I live on the intersection between two worlds.
Our street of back to back terraced housing is neither aggressively posh nor aggressively poor. But just down the road in either direction, is a different story:
Go left: Pass the mosque to find an artisan bakery, an up-cycling store and a funky little gift shop; turn the corner for a craft brewers, indie coffee-roasters and a club where the Welsh Media hang out and you’re sure to spot a celeb or two. Keep going for a continental deli, organic veg store and clean wide roads with lush trees and spacious Victorian Houses. People here have good skin.
I can stroll slowly down these streets, breathe in, catch a medley of birdsong from the leafy canopies above, pause to peek through big bay windows.
But obviously I can’t afford to actually shop here.
Go right: Across from the primary school, there’s a car-park which (except in lockdown), is strewn with litter and spittle. On the corner a Cash Generator faces a Sex-Shop opposite Home Bargains outside which a homeless woman knits bracelets for passing kids. Keep on down the High Street for Betting shops, Discount stores, Vape Emporiums. The Job Centre is walking distance.
Aliens, or Public-School MP’s in need of an infographic to picture the class system, come visit me and choose left and then right at the end of our street.
You’d have to be dead inside not to feel it.
What the poorer area boasts mind-you is loads of international places to eat: Palestinian, Italian, Latino, Korean, Thai. Food critic Jay Rayner even visited once. Though of course he went to the one unaffordable restaurant among them (run by a lauded chef, hidden above the plainly named ‘Meat Market’).
Jay called the street “endearingly scuffed.” That sounds sweet but getting my groceries here today, I still see extras from Les Miserables: Sallow, knackered, malnourished, old beyond their years, reared on poverty and trauma.
The swirly-shaped concrete seat outside the supermarket is where the most desperate seem to congregate: There’s the dread-locked amputee whose single arm hangs from a naked torso; the skeletal young woman in a wheelchair pushed by an equally emaciated girl sipping a can of cider; and a guy who could be twenty or sixty sitting hunched over on the ground eking out a roll-up.
I’m watching from socially-distanced pavement-painted footsteps. I see a fella with matted hair approach and set down a grubby rucksack. I become transfixed by his subtle, peaceful smile. Just as I’m taking it in, something happens: a soaring angel voice rings right out loud, like Matted Hair Man has his own personal soundtrack. It’s Jeff Buckley singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah:
Well I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It’s magnificent and I can’t tell where in heaven’s name it’s coming from…
Well it goes like this
The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Not from the pub next door where people sit for cheap early morning pints, because it’s still in lockdown. Not from the bank or the church…
Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya
I stand stock still and scan the street. Can anyone else hear it?
…it’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light…
I want to yell “Listen everybody, listen!”
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.
The security guard waves me into Tesco. Everything is ordinary again.
Except it isn’t.
Leonard Cohen once said “This world is full of things that cannot be reconciled…The only moment that you can live here comfortably…is when you embrace it all and you say, ‘Look, I don’t understand a fucking thing at all – Hallelujah!’” I’m pretty sure he’s not advocating acceptance of hideous inequality, but describing the moment you allow pain and incomprehension to pierce right through you.