Turning over the final page of a much-loved novel.
A starry sky.
The lonely strum of a single guitar string.
Swirling clouds of milk in freshly-poured tea.
Waves rolling against a pebbly shore.
Dipping roast potatoes into gravy whilst no-one is looking.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to burst into song, at least not just yet. These aren’t necessarily my favourite things. No, this post is about the simple things, although I’d probably consider them my favourite things too. After all, it is often the simple things that connect with us most.
Home. Mine was once a launderette, back in the ‘70s. I wasn’t living there then. I was hardly even born then. But there’s still evidence of it all over the place – from the peculiar frontage to the panoply of pipes protruding defiantly out of the flooring. But times have changed. At least for this building.
For me though, my home is more than a house – more than four walls, windows, roofs and doors. It’s more than the place where my family and I eat, sleep, or take refuge from the cold and rain. It’s the scene of our everyday victories – big and small – celebrating a good day at work or school, a festival or birthday, or just an elaborately-constructed sofa den. And of course, it’s sometimes where opinions are argued, tears are shed, and shoulders are hugged.
Our home isn’t just bricks and mortar. It’s the stage on which our lives unfurl. And I know how lucky that makes me, especially when so many people don’t even have basic shelter.
I lie by the dockside, just down from the factory whose clanking machinery created my lines and sides and corners and spaces. Freshly painted across my frontage, an array of industrial hieroglyphics – China International Marine Containers, Hapag-Lloyd, HLXU2003419, 22G1, Max Payload 29,230kg – numbers defining who I am, numbers defining what I can be.
Shanghai sprawls resolutely behind the harbour-front; its forest of cranes and concrete criss-cross the dawn sky, soaring totems to the gods of a new world.
Through Pudong’s early morning haze, neon lights pulse green and red, beacons dancing to the relentless beat of the metropolis. And just beyond, the grand old facades of the Bund, still resplendent in their neoclassical and art-deco finery, their stories written over a century ago.
But my future lies in the other direction, not inland but out across the East China Sea. The dawn horizon calls out to me, whispering promises of marvels and adventure.
My first consignment is a cargo of high-tech computer equipment, loaded up by the dock-handlers on the 4am shift. I hear their banter as they work. Their calloused nicotine-stained hands speak of years on the dockside, whilst this passage of time has perfected their collective operations into a balletic choreography. They know each other well; they are like family.
A crane hoists me up high into the sky, a lofty leap towards those skyscraper peaks, wondering when I’ll next see them again. Next week? Next month? Never?.. And then down onto the foredeck, where the stevedores lower me onto a maze of containers, each with their own voyages and destinies.
And so on this day, my work begins. I’m a missionary, whose belly carries the new Chinese economy across the world.
Clone 4621bx powered through the door onto the roof, the lock snapping in two like a dry stick in a summer drought. Close behind, the menacing clatter of footsteps echoed up the stairwell. Immediately ahead was the night: dark, brooding and uncertain.
But for now, all being well, Captain Tansley would be there – better be there – waiting for her and her priceless cargo. She sped across the rooftop, the stolen case clutched tightly to her chest, her feet barely a pitter-patter across the flat concrete floor. She scanned the moonlit sky for signs of the hover-copter – hopeful, expectant – but all she saw was an indifferent dome of stars.
Urgently, she broadcast into her headset microphone. Agitation fizzed up inside her, tingling her skin like static. Where the hell is he?.. Suddenly, a cacophony of shouts, a melee of footsteps – her pursuers had now burst through the stairwell door.
“Over there!” one yelled, pointing right at her across the rooftop. She spun around, her body poised precariously by the edge, the vertiginous drop looming just beyond.
The security detail, about a dozen of them, were so massively armed that they looked more like a single tangled mass of industrial weaponry than a collection of individual breathing bodies. One sharply barked out orders, another panned a searchlight across the roof – Clone 4621bx winced and shielded her eyes.
“London Bridge is falling down, Falling down, falling down. London Bridge is falling down, My fair Lady.
Build it up with wood and clay, Wood and clay, wood and clay. Build it up with wood and clay, My fair Lady.”
As I tread these streets of London, rain streaming off rooftops, puddles lining the paving-stones like little pools of transient street-art, concentric circles appearing and disappearing within them, I think of this city. This great great city.
It’s two days now after another senseless assault; people were hurt and killed. And my heart cries for them, and for the people who hold them so dear. And as I walk, I look around me, at the city streets through the driving rain.
I wander past London’s squares and structures, buildings and bridges: they whisper words into my ear, reassuring me with their stories from days gone by. History hangs heavy in the air, like mist, swirling through the city’s alleys and gardens, wispy tendrils of history clinging onto cobblestones and brickwork.
Too much history for some. And not always good. But in amongst the narratives of this city – tangling and jostling as they do – lies the very oldest one. One that’s still the loudest and proudest of them all – the indefatigable spirit of Londoners in the face of adversity.