Home from Home    

Down The Elephant

Essay by Sarah Butler

The Sundial café is a glass corner, glinting in the shopping centre’s glare. Pop in to eat, to meet, or just chill with a coffee and watch the world go by: painted words trail neat white shapes across the window. Inside, a green sundial sits above the refrigerators.

A man stabs at a floating teabag, presses rich brown into milked-up water. Above him, fans stir the air. Outside, security guards pace, plugged into their personal communication systems, wires curling from behind their ears. A man, with his shirt sleeves rolled to his elbows, breaks down cardboard boxes in front of Castle Fruit and Veg. Café Mo displays its stacks of pale, waiting Panini. Behind the counter, three women fold yellow cardboard into flimsy boxes, ready for hot chicken. They stack them into a wall, like children’s building blocks.

Upstairs, in London Palace Bingo, a disembodied voice addresses a hushed crowd. The carpet swirls red and yellow and blue. Screens blink pixellated numbers.  A man holds a piece of paper to his lips, and kisses it for luck. Cash is delivered in sealed white envelopes to the lucky ones. A woman rubs moisturising cream into her palms, up along her fingers towards plum-painted nails. The smell of hot fat leaks from the kitchen. Slot machines chunter and trill. The tables are islands; guarded territories. The air snaps with concentration.

Downstairs, shoes squeak against flecked floor tiles, kick against red metal benches. People play their own music over the background saxophone. They hold phones to their ears and smile. The escalators keep moving. There was a time when riding an escalator was news.

Meet. Greet. People stand beneath wall-mounted planters, tapered like silver bullets, and talk about the past. They finger rainbow scarves, eye the quick sparkle of jewellery, and think about the future.

The signs coalesce into poetry. Forever. Pay As You Go. Tickets and trains. Everything reduced. DIY and Household. Join today. Andrea’s. Jenny’s. London’s. Elephant Parade. Semi-Permanent Make-Up. Lace. Front. Wig. Alterations and Repairs. Advice Centre. Quality. Be Quick! When’s it’s gone, it’s gone…

Across the road, the spaces underneath the railway have been divided and then divided again. You can get your hair cut, buy a pair of jeans, drink Inca Cola, and send money to Ecuador, all beneath a single arch. The trains rumble overhead. Outside, children twirl and tumble in the narrow concrete corridor. Come the weekend, it’s so packed you can hardly move, the air thick with memories of home. Metres away, a tower grows until everything else is dwarfed. Nobody quite knows what will happen.

The Heygate estate stands empty. The trees are mature now, but the flats have lost their windows and doors, and gardens – once carefully tended – return to the wild. A garden gnome lies face down in the grass. Walkways stretch empty lines between deserted buildings. The only people walking here have cameras clutched against their chests. The garden – where a cake was cut into three-hundred pieces and the trees laced with bunting – has lost its statue; the flowers carry on flowering, regardless. Listen to the ghosts of football games, balcony conversations, heated discussion.

A handful of people remain: net curtains defiant amongst the grey boards. Everyone else has gone. Pushed. They have moved – to the Pullens estate, down the Walworth Road, the New Kent Road, further afield; threading off into side streets, into new houses with new neighbours and a different view.

Some say there is an energy at the Elephant, the kind you don’t find in too many places, that they’d be sorry to see go. Streets packed with stories – washing in the bath house, jamming in a stranger’s flat, reaching the eighth floor and knowing you’re home. No-one says it’s easy. Home isn’t something you always get to choose, but it pulls hard on the heart. A man’s home is his castle. An elephant never forgets.