutes. He’s got a TV Times furled under one arm, is holding an opened can of lager in the other. We walk up through Orchard Estate along Russet Way and Quince Road. My friend introduces himself: he’s called Candy Cand. He says he makes music but when he sings – well, he doesn’t sing, he croaks. All the time he’s telling me how important his Mum is to him, how she is old fashioned, how she’ll like me. He’s bigging me up, I can’t figure out why.

Candy on Nectarine Way.

Candy on Nectarine Way.

We cross Lewisham Way. Ahead of us there are two six storey blocks of dirty ribbed concrete arranged like the vanes of a giant propeller. In front of these, sloping down, is an unmown stretch of scrubby grass. A young man and woman are sunbathing, smoking. They look wasted. Candy goes straight up to them, overly friendly. You my main-man, he says to the bloke. To the woman, Girl, you lookin’ good. They eye him, barely responding.

The closer you get to the estate the grimmer it looks. Most of the ground floor windows are boarded up. So are a few of the flats on the upper floors. There’s elaborate security. First, downstairs in the main entrance, a set of armoured doors and an Entryphone system. Mum, it’s me, Candy says. What you want? a voice answers back. I got something for you, he replies.

Candy's Mother lives in the right hand block of flats.

Candy’s Mother lives in the right hand block of flats.

There’s an angry reluctant buzz and the door opens. We go up a few floors, cross over a suspended walkway and come to another set of armoured doors. Candy takes another swig from his can. I’d better ditch this. He puts the can in the corner by the phone. Me Mum is old time, you see. We pass through to a narrow dimly-lit corridor with heavy-duty doors to flats on either side.

He knocks at his Mother’s door, waits, pushes it open. There’s another narrow corridor running parallel with the outside corridor and rooms leading off one side. I follow Candy through and into a narrow living room.

Mum, I got you a TV Times. And I brought you a friend.

His mother is busy in the kitchen, an even narrower room off the living room. She’s a large black woman in a shapeless black dress and a face and body beaten by the years.

The whole flat seems to be a few narrow rooms squashed up to each other. It’s warm in here, very warm. The windows are closed and the curtains drawn shut. A balding man in glasses, vaguely Mediterranean looking is sitting at the table. He’s wearing a suit jacket, jeans and a striped open-necked shirt.

Candy greets him. This is my Uncle Tony. He’s a top man. When I’ve been down, Uncle Tony has always stood by me.

Stop going on at Tony, his Mother shouts at him from the kitchen. Why you going on at him? What you doing here?

I’ve come to visit you, Candy says. You’re my Mother.

You doan soft-soap me, m’ boy.

The two of them carry on like this for some time. Candy praises her, praises Uncle Tony, praises me. She remains suspicious, querulous. Both of them fizz with energy. Tony sits quietly at the table.

Everything Candy says upsets his Mother. I was round at me Father’s the other day, he says, I tell you, Mum, he’s no good.

She comes flying out of the kitchen. Doan you go disrespecting your father, she rages.

Then the next minute she says. The last time your father came round here I had to borrow ten pound from Tony here to call a cab take him home.

Candy shows me the family photographs: faded photos of when he was a toddler, at school, with his mother and siblings. We went everywhere man. Me Mum took us everywhere, we went to Kew.

Stop your fussing, she yells from the kitchen.

There’s my daughter, Candy says, pointing at another photo. She’s twenty now.

I’m staggered. How old are you?

Forty six, he says.

He doesn’t look forty six. He certainly doesn’t act forty six. He acts like he’s still a teenager, a youth. He doesn’t behave like a father.

There’s a lot of history, a lot of conflict between mother and son and between them both and his father. Despite all his protestations that he loves her, she is keeping him at arm’s length. She suspects he is here to wheedle a bed for the night. He says he’d prefer to sleep rough than  put her out.

Lissen, I got no time for all this bisness, she says at the door to the kitchen. Behind her I see she has been buttering bread. There’s a pile of sliced bread ready to be made into sandwiches. I have a funeral this afternoon. I got a lot of preparation to do.

Tony and I take this as a sign to leave. Candy says, You go ahead. I’m faster than you, I’ll catch up with you.

I go out with Tony, past his flat which is along the corridor. I realise how tensed-up I’ve been in the flat. Now, with Tony, I relax. He has an aura of peace about him, an everyday kind of peace. She has had a hard life, he explains, speaking in an Italian accent. Her husband is an alcoholic. Her son is an alcoholic. We shake hands when we part and I walk slowly back down Quince Road and through Russet Way.

At one point in the flat, Candy had alluded to the troubles he’s been through. I’m the prodigal son, he announces. You know the story?

I know the story, who doesn’t? But there are layers of meaning in that parable. The parable, which is about the father’s joy at the prodigal’s return to the fold, is told mainly from the father’s point of view. But what of the prodigal son himself? How easy or difficult is it for him to return to the fold? How true is his return? This is the first time that the prodigal son has returned: would the father have welcomed him on his second, third or fourth return? When is the prodigal really returning, returning for good, returning to the father’s (family’s, society’s) accepted way of life and not merely stopping-off for a piece of rest and recreation?

I dawdle some more on Nectarine Way, look back up the hill, but Candy doesn’t appear. I think about Tony. There was something active about his quietness, something wonderfully compassionate but accepting. I wonder if my encounter wasn’t really about him rather than Candy. I feel that, maybe, I’ve been in the presence of a Taoist sage or a Buddhist bodhisattva.

I’m back at Elverson station before half past one. I take the DLR through to Bank, then the District line westbound. I’m at Embankment station (D5) by two o’clock.

Embankment Gardens with The Savoy in the background.

Embankment Gardens with The Savoy in the background.

Originally, I’d thought of walking across – or at least halfway across – the Hungerford Bridge and admiring the Thames and London in the sun. But I’m hungry. I need to take on some ballast. I buy a vegetarian wrap from World Gourmet Wraps and eat it on a bench in the little park off Villiers Street. I make a voice memo on my iPhone commenting that I cannot honestly recommend my wrap. Behind me young men without any shirts on are singing Blowing in the Wind and Waltzing Matilda. I use the word ‘singing’ loosely. They are croaking; they cannot hold the tune.

I get back to Forest Hill at around twenty past three.

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