As we stole past the burning hulks of cars, our skin brushed by litter raised high by the cold wind, it was difficult to imagine the safe world and the secure way of life that was all I'd known just a week ago. A day that began with breakfast, on the dawn of a Suburban day much like every other Suburban day. As usual, my preparation for the day ahead was a bowl of cereal, two slices of toast with marmalade and butter, and a cup of instant coffee. The television burbled in the background, where it caught the reflection of the early morning sun slanting through the window.
Outside, the Suburbs was stirring. There was the low whir of the milk float, the revving of cars preparing to leave for work, the slamming of doors and the purposeful tread of commuters along the pavement. Sparrows and blackbirds serenaded each other from the hedges and trees. A postman paced by, oblivious to the stream of commuters as he sifted through post that he would dispense with a dull thud onto doormats already cluttered with free newspapers and unsolicited promotions.
The Suburbs was where I lived. Semi-detached house after semi-detached house arrayed in all directions, harmoniously separated by fences, protected from the street by hedge, lawn and driveway. Every house adorned by television aerials, telephone wires, plumbing, electricity and gas. Every house self‑contained, and every Suburban occupant in a world bounded by television and the garden fence.
My house was no exception. I was no exception. Except that today I was not a commuter.
Although I was not in the general procession of commuter traffic, I knew that it would be my destiny. Soon, I would join the daily regiment that headed to the City, briefcase and umbrella in hand, to keep the Suburbs in garden gnomes, Welcome doormats and nostalgic country ornaments.
On that day, I left my house with no purpose and no destination, envying those hurrying by with both. I ambled towards the park where the orderly rows of semi-detached houses gave way to orderly rows of trees and hedges along well-paved paths. There were children's swings and slides, and ornamental flowerbeds. And, so unlike now, there were no clouds in the sky and the shadows had a sharpness that enhanced the plastic clarity of the flowers and trimmed trees.
I sat on one of the regularly spaced benches. The manicured lawn extended ahead towards a hedge that secluded the park from a less peaceful world where double-decker buses and family cars drove past. My mind was on many things, mostly inconsequential. What did I need to buy at the supermarket? Which bills needed paying? Were there really rats under the floorboards?
However, as now, in the desolation of a world turned upside-down, I was also occupied by thoughts of the Truth. At the time, it seemed such a harmless and abstract pursuit.
There'd been a great deal of discussion on television as experts declared how close they were to divining its nature. They might not know for sure what the Truth was, but they had a clearer idea than ever before. Or at least they had a better idea of what it most certainly wasn't.
Although that seemed absurd now in the desolate wastelands, I was tempted to declare that the Truth already existed and was in the Suburbs. If the Truth was evident in a life as well organised and purposeful as possible, blessed with the greatest degree of civilised comfort, where else but in the Suburbs was there the degree of utilitarian perfection that earned that description? Wasn't the purpose of life the striving towards further perfection of an orderly state? All that was needed was to tidy up a few lawns, eliminate litter and better municipal planning.
However, I was sure there was more to the Truth than that. The Suburbs lacked any objective greater than its own perfection. I looked around the park and beyond, at the tiled roofs of semi-detached houses and private gardens. The Truth must be beyond all this.
But if not in the Suburbs where else could the Truth be found? As I looked now at my lover, illuminated by the flames of burning homes, I wondered, as I did then, whether it was to be found in Love. Generations have believed that the Truth is revealed through Love. The heart ascends above the mundane and predictable. You do only the best for others. And in return others do the best for you.
My eyes followed a woman who walked purposefully by on the business of her day. Behind her, the sun heightened the greenness of the grass. A thrush hammered at the ground, no doubt equally in pursuit of its own business. It took off and flew like an arrow into a tree.
Could the Truth be found in meditative contemplation of the world? Isn't it often said that beauty and reason is in the perfection of nature: the balance of the ecological order and the struggle for the most fit to survive. On a peaceful day in the park, that didn't seem as unlikely as it did in the shadows of the smoke billowing from abandoned buildings, where life was now so brutish and short.
I wondered whether the Truth had a Divine providence, as my eyes were directed heavenwards by the spire of a church above the television aerials. Could God be the personification of the Truth? A Truth, however, that required Faith. Without Faith (and which Faith?) where then is the Truth? And if God personifies the Truth, what is that Truth?
The ants that filed past my feet then, almost invisible in the cracks of the path's tarmac, were so much less a threat than the swarms of huge insects now filling the skies. It is often said that insects, not humans, are the true owners of the world. I had heard that there were some rather large and frightening insects beyond the Suburbs, something I now knew for sure.
Just one week earlier, the world beyond was totally unknown to me. I was certain I wouldn't like a great deal of it; but if I were to find the Truth, I would have to face many hazards. I had often been told of the horrors of the outside world. However, some of what I had been warned against sounded quite good fun. How can one know the Truth until one has lived life to the full, (which I was sure I couldn't do in the Suburbs)? But then, if the Truth could be found in a life of indulgence and pleasure, why so many warnings against it?
Perhaps it would have been better if I had been content to listen to those older and wiser than I, who, from centuries of history and experience, divined traditions and customs that enshrine the Truth. However, although no historian, I knew of no occasion in the past when the Truth had been found. Perhaps it is the discoveries of the great philosophers that are timeless. Perhaps the Truth is attained through pure thought.
Perhaps there was a political solution, though in the ruins of one that seemed the least likely. The Truth is not just as an account of what there is. It is also a recipe for how to lead life. Contemplation is wasted when action is required to improve an inequitable, unjust and inefficient world.
Perhaps the keeper of the Truth is education and its imperative to pursue knowledge. Perhaps the Truth is the embodiment of received wisdom that personifies all that is already known, all that is to be known and all that it is possible to know. Maybe the Truth is all things, including things it cannot be. But then how can it contain things that are not true?
My mind protested at this uncertainty, so I looked at my watch. It was 11 o'clock. Time for elevenses. I'll treat myself to a coffee in a café. Whatever the Truth may be, it can surely wait for that.
Lunch, dinner, tea are essential signposts of the day marked by food, celebrated and served at the Archer Street Café in pounds, shillings and pence. Coffee at 17 shillings. Tea for a ten shilling note. A traditional Suburban breakfast for £2 7/-. And for me a cup of coffee and a small slice of cake for just over a guinea.
The café was quite typical of the Suburbs. It was adorned by flowery wallpaper, pictures of distant meadows and valleys, a vase of plastic flowers on each Formica covered table and plastic chairs secured firmly to the floor as a precaution against theft. The café was neither empty nor full, maintaining a comfortable middle ground where there were people to look at, but none with their elbows up against mine. The other customers hardly warranted attention, being the usual collection of shoppers and shift-workers either alone like me and avoiding eye contact at all cost, or in company and focusing their eyes exclusively on each other and their ears to the affairs of the Suburbs. The state of the roads. The perennial litter problem. The rubbish on television these days.
But almost all conversation came to an uneasy halt when the door of the café tinkled open and a black woman entered. Very few strangers ever visit the Suburbs, and usually they're visitors from other suburbs. But a black person. Very rare! This in itself was remarkable, but her impact was compounded by her wearing rather more skimpy clothes than is normal for the Suburbs. In fact, the unspoken thought reverberating among the blue rinses and hairpins was that she was barely decent.
All her clothes were white, in significant contrast to the blackness of her skin: a white slip supported her substantial breasts, but revealed her midriff, a short flared skirt that just about obscured her knickers, short white ankle socks and white tennis shoes. She looked as if she might have just finished playing tennis on an exceptionally hot day. Her beaded hair dropped onto bare shoulders, obscuring the straps of her slip.
She walked nonchalantly to the counter and ordered a cup of tea, handed over a ten guinea note and expressed delight at all the change she was given in return. She then picked up her tea, balanced a plastic spoon and several white cubes of sugar on the saucer, and then, for the first time since she'd entered, looked around the café. She gave an amused smile, strode over to my table and sat in the seat opposite me despite there being several other empty tables. This woman was definitely not Suburban! No one from the Suburbs would ever be so presumptuous or intrusive.
She put the plastic spoon into the cup and started stirring the tea, while looking directly at me.
"Hello, my name's Anna," she belatedly introduced herself. "You don't mind me sitting here, do you?"
"No, of course not," I said warily.
"The Suburbs are jolly odd!" she announced. "I've never been anywhere so blinking reserved. You come from the Suburbs, don't you?" I nodded. "Me, I come from the borough of Baldam. Near the University City of Lambdeth. I've been travelling around, and made it to the Suburbs." She glanced around at the porcelain ornaments of country people on horses. "And I wonder now if it was ever such a good idea coming here. What do you think?"
In the Suburbs, people never ask such direct questions. Especially not people they've never met before or who introduce themselves without the usual excuses.
I coughed. "The Suburbs has its own virtues. I'm sure there's some aspect of it you'd like."
"It's so boring!" exclaimed Anna, ignoring my comment. "Perhaps that's its appeal. There just doesn't seem to be any life here at all. It's dead! And no one wants to know you. Honestly, everyone looks at me as if I've arrived from the moon. I'm not that odd! I don't have four hooves or a furry tail. I don't have claws and sharp little teeth. Everyone here looks so much the same. And they behave like the whole world was the Suburbs. They're jolly polite enough, if you ask them the way, but they say as little as they can."
Anna looked at me past the condiments in flowery plastic containers and grinned broadly. The whiteness of her eyes and teeth penetrated through the Suburban air like beacons, tantalising advertisements of another world of attitudes and lifestyle.
"Er, what do you do?" I asked, not sure whether a question that would in Suburban circles be almost as automatic as a reference to the weather or the dreadful traffic was really appropriate.
Anna laughed, and somewhat loudly for a Suburban café. I could feel heads turn and eyes gaze malevolently towards us. I'd never be able to eat at this café again in anything like my former anonymity.
"Goodness! What a jolly funny question! I just do what I blooming well like. Shouldn't everyone?"
I persevered. "I mean, what do you do for a living?"
"Oh! This and that! Whatever makes enough money, you know." She beamed in paroxysms of silent mirth. "I suppose you're also going to ask why I'm in the Suburbs. You people are so predictable!" She picked up her cup and sipped from it. She put it down with a look of mild disgust. "The tea's so strong here! And the coffee so weak! I'm in the Suburbs because I like to travel about the country. Get out and about, you know. I suppose people in the Suburbs never do things like that!"
"You just travel about the country?"
"When I'm not staying in my flat in Baldam, or with friends in the City, that's what I do. I spend about a half of my life in Baldam. It's a fantastic city. The rest of my time is divided between the City and the rest of the country. There's just so much to do in the City that just staying there's like travelling the rest of the world. Have you ever been to the City?"
I shook my head. "It's very expensive..."
"Incredibly expensive! Fabulously expensive!" Anna exclaimed. "Everything's much cheaper here! And whenever I'm in the City, I earn a bit of money. Then I've got more than enough money for everywhere else." She fiddled with a gold ring on her finger which looked like it cost quite a few guineas. "But there's everything in the City! Everything! You've got to be jolly tired of life to be tired of the City! You can find whatever you want. Everything you could ever possibly want!"
I couldn't help wondering whether the Truth could also be found there, but I was sure that if I confronted Anna with that question she'd probably just think I was trying to be amusing.
"The City is the opposite of the Suburbs," she continued. "Where it's so predictable here, it's totally inconstant and erratic there! Where it's quiet here, it's bedlam there! Where there's nothing to do here, there's everything to do in the City! And yet," Anna surveyed the Suburban world through the curtain-draped café windows, "it's mostly people from the Suburbs who work in the City." She frowned as if perplexed by this paradox. "How is it," she asked me, running a bejewelled hand through her hair, "that Suburbanites can go to the City every day and never seem to have ever been there? It's as if they never actually see the place they're in."
Anna laid a wrist down on the table and studied her silver and gold bangles. She looked up at me. "Yes," she grinned. "They are worth a bit, this jewellery, but I'm not rich. I've just known some really wealthy people. You do, you know, going to Night Clubs and things in the City and being, you know, an Independent Woman. But although I wouldn't say no (not flipping likely!) if someone offered me a lot of money, I just don't think that money's what I really want out of life."
"Why's that?" I wondered, hearing for the first time what was heresy in the Suburbs where the measure of success in life was the size of one's pension at retirement. If material wealth wasn't the object of work, and if work wasn't the object of life, then what could be?
"I don't know," Anna answered noncommittally, perhaps sensing the discomfiture her view had caused. "I just think that the pursuit of wealth gets in the way of enjoying it. And how much more enjoyment does a billion guineas give you that a million guineas couldn't? It's just too much flipping trouble. And people who're rich ... okay, they're not exactly miserable, but I don't think their happiness is in direct relation to how much they earn."
"What makes you happy?"
Anna grinned with a quizzical furrowing of her brows. "You people ask the oddest things! What makes anyone happy? What's happy? But in the City I like going out. You know, there are loads of Night Clubs in the City. Night Clubs for the wealthy. The young. Everyone. But not," she glanced at a blue rinsed couple nearby, "I suspect, for people in the Suburbs. I just like to go out and dance the night away. What do you expect me to do?"
"Does everyone go to Night Clubs?"
"Well, not everyone. Not everyone can afford to. You know, there are some people, even in the City, who're what you call poor. No nightclubbing for them."
"Are they very poor?"
"You don't have poor people in the Suburbs, do you?" contemplated Anna. "Or if you do, they're kept hidden away like a dirty secret. The poor live in the East End of the City. The City is like two different places glued together. On the one side, there's the City of money, wealth and privilege. On the other side, in tatty, unplanned disarray, there are the rundown churches, dilapidated pavements, gutted shops, and bored people sitting by the roadside throwing stones at each other. Mind you, I'm not so sure there's anything very much more to do here in the Suburbs. I haven't even seen a cinema here. Do you have anything like that?"
"No, not really. In the Suburbs, most people's entertainment is at home. Mostly on television."
"Ugh! How horrible! I never watch television myself. I'd rather go out and see a film or a play. There's so much culture in the City! There are cinemas and theatres showing plays and films of the most elevated classical art, obscure avant-garde films, popular entertainment, pornography, comedies, everything. So, what can you watch on television?"
I described some of the situation comedies, quiz shows, soap operas and general entertainment screened on Suburban television. Anna seemed horrified. "I'm no art critic," she admitted, "but it does appear fairly incontrovertible that the Suburban audience is irredeemably plebeian and Philistine! Isn't the value of a society best judged by the culture it produces and consumes? Suburban culture is no culture at all!"
I was slightly affronted by this opinion, though I couldn't think of any defence except to say that different standards prevailed in the Suburbs.
"Well," mused Anna reflectively, "It's a funny old world! And I've certainly not seen all of it! There are strange stories you hear of the most peculiar places hidden in the most unlikely places."
"What sort of places?"
"Weird places. Places that can be found in Police Telephone Boxes, through wardrobes, at the top of mountains, at the end of rainbows, all sorts of places. But I'm not sure what I think of things like that. Corn circles. UFOs. Weeping virgins. But one thing I'm sure is that there is just so much hidden and unknown."
"Surely science will find them," I said.
"Science could never solve all problems. Science is about demonstrable quantifiable truths. And the Truth is probably not that. But scientists are certainly having a jolly good go at it. In the City, there's an absolutely fantastically big building. The Academy, it's called. And all the scientists are there. Looking for the Truth, I suppose. Or just studying things for their own sake. Things like zoology, equestrianism, aerial mechanics, lots of things."
"That sounds fascinating!" I commented, taken by Anna's reference to the Truth.
"There's just so much to learn," admitted Anna. She swallowed the last of her tea in a single gulp and looked desultorily at the empty cup. "So many places to go! The world's such a big place. And different countries have such incredibly strange cultures. There are republics and kingdoms. Democracies and dictatorships. There are countries at war. So many different languages, religions and customs." She leaned forward. "You've not been anywhere abroad have you?"
"No. I've never left the Suburbs," I admitted.
"The Suburbs are as much a state of mind as a place," commented Anna mysteriously. "You don't have to leave the country to see different things. Even in this country there's an incredible variety of people and customs. Some boroughs and counties are quite repressive and others are very open. Some are jolly dangerous. Some are boring, like the Suburbs. But boredom is not the worst! Or perhaps it is!"
Anna glanced up at the clock just above the counter where the second hand circumnavigated a design of flowers and fluffy rodents.
"I suppose I ought to be going," she announced. She eased herself up out of the chair with a slightly embarrassed look. "Well, I'm leaving the Suburbs now. I'm going back to Lambdeth." She straightened herself up. "It's been jolly interesting talking to you. You know, if I were you, I'd get out of the Suburbs. See a bit of the world beyond. You don't have to prepare yourself or anything. Just pack your bag and go. It's a big world outside and you mustn't just ignore it."
With that advice she bade me goodbye and borne by the wind of Suburban disapprobation she sailed out of the café and into the sunlit streets. I watched her black and white figure recede into the distance, bending the necks of the curious as she passed by.
Perhaps, I thought, turning back my head to the somewhat unsatisfactory normality of the café, the Truth could be found through escape from the Suburbs.
Philosophical musings pursued me beyond lunch time, beyond dinner time and onto nine o'clock that evening, when I was too restless to do anything than wander about the Suburbs. My wandering then lacked even the direction that guided me now through the ruin of a shattered world. My feet took me to a part of the Suburbs I'd never been to before. Late commuters galloped past me on the way home from work, carrying briefcases, umbrellas and bowler hats.
However unfamiliar this district was, I didn't expect to see a tall figure loom out of the dark shadows, several feet larger than a human being, wearing a tri-cornered hat and a long overcoat. Now I would find it a somewhat comforting sight, but on that evening I froze in fear and stared down the street at a pair of piercing eyes. This was not the usual stray fox, cat or rat one would expect to see in the Suburbs at night. This was clearly something very different. The figure towered mysteriously, casting a long shadow from a street lamp. Then it turned round and lumbered off, gradually receding into the distance.
I stood shaken by the sight. Where did that apparition come from and what did it portend?
The headlamps and the low roar of a passing car brought me back to the ordinary world. Perhaps I'd just imagined it.
Another car's headlights caught me in its beam and projected an extending shadow ahead of me. As it came close, the car slowed and, on overtaking me, pulled gently to a halt. This was another unusual sight in the Suburbs: a limousine with foreign number-plates, twice the length of an ordinary car. The passenger's door opened and a portly shadow emerged onto the pavement, turned round to ease the door shut and passed comments through the window to the silhouetted figures inside. Then this figure ambled towards me.
It was a rather fat gentleman wearing brightly coloured shorts with a camcorder strapped around his neck and a floral short-sleeved shirt.
"Hiya," he announced himself. "Ya know your way round here?"
"Well, yes," I admitted.
"Perhaps then y'all be able to help us. We're lost. One goddamn street here is just the same as another. And nobody knows this area any more'n we do."
"We've been driving around for hours and I'm sure we've been back to this spot before. It's one goddamn maze here. All roads go back to where they started. Me and my pals are totally lost. Back home things ain't like this, I can tell you! Back home things are much better. Bigger houses, all with swimming pools. The roads are wider and there are signs to help you. Here, it's just row after row of the same goddamn houses. And you people are so goddamn suspicious. You'd think we'd come from another planet rather than another country. You people here are real weird."
"Do you mean just in the Suburbs?"
"Gee! I don't know! But your Suburbs are the weirdest! We've seen a lot of your little old country and none of what we've seen so far's anything like this! We've just been driving through the Country. That's so goddamn quaint. Some of what you've got here looks like it's not changed for millions of years!"
"I've never been to the Country," I confessed.
"You ain't!" the tourist exclaimed. "There sure is a heck of a lot to see. We were real impressed by the Art Gallery on the border of the Suburbs. A heck of a weird place for an Art Gallery! Especially one as big as that! I don't know doodly squat about Art but I'm sure I saw some real famous stuff there! You must've been there. It ain't no distance from here!"
"I've not been there either."
"You ain't been nowhere!" the tourist exclaimed. "But then you live here. You've got your whole goddamn life to see everything, ain't you?"
The tourist then asked for directions to the Centaur Hotel, which I was able to give. It was a little complicated, so I drew a map on the back of an envelope, carefully marking all the straight lines and square parks that mapped out the Suburbs. He seemed genuinely grateful and shook my hand warmly as he left.
"You must see more of the world, you know!" he advised me, as he wandered back to his car with the camcorder bouncing on his belly. He opened the door, and within seconds the car glided away leaving the street lonelier than before.
As I walked home, it seemed that my thoughts and encounters this day were leading only one way. Little knowing where it would take me, I resolved at that moment to leave the Suburbs and search for the Truth. I was sure I was not the first person to make the same decision. And why not me?
The reasons for doing so seemed overwhelmingly compelling. I was convinced from talking to Anna and the tourist that there was a larger, more exciting world beyond. A world that offered so much more than the Suburbs ever could. I imagined myself fighting against giant rats and drunken centaurs, in shining armour, a sword and shield in hand, and finally discovering the Truth. The Holy Grail. Alpha and Omega. However, if I knew then what I knew now, maybe I would have thought differently.
.And then, after a night of restless musing, breakfast once more. The start of another day in the Suburbs. In front of me was food for the day ahead and in the background the television. Outside the house, the world was waking up to the sounds of the Suburbs. And today, I decided, was to be my day of departure.
My mind was in total turmoil. Wasn't I just leaving on an ill-considered and possibly contrived fancy? What was I expecting to find? Wouldn't I be better off staying put in the Suburbs? What could I achieve? Where was I expecting to go? And where would I start?
I started where everyone leaving the Suburbs does: at the Railway Station, one of the grandest buildings in the Suburbs, the point from which trains leave every day packed with commuters on their way to work. I was in the general mêlée of commuting, jostled gently from side to side by people anxious to catch the 08.01 or the 08.11 or the late 07.24. What I still hadn't chosen was my destination.
I looked at the computerised destination board broadcasting accurately to the second exactly how much each train was late or going to be late. At the top of the board were the trains first scheduled to leave - most to the City - and as each one departed, the entire board rumbled as the destinations below shuffled up to take a new position of prominence in the list. Commuters stared apprehensively at the board and then trickled towards a ticket kiosk or streamed past the ticket inspector with their annual or monthly train passes held up in pride. I was in much less of a hurry and not at all sure which platform to head to.
I studied a map that showed the route taken by each train, colour-coded and totally out of scale. The two focal points of the map were the Suburbs and the City, with the latter and all its associated stations occupying a third of the entire space of the map. I wanted to go somewhere different. Somewhere with a name I'd never heard of, that suggested a world a thousand miles or a thousand years away from Suburban concerns. A tiny little place like Gotesdene.
I settled on this destination totally by chance, and queued up at the counter behind a commuter with a rolled newspaper discussing the relative merits of a leave-on-Friday-and-return-on-Monday ticket over a Long Weekend Ticket for the same days at a different cost. When he'd finally resolved the discussion to his satisfaction, I breathlessly requested a single to Gotesdene.
The ticket clerk typed the name into a console which issued a single ticket. He briefly explained that it was a two‑stage journey on a four‑phase fare matrix system. I would change at Ratford Central to get a steam train which stopped at Gotesdene on its journey to Lambdeth Peccadillo. The four phases of the fare were spelt out in pounds, shillings, pence and farthings, which I paid in a mixture of gold, silver and bronze. The train was standing on Platform One.
I sat nervously on a hard and threadbare seat in a tatty compartment, watching the commuters run towards it and jump on. Then, with a loud whistle and a wave of the station guard's flag, the train growled with anticipation and purred out of the station. As the train shunted off, I took what I thought then, but know better now, was my last glimpse of the rows upon rows of houses, parks and roads that compose Suburbia.