I had to go through London recently, for the first time in about ten years. Sure, I’ve been back – but it was passing through, driving to my sister’s, getting the bus to Victoria. It wasn’t anywhere that I lived.
I was there for four years at University, living near London Bridge, Hackney, White City, Elephant & Castle. I usually walked everywhere – partly because I was a student and partly from a childhood of walking to school. And I did walk everywhere; up to Holborn and Euston, up to Camden; down to Elephant and Camberwell and Vauxhall; in from Hackney and White City and Kensington. I explored Covent Garden and Soho, Southwark, the South Bank and The Strand. I caught the bus out to the tiny villages merged into the huge bulk of the city, and back into the wharves and docks and palaces of London’s heart.
I loved that city.
I remembered the peculiar smell of the Jubilee Line, and the odd gust of wind that you get as the train’s coming in to the station. I can still ride the tubes, brace myself without looking like I am – effortlessly standing as the train ploughs to a halt and all the tourists lurch forwards. The walk down from London Bridge to Waterloo, along the edge of the water; the bitter, hot smell of the street just after the Golden Hind, where one of the buildings vents out into the narrow street; how to dodge the tourists and lingerers at the Tate, and fit in with the commuters striding across Waterloo Bridge; the graffitti in the underpass at Blackfriars and the ever-changing trees woven with lights at the Oxo Tower. I remember looking out over the water, seeing the boats go past, and sitting in the bar at Kings’ and looking out past the 1960’s concrete walls that did nothing for the atmosphere of the Strand, over towards the South Bank. I remember riding the bus up past Trafalgar and Hyde Park, the tube to White City, looking at the station names in wonder. I remember riding the night bus, sitting in a moored ship on the Thames, drinking in a cellar bar, riding the Eye.
I loved London with a pain that made me smile every time I stepped off the train, with a touch to my heart that broke it every time I left. I loved the lights, the details, the colours, the life. I loved turning a corner and finding something new, or something old. I loved being one person amongst thousands, uncaring.
It hurt to go back.
I grieved after I left, but I knew I was right to leave. I wouldn’t have wanted to be a commuter; a student’s freedom was wonderful, but I’d hate to work there. It took a few years for the grief to fade, and I never really liked going back. I made my life elsewhere, and was grateful when my occasional trips back never took me near the places I’d loved.
But we came in to Waterloo. We travelled down the Thames. I traced the routes I’d walked, the places I’d seen; I knew what was coming next, the details, the hidden gems. I remembered the smell of the tube before it hit me, trod up the escalator and turned the right way at the top. I watched my city fly past around me, and I felt my heart break all over again.
It isn’t mine, not any more. I am no longer a part of it; it has not changed, and I know that I could go back…
It’s not my place. But it hurt so much to see something that I loved so deeply, and know that I have stepped away from it.