The Flowers on the Estate

Past the caravan and past the broken cars and past the work area for semi itinerant families, there is a patch of scrubby land that has been accidentally given over to nature. You’d pass it by without noticing it, and most days most people do: they give not a thought to the grass to the side of them, to the scratchy trees diagonally above them; they give not a thought to the tiny wild flowers that bashfully peek their heads a smidgeon above the grass, or to the fact that, if you choose to hear them, they are whispering to you,

“Beauty is in the smallest detail,” they gently sing in pinks and subtle blues. “Beauty is in the cracks in the concrete; it is all around you – you just have to choose to see it.” It’s only a whisper, but somewhere pitched above the rustling of the leaves, it is a whisper you can locate.

A few steps across from the Spotlight Resource Centre where, if you have a valid voucher, you can access the foodbank, there is a solitary bench. It is no beauty of design. It sits, thoughtless and partially rusting, as it marks out the decades that it has sat inanimately – an unnoticed friend of the community, a not-very-beautiful thing. But to the people who sit on it, to the community elders who traverse partially covered thoroughfares on their limping return for far-away shops, to the teachers at the local school taking time out from ceaseless reams of marking, it is a trusted friend. If you listen carefully, you can hear it mutter,

“Come on. Sit down. Take the weight off your feet. The birds are singing, you know. Beauty is in the smallest details. Come. Sit.”

I have only ever been in the one shop to serves the community once. I bought something overpriced that was masquerading as food: the kind of foodstuff that multi national companies pour down the throats of the not-at-all-well-educated that provides little positive nutritional benefit but, since it is covered in salt, tastes just about good enough for small children to chew and to swallow. The thing the shop most reminded me of was the single shop in an Aboriginal community I once visited while working on a far-flung island off the Northern Territories in Australia. The sense of social isolation was similar. The range of products was comparable. The lack of concern for the health of either community was evident. But while I was in the shop on the Lakes Estate, the lady serving smiled at me and made a brief joke. And within that smile and contained in her easy laughter there was another message that sang to your eyes. “You are welcome here. We’re nice people. We may not have much, but we have smiles, and we have laughter. Stick around. There’s much that is good on the estate.

It is mid October 2020. I am walking and trying to work a smart phone as it directs me from Bletchley Station through many contrived pathways and ominous landings to reach the school. As I pass the boarded up shops coloured with graffiti, I think to myself, “No way on God’s earth am I working here.” My friend who is high up in the AET wants to put me in the school to help out with getting better English results, but it is too far away from my home, and I’m getting too old to get up at four ‘o’ clock in the morning to work with a group of kids in a tough school, and my back is ruined from carrying a heavy overnight bag and I’ve got a book that needs writing and I don’t really need the money. I meet with the head teacher and with the two English teachers I will be working with. They are gentle people who seem genuinely passionate about the lives of the students, and in that conversation there is something else: a feeling. It sings to me; it says,

“We care. The kids here are every bit as clever as the kids anywhere else and we could really do with your help to get them to see it.”

Towards the end of the year, I set the Year 10s half a mock exam. Doing mock exams is pretty joyless, and many of the students are struggling to write in sentences. Taking the paper home at the weekend and marking them makes me feel like Mr. Fisher, only he lives near his school, doesn't have to travel cross London, and doesn't have a back so bad that the doctor has advised him that he is never to carry anything ever again or he’ll end up in a wheelchair. But I carry them home. I open Nadira’s paper, and it is as if something has started singing and that the song is, to quote another student, Sabeena, is “as cheerful as a bird’s chirp”. The song continues when I read Habib’s mock exam, as I pore over Skye Turney’s narrative, as I try and teach Nadiyah the most complex technical parts of writing, as I remark on Hailey’s bravery and her attempts at abstraction, and when Kathryn Mann hands something in that is so good and shows so much learning that is worth me being there for the year just to see it. And I think back to the flowers on the bit of scrubland from which you can see a lonely bench and an under-populated shop. And I realize again what I have always known.

Beauty is in the smallest detail; it is found at its fullest in the cracks in the concrete, in the flowers on the estate, in the dreams, experiments and brilliances of those flowers. You just have to open your eyes, commit to something and it is always there. 

Added Tue, 20 Dec 2022 15:39

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