It was a beautiful day in London on Tuesday, one of those days that reminds you why you’re here, one of those days when you feel like you’re a part of something bigger, something important. Apart from New York, no other city can make me feel like this, like I’m plugged into some massive generator, like I’m an essential part of a machine that never stops churning. It was one of those days when the sidewalks felt like they were vibrating.
So on my way back from the city on a rare day off work, I decided to get off the train early and take a walk.
Almost immediately after I got out at Pinner, some lady with a twin pram ploughed into me. Not only was she pushing the giant buggy, she was carrying four Sainsbury’s bags of groceries, wrapped around each of her arms like a straitjacket. She was so harried that she not only didn’t apologise when she almost knocked me over, I’m not sure she even noticed. One of her babies was wailing; the other was playing with a bag of frozen peas. The woman wasn’t being chased by anyone, but she might as well have been; she was so caught up in what was assuredly a stressful journey home, if everyone she passed on the street turned out to be wearing only their underwear, I bet she wouldn’t have noticed that either. And this seemed to be a regular thing for her, this pushing of children, this carrying of bags, this nonstop clutter and clamour. I wondered how long it had been like this. She was young; I bet it wasn’t more than five years ago that her friends were holding her hair back as she threw up in the back of a dingy drinking shithole somewhere in London. When did it switch for her? When did the tide turn? It was probably a gradual thing. She felt she was getting older, that the world was starting to close in on her, she met a nice guy, she settled down, she had children (twins!), and before she knew it, she was carting the sum of her existence down a fairly nondescript street in the suburbs, aware of nothing but this. She had the look of someone who had not thought about herself in a long, long time.
Because it’s a nice day, two women are having brunch outside a restaurant. I have been to this place before, and it’s exactly what you’d think: shitty service, overrated food and way too expensive. Places like this are always crowded for reasons that escape me. The two women, probably in their late 20s, are dressed in business suits and have leather handbags next to them. They are wearing a lot of makeup. They both went on dates on the weekend, and they’re deconstructing the dates, which is usually the most fun part of dates. One was going on and on about her date’s face; I guess he had a bad acne problem in college and still carries the scars. He’s in finance, it seems, and he kissed her good night, and she was a bit grossed out but kissed him anyway, and if he calls, she’ll go out with him again, sure, why not? The waiter comes by, and the two women complain to him about something, and he looks apologetic but probably isn’t, he probably hates them, he probably hates all of them.
In Northwood Hills, the same two kids as always are hanging out in front of the newsagents. They’re always here, whether the store is open or not. As always, their bikes, which seem to change all the time, are casually lying on the pavement and they’re passing headphones back and forth. They’re very bored. I once refused to buy one of them cigarettes, giving him a lecture in the process, and they’ve never forgiven me. When I went in to buy toilet paper the other day, they saw my purchase and said “Yeah, we knew you were full of shit.” I laughed, trying to show that I get it, I’m hip, and they scoffed at me, told me to “laugh it up, preacher man.” I’ve often watched these kids from the hairdressers across the street. Sometimes a third kid joins them, but I don’t think they like him very much, even though he clearly likes them, or at least wants their approval. He’ll stand there, next to them, talking more than they are, and they treat him like he’s not there. Occasionally I’ll see him standing there by himself, waiting for them to show up. He’ll wait a very long time, if necessary. I wonder if he considers them his best friends. I bet he does.
I continue down Joel Street. There’s a pub called The William Jolle which, every time I look in there, seems to have the same five people in it. They’re the types who come in at noon and just let the bartenders refill their drinks at their leisure. They don’t seem sad, or happy; they barely talk. They just look forward, sipping their drink, tired. I wonder how they got this way too. I wonder what their house or apartment is like. I imagine it is spare and dark. If the bar didn’t close, they’d never go there. I’ve been to this pub myself a few times, when I wanted the same experience of solitude among strangers. I’ve never talked to any of them. None of them have ever talked to me. It’s a comfort.
In front of me, a couple is fighting. They’re desperately trying to disguise their argument from the world of the street, and they are failing. I can’t make out the specifics of their tiff, but it seems that there’s something that he always does that drives her crazy, something that makes her feel she is making a mistake by continuing to be with him, and that he has little desire to stop doing it. She is saying, “I don’t know why you always do this,” and he is trying to ignore her, walking faster and looking away, but she is right behind him and she is speeding up, and I am speeding up to stay with them, and she is starting to yell now, and what had been his mutterings a few seconds earlier are starting to become shouts. He is waving his arms in a robotic manner, as if this is a conversation he has had too many times already and lacks the energy to give even the most feeble resistance. He says something to her that I can’t make out, and she stops and begins to cry. He tries to keep walking, wants desperately to keep walking, but he can’t now, and he turns to come back to her, looking sympathetic and guilty, and I speed past the both of them and know exactly how they both feel.
I see this girl I know walking toward me. It’s been a while. We once had some mutual friends so I’ve run into her a few times at parties. She waves and kisses me on the cheek, which I don’t like doing with her, since I don’t know her all that well and I’m not sure where those lips have been. She tells me it’s really good to see me but I don’t think she means it, since I no longer hang out with her friends. I nod and smile and say everything you’re supposed to say when you run into someone on the street and don’t really have anything to say to them but have to talk anyway. She asks me what I’m up to. I tell her I’m just walking. That’s all? That’s it. I’m just walking. It’s a lovely day.
I need to hydrate. I walk into Tesco, grab a bottle, then stand in line behind a man who is having trouble paying with his card. He is saying that this is impossible, that his card works just fine, let him try again. The cashier doesn’t really care and just wants her day to end; he tries the card again, and then another card, and none of them are working, and the guy is starting to get agitated now, and the woman never changes her apathetic expression. He throws his hands in the air, swears and storms to the door. He is moving too fast, though, and he smacks right into the automatic doors. The woman behind the counter smirks, looks at me and says “Next please.”
My mobile rings. It’s an overseas friend who is visiting London soon and is calling to tell me what airport she’ll be flying into, what day, what time. She asks how I’m settling into my new place, and I tell her about a flooding accident over the weekend. She says she hopes it’s all OK then asks why I haven’t updated my blog, that it’s been a while and she’s been hoping I’m OK. She says that she sometimes wondered what I actually did when I wasn’t at work or writing. I tell her I don’t do anything much different from her at all, that I walk down the street and pick up my laundry and pay my bills, go out with friends and drink too much, like I always do. She tells me I drink too much, and I agree, yes, I just said that.
It’s starting to get dark, and it’s time to go home. I buy some fruit and some batteries for my remote controls. I shut off all the lights in my flat, like I always do when I write, and sit down at my computer and begin to type. It is so simple here, so peaceful. I see so many people out there, who don’t know what they’re doing in this world, who are just like me. I wonder where they find their peace. I wonder where they go to slow everything down, to try to make some sense out of the chaos, to try to strip out some meaning from a planet that is doggedly determined not to provide it. I wonder where they step outside of themselves and relax, and think, and just be. This is where I often find it. On my own, shut off from the world, listening to clickety-clack of my keyboard with a backing track from my iPod to match my mood. This is the place I know to go to.
Writing is my time machine. It always takes me to where I belong. I fear that I might be lost without it. I feel it’s the one thing that’s truly mine.