A sensory experience of walking down Balham High Road:
Balham High Road is the type of place where you’d expect to come across a cafe decorated with old books and selling homemade apple cake, and sure enough, such an establishment can be found. It has tables outside, on the junction between the high street and a residential road. Once I was sipping a coffee there, when my idling was disrupted by the sight of a man sprinting around the corner, something clutched in his arms, with a shop security guard in pursuit. In a moment the pair had disappeared into a car park and the dash of drama that had piqued my interest was reabsorbed into the humdrum rhythm of the high road. The only remnant of the incident was in the memories of those who had witnessed it.
On a bright afternoon in early autumn, I found myself at the cafe again, sitting outside with a coffee and a book. The sedate flow of cars and pedestrians barely disturbed my reading, though my eyes flicked up at intervals, my attention stayed moored in the story. They were moments of reflection more than a distraction, but the subconscious is an assiduous sentry and, during one of those brief glances, it alerted me to a detail that didn’t match the scene it had come to expect. The process was like that of recognising someone you know in an unfamiliar setting: the rupture in your expectations attracts your attention, but the conscious mind takes a moment to process the surprise.
It was only a detail: a couple of men waiting for a bus weren’t looking down at their phones or talking to each other but were looking back down the pavement. Whatever was compelling their attention was around the corner from where I was sitting and hidden from my view. Their behaviour offered conflicting clues as to what it might be. They seemed faintly amused, facial expressions not betraying alarm, yet they were conspicuously keeping the frame of the bus shelter between themselves and whatever it was they were observing.
I considered this tableau for several seconds before it burst into my field of vision: a cloud of reddish-brown dust, billowing down the pavement at head height. The men ducked back into the bus stop, and another second or so later a gust of grit-infused air filled my eyes. It felt like sand being blown up into my face, yet as I blinked and tried to rub it away I noticed a sweet aroma around me. I smelt my hands, slightly greasy with the residue of whatever I’d wiped from my eyes. My brain again refused to process the evidence of my senses. It seemed unlikely, but my nose stuck to its story: a cloud of cinnamon powder had just blown down the street.
This moment of quiet astonishment was fractured by a dramatic sight familiar to me: a man sprinting around the corner from the high street and hurdling a barrier into the car park. Another man—whose longish hair, face, beard, chest and shoulders were coated in the burnt umber coloured powder—was the next extraordinary character to enter the scene. It looked as if he’d been dunked headfirst in a vat of the stuff, or like a bronze bust that had acquired real limbs. His phone was raised to his metallic head. “He’s running now,” he said, with resignation, and within a few seconds, he too had disappeared into the car park.
I walked out onto the pavement. There was no trace of the cinnamon or of its source and not even a taste of it in the air. The bus had been and gone and had taken the men I’d first spotted with it, and there was no unusual agitation in the manners of the people on the pavement. Everything looked and smelt completely normal. All that remained of the event was a memory, stinging eyes, and the warm spicy scent of cinnamon on my fingers.
Francis Martin, MA Religion in Global Politics