A growing collection of books, bought by my husband in second-hand bookshops, mushrooms on the window sill. My daughter is the first to comment. ‘Are you going to buy another bag to take home all those books?’ she asks him. ‘No’, he replies, ‘I thought I might dump some of my clothes’. My daughter catches my eye and grins. We both know that he will do this. What is a pair of shoes, or a sweater, compared with an unsoiled copy of Plato’s lesser known writings, or an out-of-print collection of CP Snow’s essays?
In the end we all leave a few things behind in Bath, in a black plastic bag with a note for the Op Shop, before dashing for the train. Standing on the platform my husband’s face drops, as the 10.41, bound for Birmingham, fills up with standing-room-only passengers. Guessing his thoughts, I suggest that he buys a First Class ticket for the 10.43 to Paddington, so he can work onboard. ‘Would you mind very much?’ ‘Not at all’, I reply.
The train arrives and, cursing my heavy suitcase, we climb aboard. After just over two weeks away, which feels like a month, we are finally bound for London. Unlike the 10.41 to Birmingham, our carriage is comfortable and not busy at all. My daughter does some drawing, my son texts on his phone further down the carriage, and my husband, up the front of the train, buys a few hours’ peace.
An old friend, with whom I often talked about how to juggle work and family, back in our twenties, calls to say she’ll be coming to our drinks that evening. ‘I’m so glad you can come,’ I say, flattered that she is making the trip from Oxford to see me. ‘I can’t wait to see you’, I add, meaning it.
Last time we walked past St Paul’s, three years ago, scores of people were camping on the forecourt, in protest against the government’s support of the banks in the wake of the financial crisis. This afternoon St Paul’s is ringed by popular shops. The free market has also prevailed in the pizza restaurant across the road. My daughter orders a spelt pizza, my son a mushroom one, and I, a fancy salad nicoise. The imposing front of St Paul’s, seen from the side, takes up the whole window.
After getting us badly lost, during our last stay in London, neither my son nor daughter trust me with directions. I laugh and hand over the map, and stand back as they squabble over the route. A cycling bus passes, with twelve laughing passengers peddling madly to catch the lights. Eventually, almost upon the Thames, the Tower rises up in front of us. ‘Shoot’, I say, looking at my watch. ‘Friends are coming for a drink in an hour’s time’. My daughter, fed up with seeing people, pouts. Quite possibly my son feels the same, but doesn’t show it. Instead he rips the map from his sister’s hand and directs us flawlessly back to Spitalfields in half the time it took us to get down to the river.
Once we are within ten minutes’ walk of where we are staying, I relax my pace. ‘I’ll feel much better friends coming for a drink,’ I tell them, ‘if I have something to give them to eat.’ My son and daughter linger near the door of the health food shop that I used to frequent in my twenties, clearly struck by the thought that their mother bought almonds and cashews from this chain of health food shops well before either of them came along.
All my nervousness disappears when the ding-dong front door bell goes and our first friend arrives. As soon as she pulls off her coat, a stream of other friends follow, looking more themselves than ever, full of questions and exclamations and general wonder at the course of life.
My daughter, stubborn as ever, takes a prolonged bath at the top of the house, just as she threatened she would. My son, who three years ago would have holed himself up in his bedroom, jumps straight in, chatting easily and broadly, solid in his passion for sailing and boats and for life beyond school.
Three years ago we saw all of these friends. But separately, over a week or so. Having them in two rooms is far more intense. Before long something else strikes me. Although I am flattered that they have come to see us, I also get the feeling that they have come to see each other, just like in the old days.
A German woman, who was in a baby group with me in Belsize Park, is particularly intense. There is something that she wants from me. She has, she tells me, read bits of my blog, which for me means that she knows quite a lot more about my life than I know about hers. This gives our conversation a directness, an edge, that keeps me on my toes. She has, she explains, been very successful in her psychology coaching business. Very successful, she repeats. Lots of travel, a large company, so large that her husband, equally ambitious, has joined her in it. However a few years back she suffered a knee problem, forcing her off her feet for nearly a year. For the first time since childhood she had to slow down, stop traveling, and stay at home.
She doesn’t dwell on herself for long. As a psychologist, she tells me, she sees a lot of people, particularly women, who hit middle age without a keen sense of what they are about. They know who they are, but not what they are. They have lives, she stresses, and good jobs. ‘But’, she finishes, eyes rolling, ‘they are on all these drugs!’
Even though I am drawn into various conversations like these, I cannot still the nagging thought that whatever conversation I am presently having is preventing me from another conversation that I might be having with someone I may not see for another three years. My goddaughter, I notice in the corner of my eye, has popped up in the kitchen. And could that be my husband’s old friend from Oxford, standing by the lamp?
My oldest friend arrives, breathless from a poetry reading. ‘They were all just children’, she says. ‘Luckily when I told them, at the beginning of the meeting, that I was visiting old friends from Australia, they kindly let me read my poem first.’ We embrace and she takes off her coat. ‘And what a beautiful house’, she says warmly. ‘I just love the colours, and all the paneling. Could I possibly have a peak upstairs?’
‘Next time you all come to the UK’, says another friend, born in Melbourne and living with her four children and lawyer husband in Wimbledon, ‘you must stay with us in Dorset. We have a boat and plenty of room. And it’s always such fun in summer. You simply must come in summer and see d us at our best!’
Eventually I give in and join friends who are leaning against the narrow walls of the kitchen. My daughter, after pleading from me, has finally joined us. And it is there in the kitchen that the party ends, a few hours’ later. Friends leave in clumps, bracing themselves for Friday night public transport. And then they are gone.
My son, husband and I clean up with only a bit of chatter, before eating a late supper. An hour later I am staring at the ceiling in bed. I can still feel my friends’ frames in my arms. I can feel their cheeks against mine, moments before letting them go into the night. Why, I ask myself, did I ever let them go?
And yet I know why. I know that my life has gone in another direction. I was never, I tell myself, going to spend my whole life in London. Even before having a second child I knew that my days in a small flat were numbered. I knew that another life was waiting for me, with a house and a vegetable garden, a clothes line, possibly a dog and a beach not too far off. I knew that these would be my reward if I could bear to break off from my London life.
So although I cry – ‘What’s wrong?’ asks my husband, groggy from sleep – it isn’t unhappy crying. It is closer to wonder. Amazement that the life that my husband and I chose, twelve years ago, should now be more real than the life that I had with these friends in London for nearly twenty years. I stare into the night a little longer, silently wish them well, then turn on my side and sleep.