Going back is always tricky. Especially when where you’re going back from is not necessarily where you’re sure you want to be.
I arrived at Euston Station on Friday night and already noticed changes. There’s a new travel and information centre which means the Paperchase and The Body Shop booths have moved, and Tie Rack has gone. There’s no flower stall any more either. Outside there are now lots of coffee shops where once there were none. Down in the Underground all the ticket machines seem to have changed again. I still remember when you just pressed a big yellow square button saying ‘Adult Single’ with the price on it. I tried to look nonchalant but felt rather dazed and confused by the machines and what ticket I was meant to be asking for, and where I was going, and what zone it was in, and would a Travel Card be cheaper? All my former deep knowledge of my capital city and how it works had completely left me, or was so changed that it was no longer relevant. Oyster cards seem to be the only way to move around – but only worth it if you live in the city. For the rest of us, they just make the other options left open to you more difficult and complicated.
When I’d finally muddled my way through to Waterloo I was equally thrown. Now there are ticket barriers like in the Tube to all the platforms. I arrived with three minutes before my train left. Normally I’d have run to catch it and bought a ticket on the train. No longer. I had to search for The Machines again, queue, work out how the hell The Machine worked and what type of ticket I wanted and…I missed my train. Next one half an hour later. A second visit to M&S Simply Food ensued (already done once at Euston) to buy bottle of wine to complement box of chocolates for my hostess. I felt almost overwhelmed by the volume of people, the way our lives were crunching together, snatches of mobile phone conversations, banging into eachother, dodging eachother, hearing about people’s Friday night plans, the enormous queues, the largely unfriendly and disinterested faces at the tills. I have been away too long.
From there to Teddington and my friend’s house – a friend I hadn’t seen in seven years, but one I’d known since I was a child of seven. We used to walk across the park and catch the train to school together. She was my neighbour but one. We made camps in the hedge, rode bikes round the houses, played games of ‘Flutter’ and African Mancala up in her bedroom and seemed to spend hours of our lives tidying it at her mother’s request. I had my first ‘French kiss’ with a boy in her parents’ sitting room. Yes, we grew up together.
Now here we were, middle-aged women and mothers both – she, more sensibly, to just one child. I last saw said child as a seven year old. I remember my own toddler playing in her pink bedroom with all her pink fairy castles and Barbie dolls. She seemed so old compared to mine. Now my youngest, my ‘little one’, is the age she was then and this once child is now a teenager. How Time plays games with us. The champagne was opened and the catch-up began in earnest. I was fed a wonderful meal, friend’s husband serving and allowing us to talk (what an angel he is).
The following day we were to drive down to Sussex. We turned out of her road and I instantly saw the huge church where I used to take my little daughters for ‘Monkey Music’ and where I made a special friend. We drove along Teddington High Street and I recalled pushing my tinies up there in their pushchairs not really so many years ago, but it felt like a different lifetime. In those days the High Street was unremarkable, but now it is heaving with enticing looking restaurants, shops and cafes. I felt a little jealous as my mind flicked, unbidden, to the high street of Chapel-en-le Frith. Fair to say there is no comparison. We passed streets and roundabouts I remembered for a hundred inconsequential reasons, past the house of old friends of my parents, and thence into Bushy Park. It was all too strong a reminder of how I loved those London parklands – a tract of country in the great metropolis – and where I had spent so many hours myself. The deer with their mighty antlers strode arrogantly close to the road, groups of people were engaged in arduous looking push-ups with a man with a large rucksack on his back barking at them (had they paid for this?); people walked along grassy paths through the bracken and cyclists were everywhere. People enjoying a Saturday morning in London in the milky September sunshine, just as I had once done.
We passed Hampton Court Palace where I have enjoyed concerts and shown friends, foreigners and my own small children, in that different lifetime, the beautiful rooms and gardens. Crossing the Thames I thought of N’s aunt and uncle just downstream at Sunbury. How I love their house and wish I was still close enough to pop down there for lunch on a summer’s day, to sit at the end of their garden, drink in hand, rocking gently back and forward on their swinging chair, watching the life of the Thames drift by, the smell of river water filling my nostrils and the chat ebbing and flowing like the tide.
We passed a large pub where I stopped once with a friend on my way back from work in Brighton. It fell into disuse and became a sad blot on the landscape. It is now flourishing again, all painted up and fancy with manicured box in outsize terracotta pots lining the walls. The circle of life.
Our next stop was my friend’s parents’ house. Pulling into the drive, everything seemed smaller, apart from the trees and bushes which had grown bigger. I always remembered the kitchen carpet, unchanged. Ditto the red benches and the formica table and the once state-of-the-art ceramic topped cooker. Memories crowded in of Christmas Day Pimms parties, and hours on the red benches doing homework and sipping ‘milky coffee’ (hot milk with Nescafe – a 70s English version of a latte I suppose). The old apple tree with the swing fell down in the Great Storm of ’87. A new summerhouse stands in its place.
I popped to the loo and my thoughts were of the very same downstairs cloakroom (right down to the tiles) that we had in my old house, two doors up. I remembered the pen and ink drawings of roses that my mother had done which hung on the walls. Our house was identical to theirs – a classic build of the late sixties – hence being back in theirs was almost like being back in mine. Sadly, as we drove past, I noticed it was looking rather neglected with weeds along the edges of the very drive where I badly broke and dislocated my ankle on a skateboard in 1977 – a day I will never forget and whose physical repercussions have followed me through the rest of my life.
[to be continued]