There’s something wrong with Leyton Mills Retail Park. I didn’t notice it in the old days when I used to go there with my wife to shop in B&Q. In need of a bit of wood, or a thingy to fix an object to another thingy, we’d drive from Clapton across the Lea Bridge, then follow the railway lines along the back of the Hackney Marsh. A solar system of mini-roundabouts slung us like space probes past a Eurostar depot, allotments and petrol station, up a ramp into a car park surrounded by chain stores (Asda, Next, Pizza Hut, KFC, Costa Coffee, TK Maxx, you get the picture) built on a former railway goods yard. B&Q means Boring & Quiet. They don’t say that on the big orange sign, but that’s what it means. It’s the size of a hangar with impossibly tall aisles that go on forever. I’d trail forlornly behind Emily as she picked out rawl plugs or rollers or wallpaper paste. She knows what she’s doing when it comes to DIY. She knows the gauges of things and what kind of paint adheres to what kind of surface. (“Oh shit you’re not using gloss on the walls are you, Gareth? Give me the roller!”) Mostly I’d glide on the trolley behind her or mess around on my iPhone. Sometimes we’d rush across the car park to Asda afterwards to pick up some things for tea. Then it was back in the car for home, B&Q quickly forgotten.
That was the old days. It’s now six years later. I’m fatter, wrinklier, and a large portion of the ice caps have melted. Numerous people have died. An even bigger number have been born. The London Olympics have come and gone. In Switzerland the Hadron Collider started, stopped and started again, revealing evidence of the Higgs boson particle. The scientists’ theory is that there’s stuff in the universe that you can’t see. Dark matter and the like. It definitely exists because the stuff you can see doesn’t make any sense otherwise. A boson is a force that acts on particles, giving them mass. Most probably. They think.
While they were scratching their noodles over this conundrum, Emily and I moved away from London, leaving our B&Q paint on the walls and our B&Q wood stain on the floor. Occasionally I return to the Big Smoke for meetings, usually on the cheaper train to Charing Cross. But today I’m on the fast train from Ashford to Stratford International, like a City high flyer or a famous actor. The train has a bullet nose and feels as if it’s about to lift from the rails like a jet plane. Under the influence of a can of gin and tonic I remember that B&Q, sentimental for those old days when life was simpler. As the last lemony dregs slip down I resolve to walk all the way from Stratford to Clapton, passing through Leyton Mills Retail Park for old times’ sake.
A threadbare green stretches towards silent stadia, the Westfield shopping mall and scaffolded tower blocks grazed by cranes. A sketch of a place waiting to happen, tainted with the melancholy that it might not.”
I come out of Stratford International into a neo-Soviet landscape of residential blocks overlooking fenced play areas and micro-orchards. A marble wall is engraved with Tennyson’s line, ‘to strive to seek to find and not to yield’. Street names like Liberty Bridge Road, Prize Walk and Cheering Lane are emblems of a committee-decreed Games mythology superimposed upon industrial land. Other than a couple of workers in yellow jackets sliding poles from a van there’s nobody on the streets. A threadbare green stretches towards silent stadia, the Westfield shopping mall and scaffolded tower blocks grazed by cranes. A sketch of a place waiting to happen, tainted with the melancholy that it might not.
Approaching Leyton, hoardings around the ‘East Village’ apartments proclaim a New Neighbourhood for real people and show images of actors playing the parts of those real people. Colour pictures of the proposed communal areas have features sketched onto them: swings, benches, bird houses and – inexplicably – hot air balloons. In Drapers Field a playpark is bustling with kids. To make sure everything stays friendly, signs are bolted onto the concrete:
Is this your first time here? I hope you are loved for the rest of HUMAN LIFE.
Whenever you tip your head back and LAUGH, the whole street falls in LOVE with YOU.
Is everything you love FOREIGN, or are you foreign to EVERYTHING you LOVE?
I don’t understand what the questions mean, or who the questioner is supposed to be. It’s like the irritating copy you get on packaging that says ‘Please recycle me!’, or buses with signs that read ‘Sorry, I am out of service’. You’re supposed to imagine the consciousness of manufactured objects speaking to you, as if the constant nagging voices in your own head aren’t enough to contend with.
After the signs I’m in familiar London terrain. Leyton High Road is a terrace of Victorian worker cottages with shops: NOORUL ISLAM Books, NEMO SHOP & FASHION, and MOULOUDIA Pound Plus Super Market. As the road bends, the dome of TK Maxx rises like a mosque on the far side of a bridge over the railway lines and M11 link road, the latter for which locals were evacuated and houses demolished in the 1990s, amidst the protests of a resistance movement who boarded themselves into the doomed properties. Cars hiss down a tarmac strip where their battle was lost, a victory parade of street lights marching over the hill’s brow towards the motorway.
I pass loiterers smoking fags outside the tube station and descend into Leyton Mills Retail Park. At the bottom of the steps is a steel water fountain with a man hunkered beside it, staring at his phone. I walk down a tree-lined pedestrianised street with Subway, TK Maxx, Pizza Hut and KFC on one side and a row of fake independent shops on the other, their frontages painted onto the back wall of a building. There’s a pretend shop called Your Fashion, another called Musica with a door that’s been painted ajar as if to lure you in, and a café called The Leyton where they’ve painted pretend graffiti onto the pretend exterior. An entirely fabricated boutique called b’Leyton Fun has a sale on, which is great fictional news. In its window there’s a gigantic biplane that looks like a penis with wings. Marshall Music has guitars floating in its window. ‘Waltham Forest: it’s happening here’ says a fake sticker on the fake door.
Two real human men in matching baseball caps sit on the doorstep of the non-real Leyton Gelato ice cream parlour, drinking cans of lager, which spoils the conceit and I’m surprised they’ve not been moved on by the cartoon police. Next door is a place called Livo Jazz – ‘open daily from 5pm’ – but they’ve painted shutters onto the painted door to show that the non-existent venue is closed. I should come back at five o’clock with a saxophone and start hammering on the fake shutters, crying, “Open up you fuckers!”
At the end of the row of fake shops is an alleyway full of cans and sleeping bags. The homeless here are real enough. A sign on the wall says:
Counterfeit DVD vendors are trespassing and may be prosecuted
This seems a bit rich bearing in mind the street I’ve just walked down.
I peer into KFC where there’s a scrum of teenagers by the counter. Signs assure me that they use ‘100% real chicken’. To prove it, the wall is covered with a photo of a farm with fields of rapeseed blazing in the sunshine. I assume you’re not supposed to imagine the sound of slicing blades and the spatter of hot blood on steel in a shed just out of shot.
Pizza Hut is next door. Outside is a shallow amphitheatre for people to sit and stare back at the Pizza Hut sign. A woman with a severely taut ponytail is sat with an Asda bag, smoking a fag beside an empty Fosters multipack carton. A nervous youngster in a suit hovers near her with leaflets for Sky Television from an open-sided van where his partner encourages him by flapping his clipboard forwards, as if to propel him on a breeze. Skilfully swerving the salesman, I enter the car park where the big wide world of retail opens out. Costa, Carphone Warehouse, Burger King, Next, Sports Direct, Currys and my beloved B&Q are arrayed down one side. Asda takes up the right hand flank, its windows adorned with photographs of giant ASDA people with perfect skin and hair, clapping their hands, or leaping over invisible objects in well-creased trousers. An eight-foot Asda boy stares out from the window with his mouth open. He looks like he’s discovered a portal to another dimension, through which he can see tiny people moving between tiny cars. He presses his face against the glass, amazed to see me staring back at him with tired eyes in my strange, non-Asda clothing.
Hung on the wall next to the boy is a banner advert for air freshener: Smell the Scents of Autumn. Not the odours. It puzzles me. The artificial smell of autumn they’ve created will rid us of the odours we smell in the actual autumn? Is that the idea?
All this fiction is making me queasy. It wasn’t like this in the old days, looking for beading or a spirit level in B&Q. Choosing an Anglepoise lamp. Picking up light bulbs. God no. We just drove in, drove out. I never thought to take a walk around. Has anyone, for that matter? Who decides to explore a chain store car park? But now that I have, I understand that there is something fundamentally, totally fucking wrong with Leyton Mills Retail Park. It’s not what’s inside the shops.
It’s what’s happening in the car park.
To the people.
They’re reading papers at the bus stop. Waiting by Belisha beacons to cross the road. Sitting in cars without their engines on. Milling at the Asda entrance. Ignoring their kids in the playground by Costa. Drinking outside pretend cafés. These people are not passing through. They’re dwelling here. As if this is a real town.
Drizzle starts to come down and I go into Costa for a coffee. The customers seem normal enough. But it’s busy. Really busy. A damp smell is coming off hair and coats. The baristas are young girls with Eastern European accents. In a large, funky mixed font, the wallpaper lists a series of coffee subcultures – ‘the cappuccino crowd’, ‘the espresso enthusiasts’, ‘the latte lovers’ – and poses the question, which one am I in? When I look closely at the tables around me, the people are drinking matching coffees. Latte opposite latte, cappuccino opposite cappuccino, flat white with flat white. Only I am drinking espresso, and I feel isolated. Unwelcome. It’s time I left.
Out by the perimeter, you’re not anywhere. You’re not really seen. Only the gravitational pull of your recent card payment in B&Q or Asda suggests your existence in the universe.”
Outside it’s spitting with rain. I head past B&Q but don’t bother to go in, not even for old time’s sake. I’ve realised that you don’t need to go into the superstores.
It’s the car park that’s the place.
I cross onto a grass verge beneath steel fencing, scattered with debris: a plastic toilet cistern, a chaise longue, a football wrapped tightly in black plastic, a window frame, bottle of Ribena, sodden carrier bags. Loud squeals drift from Eurostar’s Temple Mills train depot on the other side of the access road. This is the perimeter. Here’s where everything breaks down. Cars are few and far between. There are rows of empty slots, their white stripes fading. A driver eats lunch in the cab of his truck. A man in an Audi stares dead ahead, as if he has logged off. None of them acknowledge my passing. Out by the perimeter, you’re not anywhere. You’re not really seen. Only the gravitational pull of your recent card payment in B&Q or Asda suggests your existence in the universe.
Finally, I reach the car park exit, through which Emily and I drove all those years ago. The allotments are still there in the scruffy land beyond the fence, by the mini-roundabout that used to spin our Peugeot along the railway lines. An overhead sign thanks me for shopping with Asda and a smaller sign says: Trolleys will automatically stop if taken beyond the red line. The words ‘red line’ are coloured red, to make sure I know what red looks like. At the bottom of the sign, written in a cheery font is: happy to help every day.
The hedgerows by the sign are beautiful. Trimmed in a rolling wave of autumnal browns, bursting with berries. I turn my back to Asda and B&Q, looking beyond the railway lines and marshes to the Shard on the City skyline, like a radio transmitter. It feels like I am on a moon colony staring across at earth. Ground control. Funny how far you can travel in a place you thought you knew.
The sound of heels clopping behind me. Someone else is out walking in the nether regions of the car park. It’s a woman in an elegant black coat, carrying a Next carrier bag. She looks a little uncertain that she’s going the right way, and when she sees me, she baulks. I turn back to the City skyline, so as not to embarrass her. The sound of heels slows but doesn’t go away. I turn again to see she’s drifting to the hedgerows by my shoulder. As she reaches the trolleys will automatically stop sign, her legs lock and her torso lurches forward with the momentum. For a moment she is bent over double. Then she flips herself right. She looks confused, staring down at her legs, shaking her head.
“Excuse me,” she says to me in an accent I can’t place.
“Which way’s Costa?”
It’s a strange question. She only has to turn around. I raise my finger and point towards the car park. That’s when I see the sign of B&Q has changed. It now says BOSON & QUASAR and pulses with a furious energy, emitting orange waves across the tarmac, shoppers manifesting in its glow.
She turns and walks back into the car park, flicking her hair into place, weaving expertly between wing mirrors. Light shimmers and flexes at her passing, as if she’s disturbing sheets of liquid dark matter. It strikes me that to continue my journey I need to pass beyond the red line of the trolleys will automatically stop sign. I feel queasy and uncertain about what might happen if I try. Will my legs be locked-out like wheels?
Across the road there’s movement behind the allotment fence. A man and woman in overalls stare at me intently through the slats. They clutch pitchforks and spades. They seem angry, frightened. Waiting for me to make my move. Waiting to see what I am. What I am not.
Hoping against hope that I am not like all the others, I step towards the red line.
From An Unreliable Guide to London
Gareth E. Rees is author of Marshland: Dreams & Nightmares on the Edge of London (Influx Press, 2013). He also runs the website Unofficial Britain. His work appears in Mount London: Ascents In the Vertical City, Acquired for Development By: A Hackney Anthology, Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography and the spoken word album with Jetsam, A Dream Life of Hackney Marshes.
An Unreliable Guide to London brings together 23 stories about the world-renowned city that stretch the reader’s definition of the truth and question reality: from wind nymphs in South Clapham tube station to the horse-sized swan at Brentford Ait, sleeping clinics in Islington, and celebrations for St Margaret’s Day of the Dead. Other contributors include Chloe Aridjis, Yvvette Edwards, Salena Godden, M. John Harrison, Courttia Newland, Irenosen Okojie, Noo Saro-Wiwa, Nikesh Shukla, Sunny Singh and Will Wiles.
Published by Influx Press. Read more.
Author portrait © Kelly Wilkinson