Mad Scientess Jane Expat
As I leave the house, I run a hand over the leaves of our triffids (giant thistles) in the front garden. I briefly entertain the thought of picking off and squishing a few of the snails munching on them, but dismiss it. There's plenty of leaf to go around and besides, their shells are pretty and I don't want to smash them. I exit through our recalcitrant low wooden gate, which swells up in wet weather and refuses to latch properly. I skip across the normally busy street, which is empty at this hour, and head down the much quieter side street to the main artery of my commute.
If I'm carrying letters, I swerve slightly to the red postbox in front of our tiny local shop, where I occasionally stop to buy milk and bread in the evenings. I cross the road so I can continue down the side of the pavement next to the park. This section of the street is lined with broad-leafed lime trees. Though they appear to be roughly the same age and size, the trees on the side of the street next to the park are always two weeks behind the development of those on the other side. When the latter are covered in new spring green, the former still have bare grey winter branches. It is the smallest pair of adjacent microclimates I've ever seen. One tree is considerably younger than the thirty-odd others, probably a late replacement for one that died. I give it a reassuring pat on my way home.
I check on the distinctive houses as I head toward a crossing of another major road. I look in the dusky pink framing around a bay window to see into the bird cage of one front room. Unusually, these people don't favour keeping their curtains drawn. Further along, a pair of houses has a sprawling clematis obscuring everything but the doors and windows. The ambitious vine has also made serious incursions down the telephone cables crossing the street. When in flower, it is spectacular. Just before the main road, in a tiny neglected garden mostly bricked over with recycling bins haphazardly strewn about it, an intrepid red rose pokes its branches through where it can.
The short street I enter has a rather dismal aspect even in bright sunshine. The street is too narrow for cars to be able to park properly along it so they end up with one set of wheels on the pavement, making the surrounding buildings appear as though they're leaning toward the middle. There is little space for pedestrians to pass. On rubbish collection days, I have to walk in the street. I thread my way through past ill-fitting curtains in rented accommodations. A few places have proud owners, who put care into placing cheerful trinkets in their windows in an attempt to lighten up the gloom. I'm glad to round the corner onto the next wide section of street. I breathe deeply on emergence and stride on.
The houses over the road have long front gardens. Over the Christmas period, one featured the most cacophanous display of lights I've ever seen. Reindeer rubbed noses on the lawn with baby Jesus in a manger. Santa popped out of the chimney, festooned with inflatable candy canes, while "Happy Christmas" flashed on and off between three bewildered kings. The effect was pretty terrifying. On my side of the street, snugly packed, neatly kept houses dominate. I often hear a man whistling in the shower with the window open. (Once on the way home, I saw him leaning out through it, clearly freshly bathed and also clearly naked, though the lower half of him was obscured by frosted glass. He caught my alarmed eye and nodded. I waved and narrowly resisted remarking, "Nice night for it.") In the window of the last house I pass, a plump cat often sits. One is white with dark grey patches and the other is dark grey with white patches. Their patches are placed so similarly that I can't help thinking perhaps it's the same cat, just a rather fickle one.
I thread through a narrow alley that only allows one bicycle or person to pass at a time, which is not a problem now as I have yet to see another person who isn't in a car. To the left of the high brick wall is a large conservatory attached to a house with a solar panel array on top. These people hang their washing out quite unabashedly. (Me, I'll do sheets, towels, trousers and shirts, but pants and bras are only for indoors.) Someone there has a penchant for stripey socks.
I cross another traffic-free main road. As I reach the corner of my favourite street before the pedestrian bridge that takes me over the rail track, I often meet Oliver. I'm not sure what Oliver does, other than ride his elderly bicycle around in leisurely fashion, chatting to all the people he knows in the neighbourhood. He always has a friendly smile and stops to find out how I'm doing. Once he's ridden off, I say hello to the koi carp in the pond behind the low wall of the first house. This place is a labour of love, with a well-tended garden featuring healthy bleeding-heart bushes and a big airy conservatory that seems to be under constant and unnecesary improvement. Sometimes the owners, a spry retired couple, are up and about at this time, and I wave at them through their kitchen window. The street has been gentrified over the years by young urban professionals wanting a place close to the rail station with a cute garden and enough space to start a family. Double-glazed windows of varying quality and design replaced the old wooden sash ones, with a single exception. One house, which I'm willing to bet the others regard as a blight on the landscape, remains firmly unimproved. The window frames are rotting, the front garden is a jungle, loud coloured pottery sits in the windowsills and during the election, it was the only place on the street covered with signs (Labour). It is not the house of a retired person or someone who commutes to a well-paid job in London. It is the last holdout of some trenchant local.
I count the blackbirds in the tops of the trees lining the street (three) and wait to see if the grumpy man comes out to shout "clear off" at the doves who insist on cooing down his chimney (not today). Sometimes an elderly tortoiseshell cat musters the energy to walk down its very short driveway for a head-scritching. I round the corner to the pedestrian bridge. Though I walk at a fair clip when not wearing heels, I am almost invariably passed by at least two men in suits carrying briefcases with eyes only for the tops of their shoes. I cross the car park to the station, weaving through stationary taxis. Their drivers lounge on each other's doors, exchanging affectionate insults. I nip down the platform and into a seat by the window in my usual carriage and wonder which of the five or six regulars who favour the same spot will end up next to me. Will it be the woman who smiles apologetically and leans her head against the seat in front to conduct whispered conversations into her mobile before we depart? The thin Asian boy who falls asleep the second he sits down? The efficient blonde whose fingers fly over her Blackberry in a blur? I open my book and wait.