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Gospel Oak

I sit overlooking the city. My eyes move over the weave of buildings. I see the heath slope down to playing fields, to ponds and then rise again. Features darken, details blur until the maze of office blocks and towers, the tooth-like shapes of high-rises, the lost spires become one; become a line and shimmer in the winter light. The sky is pale. Curlicues of cloud stretch across its expanse. They lose their whiteness where they meet the haze, turn cinnamon and lavender in smog. I stretch my legs in front if me. I fold my arms across my chest. The seat is hard. An old couple, their muffled and scarfed heads bobbing up, call to their dog. Branches of trees are thin and wired into the blue and haze.

Around mid-day I took the train. Putting my hands deep into the pockets of my coat and pulling my scarf up against my mouth, I walked to the station. Then the sun was high, its light cascading down on the platforms. It caught the rails and burned the lines of sleepers out. The train slipped past the backs of houses. It rattled the weed-lined brickwork of Forest Gate and Manor Park. Then it was Stratford with its junction and Dockland connection before snaking in through the high sooty walls of Liverpool Street. In the station I drank a coffee. All the time my eyes followed the weave of commuters: the appearance and disappearance of a face, the small events, a meeting, a dropped wallet, a mislaid ticket, the dash for a platform. It was in this station I stood with her that night: in the queue before the ticket office. Holding her suitcase: a winter night with the streetlights yellowing and the stars phosphorescent in the indigo space above us. She fingered the notes she held and I looked at her tall, slender shape, her hair falling against the side of her face and her eyes avoiding mine. And when she asked me to take her scarf and I heard the catch in

her voice I wanted to hold her, tell her how lovely she was but she turned away, stepped forward in the queue.

I took the underground to Hampstead: the dark, sway of the Northern line pushed its way up through Camden and toward Edgeware. The synthetic seats, the smell of plastic seemed somehow feeble against the screech of steel and the rush of tunnel air through carriage vents. A woman sat over from me, her two children fidgeting on the edge of the seat. It was that night as we walked to the platform, I understood. She was fragile. Her dreams were straight and her affections easily damaged. She could be broken on anothers conceits. A part of her was delicate and hidden. And though I wanted so much to reach out and hold her, I could also crush her. Maybe I had to let her go. And my desire for her was absolutely mixed with this need not to hurt her.

Around the back of the heath I found the path. It wound through tall, exposed trees - oak and sycamore. Between the interweaving of their branches the sun shone, pale in the thin afternoon light. The dry, hard stones of the path scuffed up under my feet. I crossed a bridge that spanned a silted and green edged pond. A duck fluttered from under a branch, disturbing the brown stillness in a flurry of ripples. Down through the walkways of the wood, the sharp smell of decayed leaves sharpened my senses. The rustle of branches, the scurry of a squirrel brushed off my hearing. Beneath my feet, the ground became soft, black and slipped away from me. Mud stuck to the sides of my shoes and my breath deepened, bringing a flush to my cheeks. And it shot through my mind. Darted through my consciousness like scattered light. How I had woken that morning and it had pressed down on me. Pushing me back into sleep: my body was falling through an endlessness of space. It filtered through my half-open eyes in snatches: coming and going.

Yesterday I was thinking about the dream of love and the fantasy of love. Everywhere I am surrounded by the fantasy of love. People grasp at phantoms. Movies end with the clinch, the desired kiss. But it is not the kiss of love but the kiss of death. With that kiss all conflict ends. Which is a form of death. The struggle for love, to find love is obliterated. Dream is a weakness and a strength. I dream and must learn where fantasy begins and ends. Fantasy is what happens when dream is divorced from the body. I dream through the mind but the dream finds its expression in the body. If dream is not rooted in the world, in things around me it risks being fantasy. What greater dream is there, than love? Individuals crave it and need it. It is as basic as breathing. Petrarch completes his Canzoniere and Shakespeare writes to his dark lady. Castiglione weaves a world of obligations and manners and binds his words with love. Folk tales tell of doomed love or love frustrated by the needs of power. Ballads mourn lost love and love unrequited. And we are treated to an endless entertainment of love. Love is preyed upon. Love is appropriated and turned on its head. It becomes cheap and is everywhere for sale. The fantasy replaces the dream. I approach love and it is like barbed wire. It scratches and tears because I have lost its language. It is scattered and fragmented. Yet there are echoes of love in everything I see: in buildings, in parks, in houses, in rivers: in words, in songs, in discarded newspapers, in train announcements: in sad, homeless old men, in faded flowers, in sunset over a winter sea.

I came to a cross in the pathway. Now the ground under my feet was hard and turned to asphalt. To my left was a drinking fountain. It gurgled up in the afternoon cold. Its sound on a winters afternoon was strange: reminiscent of summer. In front of me the ground curved. Figures in winter clothing, some in brightly coloured coats and scarves, walked or sat on narrow, wooden benches. This was a place I knew well: a point where the path rose and gave way to a view of the city. Here, the grass was thicker and its green deepened against the arc of cobalt haze.

If the dream of love persists it is not because I hold it consciously. Not because I apply my thought to it. It is within me. Since I put my feet on the floor of the bedroom this morning, it has been part of my day. When I opened the tap, the water in the bathroom ran out with a cool rush that touched something in me. I wanted to put my hands to it, wanted to scoop it up and put my face in it. As if the water and the dream of love were the same. So in the kitchen I stopped and felt the silence. Looked out over the grounds of the apartment. Over the gray, empty branches of the peony, the gnarled retreating shape of an apple tree, the litter in the half-empty car park. It is this, the sensation of touching something so often hidden that prompted me to walk: somehow losing myself in the weave of branches, the aroma of earth, the pockets of silence in the thunder of the city. Perhaps the fantasies of love are the products of minds already in some way out of balance. The fantasies of love come about because love has been proscribed. It has been subjected to the needs of marketing, to trivialisation. Love has become a weapon. I think of the endless hospitable wards full of those crushed by living. The breach between wanting life one way and finding it another: the freezing of the mind in the face of choices too difficult. In the pale green and white corridors are people whose only illness is that their dreams are shattered, are cut off from expression. In their dreams the conductor no longer conducts. The cello leads, or the violin imposes its melody endlessly on all around it. I reached the crest of the hill. Below me was the city and to my left, the gentle green of the heath sloping up to Highgate. Humanity had made only the tiniest of scratches on the surface of existence. To assume that experience, understanding has some threshold, some point where it all falls into place, where it can be understood in its entirety, is foolish. The dream of love may be my only way of exploring that existence.

The light is falling. I pick out the dome of St Pauls, the Post Office tower, the steel and glass of Bishopsgate and Eastcheap. The city line

shakes and shimmers in the winter light. Below me buildings sparkle: lights coming on as the evening spreads. Over the roofs of West Hampstead, the sun flares: a copper disc in the sky. Framed by the branches of bare trees, it visibly sinks. Turning crimson as it does, enlarging until it fills the space between the trees, etches against their vein-like tips, burns into the skyline. The couple, walking their dog, move away and I, unable to remain seated, my feet and fingertips feeling the cold, stand to go. I look down over the playing fields, lit now with floodlights. The ponds flash back into the gathering dark. Platform lights glow, spinning up from Gospel Oak. My eyes catch the movement of a train, slowly and silently entering the station. Its yellow lights spill out into the winter twilight. The curve of the rail line, the noiseless sway catches me. She is sitting there as I left her that night. One leg crosses over the other, her long winter coat open, her hands with a tremble. And her brown eyes that earlier lit for me, are turned away. I turn and look for the path down through the tangle of trees. My feet crack off scattered dry leaves. The sharp sound shoots up through me. A night breeze whispers over the cooling earth. And fire from the setting sun curls itself into my very breath and blood. Then, I think, I will take the train. I will wait quietly and patiently in the glow of the platform lights of Gospel Oak.

Copyright Peter Millington. London. November 2002

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