In a shady corner pub along the South Lambeth Road, large open windows bring a warm, welcome breeze. Jason Allen, who has just cycled from the Brixton primary school he works in, smiles as he’s handed a cold glass of beer. We talk about the hot weather we’re currently hiding from. Its slow, entropic quality has stirred in Jason thoughts of an even hotter fortnight – the record-breaking heatwave of June/July 1976 – and the strange other world he associates it with.
Jason was the schoolboy son of a bus driving father and waitressing mother when – as tarmac melted and water supplies ran low – he and a friend explored the hidden corners of the vast Stockwell Bus Garage, and discovered an escape from the sun-scorched city: a shimmering, shifting gateway to a faraway island.
Jason’s parents didn’t want him wandering the heat-weary streets, ‘getting into trouble’. Outside of school hours, if he wasn’t at the small cafe where his Mum worked, he was at his father’s workplace. Of course, Jason’s father, Michael, was only at the Garage between shifts. He’d play cards with his colleagues, joke with them and his son, and make an act of being annoyed when it was time to get back on his route.
“But Dad loved it”, says Jason. “Don’t ask me how he stayed so cheerful. He just loved being out and about on the London streets”. Even that summer, with its smoking, broken-down buses and cross, sweaty passengers.
Elements of the job weren’t easy. Michael was black, a Jamaican who had come to Britain at the tail-end of the Windrush migration. His public role put him on the frontline of the racism that faced his generation when they got here. He had had to fight for basic rights such as union representation.
Jason (who is mixed race – his mother Stephanie is white) would have his own battles to fight as adolescence turned to young adulthood.
But he remembers 1976 as a time out of time.
Eleanor’s father also worked the bus routes out of Stockwell Garage. When the two children were sure that the bus drivers and Garage engineers had stopped noticing them, they would sneak off through the workshops at the back of the garage to some half-forgotten storerooms.
“At the time it was like a game, like Treasure Island or something. Like we had somehow imagined this place into existence, the two of us together”.
But recently, the island has once more become vivid – become real – in Jason’s mind. You can see it in his eyes as he describes it.
“A dusty recess behind shelves stacked with junk. Then the walls start to shimmer, sort of melt away. Then this amazing sound of birdsong. And shapes, the flapping of wings above us. Suddenly there’s leaves and branches everywhere”. And in every direction, beyond the trees, the sea.
It was, says Jason, a place to play, make dens, launch little skirmishes on one another. “Eleanor was the tough one. In those days we’d call her a tomboy. I was pretty quiet, really. Following her lead”
But one day – suddenly – Eleanor didn’t come to the garage. And neither did her dad. Jason’s father told him they had gone to live with family in Ireland, and that was that. Jason never saw her – or the island – again.
He grew up, found his place in the community. In the rare case he did think of the island it was, “a childhood memory – an imaginary place”.
Then, two years ago, a major life event occurred: Jason’s father, Michael, became seriously ill. The last months of his life were spent in hospital. And one afternoon, out of nowhere, on one of Jason’s visits, his father started talking about islands.
Jason says he couldn’t recount it all, now. Michael spoke of a place near Stockwell that was called Island Green, where the lost river Effra and its tributaries swirled around patches of land. He talked about the Effra flowing right beneath Stockwell Bus Garage, before winding through the once-green fields of Lambeth to where it joins the river at Vauxhall. Said that in ancient times there had been an island in the Thames there. Prehistoric people had built a bridge to reach it.
Michael spoke of the little islands in the Thames out west, around Richmond and Barnes and Kew – “where Mum used to take him for walks along the river when he first took ill…
“And the whole time he was looking at me. And without him having to say anything, I thought: I know why you’re telling me this”.
Jason had never spoken to his father of the island. But in that moment Jason knew that it had been real.
He says this hit him hard.
“Because if the island was real, then losing it was, too. And if it was real, then everything about it was real”. This, says Jason, means not just giant flowers and vibrant plants, dappled glades and sandy bays – but other parts of the island, too. The ‘sadness’ in its middle, where gnarled vines grew around dismal ditches clouded with tadpoles and nameless creatures. And worse, the shadows in the trees – the dark figures he had tried hard to not notice – silently watching, waiting.
That day on the ward, Michael went on. He reminisced about the island country he’d come from. Reminded Jason that he, too, was born on an island.
“And then he really stopped my heart quick” says Jason. “Old rascal. He was having a last laugh. Enjoying giving me the creeps”.
That girl, said Michael. She was from an island, too. What was her name?
Then the smile left Michael’s lips. And he told his son the long withheld truth. Eleanor hadn’t moved back to Ireland, she had disappeared. Her Dad had been declared unfit to work. Something about a fragile mind, a strange fixation on something his daughter had said the morning before she vanished.
Jason watches a bus pull up at the lights outside the pub. “I don’t blame my Dad for not telling me before. I saw the fear in his eyes. Maybe he figured it was safe to tell me, now so much time had passed”
But the strangest thing , says Jason, was a feeling that he’d always known it. Stood there by the hospital bed, suppressed memories bubbled to the surface – things half-understood at the time. A plain-clothes policewoman questioning him gently. Knowing comments from older kids at school. And Eleanor, with matter-of-fact cruelty, the last time she had spoken to him:
“Don’t come to the island today. I don’t need you to play with me no more”.
- Candidate: The Stockwell Bus Garage Manifestation
- Type: Gateway / Otherworld Manifestation
- Status: Historic