On silent side streets, a cloud of marijuana hangs in the air. It is the first still night after a week of storms. Alone under a cloudless sky, I look up at the flats to see if there’s someone smoking high up on a balcony, but my eyes fall upon a lone resident on a stairwell, his face illuminated by his phone rather than a roll-up. In a car a little further down two people sit in the front seats sharing a joint, windows cracked, engine idling, radio down low. I hope they’re just using the car as an extension of their living room away from the prying eyes of family members, but this is Birmingham, so I doubt it.
Headbutt the cat sees me coming and races across the front gardens to greet me in her namesake fashion, though tonight she spares me the little thumb nip she administered out of excitement the last time I saw her. Pausing in her display of affection to listen for approaching traffic, she dances in tight circles around my legs and tries to follow me to the corner shop before I shoo her back to the safety of home, away from the main road.
Back within the middle ring road of Motor City, the diesel fumes are unbearable. Heavy, acrid, inescapable. I love this city, but I hate the way it smells.
In the same week that we looked back on the liberation of Auschwitz seventy-five years ago, the UK turned its back on the European Project and all it stands for. At 11pm on ‘Brexit Day’ fireworks and jubilant voices carried across the city through the drizzle, yet all I felt was sadness and fear. I cannot believe it has come to this, that racism and bigotry carry more weight in 21st century Britain than multiculturalism and the power of collaboration, that history has taught us nothing.
Born in France to British parents of Italian and Polish heritage, I spent my early childhood in Germany and I identify more as European than anything else. I have always felt uneasy calling myself ‘English’, yet as a result of Vote Leave and the Tories I now also struggle with calling myself ‘British’. I may not be a citizen of the European Union any more, but I will always be European.
Turning the corner of the stairs leading down to the basement kitchen of YHA Penzance on a camping trip two springs ago, the smell of burnt toast mixed with the scent of wet foliage drifting in through the open fire escape and I found myself back in 1996, aged nine and choking back a panic attack over morning grace.
Monday morning and as the sun rises over ice covered streets, rush hour traffic builds on the Middleway. The city council has just announced plans to ban through traffic into and out of the city centre, and for a moment I dream about what weekday mornings could look, sound and smell like before the real world pulls me back to earth with a jolt. A car jumps the lights at the junction just as I move to cross on a pedestrian green and a commuter on the opposite side of the road to me smiles and shakes his head in solidarity. Covering my mouth and nose with one hand I power walk past a stationary bus in a queue of traffic and turn on to a side street.
On the quiet streets of Edgbaston, little children in old fashioned school uniforms climb down from their wheeled fortresses and walk in to school, book bags swinging at their sides, heads held high. In the midst of a global climate crisis, it’s business as usual this morning.
In recent weeks as the northern hemisphere transitions into winter, wrapping Britain in a damp embrace of fog and grey skies, I’ve been struggling to read. Two weekends ago, having contorted myself and my book to fit under the narrow beam of light cast by the little reading lamp on my bedside table, I found myself lying flat on my back on the floor trying to foam roll my spine into oblivion.