Church Lane, Leytonstone, 16th May 2022
Updated: Jun 12
The sound of a million honking seals bursts from the Argos on Leytonstone High Road. I peer into the darkness of the shop from the sunlit street and see nothing that could possibly have made such a sound. I take a swig from my bottle of water, re-adjust my backpack and continue on my way, taking a left down Church Lane, away from the traffic.
Halfway down Church Lane, past Leo’s Bar and Grill , I cross to a bench situated beneath a canopy of overhanging branches, festooned with wide green leaves. The bench leans against the walled churchyard of the Church of St. John the Baptist. I glance through the metal spiked railings atop the wall into the churchyard itself, at the gravestones emerging from the ground like broken teeth. And I wonder what it was like when there was no churchyard, when there was no church, when there was no here at all.
I sit on the bench and fetch my foil wrapped cheese, cucumber and salad cream sandwiches from my backpack. The bread is dry and the cheese clumsily cut. But the salad cream and cucumber give it at least the illusion of being edible. I wash the first mouthful of sandwich down with some water. A man in a scruffy charcoal anorak, hood down revealing a face haggard and weary, plunges his hand into a bin directly opposite me and comes up clutching a newspaper. The man studies the front page of the newspaper for the briefest of moments before dropping it back into the bin. He shuffles to the next bin along the lane - not more than ten yards away - and repeats the process. This time, however, he folds the newspaper in half and tucks it under his arm, striding away like a city gent late for a meeting.
I take another bite of my sandwich. Several pieces of broken cheese tumble onto the pavement. A pigeon lands by the side of the bench and saunters towards the cheese without a care in the world.
Rather him than me.
Four loud thumps to my right. I turn my head and see three policemen standing outside the printing shop, one speaking in earnest to a well-dressed man in a faun overcoat, another peering into the shop window through cupped hands, the last banging sharply on the door with his fist. The door opens. The policeman peering through cupped hands says something to his colleagues and retires to the police van parked across the road. The policeman banging on the door enters the premises, reappearing moments later. An elderly man, red-faced and puffing, shuffles along the street, taking a moment to exchange pleasantries with the two policemen and the well-dressed man. An expansive wave of the hand and a wide smile, and he is heading in my direction.
It doesn’t take long for him to arrive. He pauses briefly before me.
‘Past sixty and life’s a bastard,’ he says, in the tone of a man who’s repeated the same line to a dozen people already today.
‘Fifty two and feeling it already, mate,’ I say.
Playing the game. Dancing the dance.
The elderly man smiles wide and chuckles, and stumbles past me towards the High Road.
On the other side of the road, a short shaven-haired man, a grubby, too long, grey T-shirt hanging low over dark, baggy tracksuit bottoms appears from behind a parked white rental van, and lumbers towards one of the bins. Once there, he leans on the bin with one hand and reaches in with the other.
An expression of confusion and anger flashes across his face, and the booming, honking sound I heard earlier emanates from what must be the very depths of his being. Not one of the few passers-by makes as much as a misstep or casts a single glance, though I must admit to feeling a little shaken. Neither of the two policemen by the printing shop across from the man, nor the one now in the police van - parked just up from the bins - make a move to intervene. This surprises me, though my surprise is probably more an indictment on me than them.
Intervene? Intervene why? Intervene in what?
Nothing to see here, sir.
Just a local man going about his business.
And it is. It really is.
The man tries the next bin, coming up empty-handed once more. A grunt and a growl, another booming honk, and he steps through the open front of Leo’s Bar and Grill as if he owns the place.
And perhaps he does.
I take another bite of my disintegrating sandwich, and wish I’d bought one from the Sainsbury’s a bit further up.
A thin, blonde woman in bright colours and tied back blonde hair sits on the bench next to me, parking a pushchair in front of her containing a little girl of about three. The little girl is gazing across the road at the open front of Leo’s Bar and Grill, transfixed at the barrage of grunting and honking coming from within.
And I wonder what memory this will become for her when, she is in her eighties or her nineties, this little girl? Her pushchair swapped for a different steel-tubed chair, her mother no more, her father, both her husbands and all her children long departed this world. Gone too, the best friend who will spend a lifetime supporting her through one abusive relationship after another and another, and another, until she too passes. And everyone else here today on this street, on this beautiful, sunny day in Leytonstone, East London, so long ago, all gone.
Destined to grow old alone, her mind shattered, her body broken, the sound of a million honking seals the only thing that remains.