Part of us is always intrigued about revisiting our past: the places and people of former times. There’s a mysterious romance to it even when there shouldn’t be, even when you should just be relaxed about tucking it away in a box, ‘compartmentalising’. But surely most of us, unless there’s some incomprehensibly horrific post traumatic stress disorder-inducing episode, have a vested interest in the complicated tangle of experience which has produced the confused, neurotic mess of a human we have become.
We might wonder how differently things might have turned out – for better and worse, if you’d stayed around and finally somehow got that break you’d been holding out for. It’s broadly accepted that regret is a fairly useless emotion, but it usually colours any degree of personal reflection.
As an underachieving bloke still fumbling nervously along in his mid-thirties, I ponder less mature versions of myself. The younger-me versions who inhabited those places, the things that were going through my head. Memories are easily coaxed out through old iPods on long car journeys. Remember going to that gig, feeling miserable, and standing against that wall looking miserable and hoping someone would talk to you, then going home and hating yourself? Ahh, great days.
You wonder how far removed that person is from the you of right now? Are you really older and wiser? Have you mellowed? Or are you still irrationally wounded and bitter at all the unfairness in the world?
You idly consider how have the places might have changed, evolved, been knocked down or built up. How have the people changed, grown, altered? Or how nothing much has changed at all.
It hadn’t been all that long anyway. Only five years.
Never shy when it comes to gazing at my navel, as this blog robustly testifies, over a few days I flirted with the idea of returning to London. Just a short, flying visit. I miss the place, its scale and pomp, and hadn’t returned in about a year. There was a chance to see people I rarely see. I was feeling claustrophobic about not having left my current hometown for a while. I wanted a small personal adventure of my own. I was curious about how I’d react to being there alone again, all that familiar old stimuli, echoes of a time when I was often lonely and miserable, despite liking much about the place, thinking I wouldn’t need much – just a couple of things to fall right and bingo, everything would change.
In two and a half hours I drove down to Hounslow, near Heathrow Airport, just outside London. I left the car in a sketchy feeling 24 hour NCP car park which happened to be free on Saturdays and Sundays, and hopped on a tube.
Gay Pride debris bombarded me upon arriving into the centre. Flamboyant rainbow coloured people sitting drinking on pavements in small groups, as if in protest that they couldn’t get Glastonbury tickets. Thousands of upbeat people swarmed in all directions, apparently unfazed by how easy an act of terrorism could be. You have to forget all that when you live in London, but when you’re an infrequent visitor and there’s been a spate of recent terrorist acts, it’s harder.
One misgiving I had about making the trip was accommodation. Never much of a planner, I’d left it late before committing to the trip and hadn’t booked anything despite quickly browsing Airbnb and a few others. I didn’t want to pay over £50 for just a handful of hours, and all the faff. Surely I could just sponge a sofa stay? But then I didn’t want to be a pain and cheekily impose myself on anyone I didn’t know that well. Hmmm. I hadn’t quite worked it out, but fuck it, cross that bridge when I come to it. It’d be fine. It was summer, not going to get cold, there are 24-hour coffee shops, plenty of interesting streets. I had my Kindle and an enjoyable book on it. It’d be fine. Wouldn’t it? Yes. Just get on with it and do it. Worry about that other stuff later.
Having tired of the social gathering around 11.30pm, or it tiring of me, and being nervous of further alcohol consumption when I was unsure what the next few hours held in store, it was later. I drifted away, semi-drunk and walked back through the centre, thousands of Pride revellers still revelling. I got a sloppy burger meal, walked more streets, got a large coffee in a 24-hour coffee chain on gay high street Old Compton Street, impatiently endured a middle-aged man with a cleft-lip and speech impediment hesitantly question me about Kindle internet connectivity, then walked back towards Piccadilly Circus, from where buses would travel in the direction of my car. It was later and late and I was quietly worrying.
Pretty tired, body confused by alcohol and caffeine, I had considered sleeping rough. It was warm enough. Parks and doorways everywhere. I didn’t want to though. Uncomfy, awkward. And I’d get unlucky, mugged, arrested. Now I was on a long, slow bus ride, being driven by a violently braking young man who would ultimately deposit me a few footsteps from my car. How sober was I? Was I really fit to drive? No. Probably not. Could I sleep in the car, in the car park, if there was no attendant? Likely CCTV, but unlikely to be monitored. I badly needed to pee as well. Drive a short distance out to some residential street and sleep in the car there? Questions, confusion, lethargy. Shit. How had I clumsily played myself into this hole? Idiot. Looking out of the window shortly before the bus approached my stop I saw a bunch of hooded youths. If I encountered any such groups like that while seeking somewhere to rest or piss, I would have undoubtedly shat myself. It didn’t seem the friendliest area.
Stepping off the bus onto the still populated middle-of-the-night outer London street, I smartly headed to the car and started the ignition straight away. I was ok enough to drive, wasn’t I? I’d probably fail a breathalyser test and I wasn’t at all proud of this, but it was now 4 straight hours since my last sip of beer. Between times I had eaten a reasonable amount of food, and drunk a large coffee and water. That was ok? Not ideal, sure, but ok, right?
Still I felt shame and doubt and anxiety and paranoia. It was a risk, a gamble, I could get caught and regret it for a very long time. ‘Death By Dangerous Driving’; ‘Driving Ban’; ‘No consideration for the safety of others’. I have never been a reckless deviant, never had any scrapes with the law. That stuff scares me.
After turning right out of the car park, I slowed next to a residential street and peered down the road seeking a quiet haven. A tall man was standing there, just hanging on the street corner at 3.30am, like you do. Fucksake. I headed for the motorway, windows open, music blaring, eyes pinned, gripping the steering wheel tighter and more sensibly than usual. Every set of headlights in my rear mirror was a potential police car destroying my life.
I stopped at a service station in Reading and, the stabbing at my bladder so severe I half limped half crouched my way to the toilet, as if trying to balance a bowl of piss on my stomach. I was nervous of any lurking, over-caffeinated traffic cops. There were none I could see. Promptly returning to my car, I took a few deep breaths. I was calmer now, and the black sky was already being diluted with blue.
After that I grew steadily relaxed, if still cold by the necessarily blasting air. Whenever my blinking rate increased I sang and shouted to fend off any chance of them fully flopping. It seemed to work. Thankfully the midsummer darkness didn’t last long, lighter morning hues seeping into the sky around 4am. I grunted monosyllabically at my partner and flopped into bed at 6am, relieved but still ashamed.
Clearly I am now much older and wiser.