It’s 3.30am on Monday morning (or is it still Sunday night?) and I’m off to catch a bus, to catch a train to Chesham. The end of the Metropolitan line. Zone 9. I’m off to look for the fringe of London. I’m off to find where the city begins and ends.
It’s all men on the top deck of the 176, apart from the voice announcing the stops: Horniman Museum, Lordship Lane, Grove Tavern. Grove Tavern is boarded up with steel plates. I find myself cataloguing things that we pass, hoping for some sort of insight. A paper shop is opening for business, a man is leaning on the counter of a hotel reception, a rubbish truck is in a side road.
On Borough High Street I notice a long flower box below a first floor window. At 5.37am the bus terminates at Aldgate station where giant red flower pots house forgettable shrubs. Later, at Preston Road, there will be flower beds in the centre of the platform and somewhere at the end of the line, I will stare at more blooms hanging from a wire fence. All these unnecessary, pointless displays are a kind relief from the unambiguous instructions and coded technical data that litter the stations. Flowers are necessary because they say nothing.
As the train makes its way upstream along the Metropolitan Line, the groups of people waiting for the train going back into town grow older. They put on suits and swap rucksacks for briefcases. That was me not long ago. They start to read copies of Metro and gather in clumps that flatten against the platform edges. Is a fringe an edge? A red line that can’t be uncrossed?
Lots of tired ears are stuffed with white ear phones. I write down something about everything being a perpetual fringe. I feel very comfortable in these fluid, public spaces. There’s some kind of equality in our separateness: everyone walking, waiting, embarking, leaving. It’s only when I feel people coalesce – at work, with friends, at a wedding – that edges appear. Two weeks later someone says to me, “You’re weird”. It’s affectionate I think, “you know you are”, but it smarts a little to feel it recognised by both of us at the same time.
At the end of the line there is a field of Christmas trees.
I stay on the train for the return journey as it fills up with men and women, firm and certain. This is what I mean about edges appearing. (As I write this account a friend calls from America to announce he’s had a fourth child and is about to take a six-figure salary. Converting it to Sterling doesn’t help and I’m thankful when we get cut off.) But as difficult as the fringe can be, I reassure myself that it offers some sort of perspective and the occasional clear view.
Back on the train I distract myself by glancing at the disappearing hair of the man sitting opposite me with his girlfriend. Does she brush it with her loving hand, and tell him it’s cute, knowing he’ll be gone one day too? By 8.20am I’m standing at London Bridge watching people pour in and in from South London, looking forward to my bed.
* * *
After all this I never found a beginning. When I left my house, two men were already up and talking in the street. By the time I was joined at the bus stop by handkerchief lady, security guard and the others, it had stopped feeling early. As the bus pulled in at 4am it was already half full. And I couldn’t find an end. At Chesham, past the Christmas trees was a farm and beyond that a hot air balloon.
Perhaps a fringe isn’t a cliff edge but a scrubby opening to something else.
This article was originally published in BELLYFLOP’s FRINGE Publication, a one-off print edition distributed as part of BELLYFLOP FRINGE at Dance Umbrella 2013.