Last exit before Brexit
© Mark Aitken 2016
Just days before the Brexit referendum, eight of us walk out of London. We’re all immigrants and we know something about leaving and remaining. It’s the shortest night of the year. We set off from Brixton’s Brockwell Park in a southeasterly direction under sinking orange solstice light. Uneasy fixed smiles not sure of what the night will hold.
I’m quietly touched by their faith in my proposition. I hold stapled photocopied pages. A twenty-mile route to the Prime Meridian, an imaginary line located on the ancient Pilgrim’s Way due south of Greenwich. The Meridian indicates zero degrees longitude and once reached, we can follow it to either the north or south pole. Or we can just turn around and go home.
Passing through West Dulwich we rapidly fall into unfamiliar territory and climb the steep Gipsy hill to the high point of Crystal Palace. Talk of not wanting to ever ride a bike up that hill. We bump into a friend who doesn't care to join us. We eat pizza in the dark near the footings of the Palace and continue down the long Anerley Road. Customized motorbikes. Fish and chips for a fiver. It’s 1989. At the bottom of the hill we leave my brother at a bus station. He’s over from South Africa for work and has to get up early tomorrow.
We turn into Elmer's End. The pavement a constellation of half-eaten kebabs and vomit. Spent glasses of Stella outside the faux Tudor ‘Ye George Inn’. An African woman watches us from her bedroom before drawing a gray net curtain over this fume filled artery. We’re disorientated and on the wrong path to the Meridian. Consulting maps and phones, we change direction and head along the Croydon Road before turning off into The Glade. A boy racer with his girlfriend taunts the silent road lined with dark bungalows from the 1950's. A wobbling pair of drunk girls look back at us.
We pause at a crossroads in Shirley. Someone asks if we’re halfway by now and I say yes. No harm in a little optimism. Down a quiet shaded road with long high-walled mansions. Fewer cars. The Norwood hills well behind us. Security cameras open their irises. Down to what appears to be a frontier post with a multi-lane junction and tram lines. We could be in Belgium or Germany but instead we rest on the perimeter of Croydon. We take a group photo, grinning and iridescent.
The last open shop. Police on patrol hesitate, giving us a second look. I’d like to know their questions. We land at ‘Planet Spice’, apparently London's last and finest curry house but not serving now. Further on we frighten a badger foraging by the road, well spotted by keen Brazilian eyes.
Onwards down Featherbed Lane to a fortified compound heralding the headquarters of the Jehovah Witnesses. Poised on a threshold between darkness and light, this is where they train and dispense the smiling Sunday best door-knockers. We move forward in silent single file enveloped by night for the first time. The city finally behind us. Our vision improves. Another ‘Vote Remain’ sign. There’s light in the shadows.
Now walking narrow roads, unsure of what direction cars are coming from. Our collective imaginations playing tricks. Darting away from headlights with much less grace than rabbits. I respond to a question about where we are by saying we still have ten pages of the map to wade through. I can’t read names of roads in the dark and wonder why I’m wearing glasses. Guesswork is vaguely reassuring. We see the first ‘Vote Leave’ sign.
3am in the doldrums of night. We pass a 16th century pub with a white bear sentry. It’s said that polar bears walked down to Scotland from the ice cap in the big freeze of the 16th century. I don’t know if they came this far south. Forests vibrate silently and almost imperceptibly, lighter tones of blue and gray trickle into our vision. While emptying our bladders, we’re literally caught with our pants down when a car is heard and seen but the phantom never arrives. We can’t agree if there was a car at all. Someone plays music and a spasmodic flash-light gabba dance led by a Catalan ensues until we ache from laughter.
Above the trees looking across at a needled forest of red lights. The radio towers of Crystal Palace a gateway to the gray and
blue-spired citadel perched in the valley of London. There’s disbelief that we have walked this far. We want to tell someone we’re from Brixton.
We slowly ascend a ridge. An interval in a hedge reveals yellow and green barley wavering down undulating curves towards a nest of trees. It’s tempting to break off from the road. We should at least stop and steady our breath to the rhythm of grass but we plod on.
Victorian farmhouses cobbled in flint surrounded by fields. This countryside is suburbia with bigger gardens and animals. We surprise a brown stallion and a white mare. They waft back and forth and settle into a standoff from a distance. The mare’s muscular backside seems to have been grafted on like a pedigree Botox Kardashian. I have Colombian guava sugar but they’re not tempted. Further on we pass a mother and foal. A small herd appears and kicks off in the paddock, galloping alongside us. The road levels off. It seems like we’re at a highpoint but our destination is illusive.
We trudge along Limpsfield road. The occasional Sunday morning car racing by. Appearing as morning ramblers, the drivers unaware of our nocturnal escape and creeping exhaustion. Flowers and nettles line our path. Pink, blue, yellow, white – waving arms of daisies. Dandelions the size of tennis balls. Tentacles everywhere. We pause, unsure of journey’s end. It’s over there but over there looks like nothing worth visiting. A concrete tower with red lights. I say that the last part is always the hardest and feel surprised at how reassuring this sounds. We pass an old pub surrounded by a large car park. Not inviting even if it were open. We’re now on a ridge. Could this be the invisible Meridian? The road is quiet. The details of trees and grass and shadows finely cast like a daguerreotype. The sun now up and twitching an orange blast through a shield of cloud. We’re in awe of the glare.
Now we’re saying it’s over. We’re here. This is it. Pausing at a sentry house outside a country estate. The pile has been secured with cameras. Perhaps Russians live here. There’s nowhere to sit and we’re tired. We descend a path from the ridge down Chalkpit Lane, hoping for respite on a patch of soft grass with birdsong and sunlight. Instead we pause at a junction with two gates, barbed wire, a National Trust sign and cars washing past on the M25 beneath us. The crust of the city is a circular racetrack that never sleeps. We breakfast on sandwiches, hot chocolate, cheese and nuts. Rum and whiskey chasers. Laughter overflowing.
We choose a tunnel under the motorway and surface by a house surrounded by dusty cars as if the owner was a hoarder in wait of a showroom. Cladded flat-screen castles sealed with plastic glazed windows staring blankly at each other. Then a street so crowded with cars in driveways it seems the houses are only there to offer space for parking.
Another tunnel is an empty cathedral haunted by softly cooing pigeons. The rush of rubber and wind silenced by the expanse of
reinforced concrete. Light dazzles behind. Exiting we find a zigzag path up to the hard shoulder constructed like tubular Meccano from a plumber’s leftover piping. If only art galleries were this
A fringe of houses set back from the road fronted by painted perfumed gardens. If the neighbours are competing then it’s a worthy fight. Shapes and colours are sculpted into psychedelic Disneylands. For a moment we are insects.
The train from Oxted leaves at ten past eight. We collapse in an ancient cemetery. Wondering who has witnessed what through the stain glassed windows of the church since 1086. The sun warm and steady, folding eyelids forming flickering orange membranes. I resist sleep and walk barefoot into the church. The priest’s gaze rests on my feet.
I don’t want to leave but there’s talk of being stranded because of broken Sunday transport. We’re seven hours walk from home. The trains aren’t running and a bus has replaced the service. We sit on the top deck and head back past swathes of furniture warehouses where suburban dreams become real. The bus driver stops to ask directions. He attempts a U-turn but thinks better of it. We need a bus driver replacement. We’re still in ‘Vote Leave’ territory. Our return isn’t guaranteed. We see a sign for Brixton and feel that home is within reach but the lost driver turns around and delivers us to a train station in Purley. Sunday papers alternately ordering ‘leave’ or ‘remain’.
I arrive home but my brother’s just left. The mist on the bathroom mirror still settling. He was last seen at Elmer’s End, the butt of a city leading to regiments of edgelands. We headed south and traversed the Prime Meridian dividing the earth west and east from pole to pole. Thousands of footsteps driven by desire to dissolve frontiers. Reaching an edge of sorts in the form of a ring road flinging metal back and forth. Managing to leave but for the time being, choosing to remain.