ON THE SECOND attempt I find the path which cuts under the railway lines. Round the other side worn steps lead up to the footbridge. It hangs high over the waste of tracks at Willesden Junction and across to the Hythe Road industrial estate.
The map showed the footbridge to be around 150 yards long. I go up and try to see along it, but there’s no lighting. The city sounds vast in the night air.
Silhouettes bob at what might be the far end, or perhaps closer – I can’t tell. From their direction a young man’s voice makes a gleeful whoop. I go back down the stairs and slink off to the station, feeling old.
Another time: my dad knows I am nervous of the shapes of trees in the gloom and the black voids between their trunks. He bends down and says quietly, You can make the darkness your friend. I sense he is smiling as he speaks.
My dad liked walking at night by the Thames and was drawn to lonely places. He had had a busy war and didn’t seem afraid of much, still lean and wiry before the anti-cancer drugs puffed him up and smoothed the lines from his face.
Yesterday evening a drunk lunged at me as I waited for the bus in Catford. As with most drunks he advertised his intentions well ahead of doing them, and it wasn’t hard to dodge him.
So it was with the lunatic who generously enquired Do you want some? as he sprang out of his car to rush at me with a gallon container full of some liquid that sloshed from its spout. Also, the man who tried to headbutt me in Lavender Hill while comically yelling Tottenham!, and the young fellow in Archway who pointed at me and twice told his friends, I’m going to stab him.
Such near-misses have all happened in the past year and they concentrate the mind. Sometimes lured by the sounds of the night to woods and isolated tracks I wonder what I’m doing. I grow cautious with age.
Me and my dad watch a film on TV where a partisan sneaks up on an enemy base and throws a pebble. It makes a clatter where it falls and a sentry goes to investigate. My dad turns and says, They got that right. People always go to the source of the sound. Perhaps he thinks I will need to know this one day.
London has changed so much in recent decades that some prefer an imagined city cut from old cloth. Carnaby Street and Eel Pie Island, Alfie and Blow Up, Samuel Pepys and Marie Lloyd, the histories of buildings and buried rivers. All that has a tidal pull on me too, a kind of ancestor-worship, but I also wish to see and hear the city’s future.
Some of the best sounds collected at night-time escape as leftovers from doorways and half-open windows, clues as to what’s going on inside. I want to know more. Who are you and what do you do?
Dad said little else about his experiences in the war. None of the older men in the family did, not within earshot anyway. His military records are in the National Archives and will remain secrets until they’re released in 2024. The questions I’d ask him now are quite different to the ones I thought of when he was alive.
Not braving the footbridge at Willesden Junction was a disappointment, but I’ll go back sometime soon, just when the sun is coming up.