After far too long cooking in the oven that my top floor flat becomes on days like this, it suddenly occurred to me that I could just leave it and go sit on a bench.
I never noticed before, but this bench I’ve been sitting on so frequently throughout lockdown has a little plaque dedicated to James Mayley. “You will never be forgotten,” it says. It’s just beside me now as I write. He died in 2007, aged 19.
I google and find him. He has a Just Giving page that raised £300 for the Teenage Cancer Trust. He must have died tragically young of cancer. I can’t find much else about him, but 19? Ugh. Too young.
Behind me the business of this city on a Friday night carries on regardless. Two ambulances and two police cars scream west. Cyclists on the pavement between me and the river rattle by at speed. Couples walk in companionable silence, hands brushing as they swing. Singles stroll deep in conversation on their phones or sucked into the screen as I must appear to be. To my left, leaning on the river wall, three big lads smoke dope and fold their arms. Opposite me, silently watching the river as the light dies, Buddha in his Peace Pagoda. To my right the iconic and beautiful lights of Albert Bridge. 4000 LEDS and troops must break step while crossing. There used to be a toll. Now it’s just annoyingly narrow when you turn left onto it, particularly in a van. All this life and colour and light – this rich strange life we live – and it was lost to poor James just as he was starting out.
I wonder if his friends and family come and sit here and commune with him from time to time. It’s nice to think he’s sitting with me in some way. Sharing his moment. And has been for the many occasions I’ve come here. It’s a beautiful spot to have a moment in, despite the traffic thudding by behind and the fumes. You get what you’re given in London.
This life thing we have is so precious and so fleeting. “How long ago did your mother die,” Christine asked me this morning, and it’s something like 16 years now. But there she is just on the other side of time, still so full of life and care. There they all are, the ones we knew. The ones we loved. So close you can almost touch them. But not quite, caught up in linear time as we all are. “Do you miss her?” Of course. We miss them, all of them. Every day.
The lucky ones we are get to complain about the heat and the cold. We get to send our curry back. We get to worry about money and fret about disease. We get to waste a day playing computer games or have an argument with someone we love or drink our bodies and bank balances dry.
Let’s find more ways to connect with beauty though, even in these trying times. Simple acts of kindness, or just taking advantage of the different pace of life to look at how glorious everything is even though it’s oh so messy. Go stare at a leaf, let a bug crawl on your hand, look at light reflected in water, feel the air on your face. We are alive in this brief strange moment. Let’s cherish it. For James.