First Chapter Scarp by Nick Papadimitriou
  • SCARP by Nick Papadimitriou

    Chapter One: Suicide Corner

    Auburn-haired and elfin-faced, Miss Borehamwood 1954 was picked up at eight o’clock at her house in Elstree by her fiancé William McGrath. After a quick spin in McGrath’s white MG Midget to St Albans where they had dinner, the couple set off south, car roof down on the hot June evening, heading for Edgware and the cinema. As they passed over Elstree Hill, Sheila Margaret Lomath and William McGrath discussed plans for their wedding day. Everything was arranged, the service at St Nicholas’s church, Elstree, to be followed by a reception at the Orchard Restaurant in Mill Hill. The honeymoon would be spent touring France, the new Mr and Mrs McGrath (plus MG Midget) taking the Silver City cross-channel air ferry from Lydd in Kent to Dunkirk. As they shouted to one another over the engine noise, the evening air hitting their faces, they crossed Brockley Hill, swung onto the sleek and modern A41 Edgware Way and plummeted down off the ridge at 70 mph. Sheila smiled as she gazed at the curve of street lamps marking the course of the arterial road up ahead; in her beautiful mind the chain of orange globes became a necklace bearing the years to come, each jewel-like soda-light a rich season, distinct yet integral to the shaping pattern of her life. William merely pondered his luck: to wed an ex-beauty queen – who’d have thought it? It was good to be alive in 1958.

    Forty-five minutes later Miss Borehamwood 1954 is no more. While the firemen cut her decapitated body free from the smoking wreckage down by the roundabout at Newlands Corner, the traffic backs up on the two-lane by-pass all the way to Five Ways Corner in Hendon, all the way to The Spider’s Web Motel near Watford. Faces stare from the windows of the new tower blocks in the Spur Road estate as an ambulance speeds off, carrying a critically injured McGrath to Edgware General Hospital. A Hendon Times reporter licks his pencil before asking a copper for inside information while Public Carriage officers from Scotland Yard standing in their Macintoshes by the other vehicle involved in the crash – a six-ton British Road Services truck carrying fruit down from Leyland in Lancashire – photograph the silvery skid-marks of the MG Midget’s final moments. The reporter shakes his head woefully: this is just the latest fatality in a year that has seen Edgware’s so-called ‘mile of death’ truly earning its title.

    1958 opened with a bang on 6 January when a car driven by Mr Sidney Thomas Davies, sixty-nine, collided with a bus at the junction of the A41 and Station Road, Hendon. Mr Davies was thrown through the car windscreen and suffered fatal injuries, including multiple fractures to his skull. He had been driving his family back to their home in Watford from a day out in London’s West End when the accident occurred. His son, recording engineer Peter Thomas Davies, later described the sound of the impact as ‘the loudest noise I ever heard’. A fatality left unrecorded at the subsequent coroner’s inquiry was Mrs Davies’ poodle, Bon-Bon, left to lie bleeding to death in the glass-strewn gutter outside the local branch of the National Provincial Bank.

    Less than a week later, Mr Wilfred Fienburgh, thirty-seven, Labour MP for Islington North, died instantly after his car mounted the pavement and hit a concrete street lamp near Apex Corner, the junction of the Watford by-pass and Barnet Way. Mr Fienburgh was returning to his flat in Hemel Hempstead following a day spent surveying housing conditions in Bethnal Green. Friends later described how he had seemed pale and tired on the day of his death. This was due to a sleepless night brought on by the disruptive effect of a hacking cough.

    In May three passengers alighting from a 113 bus – Mark Cohen, fifty-six; Mrs Dorothy Fawcett, sixty-seven; and her daughter, Yvonne Williams, forty – were killed after an estate car ploughed into them at the bus-stop by the junction of the A41 and Tithe Walk, Mill Hill. The driver – a twenty-one-year- old man from Elstree – lost control of his vehicle as the result of a sudden puncture caused by a one-and-a-half inch wood-screw later found embedded in the car’s rear off-side tyre.

    As Sheila Lomath’s body is wheeled towards a waiting ambulance, a brown rat emerges from the roadside herbage and rummages in a shopping bag dumped by a chipped concrete bollard before dragging a greyed sliver of ox-tail onto the York paving. Unperturbed by the arc lamps and the purring fire engines, it hunches over its find. Overhead, on a premoulded concrete street lamp, a crow perches and mocks the event taking place beneath. After the rat has disappeared into the nettles the bird drops heavily and takes his turn. Pulling cold spaghetti from one of the bags, he grips the slimy stringy stuff with his right claw, pinning it to the paving as he leans forward and down to take his fill. Further along the pavement flaccid mauve mallows lie strewn across the hot granite of the road’s edge. Nearby, behind a mound of gravel topped by scentless mayweed and white horseradish, pretty yellow Johnny-Go-to-Bed-at-Noon stands wrapped in his green gown, well and truly asleep. As a crane flips the burnt-out MG Midget the right way up, the flowers are swayed by a stirring of cool air permeated with the scent of hay, fresh-blown over Scarp from the distant Chiltern Hills. The world has not ended with the tragedy at Newlands Corner.

    Meanwhile, a mile uphill at Brockley Grange Farm, where the A41 straddles Scarp at Suicide Corner before descending into Hertfordshire, a dream of motorways takes shape in the mind of a civil engineer working for the transport ministry who, though eyeing the scraggy wood just to the north of the farmhouse, sees only camber, curve and how best to extend the planned M1 extension over this high ground from its present terminus. Momentarily distracted from his plans by the chirring of some unnameable night bird, he looks eastwards across the brightly lit Edgware Way, towards the high ground at Edgwarebury. Perhaps moved by some spontaneous memory of childhood holidays spent in the New Forest, his imagination lingers in the woods and fields like a slowly drifting plant community and then dissolves into ditches lined with black waterlogged leaves – a residue of previous summers – and the ghosts of dead insects. The same breeze from the Chilterns that shook the wild flowers further down the hill ruffles the grass at the civil engineer’s feet and, feeling suddenly cold, he decides to leave. Turning, he mounts his motor scooter and heads off home for creamed tomato soup and beans on toast. His rear light soon merges into the molten red stream marking the northbound evening traffic, now eased with Sheila Lomath’s removal.

    Half a century on and the wood at Brockley Grange Farm is home to neither badger nor brook. A swirling frenzy of feed roads – drivers farting in their Range Rovers, Smart cars steered by nose-picking charity fundraisers, air fresheners swinging endlessly in windscreens – drowns out a rumour of Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, supposedly buried on Stanmore Common just to the west, behind the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital where Sheila Lomath’s body rested after her own last journey via Verulam.

    The orthopaedic hospital is located on a broad plateau topping Brockley Hill. According to the black circular plaque mounted on the wall of the barge-boarded lodge house by its entrance, the hospital was established in 1921 to provide ‘a cure for crippled children’. Now the grounds are packed with stream-lined new medical and administrative units slowly displacing the mansard-roofed brick nursing school, the wartime utility blocks. All burnished metal façade with pastel-coloured inlaid panels, these smoke-free, humming health factories are moni- tored closely for acceptable levels of appropriate behaviour and cross-cultural inclusiveness.

    As the new arrives and is accommodated, the old is neglected, abandoned and then quietly killed off. There is a derelict 1920s fever ward standing near the western edge of the hospital grounds between the 1970s nurses’ flats and the obelisk celebrating the battle supposedly fought here between the Romans and the Catuvellauni in 54 BC. It is a long, low brick structure, with sun-bleached awnings hanging in rags from a steel frame mounted above its breeze-blocked entrance, and an off-white mock bell tower perched on its pantiled roof.

    With its boarded-up windows and padlocked doors, the old fever ward seems to have given up and turned its face from the world, as if wounded by some heart-shattering betrayal. There is a way inside though, via a twisted and wrenched delivery hatch located at the building’s rear. It is a portal through to a cham- ber of imagined memory buried deep in the wet winter land- scape. Discarded hospital trolleys, oxygen cylinders, prosthetic limbs and NHS-issue beds and mattresses lie stacked or scattered throughout the building’s dark interior. Broad corridors recede to mind-traces of a matron clutching thank-you letters 1967, to oranges and bunches of grapes in brown paper bags 1977, and to the long slow haul of faceless patients towards health or otherwise. The sense of something precious – a soft vulnerable humanity interwoven with businesslike yet compassionate expertise – hovers in the silences, sweeping across the dusty cobwebbed surfaces of the medical implements and through the dormitories with their drained radiators and scratched linoleum floors. There is a brushing of dead spikes of buddleia against steel-framed windows. Pigeons scratch and momentarily flutter as they shift on their perches in the roof. These are the whispers of deep-time.

    Just to the north of the paediatrics block – down some concrete steps into a shallow valley, and past the ruins of the home-farm – a small tear-shaped pool of clear water marks the issuing of a stream from beneath the Bagshot sands capping Brockley Hill. The water fills a natural basin worn into the surface of the London clay before brimming over and trickling downhill to pass into Hertfordshire. It is one of the sources of the Tykes Water, the main feeder of the Aldenham Reservoir a mile to the north. Its current carries off the dead MP, the ex-beauty queen, the brown rat, the haggard fever patients sweating in their striped pyjamas. The black leaves flow like a plague of mice across the windy earth. The Internet will bear no trace of them. But Scarp sees it all.

    I was born in 1958 into a world that, despite its best efforts, still had the war hanging over its shoulder. The conventional Edwardian suburb in which my family lived tried hard to forget the recent fighting, the hunger and the sacrifices made, but these lingered on in the haggard faces of my teachers and in the brick bomb shelters behind Simms’ Motor Units, where my father worked. The fear of war could still be heard in the occasional public testing of air-raid sirens, a panic-edged warbling that invoked a collective memory of Heinkels or Dorniers throbbing over the suburbs and cold needles of light piercing the night sky. The shock waves seemed to recede sometime in the mid-1960s, to be replaced by TVs, flared purple trouser suits and more and more parked cars. Now we lived – or so I was assured by my parents and Blue Peter – in an age of decency and safety. However, I never quite believed this and sensed that the dignified rows of houses in my road, with their colourful and welcoming front doors and gaily patterned window sashes, were conspiring to create an illusion of permanence. Their apparent fixity seemed to me to be a lie, the momentary dream of a nameless and ultimately vindictive earth god.

    From an early age I used walking as an instrument of research, the aim being to step straight through the cracks in the apparent world, the shared beliefs of my little electrically lit Middlesex colony. My plastic Daleks and Airfix confederate infantry; my sombre parents, trying hard; the kind school with its gaily coloured wall paintings, its milk and biscuits freely given: all these I left behind when I first explored the alley two houses down. This led, via dustbins and strewn cinders, to where our happy houses mutated into unadorned cliff-faces of brown brick permanently deprived of sunlight. Set in honeycombed concrete at the alley’s lowest point there was a metal plate. When I bent down and placed my ear to it I heard indecipherable groans and shrieks rising from some sinister place located deep beneath our front gardens, our ornate wrought-iron gates and tarpaulined Morris Minors. The alley ended at a zone fenced with green railings containing a large electricity substation. Giant orange fish swirled silently in a broad cooling lagoon visible behind the blockhouses and Lombardy poplars; the substation, with its humming serious- ness, its insulation porcelains and high-tension cables, seemed to be a place of unheeded urgency and danger.

    The manhole covers, stern-faced backs of houses and lank weeds spoke a different language from the one used by the adults who surrounded me in my daily life: they challenged the self-assuming certainty of the events played out in the sitting room at home or on the screen of the TV set that had recently arrived. They were doorways through to something larger, older and darker that lurked behind the narratives of our home lives – something that in my imagination took the form of a gnarled and ancient man made of moss, mud and wood who visited us at night, staring fiercely through the windows as we watched Criss-Cross Quiz.

    But it was an in-out on-off sort of consciousness, this passing below the everyday scheme of things. A new series of Doctor Who; the packs of American Civil War cards I bought from the local sweet shop; days out to Hampstead Heath with the family that lived opposite – these served to slot me back into my place in the shared community.

    In the early 1970s I was introduced to a different sort of darkness, another unmapped region. The cataclysm of my parents’ failed marriage, which culminated in my mother’s bruised and defeated departure from home, seemed to my mind to correspond somehow with the bearded and slovenly people appearing on the TV or seen on the street. Gone was the cartoon innocence, the smooth-chinned 1960s hero – invariably an American – and the optimism manifest in jelly beans and Supercar. Now Simon Dee was losing it – all loon pants and jeering lips – and the clean-cut beat groups of yesteryear became serious bands, angrily sporting patch-jeans and lanky hair. Now the boys from Alder School rolled us in nettles; now Mrs Frobisher flashed her knickers as she bent over the school desk in front with her mini-dress riding high. There were nauseatingly long runs along the footpath by the North Circular Road courtesy of a sports teacher who terrified me with his slipper; there was a freezing-cold home and my dad spitting and pissing into a yellow plastic bucket as he died a day at a time from Guards filter tips while breathlessly intoning ‘the bitch, the bitch’. There were also the tough boys with cropped hair and tie-dyed T-shirts who hung around the chip shop on Long Lane, their boots – ox-bloodied for action – twisting out smouldering fag butts.

    Later, more mobile and intent on escaping the gladiator ring of my secondary school’s fully equipped gym, I bunked off, forsaking my free school dinners for a little peace and safety. This was a perilous decision, one made in desperation. The danger came not from strange men I might meet and had been warned about but from the police or from the ‘greenies’ – the London Borough of Barnet vans that seemed to be everywhere in those days – or from running into either a teacher or, worst of all, my dad.

    The winter of 1970–71 saw me hiding out during school hours in a patch of wasteland situated between the back gardens of the houses on Glebe Road and the North Circular Road. It was a low-lying acre or so full of interesting junk – rusting cogs and sprockets, scorched pages from 1950s boys’ annuals, a patched and leaking space-hopper – that rose through twisted ivy and sycamore at its border to meet the edge of the arterial road. All day the traffic droned past as I hunkered down into a little shack I’d made from planks, mildewed tarpaulin and a small septic tank. Here I would wait out the long freezing hours until fading light and schoolkids passing along the alley close by told me I could safely return home.

    The wasteland was a good place to experiment with fire. I rifled the garden sheds of the houses on Glebe Road for methylated spirits and other flammables. Stacks of timber, the dried- out stems of summer’s weeds, old newspapers – homes for earwigs and harvestmen – all were utilised. The resulting blaze kept me warm during the cold days.

    The best thing about this tiny province of mine was ‘the sewer’, a five-foot-high concrete-covered pipe that ran the length of the wasteland in parallel with the North Circular. The sewer spoke of hidden dimensions, of the smug suburb’s need to accommodate mysterious processes, ones that could be directed to some degree but could never be wished away. Halfway along the pipe was a brick inspection chamber topped by a manhole plate inscribed FUDC (Finchley Urban District Council). Here I would sit and survey my lands while bands of black smoke rose from burning tins of paint and wound through the dense brambles. It was my throne and watchtower combined, this squat and sinister block, a central clearing house for the processing of information – mutterings and murmurings – that seemed to be channelled through the pipe.

    When the cold got to be too much I would walk. Perhaps eastwards into the Rough Lots, a swampy area frequented by odd men, that was once part of Finchley Common. It was here in 1970, during a dustmen’s strike, that I set fire to piles of household waste in the borough’s dust destructor. Alarmed by the intensity of the resulting inferno I fled through the woods, past stinking ponds and men languidly smoking by the gents’ lavatory. I was convinced that all police units would be on to me immediately and expected to hit the Great North Road only to see a blue Rover pull up and some copper scratching his arse as he climbed out to arrest me. Then it would be leather car seats and stony-faced policemen while East Finchley sped past. Then it would be sweet tea and a chain-smoking civilian typist tapping away on her typewriter as I systematically incriminated myself.

    My home was another cold and hungry wasteland. Every evening I returned to the smoke-damaged kitchen – resulting from a fire I’d lit in 1966 – to rummage about in the dark cellar where we stored the china plates and broken vacuum cleaners, the now unused Christmas decorations, of my earliest life. Perhaps I thought that somewhere down there – hidden in the coal dust or in one of the tobacco tins packed with bent nails and screws – I would find a key to some other place, some other life.

    My dad was a flat-capped rough-shaven old geezer, burned-out by Nazi labour camps, cold English winters and too many cigarettes. He shamed me in front of my friends with his Pidgin English; on one memorable occasion he referred to Mother’s Pride bread as ‘mummy’s brother’. His last fifteen years were to be spent lying, covered in unwashed blankets, on sofas of varying decrepitude. The TV packed in sometime in 1971, halfway through that week’s episode of It’s A Knockout. We couldn’t afford to have it repaired and I gave up on the goggle box, never to return.

    A curiously Tardis-like spatial dislocation occurred when you walked through our house or any of the others on our side of the street. It was always a surprise to discover that the sizable back gardens were about ten feet lower than the street outside the front door. This area of unexpectedly low land was doubled by taking into account the gardens of the houses backing onto ours – those in Woodlands Avenue. Our own back garden was reached by wooden steps descending from a glass-roofed veranda tacked onto the rear of the house like an afterthought. From the bottom of the steps the land continued to descend several feet towards the once-creosoted fence at the end of the garden.

    It was a weedy and spidery zone, the bottom of our garden. The fence was shoed with bricks and these served as anchors for the conical webs of black tunnel spiders, one of whom I named Al Capone and fed regularly with red and black ants, woodlice and earwigs. There was also a chipped bird table in which – during a period I spent playing at being a ‘chemist’ – I had mixed mud, paint, urine and the odd unfortunate beetle for purposes of experimentation. By 1970 chemistry had been superseded by archaeology. Taking the rusted spade from our basement I set to, working down into the soil and clay at the bottom of the garden. I hoped to find some shards of Roman pottery but instead, after about eighteen inches, I hit the curved surface of a concrete pipe. Casting my spade aside in disgust I immediately gave up on archaeology and moved on to the biological sciences. I converted the cellar into a laboratory by collecting jars of all sorts – jam, pickled onion, potted meat – from around the house and laying them out in ranks on a vast old kitchen table. My favourites were the old 1950s Kilner jars left behind by my mother. Filled with water tinted with colours from my paint box, these provided me with the preservatives, reagents and other chemicals I needed. One day I found a dead blackbird by the old stone bench hidden behind some apple saplings planted by my dad in 1968. I snipped the bird’s head off with scissors, laying the dead creature – and his head – on a slate on which I inscribed, using a piece of chalk plucked from the garden’s soil, the words: ‘A victim of bird disease’.

    Had I been a little clearer in my thinking I would’ve spotted a connection between the concrete pipe at the bottom of my garden and the one in the acre of land where I safely bunked school. Years later I worked out that my garden pipe carried a small watercourse downhill to where it joined the stronger stream that fed through ‘the sewer’. Our back garden rested in a river gully.

    The Borough of Finchley possessed a still larger river, the Dollis Brook, which ran north to south on the far side of the main road. An alley led between shops and over the railway to where an old lodge house marked the beginning of the path to the brook. The way down to the valley bottom passed between spacious suburban houses. A streamlet ran alongside, on the bank of which grew numerous horse chestnut trees, nettles and – in May – white broad-leaved flowers that smelled of garlic. The path reached the brook just by a golf course and crossed over to the opposite bank via a wooden bridge. In about 1965 a silver, rust-proof structure was erected next to the bridge to carry an ancillary pipeline across the brook. It is still there today – and still free of rust; I continue to refer to it as I did when it first appeared, as ‘the new bridge’.

    When I was free and relatively unburdened – I mean in the 1960s, before my mother left – I would go down to the brook with my sister and two brothers and we would walk what seemed like miles along the watercourse in either direction. If we turned right at the bridge a causeway with swampy ground to either side would lead us through to civilised parklands complete with swings, lavatories and mowed grass. Left would take us along by the golf course and through miserable twisted trees to a small lake in which we caught sticklebacks and newts. Further on, the tube railway’s Mill Hill East branch crossed the river valley on a vast brick viaduct that suddenly came into view high above the dense riverside woodland. Beyond that – having crossed beneath a winding lane busy with traffic – the stream headed through unexplored parkland towards places as yet still unimagined.

    Once in that awful winter of 1970 I risked the police and the greenies and revisited the brook. It had probably been two years since I had last been there and the journey from age nine to eleven had carried me through some developmental node-point in which unhappiness had increased enormously. Gone were the sunlit vales of my childhood, replaced by dread: dread in the face of the bullying and poverty; dread in the face of the dismal world with its black arterial roads, damp houses, demands of education and gymnasium.

    I resolved on that occasion to follow the brook as far south as I could, intent as I was on unpicking the seam of my imprinted world. Whether I was looking for another land – somewhere happier and safer – or merely responding to some early hint of my interest in topography I don’t know. For the first time I journeyed beyond the viaduct, over the busy road and into parklands that clearly belonged to a different world to the one I knew.

    It was a land inhabited for the most part by pram-pushing, ringlet-haired mothers who bore, in their slender dark-faced beauty and their fine clothes, a certainty and security alien to me. Their curly-haired and chubby-cheeked children stared at me reprovingly through dark piercing eyes. They had clearly been born into a world that nourished and accepted them gladly, and they instinctively recognised that I was something other. Even the spoilt and well-brushed little lapdogs that ran about on the broad swathe of mown grass before stopping and eyeing me disdainfully seemed to bear an authority in their presence that was denied to me. The houses visible beyond the treelined footpath grew bigger as I marched south. Brightly polished cars clustered around blocks of luxury flats of recent design fitted with big windows revealing pull-down blinds and smart interiors.

    Then everything changed suddenly. The walk ended where a major road – at the time I assumed it was the North Circular, though, in fact, it was the Great North Way link between the A406 and the A41 – crossed the brook just by a large lake. As I gazed into the sun-starved riverbed beneath the road bridge, I knew I had reached the far edge of any world I had ever imagined. The undulating silt, filamentous waterweed and rusted detritus resting on the streambed spoke of endings. This place of dumped paint-cans, hubcaps and bike frames uttered one word only: Terminus.