I always told my family that I hated living in Mottingham and wanted to escape as soon as I could. It wasn’t because of teen angst or some need to rebel, but rather a secret that I was keeping from them. One that made it unlikely that where I grew up would ever be somewhere I looked back on fondly.
I planned to tell them when I was 15. I would go to The Tarn, the gardens opposite Mottingham train station, and write out exactly how I would say it. The lake here has a perfectly thick, jade-green layer of algae that spreads across the water like AstroTurf. On hot days, when the sun beats down through the weeping willows that shroud the lake, the whole place stinks of damp. Sometimes, the sun reflects a faint green glow from the water’s surface, stretching from where the trees kiss the main road to the bridge that overlooks the golf course.
Throughout my teens, I would come to The Tarn to try and write – poems, short stories, risky texts – but not because I found it particularly peaceful, because it isn’t. (The gardens are full of menacing geese that refuse to make room for you on the footpaths.) The Tarn was the only place in Mottingham that I thought had any beauty in it, which is what I was desperately looking for. Anyway, I couldn’t write my big secret down, and so I didn’t tell anyone.
Instead, nine months ago, I finally told my mum. I had left Mottingham to move further into London, and was home for the Christmas break. We were sitting in my Corsa, parked under a flickering street lamp on the road where everything happened.
The road sits opposite Mottingham Library. As a kid, the library was one of my favourite places to go during the summer holidays. I would sit between the rows of bookshelves and write lists of all the books I wanted to read, or take out my weekly limit all in one go – “inhaling” the books, as my mum used to say. But soon after it all happened, I stopped going to the library and reading wasn’t as fun. I didn’t have a favourite place in my hometown anymore, so naturally, escaping became a priority.
The house at the opposite end of the road, just visible from the library, is where the childminder I had throughout primary school lived. I have vivid memories of that place. I remember learning how to tell their dogs off for stealing from my packed lunch, and the words to the songs from Grease because it would play on the TV in a loop. But I also remember being sexually assaulted there daily, from the ages of nine to 11, and being threatened to never tell.
And so I kept the secret from my family for 15 years, until I told my mum that night. Instead I blamed my surroundings. That house, that road, that library; even The Tarn with its lake and algae carpet. The whole area was ruined for me. I hated Mottingham.
I thought going back to the road today would be unbearable – to give a photographer a tour of a place attached to such bad memory. But as we walk past the library, the air doesn’t seem as thick. I feel a sense of relief.
We walk over to the fish and chip shop where my mum would take us every week. Growing up, I struggled with food. When my parents found something I actually wanted to eat, they would let me eat a lot of whatever it was. So, let me introduce you to what is possibly the best battered sausage in suburban south London. It’s just how I remember: greasy but not dripping with it, and a hard batter that leaves a trail of crumbs down your front.
The Mottingham battered sausage is best enjoyed walking up West Hallowes, the road with what I always called “the big houses” – homes that have high security gates and about six cars parked in the drive at any given time – and imagining all the nonsense rich people rooms they have on each storey. The road today is peaceful, aside from the sound of me devouring my perfect greasy snack.
There are some good things about Mottingham, I guess.
Often misheard as or autocorrected to Nottingham, Mottingham isn’t well known for anything. If you search Google Maps for its exact location in London (don’t try to tell me it’s not London, we have the SE postcode and I’m not having this argument again), it is admittedly far south east enough to look like it slopes off into Kent. If we’re clutching at straws, there are a couple of notable things about the area. The Royal Oak pub has a sign spelled out in huge gold Comic Sans lettering. The Tattoo Fixers shop, Reppin’ Ink, is down by the Post Office and that comedian with the teeth was born here.
The one thing about Mottingham that I did find bleakly fascinating though, were the murders. As a teenager, they seemed to me like one of the only tangible dark things that happened here, aside from my own secret.
In 2009, a man pulled a gun out of his waistband in the DA Sandwich Cafe and shot another man in the head, twice. The killer then turned to one of the waiters, and said, “Call the police, I’ve killed someone.” I was 15 at the time and on my way home from school, just a few streets away from where the murder took place. Kids I knew saw police gathered outside the cafe, which is on one of Mottingham’s main roads, but when I asked them about it later, none of them wanted to talk. The shutters stayed down on the cafe for a few weeks, before it eventually changed its name to the Royal Tarn Cafe and reopened.
Nor did anyone mention the man who stabbed his neighbour on Boxing Day in 2015 because he asked them to turn their music down. This frustrated me. No one wanted to speak badly of Mottingham, nor spill any of the secrets about the crimes that happened here, so I had to keep my secret too.
The irony of this is that everyone in Mottingham is nosy. Passersby will stop and peer into people’s living room windows while pretending to tie their laces. Even my mum is at it. The windows of her front room are covered by a set of hideously ornate net curtains – no one can see in, but she can see out. She regularly updates me with things she has heard about the neighbour’s children, or who has been kicked out by their wife and is probably sleeping in their car because she has “seen him in there a lot.” An elderly neighbour might be close to death because she noticed an ambulance in their drive.
Despite this penchant for gossip, the road I grew up on is quiet, populated mainly by old white people. (Mottingham is the type of place where, if you live here, you’ll probably die here). Most of them are friendly, if you overlook the casual racism. As a child of the only black family who lived on that road, our neighbours always wanted to say hello, but one of the things I heard most often was, “You really are pretty. I think you might even be prettier than most white girls I know.” Still, everyone is as friendly as they can be – so friendly, in fact, that the local Catholic priest often turned up at our door, uninvited and pissed on Communion wine.
My childhood home is sandwiched between the railway tracks and the A20. Being stuck between two modes of transport with strict parents who wanted me to stay at home and study was torture. I went to school in Sidcup and most of my friends lived here, so I’d have to fight to be able to get the train to the Bluewater Shopping Centre, or a bus into Sidcup to drink cheap alcohol in a park. Anywhere was better than Mottingham.
Because of this desperation to leave Mottingham, I spent a lot of time at the station. It’s only a three-minute walk from my family house, if you take the alleyway shortcut. A dealer called J used to be in there a lot too, and we became so familiar that he still waves at me to this day.
I also got the train to school every morning, piling on the 8:06AM with a gaggle of friends in oversized purple blazers. In Year Seven, I met a boy who always had too much saliva in his mouth, and who I would harbour my first crush on. Two years later on the same train, he asked to kiss me, saying, “Your lips look so soft and supple.”
I always imagined that Fairy Hill Park, the main park in Mottingham, would be where I’d have some of these romantic firsts. Instead, the park is home only to the tree that I crashed my bike into once, and the spot where I’d go to hide that I was smoking from my parents. Again, it seemed that Mottingham was transpiring against me.
When I visit Fairy Hill Park today, I head straight for the tyre swing. When I was ten, I was so small that I’d slip through the big hole in the middle. Now, I fit it perfectly. I’ve grown in every sense of the word. I no longer blame Mottingham for anything that happened to me. It might just be the afternoon light, but I think I’m finally starting to see the beauty in my hometown.