It was the Morrisons in Hastings that lit the fire of my obsession. Not the supermarket itself but the space outside the place: the car park. Ashamed to say now, but I didn’t notice its wonder at first. I was like all the others who tramp to and from their cars without paying due attention, ignorant of its charms, its mystery, its danger, is threat.
The car park lay on the other side of an underpass at the bottom of my road, between a railway embankment and Queens Road with its shabby stores, takeaways, mini-markets and slow-moving traffic. It was my most direct route into the town centre. I passed this way day and night on my way to more ostensibly interesting places: the Smugglers’ Caves, the Old Town, the pubs full of guitar bands and pissheads dressed as pirates.
But one night, I returned from an evening’s revelry and decided to take a short cut across the car park. Hooded lamps, crested with gull-deterring needles, showered light onto the tarmac while the yellow glow of the Morrisons sign, reflected in a puddle, had all the sad beauty of a late-night amusement arcade. Through the windows of the dimly-lit interior flitted the ghost of a cleaner as a herring gull boomeranged over the architraves and a fox shivered in a hedgerow by the petrol forecourt. Vehicles were scattered here and there. A car park is never truly empty, even at night, and never silent. Water trickled from the guttering. A generator hummed. There was a squeak of trolley wheels and the muffled rattle of something moving along metallic rails behind the store. A slam and bang. Bakers, perhaps, preparing the morning’s batch.
The disembodied voices of the nightshift drifted across the lots, where I wandered in transgressive loops, crossing white lines and disabled parking bays. This seemed a different car park to the one full of shoppers in the daytime. It looked different. Felt different. Wild and abandoned. There were others here too. By the far wall, two boys with skateboards smoked joints beneath a NO SKATEBOARDING SIGN as a huddle of girls looked on.
A dented sports car rumbled around the access road, driver in a baseball cap, eyes lit up like a cat’s in the lamp glare before he veered off into the shadowy perimeter for a reason I could not fathom, nor dared to discover. It felt strange to be here for no definitive reason but to dwell. Like the three lanky Polish geezers smoking by the entrance, talking in low voices. They stared at the teenagers as more skaters approached, clattering and Tarzan-yelling.
I walked towards the recycling bins near a maze of hedgerows. Half a bed frame lay in the greenery. By the wall there was a Mercedes with a crumpled bonnet. A beautiful looking car with a walnut dashboard and – disconcertingly – a license plate with the number 1066. As I walked back towards the store I approached a car within which I could make out the solitary figure of a woman. As I approached she began to fumble with her keys in panic. I tried not to make her uncomfortable, pretending to look at my phone until I passed so that she knew I had no interest in what she was or wasn’t up to. However, I couldn’t help but turn my head back for a quick look. She was staring right at me, twisted in her seat, wide-eyed. We remained connected for a torturous moment before she fired up the engine and pulled away.
I got the sense that I had stumbled into the aftermath of a drama played out between the woman in the car, the lingering Polish men, the stoned skateboarders and the missing Mercedes driver. There are secret lives that happen right in front of our noses. We just can’t see them. Or we just don’t want to look.
This moment was the beginning of my obsession with superstore car parks. These commonplace urban landscapes are little-explored, rarely featured in art and music, yet they shape the aesthetics of our towns. They are hotspots for crime, rage and sexual deviancy. Despite being heavily monitored private areas they are a blind spot in which activities go unnoticed. Skateboarding, car stunts, drug dealing, dogging, murder. History, culture and topography leach into car parks. There’s public art, as well as unofficial art (graffiti, posters, stickers) and those strange synchronicities and hidden narratives that emerge when you take time to read the landscape.
As I completed my novel The Stone Tide,I began documenting my car park walks across the UK on my website Unofficial Britain (www.unofficialbritain), a project that will be published next year. In the process, I came up with an idea for a story about a trolley attendant. After all, a trolley attendant knows more about a car park than anyone – its nooks and crannies, strange quirks and mysteries. And so ‘Thenar Space’ was born. The protagonist of the tale, Lotte, begins to see signs of an imminent catastrophe written into the car park landscape. Is she deluded or clairvoyant? And can she use her mastery over the physics of her shopping trolley-stack to avert the coming disaster before it happens?
Find out in the latest issue of The Lonely Crowd.
Gareth E. Rees is editor of Unofficial Britain (wwww.unofficialbritain.com), author of The Stone Tide (Influx Press 2018) and Marshland (Influx Press, 2013). His work features in Unthology 10 (Unthank Books), An Unreliable Guide to London (Influx Press), Mount London (Penned in the Margins], Acquired for Development By (Influx Press) Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography (Rowman & Littlefield), and the spoken word album A Dream Life of Hackney Marshes (Clay Pipe Music).
Gareth will be reading ‘Thenar Space’ at our event at Little Man Coffee Co. on May 10th. Free Admission, from 7pm.
© Gareth E. Rees, 2018. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2018.