Streets bare of anything but the orange glow of emergency lighting. Stretched black shadows of key workers (coffee shops, fast food joints) waiting thin and angular at bus-stops. Miles of normally pounded pavement getting a brief respite save for the endlessly-walking homeless and solitary drunks, wearing spirals and curlicues into its surface.
London at 5 a.m. is a different city.
It’s a city that’s perfectly balanced in transition. They say a modern city never sleeps. While that might be true of cabbies, who are probably the unhappy few saying that, 5 a.m. is definitely the time at which London settles in its restless insomnia, in which it shuts its eyelids and lets the cleaning fluids have a few seconds of desperate reparation.
The driver of my blacked-out van doesn’t proffer a name. He’s young, Machinist-thin, with uncut brown hair long at temples and back, a growth of stubble that might be called a moustache, but looks more like a receding away of flesh than an outreaching of hair. He is utterly silent as we drive over the flyovers between the aggressively-huddled towers of Westway. The radio blares utterly generic Capital music, insomniacs calling into say that, yes, they can’t sleep either, and that while they stare dry-eyed at the ceiling, the knowledge that someone else is up and awake and communicatible, that someone else suffers as they do, is a tacit comfort, .
There is no talk of dawn yet. The sky is the blue-grey of powdered gypsum as we drive, out over the wastes of Westfield. The air in the van smells of soap and sweet and something more sickly and unwelcome. I think it might be me.
Beneath the van, the tarmac roars endlessly. A soft thump-thump-thump talks of roadworks and Britain’s ad-hoc attitude to pipe-laying. Where in Islington and Kings Cross the workers were awake at the Greengrocer, the Fishmongers, the unhallowed platforms of the station-cathedrals, here the suburbs are still asleep. Only toilet windows betray the dark, talking nervously of nightlights and scared children. A solitary petrol station attendant yawns his way towards the shift’s end without the expected armed robbery.
As we head to the quarter hour, I’ve crossed the whole city and my diver has taken some abstruse private route to the airport, whipping me through Acton, seemingly still dead since the Martians passed through. The radio plays generic-o-pop, mingling electronic high tones with multi-tracked balanced singers and trance beats. Still this town sleeps. One optimistic man trudges up the station steps to join a waiting, confused cluster. In the supermarkets, the lights are on, pumping out power to save on security guards.
My skin is sore and dry from so little sleep and perhaps from the light of the laptop. As we pass Chiswick, my hands ache and ache. I rub them together and they make a noise like sheets of paper hissing across each other. The other vehicles around at this time all seem to be dark and polarised like me, with dim figures sat in the back. 5 a.m. is for cabbies it seems. Even at this time of the morning, empty roads, an idiot still feels the imperative to aggressively cut-up the other cars. Whence a rush at this dead time, in this dead city?
At Brentford / Hammersmith, the tower blocks are lit. This is Monday, 5.20 and there are already tie-clad workers sitting, male and unmoving, in the windows of the tower blocks we fly by, already giving up their lives to the sucking screens. A gust of steam sits above the Glaxo building frozen like a cloud.
The gray is clocking out now, turning the shift over more fully to the blue, which is hazily pulling itself together under gray’s stern tutelage. We are on the M4 now and the roadside signs, which once pointed to far-off Bath and Winchester and other pilgrim routes, now advertise Heston services, with runic incantations telling us that the great demon M&S BK COSTA may be summoned here. We pass our first breakdown of the morning, slowly being winched onto a ponderously-flashing truck.
Off the motorway, down past prefabs and roundabouts. This no-man’s land holds caravan parks and fields. Sleeping truckers grumble and mutter in their parkway lay-bys, thousands of miles from home, ten feet from a real suburban bed. Dark ponies and horses are foraging on the fields opposite the trucks and the semi-detached houses.
We pause at lights. My lips are dry, and my face cracks a yawn. My driver strokes the fluff abandoned by the receding of his flesh and sucks his lips. His suit looks thin and cheap and I wonder how he keeps warm. Billboards float by, then more ponies, their heads down amidst cherry blossom and graffitoed sheds and long car parks filled with identical cars, any colour so long as it’s not fun. On the right, a pointy-nosed private jet dreams of growing into another Concorde beneath a WWII derrick hosting a radar dish.
A squeeze between two affectionate bollards and we’re here. The Terminal. Plastic and metal and concrete and barbed wire and endlessly routed paths and instructions everywhere. We stop and smile goodbye. He wishes me a good trip; I wish him a good day. Inside, I doubt day will suit him.