As part of London Writers Week, the profits from which are going to help victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, I and other students on the MA Dramatic Writing course at Central St Martins were asked to write a rapid response, either to the fire or to other recent events in London. I wrote this.
Afterwards, I read the news. I read with horror, just like everybody else.
Afterwards, I kiss my children, hold them extra tight.
Afterwards, I stand in Waitrose, for a minute, in the yoghurt aisle, in silence.
Afterwards, I rage against the dying of so many lights.
Afterwards, I think about the fact I have an afterwards.
I don’t know what to do so I walk.
It’s true, walking is a good place to think.
There’s a blanket over everything, it seems. The mute button’s on. All these people. Walking too. Walking to and from. Talking, or not. Into their phones, occasionally to each other.
On the canal, two swans and their cygnets, four grubby, fluffy mounds, make stately progress past the pleasure barges. The heat has brought out crowds, with their supermarket picnics and their strappy tops and shorts, and their children squealing through fountains, and their sweat and their melting and their laughter.
I don’t know what to do. Give money, yes, but what else? If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb.. I round the corner into scaffolding and shade, and I am a domed cathedral, cool and echoing with choristers’ pure voices bouncing off the ache of my skull. Piercing and soothing all at once. I could sing, perhaps. A lament. A keening.
They used to pay people. To keen. At funerals. Women, mostly. But now, it’s not, it doesn’t seem, it isn’t, it’s a bit… don’t you think?
I don’t know what to do so I walk. And I notice.
The plastic bag that drifts across the road.
The cardboard box that once contained a glitter ball, now streaked with rain, and piss.
The topless, tattooed, swaggering dude in front, all sideways swagger.
The Boris bike, kidnapped and confined to a concrete front yard.
The suddenly empty streets.
The smell of the heat.
The can of scrumpy jack on the fifth stair up, that’s sat there for at least a week.
The mortuary doors. The heat.
Oh god the heat.
We should weep. Wail. Weep for the dead, and the living, for the searchers and the searching, for the helpless and the helping.
And I don’t know what to do, and so I walk.
Past the litter and the broken glass,
Under the bridge and past the woman on the phone who’s saying
You know, where they take the drugs
Past the shit, and people’s spit, through this mess of life
And then a corner and a great big painted effrontery of a word:
Just because you write it on the fucking wall doesn’t make it real.
And we should weep for those who think that’s all it takes.
That everything’s about the walls
Of concrete, glass,
Of fancy brick or macho steel
Or painted with beautiful patterns that look so pretty
Or clad with stuff that wasn’t quite as costly as the stuff they should have had
But still looks nice and means we do not have to look at or concern ourselves with the people behind them.
We should weep for the not noticing. For the not looking. We should weep for the city, their city, our city. For the cloud of ashen shame that’s all around us, on us, all those motes of dust, of ash, of dreams, of screams, of brothers, sisters, husbands, wives. Of lives.
I don’t know what to do and so I walk. And I try to notice.
The rose bush sprawling over bins.
The bright red railings.
The woman walking past the apple trees, trailing fingers through the branches.
The apple trees! An orchard! Someone who thought it worth it, and who fought to have it planted, even though the mesh-capped lad who stands in the blue doorway of the slaughterhouse with his overalls and fag
Has never noticed any of it, any of the holes they dug one day in autumn, any of the tiny saplings that were carefully tied to their supports, any of the rain soaked branches, or the burst of blossom, or the peeping green of leaves, or any of the tiny hard green fruits..
And in an alcove, on the warehouse wall, a mural. Small, painted by a child.
A house. A home.
But just because you write it on the wall doesn’t make it real.
I don’t know what to do and so I walk.
I am here. I am now. This is my city. This shit-streaked, sweaty, vulgar, crowded city. This woman, sprawled, spewing on a churchyard bench, these plastic cups of change, these empty cans and cartons, scowls and screeches, this locked gate, ‘No, mate’, running late. This place of dreams gone sour, this soddom and gommorah, this overarching, over-reaching, grasping, couldn’t give a shit refusal to engage except with worlds on screens that are not here or now. We stumble through the shit.
And all this has been said before
And nothing can be said to put it right
We only tip our heads and howl into the night.
So should we turn back to our lives, to the righteous safety of our screens? To our ‘something should be done’s? To our ‘us’ and our ‘poor them’?
Or should we choose to notice?
Should we choose to walk. To put one foot in front of another and go on. To bend to this heat, accept our albatross. And to try, to try to see beyond, beyond the ash cloud to where golden spirits soar, and round the corner to the child’s painting on the wall.
Just because you paint it on a wall doesn’t make it real.
But this is all we have.
(This writing is heavily influenced by my taking part in the extraordinary Elastic Silence with the wonderful Air Studios @AIR_ing_ )