the edges

Names like ‘Gable End’ and ‘Fair Acre’ point to desires for orchards and village greens and olden days with simple ways. Times New Roman letters are carved into neutral wood then fixed to the front gate or the wall beside the garage. I spotted ‘Fair Acre’ nailed to a 1970s box-set, three floors high, each stacked neatly on top of the other like a Lego set or an upmarket favela. A slender man in his sixties, spectacled, nervous, possibly a little ashamed, was striding across his tiny front patch with a lawnmower. He was leaning into the machine as if it was as heavy as a plough. Three strides, turn, three strides, turn, three strides, and so on: I watched until he stared me off the street. ‘Fair Acre’ seemed a bit cruel and entirely self-inflicted. ‘Gable End’ made a bolder attempt at ye olde cottage. Scarlet roses climbing the front wall, an overgrown hedge hugging the gate, and blasts of lavender pouring from the beds on to the pavement. An estate agent might describe ‘Gable End’ as “mock Tudor”. “That’d be the gables,” the buyer might respond, wittily. The style is so popular here that beneath the final run of the flight path into Heathrow, new houses are being built as imitations of these 1930s family homes. ‘Mock mock Tudor’ is about right, but  you’d need to ask at Apricots, which suggests a children’s clothes shop but is one of several estate agents I pass between the station and the crown court. ‘But who’d want to live here?’ That’s the question you might ask when you emerge from the tube on to the A4. Good if you’re in the double-glazing business. Nearly everyone’s got it. Double-glazing and driveways to fit three large cars nose-to-tail. Melville comes to mind, the place ‘people like us’ like to live when we end up in Johannesburg. Vanish Heathrow and the tube, this really is Melville. In parts, it’s much richer, more like Parktown, Westcliff or Houghton. Huge detached homes with gardens that require staff and spotless cars with personalised number plates like S25 and MOO 000. And like Jozi’s northern suburbs, few people here seem to walk. Those that do are mainly students from Brunel or the boys’ grammar, or the odd air steward with half a wing on his lapel and a suitcase at his heels. Where’s everyone else? At work, or perhaps indoors, dusting the pottery Doberman on the windowsill in the lounge, or the hunting hound over the fireplace, or the bust of a wealthy seventeenth-century lady placed carefully in the window half way up the stairs. We’re supposed to see these touches of taste and class. But what about what we cannot see? ‘Bunch of swingers’, I thought, although I didn’t spot any pampas. Perhaps the miniature dogs are the new nod and wink. But Johannesburg suburbs, yes, just forget the electric fencing, the 10-foot high walls, the security guards stabled at regular intervals along the green verges, the large dogs, and the light. The Johannesburg light: blinding is not too strong. Otherwise, they’re the same. Introverted, afraid, self-regarding, miserable with wealth. The hedges, the curtains, the double-glazing: are they locked in or locked out? Out of earshot of the questions and answers that continue, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, into the death of Jimmy Mubenga, the Angolan man who died on a British Airways plane in October 2010 whilst being deported from London to Luanda by three G4S escorts. It’s just a two-minute walk from the India Gymkhana Club and the church, where an obese vicar covers her breasts with a brown pullover from a local charity shop. My kidneys ache.

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