Twelve years ago, nearly to the day, I arrived in London with a huge backpack and a brick of a laptop, brimming with excitement, anticipation, freedom, and a few nerves too. I stayed in a grotty hostel in Earl’s court. I went to British library and marvelled at the medieval manuscripts and hand written poems. I visited Southwark cathedral, because a writer I know told me she loves it. I went to Greenwich with a girl from the Maldives who I met in the hostel. I went to the British Museum and looked at the loot from Sutton Hoo. I wandered around peering at maps and looking anxiously for tube stations. Soon, I would travel around a bit before starting a masters in York. What adventures.
Last week I arrived in London with Felix and Antonia as my companions. Michael was working in the US for two weeks and I didn’t fancy staying at home alone for that time. I had been wanting to come back to the UK for years, and thought I’d better do it now before my maternity leave is over. We stayed in a clean and shiny hostel near Hyde Park, opposite the natural history museum. Once again I was excited and a little apprehensive. It felt so different. London was exciting the first time but also lonely and somewhat aimless – with all that time on your hands, how do you best spend it? Now I had two small beings to look after and there was no time for loneliness or aimlessness. I felt myself ferrying them around in a little bubble of care. We went to playgrounds and the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum, and I loved it. We took a boat ride with my brother to Greenwich. It was nice to go to parks with a purpose – the promised playground at the end of the walk a mecca for all. I felt I belonged.
And early this week I arrived in York. Walking around the town centre on my first day, my heart kept clenching in recognition. These were the streets I walked and rode my bike, the streets in which I dreamed and longed and loved. I kept saying to Felix ‘this is amazing, I feel so strange’. ‘Why Mummy’, he asked, and I only said I lived here once, long ago, with Daddy. Arriving in York twelve years ago was a dream come true – after years of poorly paid care-work, I finally had time to read and think and study again, and forge wonderful friendships, and breathe the fairytale air of the north. That sounds romanticised, and it was, but well, that’s me. In York I did my masters and began my PhD, in York I fell in love. Felix and Antonia would not exist had Michael and I not met here.
So it felt strange and lovely to be back, in this city which is at once pretty and mysterious, cosy and ancient, cradling and awe inspiring. And it felt odd, to begin with, to have the little ones at my side, to not be able to slip into uninterrupted reveries or read for hours in coffee shops. And I missed Michael. But I soon got used to showing the little ones around, and how lovely it was to see Felix entranced by the stained glass window interactive displays in the minster. ‘They cook glass like dinner’, he told me, ‘did they cook the glass in our house too?’ There is a model train shop near our apartment which I must have walked past hundreds of times but never noticed until now – we have to stop every time to watch the train go through the tunnel.
I have visited old friends and old places, I have walked old paths. It feels good to be here. I’m staying in an excellent little apartment just outside the city walls, that just happens to be at a midpoint between the two houses I used to live in. It’s just behind a huge painted sign that is visible from the city walls that says ‘bile beans are good for you’ – impossible not to notice.
It feels right to be tucked away just here, in a place I rode past and walked past and spotted from the walls – here, now, with two small beings. Here, in a place awash with history, I feel I can almost touch my former lives, my former selves. I can wave, but feel no need to go back. I can wave, also, at the self who may visit here in ten years, in twenty, but I am here now, this moment, and it is good.