It’s so dark. I’m not prepared. I should have brought a torch. All the shops are closed, shutters down. I feel I am trespassing. With a torch, I’d look even more suspicious, I suppose. I’ll bring a balaclava next time. I set up my camera to take a few photographs of familiar roads in the early hours. Two starlings follow each other in the air, which is nice. I occupy myself counting the number of lights on in houses. Twenty. I find this roundness comforting. It’s a reason for being out here, at least.
There is so little movement, apart from the rain. I pick a leaf from an elm tree. I wander. I call the flowers their Latin names in my head. I check my phone. Nothing. At 5.30am, the waterlogged park begins to lose its mist as the day lightens. The pavements are uneven here. After spotting the fourth broken umbrella, I decide it is time to return to my flat. I think about drafting a reply to the message, but what could I say? Close to 6am, I take a final photograph from a traffic island blooming with flowers.
I wake to the radio. It’s the story of a racist bomb attack on an Alabama church, which prompted a Welsh artist to create a stained glass window for the building. I lie in bed, enraptured. The windows are shaking with heavy rain. At 5am, in this thrashing June weather, there is not a soul around. Ravens and pigeons, plenty; a ginger cat, one. But no other people. My 5am person is an illusion. No one is here. My head aches today. I take the pathway to a memorial bell stand, but find it defenceless against the rain.
Underneath the sports stadium, I find sanctuary. I work quickly, grabbing images from behind (concrete buildings), in front (plane trees) and to the side (graffiti). I find myself fixated on the absence here. The paths are without people; the roads absent of cars and the lake empty of boats. Without thinking, I copy the 5am message and send it to a random phone number. I type 0777 and then generate a series of figures prompted by shapes in my eye line. A bellowing cough nearby brings me back: I’m not alone after all. Behind the gates, someone must have been sleeping. I pack up rapidly and before I can think any further, I am home.
I want to see glass reflected in the early morning sunshine, so take the bus to the Horniman Museum. I am sure there is a conservatory there, a vast Victorian place filled with – what? – plants, dinosaur bones, broken chairs, perhaps. The exterior of the museum is lined with high iron railings. 5am and a world that shuts out the daytime.
The text messages received replies. Every mobile telephone number must be taken. I asked them, Why are you awake? I liked the first two responses: My baby is crying. I am an insomniac. The third was, I am waiting. I asked, What for? They said, for the sunrise and the day to begin. It’s heavy cloud, I said, you won’t see a thing. Though where he was, I had no idea.
On the street parallel to the museum, I walk slowly. Several windows were thrown open, curtains billowing. I jump onto a brick wall and lean my camera on a bus stop to take photographs. Through the leaves of a sycamore tree, I see again the woman with the baby. She and her pathological eyes rush along the pavement, flat-handing the child to her chest. Part of me goes with her as she darts away.
One thing I notice is the strange smells. For each aroma, I try to find its exact association in my mind. Damp earth: school camping trips. Sunshine pavements: Barcelona, Summer 2001.
There is symmetry in the night. For example, a man with a dreadlocked ponytail saying, 'Early enough for you?' and saying again, ‘Early enough for you?' when I pass him later on the main road. Several sad single mattresses dumped against walls, in favour of a new romance needing a king size, perhaps. I met the violinist this month. He had an awful auburn beard, and ate his own satsumas from a bag in the café. I won't see him again.
This area known for its clocks. Halls and hills with clocks, roads with clocks, clocktowers and clockmakers. I follow my hand-drawn map to find the locations, although I see only a sign for terminating unwanted pregnancies and the elongated windows of a church, reaching down like a yawn. I see a woman walking three bustling dogs while carrying a baby and, on the other side of the road, a twiggy jogger looking lonesome. They both shoot me sharp looks when I approach.
With plans to travel the furthest yet from home, I’m on a packed bus with six or seven people joining at each stop. They wear flat caps or woolen hats, duffle coats and anoraks. They stare out of the window; they say, Hello young man, to the driver; they sigh as they rise.
Farringdon station has iron shutters bolted shut and all around, colours are muted under artificial lights. I chose to block the violinist’s telephone number, and I have filtered his emails. He found my website, and sent me appraisals of each of the photographs. But I will not reply and this is my project, not his.
I see a party in Smithfield Market. Men in white jackets laugh with hands laced over their bellies, while a pocket-sized van removes piles of plastic crates. I cannot keep still. Ely Place is a swept-clean road where a Christmas tree flashes modestly and a low stone chapel is ivy covered. At Holborn Circus, a cash machine flashes green, a green traffic light turns red and a red brake light ticks to a yellow indicator. I walk further and at six o’clock, I am at the foot of St Paul’s Cathedral listening to the bells peal.
At each bus stop, the doors wheeze open, Oyster cards beep and people swarm towards the back seats or swing up the stairs. I am watching them all. The man engrossed in his book, pages creeping closer to his face; the smart woman whose heels clack the full length of the vehicle; the trio of South Americans, laughing into each others shoulders.
He found me last time and it took two incensed builders to loosen his grip on my wrists. Now, in a balaclava as grey as that which covered my dreadful, blocked ears as a child, it’s my turn to wait. When a cyclist goes by, I tuck my camera into my rucksack. No one needs know I’m here.
There are a series of electric car charging points outside his flat. His building is gerberas in flowerboxes, is spotlights on the front porches, is foam-covered scaffolding. There is not a single lamp lit in a single window. Like the others, he’ll be asleep, because, along with playing the violin, that is one of the things he did well. I wait for a sign. Then, at the sound of a train horn, the first of the day, I throw a brick and then I run.
I’m one of the few people left on the bus as we arrive at Lambeth Palace. I ease my camera out of its bag, set up some easy shots facing the river. I want to capture the checked pattern on the water. The light is perfect so I take some shots of the honey-coloured Westminster buildings. I’ve become obsessed with the message. This morning, I contemplate the order of words. What if it was, When will I be home? I don’t know. Or, I don’t know, but I’ll be home. Home. I don’t know. When. The words keep shifting in my mind. Who is this person? Two joggers have to run around me, they are fast and hairy-legged.
By St Thomas’ Hospital, a woman grips a baby in her arms. She reassures her own mother that she did feel his temperature rise earlier. At 5.40am, she is one of the sleepless people I have been seeking. Why would I lie? she asks. After they pass, I feel the heat stalk me. I think I am being watched. Cars seem to swarm around me, like horrible metal flies. It’s my prompt to find the next bus back.
With my eyes so heavy, I can’t focus on my task. I question what it is I am seeking in these early hours; and what, beyond feeding my own fixation, really is the aim. The sunshine paints the green leaf canopy golden. I take photographs, as is my will, then fall asleep under a grandfather of an oak tree, my left cheek pressed to the woodland floor.
They replied, the other person, and straight away. We exchanged text messages for a full twelve minutes, where I played confused and they really were. When I asked why they were awake at 5am, they said, car alarm. I think I am waiting for someone like them. For the rest of the month, I thought they were following me.
Since my last post, I have received three emails through my website. Someone likes my photos, someone admired my words, someone else wondered what the hell I was doing wandering the streets in the dead of night. In the woods, I look for more signs amongst the skeleton leaves, the ferns and the mound made by ants. Three stones form a pile, three twigs face southwest and three trees have fallen. I copy the message again, this time to three new numbers.
I slam the front door, which is a mistake because a lamp is switched on in the upstairs flat. Who is awake at 5am? Everyone I disturb. The driver of the night train, shuffling through the station tunnel as slow as the hour. And the foxes, eating out of my neighbour’s upturned dustbin or sauntering across the road in the light of a security beam.
That would be an image to share with my early morning companion. He said he was a violinist, and that he lived in south London. I’d text him saying, The foxes and the night. I may meet this man, I may not. I may invite him on a 5am adventure.
Where the road slopes, I snap the view of the city. Canary Wharf bleeds red in the black sky. Pieces of vomit trail down a wall, forming a dry puddle on the pavement. The weather has turned, I think, because the air stings my lips and the shutter sounds like a threat.
5am is mine now. I know its tricks and inhabitants. People are smudged-make up drunk, or travelling with battered suitcases or wrapped in a day's work ahead. And the chill in the air is present even in the summer months. I wear thermals and I’m usually hungry.
Today, I take the bus further and follow a route to where the river dissects the city. Along Victoria Embankment, a row of cast iron benches stand with arms and legs sphinx. They glare out to the river. The violinist has texted me every other day for twenty-eight days. I do not reply. I know his type, I am like his type, but I am no longer his type. I am reformed. If I wanted to hide or to keep warm, I could slip into a red telephone box. One is fastened closed, the handset ripped from the base leaving a trail of wiring loose.
I line my camera on a wall, shoving lettuce and burger debris from the stone. There are discarded chips on each of the steps of Hungerford Bridge. Under the Southbank Centre, the graffiti is tame, where the shadows are just from the light.
“Where can love flee to and how can it end?” reads a scrape of graffiti, while traffic rolls and muffled car stereos flash passed. I see him standing in the distance, his back to the spiked railings and his eyes unblinking. Buckets of rain rip strips down my jacket and flood the kerbside. By Queenstown Road there are signs for CCTV, signs to keep out and chained fences marking where is out of bounds. I am my own worst enemy, coming here alone and provoking him when I should have double-locked my door and pressed my head to my pillow.
Battersea Power Station is lit from beneath, towers white above. Beneath, there are discarded clothes stuffed into Sainsbury’s carrier bags. Did he sleep here? Was he waiting? Three flashing lights, two police sirens, four trains, one bus and a taxi skidding to a standstill.
I race across the bridge and duck into a side street. This is Pimlico, where there are Georgian houses and personalised number plates, and I think he can’t be here, but then there is a shadow by the side of a deserted launderette and then he is close.
For my last trick, I stab a knife into my A-Z to decide the location. It slips neatly in my tripod case. On the journey, I pass the brash welcome sign of a retirement home and a school with balcony corridors, white-washed walls and surrounding fences as high as the bus. These things trigger the fear I carry from my early years and of the later ones.
This month, I have been one of those awake at 5am. I heard the violinist was in hospital, face damaged. I dared myself to visit him. When you imagine the consequences of your actions, it’s often worse than the truth. By his bedside, I counted flower heads in a bouquet of daffodils. He made me promise not to report the incident, and also not to see him again. It seems we both have histories.
Sloane Street is deserted, though the plastic models posing in Harvey Nichols’ spotlit window seem real in a way nothing else is real at this time. At Marble Arch, I hear a twinkle of a bird song and enter the black hole of Hyde Park. It's deserted. Throwing my hood over my head, I run into the inky darkness not knowing what I'll do next.