I’d never been to Ponders End. I’d never even heard of it. Then suddenly I couldn’t get away from it. I thought I lived on the outer outskirts of North London till one grey winter’s day the jobcentre sent me on the 121 bus to the jobsnet thing and the bus kept going, and going but we still weren’t in the countryside. I was out of my comfort zone as we passed the Great Cambridge Rd and the bus still kept going till I asked someone where we were and finally got off in a nondescript suburb that didn’t feel like London at all. Ponders End is well named.
The skyline is dominated, if you catch it at a certain angle, by four blocks of high rise flats. Each one is painted a different colour – purple, blue, green, orange. Maybe the council thought they could convince the good people of Ponders end they were in Marseille, or Barcelona, somewhere where housing estates are colourful and the sun bounces off the brick and you can buy huge juicy tomatoes and ripe camembert in the local shops, but they only have a Greggs and a convenience store selling tired courgettes and baked beans. Still it was a nice idea.
Jobsnet are supposed to help you find work but someone at the jobcentre had made a mistake so I couldn’t get registered. There’s a lot of bureaucracy involved in falling through the bottom of your life. I chatted with the blokes who work there, told them about my PhD apologetically, as if it might be a problem. Then I explained about my criminal conviction, how I didn’t even know if I’d make the next appointment as I hadn’t been sentenced yet and their eyes widened. I guess I’m an unusual case. But we agreed I’d go back in January. I wished I were someone else.
The next time I was in Ponders End I was really in it. Stood in the lobby of one of the tower blocks, wearing a bright orange high vis jacket that said ‘community payback’ on the back in bold letters. Stretching before me was a line of windows, in a partition between the lobby and a corridor that led to an emergency exit. Apparently the block was soon to be knocked down. I expect the community, being uprooted and rehoused, didn’t care I was paying them back some debt or other. I cleaned the windows anyway. The task was symbolically pointless.
At the end of the shift, one of the lads from my project fell into step with me as I walked back to the 121 stop. We might have been teenagers, coming home from another scintillating day at school. I wondered why a boy was talking to me. He let two buses go by and got on mine and sat next to me on the top deck. I don’t quite know how it happened but by the time I’d got off, relieved to be back on home turf, I’d given him my phone number and he said he’d text. Maybe I really was someone else. Maybe I’d walked into another life, in which I was doing community payback at the Ponders End flats, and giving my number to a young man with an electronic tag on his ankle under his socks.
I started to be filled with a long lost terror that has something to do with change, saying yes for once, being open to possibilities…
( b and w photo of Ponders End by Nico Hogg )