I spent Sunday morning drinking pink champagne with Leonie and a sophisticated group of kiwi women at a spa for bubbles, nibbles and general pampering. And networking, or something. Some were new to these grey gravely shores, others have been here for years and all shared that familiar sense of living in limbo, of belonging-yet-not. It’s all been swirling in my brain as a year today I came back to London. I remember that first snatch of air with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict; the smell of coal fires and winter and some instinct that I was exactly where I needed to be. Jobless, homeless, possessionless and excited for the next part of this adventure to begin.
I am not sure that London has ever been just a city to me. It was always instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself. It has always felt like the centre of the universe and I cannot remember a time when I didn’t want to be here. It has made me feel a crucial part of a vast organic, continually evolving phenomenon. As though I belong. I still have a belly-churning, goosebumps-inducing reaction whenever I travel across Blackfriars Bridge and see the dome of St Pauls lit up ahead. Catching a glimpse of the grand brick funnels of Battersea Power Station has the same affect. And again standing on the tube platform as the hot wind filled with the smell of several thousand sweaty expressionless fellow citizens, signals the approach of an oncoming train. I have a deep and abiding love for this city; it’s visceral. It’s the way I have loved Billy Bragg ever since a confused and lonely fifteen-year-old me wept with relief at this poetry that made me feel seen and is still tangled in my heart.
Somehow the harsh anonymity of London gave me permission to be whomever I needed to be. After he left I had no responsibilities, no ties. And it left me feeling untethered, adrift, lost. My little flat overlooking Turnham Green become a sanctuary. Just four rooms, too many books, a second-hand sofa, a little camping fridge stocked full with wine. I experienced real loneliness and aloneness here. I had to learn to be brave, to be ok with who I met in the mirror. I could stay up all night and make mistakes, and none of them would count. I drank too much, worked too hard. I would meet Noshy for brunch and drink bloody Marys until everything felt better. I had no guilt about spending entire Saturdays that way, because I still had all the Saturdays left in the world. It just never occurred to me that I was living real life here. And those first five years disappeared in no more than 12 months. Surely? In my brain I was always there for just another few months, just until… I was on some indefinitely extended working holiday from wherever it was I apparently belonged.
I was a temporary exile; always with the option to go home. Once I worked out where the hell that was.
In many ways this has been my best London year. Sharing this adventure has cracked me open and I get to see it all again through his eyes. We have no plans to leave just yet, nor are we set on going home. I like the uncertainty. And I am so grateful to this place, this city of bricks and fire, alleyways and cold cobbled streets, sirens, tourists, double-deckers and markets. And the homeless men who sleep in shop doorways, half heartedly cupping their hands against the cold.
This spectacular heart breaking place that is home. For now.
Image: Sexy Sus