I reach the oak tree at the promontory overlooking the West Reservoir. A celestial hand is gently turning the dimmer up on dawn, the ducks are deep in conversation. Eight years ago I stopped going to church and decided to write my own prayer to my own version of God. Stood under the oak tree I recite it looking out across the water and the rooftops of Stoke Newington. Half way through every run and always next to water. For a few minutes I talk to myself about what’s good and what’s bad and what could be better. I take a breath. I pick up my sword and shield and start running, skirting the water’s edge, slowly pinkening.
Summer evenings are so tawdry. I race the double sculls down the river, out over the marshes thick with pollen from the high grass where the picnics are heard and not seen. A summer evening is the girl you wish was harder to get. But not the early morning. At 6am everything is a mystery, all things are stretching out into shape and finding their form. There is no nostalgia for there is no memory, it is simply a beginning.
I leave the front door of my building, hook a left past the Dixy chicken that burnt down in March and cross the five corners. Five roads where three east London districts meet and where every three months a car crashes. I run up the hill to the Downs and along the path where that winter’s night the couple on the bench sat wrapped in thick coats and passed the spliff under the trees planted for the 13 kids who died in the New Cross fire.
At the turn of the millennium eight people were shot dead in two years and Lower Clapton Rd became Murder Mile. Twelve years later people like me thought it would be cool to move here. I love Hackney but I am an impostor. Lower Clapton, Upper Clapton, the pavement heads north and rises subtly, past the Crooked Billet and the sourdough pizza place and the World Foods with the Sainsbury’s colour scheme. 21 years before the shots that rang outside Vox Pop were heard up here.
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
Inside World Foods a group is laughing and incoherent. It is June 2015, 5am and already light, and I focus in and spy myself among them. I look younger and have more hair and our eyes meet. From inside the shop I look back at me vacantly, sheepish and happy. We are on our way to a house party, none of us fans of sleep, we are preparing to see in the day. Keeping the wolves from the door for as long as we can. But come they will. Be gentle on yourself, I whisper to him with my eyes. He looks at me and smiles sadly.
If all time is eternally present,
Then all time is unredeemable.
I run on. It is winter now. Clapton Common is Hasidic Jew territory. Here they roam in their hundreds, even this early, walking quickly and concentratedly, wearing different hats for different days. For years I’ve tried to clock them and smile and make some connection but it’s not their thing. Saying hello to people when I run makes me feel part of something. I touch certain lampposts for luck. My first pitstop is a doorway on Clapton Terrace. I stop for a second and feel the layered paint of the big black door, still awed like the first time I found it, that such fine Georgian buildings could exist all the way up here.
I cross Stamford Hill and to my right the road dips down towards Tottenham. Just past the bins on the railing is the little clay memorial to Godwin Lawson who died here when he was 17. I touch it and kiss the crucifix around my neck, any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. A hundred metres on a white bike marks the spot where an HGV turned left too suddenly, fresh roses tied to the top tube drip the dew of the early morning.
And now I am back at the reservoir under the oak. My watch says 25:42:11. I am getting slower. I used to care about getting slower but not anymore. I am so happy to be out on my own in the early light in the cool air of the morning with the ducks and the coots and the swan with the submerged neck that makes her look like a floating pillow. This is an undiscovered realm and I am a visitor. The show is all for me.
The bird-watchers ignore me, I don’t have wings and I am not free. The man who has woken up on the bench smiles at me with sad eyes, I wonder how far from home he is and from his people, I wonder if these strange birds bring him any peace. I smile back, as warm as I can make it. Life is difficult enough without missing a dawn run I think to myself.
Now I am on my way back. The return leg holds many treasures but I see less of them because I am tired. The endorphins are sweeping through my body and my mind is clear and at peace, there are a few other runners in the park, whole worlds inside their heads, things being straightened out I’m sure, that’s what running does. Standing alone and proud in a corner of the park are a pair of oak trees, half-cut, ivory-white, mottled and pockmarked. I make for them, I feel the bone dry dead wood with my hands.
A day I don’t run is a different animal to a day I do. But some days if I miss the dawn window I’d rather not run at all. Two hours from now the city is a different place. The horns and the screens and the bowed heads and the busy lives, it’s not the same at all. The day itself feels unfamiliar and confusing like walking into a film half way in.
I take the New river path, hang a left along Ferntower Rd to Newington Green. I touch the stencil of Mary Wollstonecraft on the side of the deconsecrated church. I cross over the high road, and commence my victory lap, back up over the Downs. A little different to how I last saw it, fifty minutes before. A little sadder. Something has left, something has gone.
But I caught it and it stays with me all day.
My depression came back pretty hard in December. A silent imperceptible bubble formed around me, a wall between the world and me slowly thickened. I had eleven months off, which felt like a record. But for the last month I haven’t been able to wake up before 9am. Going outside is scary, my skin feels the thickness of a fly’s wing. And I’m not running, which I mean, well. I try to tell myself nothing outside has changed but I don’t care, that’s now what I see, not from where I’m standing.
These mornings are happening all around me, the show is going on. Outside my window. The oak tree, the reservoir, the ducks are deep in conversation. All time is eternally present. I am out there because I have been out there. The blood is pumping through my body, my heaving lungs, my happy head. The bird-watchers are still ignoring me. World Foods, Clapton terrace, Godwin Lawson is walking home from school. The sky is pink. The air is clear.
This morning I went running again.