Crows, fog and Camden Town

At half-past eight this morning I looked out the bedroom window. Not having any curtains as yet is a great advantage in some ways. Immediately you are awake you can judge the day by the quality of the light pervading the room. This morning there was a fog all around the house, one of those beautiful fogs I could see straight away that give all the day’s outdoor activities a mixture of sensations. Fog isolates, creates nostalgia and by changing radically our view, enhances reality for us. Far from clouding or obscuring our vision, a foggy morning clears our perspective for us, just as much as the breathing of sharp frosty air at night.

Beyond the barbed wire fence a flock of crows were settled on the stubble of last year’s barley. The fog made them seem even more silent than they actually were. I could see them quite clearly although I could not see as far as the ditch at the end of the field. Feeling delighted with the morning I turned away from the window and went towards the kitchen. My wife was still perfectly asleep and I had no desire to waken her. This was a morning I wanted to carry out some simple tasks, on my own, and savour the richness of every dripping blade of grass and all that foraging flock of black, silent, crows.

While the kettle was boiling for the tea I was outside, the wet grass slithering across my wellingtons. I had a Wrangler jacket hanging on the clothes line from the evening before. I knew that there would be no point in leaving the jacket outside, dripping in all that clammy dampness, but apart from that I wanted to be out there, not safely cocooned inside behind cavity walls and teak windows. Out there everything was damp and silent and had the added mystery of trees and bushes looming up out of the mist. The sleeves of the jacket, trailing down towards the mud, were navy where the water had collected and the rest of the jacket was a very bright blue. Little beads of water had collected at the end of each of the brass buttons. Feeling very efficient I turned towards the door again and at that moment the crows lifted off from the ground, en masse, and flew furiously over the house.

I stood rooted to the ground, clutching the damp jacket in my hand. The crows flew over the house without as much as one beak opening to emit a sound, no caw, no screech, no raucous chorus of voices together, just a mad headlong rushing and whirring of wings together. The effect was eerie, totally in keeping with my mood that morning, wings fluttered in my memory and I remembered…

“Excuse me, could you give me some money please?” said the girl, very politely.

I looked at her, too tired to be surprised. She was smaller than I am, by about six inches, she was tubby, wearing shapeless clothes. A round knitted cap sitting on her short straight hair accentuated the moon-shaped face, the chubby nose supporting a pair of circular, rimless, spectacles.

“Sorry?” I said.

Around us the traffic roared like a nearby waterfall along the Camden High Street. I had turned around at her question so that I was now facing down the road towards Mornington Crescent. That was a long five, maybe ten, minutes walk back there. I knew that over my shoulder she could see the dingy rust-red boards and slight rise in the road that marked the line of the canal.

“I said, could I have some money please?”

I had maybe seventy-eight pence left until one o’clock the following day, Friday. Then, at one o’clock, Nobby, Jack and myself, wearing our dirty painters’ overalls, would go in to the Post Office Workers’ canteen in the Mornington Crescent Sorting Office and sit around a table watching Danny Webster play games with his calculator and finally tell us how much we now owed the firm but that we could draw an advance on the following week’s wages. I laughed quietly and said to the girl, “do you think I’d be walking home if I’d the bus fare?”

“Oh,” she paused, “haven’t you got the bus fare then?”

The calculator would be worked and then I’d be told that all the work of the previous five days would be worthless because I still had to put the gloss on those windows. After all, we were paid, as I was told starting out, by the amount of work produced, but they’d see me all right and if I wanted an advance it couldn’t be too much on account of last week’s advance. I wouldn’t understand it and even if I did I didn’t think that would really matter anyway. I should have known when I started and Webster, in his spotless executive suit with matching tie and handkerchief, told me he was Irish too. There we were, driving from the company yard in Webster’s Rover, trying to get on friendly terms with me he told me he was Irish. I must have been asleep not to realise what sort of an outfit I was getting into. That same day he told me there was only one thing to remember on a job like this, never discuss your wages with any of the other men.

I looked at the girl again and said, “no, sorry. Honestly, I have nothing at all.”

Neither of us had moved very much since she first spoke, just a curious kind of shuffle around the pavement. Across the road I could see the Compendium Bookshop. I’d gone in there one evening; they had a fantastic selection of books, things I had wanted to read for years, from the “Whole Earth Catalogue” down. They had a notice board with personal ads and leaflets clinging to it. The ads were fascinating – “People with limited capital to join commune in Norfolk” – that sort of back-to-the-land thing. The roaring sound and speed of the traffic around us seemed to intensify our immobility, we were like two grotesque dancers frozen by an old box-camera.

“Don’t you have a job then?”

Her eyes were blinking furiously behind the spectacles. The first week I’d been put standing on the foot of a ladder while Tosh painted the windows over the big double doors that concealed the Post Office vans. I wondered at the time why Tosh was so angry every time I suggested we swap ladder ends for a while. I wondered, that is, until Friday and I was given a third of what Tosh made for holding my end of the ladder. Two weeks later Tosh walked off the job on Friday morning and returned when Webster was paying us. An ugly scene developed on the pavement outside the door the Post Office workers used. Even though there were times I felt like hitting Webster I felt sickened by the fight. It was more of a row than a fight, it never really developed into anything serious but there was sullenness in the air, a sort of electric violence crackling along the footpath. The rest of us stood around in the heat of the brilliant sunshine watching. In the shade of the doorway a big Nigerian with tribal scars on his cheeks sat in his cubicle watching impassively, his G.P.O. porter’s hat at least two sizes too small for him.

“It’s not a very good job,” I said to the girl. “Do you know of any good jobs going?”

“No, I’m afraid not.” She was smiling now, “I’m looking for one myself. Do you want the bus fare?”

“Really?”

“Yes, really. Here, look.”

She rooted around in her shoulder bag and held out her hand. In her outstretched palm there lay two ten penny pieces.

“Go on,” she said, “take it, I’ve got enough to do me.”

“O.K.” I said and she dropped the coins into my hand.

“Thanks.”

“’Bye,” she turned and went.

I looked at the money and looked at her comical shape rippling a wake through the crowds, then she was gone. I turned round and crossed over the Canal by Dingwalls, I would go there someday. I knew that if I stayed walking and didn’t get the bus I could buy a bag of chips and have them eaten before I arrived back at the squat…

The crows were gone now and I was back outside to chop some wood. The fog was still there with all the same vague visual impressions. Clutching the axe handle I could feel the damp sliding beneath my hands. I loved the sound of the metal cleaving the wood and the axe-head sinking into the chopping block beneath. The hollow sound blended gorgeously with the silence of the morning. An hour later the two of us were sitting down together drinking tea, the fire was crackling comfortably in the range, the fog beginning to lift a little.

“What are you smiling at?”

“Nothing much. I was just thinking about a time in London, this girl stopped me on the street to beg for money. She ended up giving me the bus fare.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Some other time, are you right? Come on, we’ll go to town before the rush and get this shopping done handy enough.”