Clifton is a vertical place. Not in the up-down plate-glass-canyon sense that immediately brings to mind, not like Canary Wharf or Manhattan. Hardly anything around here is more than six or seven floors high. But the combination of tall buildings and towering hillside give the place a definite steepness, like a hilltop village plus white-limestone gentrification. Which is, I suppose, exactly what Clifton is. Storey upon storey upon garden upon hill upon high stone wall, veined with roads that twist up at unbelievable angles and little leaf-covered passages full of dappled shade and snail trails. And it’s well built. This is important, after too much time among crappy run-down semis and the mongrel architecture of inner cities: these are real homes. The terraces loom high and solid like window-speckled castle walls, with moats of areas or promenades and perimeters of black-painted iron railings, the doors tall sally-ports with tarnished brass doorknockers. The windows shine black and half-reflective, the high rooms behind them filled with old, expensive things. This is architectural snobbery, not social snobbery – the people here are certainly not intrinsically “better” than the residents of Bartley Green and Weoley Castle I brushed up against while census-collecting, who live on a tenth the income of Cliftonites if they’re employed at all. But I like the houses here a lot more.
It’s beautiful, under a sky like a Florentine ceiling, scattered by clouds with grey bellies but backs of fluffy white and gold. The air is skin-temperature, not hot or cold, scattered with random birdsong and the smell of flowers whose names I wish I knew. There’s hardly anyone about.
I feel the emptiness of the pavement beside me, and I wish all of a sudden that she were here. Something like this should be shared. My eyes skate across the stone and tarmac, but the pictures I see are half-fantasies of beautiful days and sunlit laughter, stupid, surface fantasies of shared love and shared understanding, conjured up far too quickly by a mind far too used to making up such nonsense. Cynicism, leaning on memory like a crutch, is back with a knowing sneer. The roses all have thorns, and the perfect summer fantasies are full of forgotten awkwardness and miserable lacunae of loneliness. There’s no understanding when you walk side by side in silence; even sickly-sweet in love as if you’ve just stepped out of a sonnet, when you walk without speaking, you walk apart. The understanding is fiction, or maybe a dim truth for people whose heads are too slow for self-doubting turmoil (but I don’t think many of those actually exist). There’s too much that can be thought but not shared, thoughts that die on contact with air when you beat them into ugly, lumpen words and try to push them out of your mouth.
The terrace ahead has risen to cut off the horizon, and the cloud directly above is grey. The air is chillier, but I don’t mind the solitude, and when my head goes up again I’m smiling. On I walk, towards the bridge and the sunset.