The morning mist was clearing but the passing cars still had their sidelights on. I wondered where everybody was going and to what worlds of work they were heading, I imagined most would spend a day staring at a computer screen. There was a moment when I felt a tinge of guilt, a slight regret maybe, but I gave it to the wind, let it drift away and into the head of some other poor victim. I'd earned my retirement after all and I was determined not to become a casualty of boredom.
My late morning stroll was tainted somewhat by the cheerless atmosphere of the waking city. The streets had a hung-over look, paper napkins smeared with tomato ketchup littered the roadside, broken bottles and dented beer cans were scattered about the kerbs and verges. I felt the pulse of the city increase, it's roads filling with the noisy rhythm of the traffic. I liked the symmetry of everything, the rows of cast iron bollards and the lattice of square paving in the courtyards. The network of streets that met squarely and crossed at right angles, the acres of glass panels reflecting little patches of blue sky, I was fond of it all. To me the overflowing rubbish bins were a sign of opulence rather than squalor and the debris on the streets evidence of yesterdays revelry and fun. The city had a competence about it that spoke of efficiency and organisation, honed from necessity and a degree of luck. Street lights that lit nearly every square inch of concrete, fibre-optic cables streaming data at light speed, drains carrying away sewage in an instant of forgetting. All a triumph of design borne from need.
But the city lacked so much more than it gave. Tasteless architecture, featureless walls of brick and stone, swathes of blemished concrete and disused factories crumbling to their foundations. Vast tracts of land were left undeveloped and unloved. I walked along an alley that would take me to the city park. The doorways and alcoves were mapped out by the familiar contours of litter and junk, a supermarket trolley filled with sodden cardboard boxes, wheelie bins scattered at peculiar angles, overflowing with rotten food. There was little that was pretty about these parts but nothing that caused me to feel a sense of hopelessness. I walked with expectation and optimism, the promise of sprawling parks and brightly coloured flower gardens an antidote to my sadness.
I walked with a purposeful stride keeping close to the walls and hedges of the front gardens that bordered the pavement. Occasionally I'd pass a particular plot with a delicately manicured lawn bordered by bustling borders of trees, shrubs and flowers of every description. The gardens and yards either side seemed to echo the brilliance of the neighbouring design but to a lesser degree, an attempt by the owners to emulate the brilliance of the original. I'd noticed the trend elsewhere within the city, diluted but inventive interpretations of the real thing. Contagious enthusiasm fading away from its point of conception. An intriguing concept indeed.
Someone had written the word "Poppy" on the pavement in front of a little plant that grew from between two slabs. Flagging somewhat now in the glaring heat of the July sunshine, it threw a single, rigid stem up towards the sky and at its very tip, a paper-thin, brilliant red flower waved limply at the city. I stood for a long time and watched it. It was all I could do to stop myself from kneeling prayer-like in front of the tiny plant. Apart from a tuft of wilting grass that had sprung from between the concrete blocks of a factory wall, this was the only sign here that the city aspired to more than an unruly assault on mother nature.
The word on the slabs was a tribute to the dogged determination of life, it's author paying little regard for bylaw or ruling. To me it was more than just a mark of respect, it was a declaration of love. And I felt a need in me to honour the gesture.
I walked home mindful now of the slightest splash of colour, the tiniest hint of green that sprouted from between the bricks and blocks of a city that spread itself bleak and barren across the county. I stopped by wilting dandelions with their defiantly yellow flowers and I felt the velvet green leaves of daisies that pushed from shallow puddles of soil. If I'd had a piece of chalk I'd have written more than just the names of these wonders that grew from the city's skin, I'd have written songs and poems of love.
The next day I bought a packet of seeds, put them in my pocket and walked the two miles to the city park. I stepped from the reflected heat of the roadside on to a field of tightly cropped grass, the ground hard baked from the summer sun. I sat in the shade of a giant oak and scanned the towers and spires of the city skyline. The air was filled with the scent of something sweet and the heat rose in shimmering waves from the grass and the bare soil. I settled my back against the tree, took the seeds from my pocket and scattered them thinly across a patch of bare grass by my feet.
Every day of the following week I sat beneath the giant tree and watched the tiny plants grow from specks of green into seedlings that spread across the bare earth until almost the whole patch of soil was covered. Eventually the buds broke open and the ground was covered in a patchwork of flowers of a dozen different shapes and colours.
It was less hot now after a brief shower of cool rain and I sat on an empty bench opposite the little bed of flowers. The other seats were set around some circular gardens in a benign expectation of the daily traffic to come. Young mothers with their pushchairs, tired crowds of office workers, students with their books, couples in love. All were yet to arrive, but now, just myself and an old lady with her life in a bag and her dreams cast away to the streets. And then I heard the distant sound of laughter rising and falling away to the breeze. A gaggle of children from a local school trooped along two by two accompanied by their teacher who continued to shout a constant dialogue of instruction to her excited students. They sat under the giant oak, took out their sketch pads and each drew the scene as it was presented to them. The laughter and chat subsided as each of their faces wrinkled with the effort of concentration required for them to portray the bed of flowers in ink and crayon.
A week later the same teacher but with a different class settled on the grass by one of the benches. She took the lid off a plastic box and sprinkled a few seeds into the hands of the happy children. After each had scattered their handfuls atop the bare soil the teacher carefully covered the area with lines of cotton strung tightly between little sticks.
During the following few weeks light rains washed the city and bursts of bright sunshine warmed the moist soil. A tapestry of colour spread across the ground attracting the attention of everyone that walked past. An elderly man produced a miniature rose from a supermarket bag, took a small trowel from his coat pocket and dug a hole just large enough to put the plant in. A portly gentleman wearing a pinstripe suit walked towards one of the flower beds. He knelt on the grass, scraped away a little divot of soil and planted a single marigold into the hole. A young couple came with a tray of bedding plants, placed it on to the ground, scored a shallow trench between two large shrubs and filled it with pansies, oxeye daisies and geraniums, all in their best flush of flower.
The following day I stood still on the empty pavement in front of my house and scoured the city's horizon. A jumble of facades stretched in all directions, harsh and grey in the dim morning fog. A muddle of scaffolding, pitched roofs and glass fronted office blocks filled the scene, dreary and lifeless. The undoubted success of the city was a result of the teeming millions of people that worked within its confines. A multitude of diverse lives being lived in a world where time winds itself both down and up. I thought about the city's conception and marvelled at its triumph over nature. Vast swathes of concrete and tarmac stifling the roots and shoots of life. A brilliant invention, an inorganic masterpiece of achievement and success, layers of commerce and industry built in stages with ingenuity and diligence. The city was a wondrously suffocating thing indeed.
I walked below the canopy of a huge London Plane, it's branches stretching beyond the width of the main road and clear to the roof of a low town house. As I looked up my eye caught a flash of colour way above the highest reaches of the tree. A long window box stretched along the whole length of the row of houses, bursting with plants and flowers of all description. On the other side of the road there were now deep, timber-built planters that overflowed with cascading blossoms, tumbling vines and tall columns of the brightest colours I'd ever seen. Baskets of plants hung from lampposts, telegraph poles and billboards. Enormous sheets of hessian with pockets of soil provided root space for plants that poured waterfalls of flowers from tall buildings.
The further I walked the busier the street became, legions of people were busy preparing containers for planting. Pots had been stacked on steps, railings hung with trailing annuals and ivies that dropped to the ground in torrents of colour, doorways were adorned with foliage plants of every kind and front gardens had been replanted with magnificent displays of trees, shrubs and perennials. Nothing was left undecorated, even the shelter by the bus stop had been covered with foliage of every texture, tone and shape.
I looked towards the city's skyline but instead of harsh outlines and solid walls of concrete and glass there were giant cranes, mobile lift platforms and scaffolding. Hundreds of people were draping office blocks, factories and skyscrapers with enormous pots, troughs and baskets filled with plants and climbers, all in full flower. Nothing had been left unadorned.
I picked up my pace, excited now by the astonishing array of greenery and flowers that were beginning to turn the surface of the city into an urban jungle full of exciting shapes and colours of all kinds. A lady walked towards me carrying a trowel in one hand and in the other a plastic pot overflowing with marigolds and geraniums. Flat-bed trucks passed me by loaded with bags of soil, garden tools and timber trellis. The world felt happy.
The sun had dropped low to the horizon and a tender flush of orange tinged the clouds that had built from the heat of the day. A gentle shower trickled across the city, and as I made my way back home I lifted my head to the sky and let the water run over my face.
And then I stopped at the little poppy that grew from between the paving slabs, took some chalk from my pocket and rewrote the letters that had been washed clean by the warm, summer rain.