Here I am back in London, Willesden Green a mile or so north of my old home in Ladbroke Grove, I am staying with my sister who lets me use her spare room whilst I am in Town. After the best part of a year away the first few days are about catching up with London life.
I head for breakfast each morning to Portobello Road where I know every shop and cafe and restaurant like the back of my hand, every regular market stall holder’s face & sales patter, the street theatre characters of the Saturday market — the buskers that aim to separate the tourists from their loose change, just ask & I can find you apple strudel & Viennese coffee to die for, veg cooking by a Palestinian chef that would turn the most ardent meat eater vegetarian, need knitwear? No problem, the bloke that sells the best cashmere second hand at bargain prices, the old Doris with the fruit and veg stall that’s been here for ever. I can tell you the reincarnations of the Pubs, from the linoleum lined soggy floored boozers of twenty five years ago that have been reborn into swanky gastro-eateries or gin emporiums where you won’t get change from £50 for a snack & a drink.
Walking along the market on a Saturday would once mean that it was impossible to go more than a hundred or so metres without bumping into a friend or acquaintance coming the other way, it could take an age to get anywhere, so much stopping to chat to someone or other along the way, I kind of liked that, of feeling I belonged to these busy streets, but now it felt like the gaps between bumping into someone had grown larger, old faces were missing, a cafe here or there had closed, been replaced, re-invented.
I read an article in the local paper, the old Doris with the fruit and veg stall was retiring, after sixty years working the market, her daughter explained that her Ma had Alzheimers, and work was just getting too much for her. The market makes me realise that I’ve lost my sense of time, it has been moving, just as I have, and things have changed, I have no feeling of nostalgia or missing the way things were, more just the realisation of time moving on, the only constant is that nothing remains the same with the passage of time.
One of things I wanted to do whilst I was back in London was to meet up with my ex because I wanted to see how I felt about her now, what was it – four years or was it five down the line from our split? I knew on some level that meeting up with her was the best way to find out, to understand where I was & how far I had come in myself – seeing her face to face and spending some time together, just the two of us would tell me for certain.
I had done my utmost to avoid her for the last few years, to begin with it was simple self preservation, I couldn’t face her without feeling like a broken sort of man and whatever pride I had left ( which at times I have to say was very little ) meant I didn’t want her to see me that way.
With time it had became a more considered distancing and out of sight was quite literally out of mind – a continent or even two between me & her meant that my thoughts of her receded with the miles.
But now I was curious to find out how I was getting on, I knew the mess I had been wasn’t quite the same anymore, at least that’s what I felt, but seeing her was the only real way I could gauge my feelings. It was time to find out where I had got to so I call her up and suggest maybe we meet up, why don’t we go for lunch somewhere, she agrees. I pick a Veggie restaurant in the West End, an eatery we had never been together so it feels like a good place, kind of neutral territory.
I am on time, she is late. Did I say nothing stays the same? Well, almost nothing………….. God how her habitual lateness used to drive me nuts, I used to feel that I endlessly hung around waiting for her, today I was waiting again, but it just made me smile, a little reminder that wasn’t my problem anymore.
She eventually arrives flustered, complaining about how busy she is, what a rush everything has been, we take a table, our plates soon filled, we talk – beginning with the usual pleasantries – the how are you – what are you up too perambulations of conversation. I am of course all the while checking her out, crows-feet eyes, the make-up – just too much make up, and weight, she’s put on weight, then I stop myself, am I just trying to find fault with her, am I in my own little story? Maybe I am.
We spend and hour or so over lunch, we talk about nothing important or particularly meaningful, but we talk. I have so much I could tell her, all the places I’ve been, my adventures and I think how she would have loved this place or that, the people I wish she could have met, but time has moved on and it would mean nothing to her, she likewise must have plenty to say I’m sure, but neither of us seem to care enough to share. It seems to me that finally after all this time finally we could probably talk to each other frankly & openly and step beyond history, but maybe that time had passed us by.
After lunch we walk to the tube station together, Oxford Circus. This area was where I first worked when I came to London in my early twenties, before I had ever met my the Ex. It’s filled with memories for me, a time before her, now its a time after her, we go through the ticket barriers, then we take different lines, she has her way to go, I have mine. I Know once I wouldn’t have been able to stop myself looking over my shoulder to watch her disappearing down the other escalator, today I don’t want to, I don’t need to and finally at long last I know that I have let her go.
As I descend the escalator I know now that finally I’m free of the feelings that I had for so long, though almost immediately what came after wasn’t what I had expected.
For years I’d struggled, now I realised that it wasn’t that I had become reconciled with my history, or that I was over her, or that I’d forgiven or even that I had just accepted things, no instead of any of these all that remained was an absence of feeling towards her, no kindness or warmth or even anger, no appreciation of what was or had been, no space for affection in the present. So good a job had I made of letting go of my feelings towards her that nothing remained.
Each autumn day brought the dark winter ever closer & as though a clock was ticking away in my head all I could think of was heading off into the Sun.
There’s an expression that’s used quite regularly of being ‘bird brained’ – a person who basically has very little in the way of working grey matter. Well to me that seems a little misplaced. Birds, millions of them in England have the good sense to bugger off somewhere warmer when it gets too cold in England. Whereas millions of native English people suffer months of cold dark damp days, I’d argue who the bird brain is? Anyway, I decide its time to follow the birds into the sun & organise visas and plane tickets, in the space of a few days I’m ready to go.
D-day I leave the house at five a.m. before anyone is up and am through the departure gates at Heathrow without goodbyes or people to wave me off. I like it this way, a solo traveller, slipping away unnoticed, free as a birdbrain.
An eight hour flight gets me to Mumbai, a quick change and another one hour flight and I am in Goa. The scramble at the exit for a taxi and then on the road early morning retracing the route along roads I’ve now travelled each autumn for the last five years.
I ask the driver if he can put on some music, he glows and says yes, I have playlist.
He fiddles with his mobile and the speakers kick into life, Whitney Houston – I will always love you. Not quite what I had in mind.
Sorry I say can you put on some local Konkani Music?
The driver swivels his head round and looks at me, I find this a little disconcerting as I’d prefer him to be looking at the road ahead, but by now as a seasoned traveller in India it is not unexpected.
You want Konkani he says incredulously. Yes I reply.
The driver shakes his head from side to side baffled by my musical taste but tunes the radio to a local station and immediately the cab is filled with the high pitched warbling of an Indian lady,
I ask him to turn up the volume which once again requires that he turn his head back towards me just to see for certain that he is hearing correctly.
I have no idea what the songstress is singing about, probably the same old stuff as Whitney, but that doesn’t matter. I’m happy with Indian music. I wind down the window and let the wind hit me full in the face for the hour or so the taxi journey takes.
Now I know I am back in India and this is where my journey begins once again.
As the taxi careers along the roads after an hour or so of passing the landmarks I remember so well, the villages, paddy fields, the forests and hills, I direct the driver off the main road and onto a winding smaller road, past the rubbish dump with the foraging cows, then left then right at the off licence where I buy my cheap booze, then left again at the youth hostel on the corner, past the Karma Cafe with its cinnamon buns and darned good coffee, past the chicken farm, the last who sells eggs & then I’ve arrived. My little corner of paradise for the next few months, a house back from the beach with marble floors and big sofas, with artwork on the walls, with balconies to sit and catch the evening breeze after sunset. Now this home is a bit of an indulgence, I could slum it and rent a cheap shack for half the price, but what the hell, its only money, and what’s the point of having it if you don’t spend it? I also figure that the rental is less than I spend each week on coffee & cigarettes and as those in India cost me vastly less I’m really better off.
At eight a.m. its already as warm as any hot summers day in England & I’m happy to get out of the jeans I travelled in and swap them for a pair of shorts. I won’t wear trousers again for maybe six months or more until I head back to Europe.
As soon as I’ve changed I head down to the beach and then it’s straight into the water for me.
Oh God how I’ve missed this.