Oak Tree Lane sits at the boundary of Selly Oak’s thriving student community, set back far enough from the university that sizeable family sedans begin to replace the Fiat 500 with increasing frequency, but not back enough to pull it from the orbit of the student sphere. Oak Tree Lane is steeped in all the hallmarks of student living. Large, cubic recycling bins piled high with chicken-wing bones and other abundantly non-recyclable food stuffs elicit a ‘for fuck sake’ from dustmen on collection day – their groans and the clamour of a hundred empty bottles being shirked into the back of a lorry pre-empt the ring of most alarm clocks.
As with most things in life, your Oak Tree Lane experience is largely determined by what time you get out of bed in the morning. If, by chance, it happens to be a Thursday, you might find yourself roused at six by the chicken-wing bone ‘fuck sake’ of the dustmen, or the sharp clamouring of beer cans and spirit bottles. You may even be dazed enough to mistake the clatter for something mystical – for a second. Should you be unable to break the cryptic urban spell of the trash man and be heaved into your morning routine, you’ll be privy to a pre-rush serenity – a few crisp morning hours before Birmingham’s restless heart pulses again, returning life to the streets and spiking the pressure of Oak Tree Lane as an artery bridging outer suburbs to the city centre.
Charge yourself in these fleeting moments, but don’t be fooled into basking in isolation – the street is quiet, but rarely empty. Less than ten metres away, three, maybe four houses down, you perceive a common figure: the raw-boned form of a nameless pensioner resting uneasily against a rotten wooded fence, his cane uncomfortably astride, his being just about spanning the breadth of the pavement. It’s difficult not to read the nameless man’s posturing as a rude gesture, an assault on an otherwise blissful morning. As you approach, the tired barricade stands defiantly in situ, its presence pushing you out into the empty road. A glance at the face reveals nothing but stoicism and perhaps vacancy. You’ll encounter the nameless pensioner occasionally, and continue to regard his presence as a hurdle, his expression void. Only in retrospect will you discern more isolation than hostility in that wrinkled grimace. You may come to read his curious posture not as an arbitrary dick move, but as the casting of a desperate, pavement-wide trawler net by the lonely. In any case, you’ll certainly be sorry to have let the man remain nameless.
Disentangling yourself from the pensioner’s outspread physical web – but less so from his puzzling contradictions, you slip back into the solitude of an early Selly morning. Pushing on you pick up pace and move swiftly beneath a broad street tree. Its vast knot of branches are barren of leaves and life. But you know better – the road beneath is inexplicably canvased by a blitzkrieg of freshly-white bird shit. As months and seasons rolled by, you didn’t once observe the flapping of wings amongst the veiny branches, nor clock a single coo. Even so, you can’t help but feel exposed.
Continuing along the high street and over the canal you find yourself progressively less alone. It’s still early, but your side street calm has been shattered by a flurry of high street activity. What little traffic there is is frequently bisected by the flashing blue and piercing sirens of emergency vehicles, carving out a route to the Queen Elizabeth hospital, which looms imposingly behind row upon row of town house architecture. As the morning grinds on, commuters emerge and the clamour increases. Nearing Selly Oak train station you’re overtaken by the rushed suited and booted, powerwalking breathlessly in shirts defiled by dark, underarm crescents. Strolling into the little red-brick station quite comfortably you let slip a Schadenfreude smile, as an exasperated mass of the crescent-stained tardy queue at a ticket machine, as their train pulls out of the station.
It’ll be ten minutes before the next ride, twelve before you’ll discern that it’s running late. The flurried commuters who rushed in vein to meet their train begin to trickle onto the platform – their presence in the queue replaced by more of the same. All the while the station officer’s ticket window remains shut, masked by a green curtain emblazoned with ‘closed’ in bold black lettering. But the station master isn’t absent. More likely, he’s crouched silently beyond the station building stealing a fag, well out of view of exasperated commuters. In such mornings, the only tell of his presence might be the wafting tang of smoke, undercutting the musky perspiration of rushed commuters. On other, quieter days, the man is more brazen, openly strolling about the station car park, immune to the irritation evoked in the general public by lengthy ticket machine lines. A heavy set bloke, often sporting a pocket watch and formal black jacket, he epitomises a sort of pound shop Fat Controller. He’s good man, and conversational. He’ll groan at length about the morning grind, or regale you with accounts of ‘all the nuclear weapons that come through on trains up this way’. On Sundays, when you absent-mindedly turn up at seven expecting a train, he’ll tell you that you’ve fucked up, and to come back at nine.
The train eases into the station and the bustling platform wedges itself all at once through small doorways into four carriages. You thump against backpacks and ricochet off limbs until you hurl yourself into to the recess of a window seat – the space to your left is swiftly taken off market by another. A moment passes and a mechanical shudder releases the brakes and jolts the engine into a steady pace. Rows of town houses quickly devolve into industrial structures. Piercing sunlight is replaced by the void of tunnel-black and the sting of florescent light, as you hurtle towards Birmingham city centre.