I’m in Hammersmith where, on the surface world, in the surface streets of London, the place is just one big cross-flow of cars and buses sweeping away to other realms; of people — plugged into phones with screens, or earpieces, e-readers and other distractions — sluicing between the aperture of one opening of the Underground onto the road to another such aperture. It’s a surface tension.
I have time. I emerge but don’t feel the immediate need to fall out into London. I stay in the liminal labyrinth between the tunnels and the street. I need coffee. I need a coffee house. I know if I find the right one that magic can seep, even here. So I reject the wrong ones: the clinical ones, the empty ones, the coffee houses without possibility, whose definition I maybe can’t describe. Here is a place, deep in. I step inside.
Immediately words accost me. Hammersmith, out of sight beyond, is an anvil of a place: it’s an iron heart with concrete valves; arteries are tarmac-clad and clogged. Here, in the liminal coffee house, odd denizens pause. Where are they all going from and to? Ten million strangers buzz about us; thirty or forty aliens gather in the hissing and the clinking hollow at the very back of this aperture, which spills out onto the street, somewhere. There’s light out there in the city. Here, for half an hour or so, we gather. I watch as I perch at a corner of a seat, taking in a long glass of vanilla latte.
There are drifts of conversations floating up and sinking down. I can’t hear any exactly and for sure. It’s a steam of words, though not loud. It’s at the edge of perception. I should write this, I tell myself, I should. Where’s my pen and notebook? I commit images and inklings to memory: they’re scraps of photos in my head, strips of audio files. Words accost me. They fly about the place; they’re in the molecules.
Hammersmith is a multi-layered affair: languages, accents, skins and sins perhaps, if we believe in such creations. It’s an affair of thousands overlapping. In the coffee house, I see in between the slots of people’s lives: it has this affect, here in the hiss and steam. Out on the street, or on the Underground, squeezed into tubes, we slip by one another, are absorbed by each other’s energies. We’re oiled. In the coffee house, the process of the pause allows the reader of the place to see between the percolations.
Two young women, neither with drinks, talk and take up a sofa and no-one’s keen enough to tell them; an older couple read newspapers with the table pushed right up to their knees, protecting them from dragons or the like; a coven of witches hordes the middle tables, cackling and swapping spells or emails or maybe e-spells; men in business suits are conducting covert operations; there are Italian, North African, Indian voices and faces; some people are hiding from Hammersmith, some are gathering their thoughts or plans or shopping lists, perhaps, some are hatching eggs.
The coffee house is a dark brown and cocoa butter smear, lit in artificial gold and other substances. Words hide here and paste the walls in thin veneer. They flutter because I see them. Other denizens of this place just talk. Words catch in my hair. I shake them free, but some burrow down to the follicles and cling to the warmth behind my ear. I am their route out of here.
Why do you want to leave? They don’t say. I find them still on my skin, after days and washes. My vanilla-streaked glass is empty and the city is calling. I can hear it coming down the concourse in strands of breeze. At the counter I offer my empty glass back to the man with the thick Italian accent, but this is London and it stands unattended to. I pull on the rucksack that’s been blocking the way to the witches’ circle.
The threshold to the concourse might well ripple as I step back into the other realm. I’m through it and the colour and the sound and the taste of where I am, a few inches beyond, shifts immediately. Through the plate looking-glass window I see the dark smear and its exotic array of denizens therein. I’m peering into an otherness.
I wait just a little while before Hammersmith sucks me to the street, and the place outside explodes around me. I push my way back into London’s surface tension. Words stick to me, here and there, pressed against my skin. Perhaps they’re shivering.