I like those first moments in the morning that are only mine, when I emerge from the gullet of the Covent Garden lifts onto the pavement. It is only empty by comparison, because there are plenty of us, thronging through the gates. There are people dressed in matched black and blue tracksuits trying to give me a leaflet for a gym membership, and others still horizontal on collapsed cardboard boxes with paper cups full of coins stood in front. Still others hose the payments, or bend double to unlock doors to stores that will later be full of shoppers. By most standards I am surrounded, but in these morning minutes, there is no one who wants to speak to me, and that is the difference.
Covent Garden in the morning is a gift-wrapped box, and each time I look at it I feel a it little bit more deeply. It is an old place, from the uneven cobblestones to the rising arches of the market and maybe that is why the buskers give me pause; painted silver and gold and twisting strangely on their hidden gravity-defiant stands, they might be unfamiliar ghosts, and not the clowns they seem. Covent Garden is a gaudy graveyard, stood around with glass boxes of lipstick and chocolate and ornaments.
I am in the minority of most of the transitory visitors to Covent Garden in that my workplaces have allowed me to be semi-permanent here. I have moved house plenty, but remained here for all but 5 weeks of my seven years spent working in London. Most people work in the city, or at least up in Soho, or Oxford Circus, where there is some population of big buildings, but I have always been in Covent Garden with the tourists. My face is in the background of a great many snaps, shared with family back home. I am that Londoner, impatiently walking against the tide and at my own pace. I do not have time for the metallic buskers.
Last week, I arrived at work to find a shit collected in a napkin and smushed against the glass walls of my office building. I described it on social media as a human shit, and someone asked me how I knew, and that was a fair question. I suppose there was something in the thickness, or the consistency, or maybe it was merely because it was in a napkin, suggestive of toilet paper. It stayed there all day, stuck to the glass immediately to the left of the spinning doors, so that wafts of shit moved inside the building with each rotation, from 8am until 6:30pm when I departed, only by the end of the day it had slid slightly down the glass, leaving a smudged trail. I suppose the desk staff didn’t see it as their responsibility to remove fecal matter from the panes, but I would have thought it worse to watch its slow progression down the glass for 10 hours. After two glasses of wine, walking past later, at 8pm, the shit was gone, with only a slight smear to show where it had once stuck. I don’t know what moves a person to pick up a shit in a napkin, let alone to stick it to an office window.
8am in Covent Garden recently has been very clear and blue and cool. The spring (the sky is falling) sky renders the stone of the market warmer, like you could lay your palms against it and feel a heartbeat. It has been a market in some form or another since 1652, longer back that I can bend my mind around, but the stones under foot help: rounded and smooth under hundreds of years of tread.
8am in Covent Garden is exactly the right kind of lonely. The tourists are still in their AirB&Bs, or safe underground clutching their suitcases with aeroplane eyes, and there is little chance of bumping into a colleague. Most of the stores are still shut and those who share the footpaths with me keep their eyes on the cobbles. Walking down Long Acre, I can see through to Leicester Square, onward to Piccadilly Circus. Inside the next 60 minutes, the city wakes up and starts to thrum with the familiar voices and lights and shouts and cars, but for those minutes I can make it mine. Sometimes I move too quickly through. I have walked the same route so many times, I can sleep through it. But sometimes the light is right, and I have slept enough, and I am awake to it: the age and beauty of it, the strange stacked juxtaposition of old stones and glass window displays of sharp new shoes, and I can appreciate the sun-warmed stone against that same blue sky.