I remember coming up the river from Greenwich and seeing the skyline jagged over time. Sleeping in a house near Blackheath with my sister and my mom. I remember trying to find batteries for my walkman in a shop while the rest of my family meandered belowdecks on the Cutty Sark. I didn’t care to see an old boat in dry dock. I wanted the city.
We ate at Pizza Hut in a basement off Trafalgar Square. My brother sat at a table with me and said people were staring. They probably stared because I was so happy. I was finally there. I always wanted to be there. But we didn’t stay long.
Two years go by and my parents have a small windfall…something more like a breeze. They use part of it to send me back because the college offers a study course there. And when I asked about it I think my eyes said that I’d never wanted anything more in my life. And that was true. If I’d had no other blessings that would have been enough, to just go and live there and be there and be alive there.
We lived in a bed and breakfast run by Muslims. They lent rooms to the students from our college cheaply because they didn’t serve alcohol and we couldn’t drink alcohol and people who stay in hotels usually want booze. They’re out of business now, swallowed by a hotelier who lets its guests partake. But they were there them and we moved in on them, all 26 of us. Breakfast every morning was an egg fried with toast and sausages, a puddle of surpisingly good baked beans and juice. After the first three days they let me bring my ever present litre bottle of Coke down with me instead of making me wait til after. The money I was supposed to spend on food got spent on theatre tickets instead. High brow, low brow. If it was on a stage I saw it. Mornings were for class, afternoons for touring, evenings for doing as we pleased.
I walked every mile of the place. I bought a copy of the book I was named after in a stall in a market outside Salisbury Cathedral on a day trip. Another day we had a picnic by Winston Churchill’s grave. When the other girls went to shop at Harrod’s I joined six guys for a tour of Churchill’s War Rooms. It was January and we were cold and I remembered thinking how thrilled Winston was all those Januarys ago when those Americans came over to them then.
I lost most of an afternoon in the Tate staring at Waterhouse’s Lady of Shallot. It’s a bigger painting than you’d think. It swallows you, given the chance.
I went in every bookstore on Charing Cross Road. Until I realised that most of them were actually selling porn, and not dreamy first editions of Pepys’ Diary. I bumped into (literally) Andrew Lloyd Weber’s brother Julian at the Barbican on my way to get a bagel. I heard my first bit of Michelle Shocked in record store just off Covent Garden.
I ran out of money earlier than planned and sat on a bench in front of St. Paul’s and cried because I’d failed. I had wanted to go there and be grown up. I thought then that grownups never ran out of money.
I found the American Express office and picked up the funds my parents wired to keep me going. I promised I’d use some of it to buy food this time, and not let every penny go to the ticket brokers. I learned to like Wimpy’s Hamburgers, even though a British Hamburger at Wimpy’s tastes more akin to a meatloaf. Or something. I also learned they charge the equivalent of a quarter for ketchup. The perils of living on an Island, I suppose.
I learned other things, but I never did try fish and chips. My roommate did. I let her eat the dreadful-smelling stuff in the room in exchange for the right to keep my beloved Cokes in the flower box outside on really cold days. The Muslims didn’t believe in minibars.
I’m not a Londoner by birth. I’m barely a Londoner by right of residence. But I’m a Londoner always. Never doubt that.
I think I’m glad the Olympics are there, but I miss my city and wish I were there instead.