14 January 2014

Drawing on top of a drawing

The sickness in the house is improving: the kids one at a time starting to get up at the right times. The feeling of sickness and things still not done ― the visa applications, pushchair and car to buy, the book manuscript unfinished ― leave everything untidy. There is still time, of course, but how much time is difficult to tell. The children are still waiting to start school, and I am running errands, feeling panic in supermarkets as I suddenly realise what I've done. This turbulence will end in a couple of months, but it will be a couple of months before it ends.

Today, I left the untidiness to drive the rental car back to the shop, pleased that I had not run it into a wall after a year of driving the small, automatic Hyundai Matrix. I felt like I had accomplished something, until the energetic young woman with an American accent carefully looking at the paint job asked me where the hub caps were. There were hub caps? They're gone? She treated me with more suspicion than she needed to as we circled the car, with the obvious answer that they had been stolen somehow not good enough for her. They took my £200 deposit and promised to return what they didn't use, but I was angry with the tone of the conversation and sat on the shuttle bus back to the underground, thinking about what I should have said. What the hell would I have done with a set of Corsa hub caps, I'm a doctor of linguistics, goddammit, a university lecturer.

They dropped me at the station and I stood in line to buy a new Oyster card, trying to remember the way up to Camden and listening to a middle-aged American couple talk loudly with the station attendant about their credit card and where they would need to transfer to get to their hotel. I went down to the platform to wait and found myself in the midst of my people again, a North American group of college backpackers, having a stupid discussion about saving money. We're everywhere now, I thought, you can't escape us. I tried moving toward the front of the platform, only to hear the original couple now at the map repeating lines from the transcript of every middle-aged trip to London: I know you know where it is, but I want to know too.

Of course, I also had stood on that platform as a college student, with a stupid haircut and a wide-eyed stupid excitement about a day in the city. Big Ben, of course, and the House of Parliament. Buckingham Palace, and Hyde Park. I had even brought my own stupid journal to write my stupid thoughts about Virginia Woolf. After fifteen minutes of sitting in the park, in the brisk spring air, I had stupidly thought I'd gotten it, finally, really understood Woolf.

On the train a couple of high school lovers kissed and held each other, making love in public the way that teenagers can. Another couple, an older woman and her husband, kept looking on disgusted, the teenagers at first oblivious and then defiant when someone moved away from them. The girl was wearing blue tights and looked vaguely like Mei might one day, I thought. They got off in the city, and the older couple looked relieved, but I found myself caught up, the way one remembers being in love and resenting people who resented you for it.

I looked for shoes at the British Boot Company, the first shop to sell Dr Martens and flexed my own British shoe knowledge for effect, Oh, in Northampton? when the shopkeeper told me the Solovairs were made in the old Dr Marten factories. This of course wasn't my first time in the shop, I had been many times. I had lived here, you know, when I was a PhD student. For four years ― I worked in London too. I would walk from Camden to Euston. Philip and Frank and I ate where we did last year in December: I kept joking that we needed to completely repeat the past, this while looking in the mirror across from me and realising I was probably wearing the same shirt I was at that time, albeit fatter now and more foreign.

I wanted the shoes I liked to fit. I willed them on my feet but didn't have the courage to commit to them. The shopkeeper reminded me that leather stretches, but leather doesn't stretch, rather it is stretched. The shoes I was wearing, I said, they were this tight and it took me two months to break them in. I walked sock-footed into Malaysia.

When I got on the train home ― home now in Birmigham ― at 8:43, I had forgotten the£200 and was remembering instead everything I still had to do. Tomorrow would be another day of little progress as I was seeing a man about a bike and returning to Milton Keynes ― Milton Keynes where I did not alight on this ride home, but instead looked out at the window and remembered. This new life is a sketch, with old experiences like tracing paper underneath to check the accuracy of the lines. My own ghost standing on the platform there, thinking about a thesis chapter and scowling in the rain. The same story getting played out: when I was 19, through my 20s, and now into my 30s. How many more hundred rides on the Piccadilly line will I watch the teenagers get younger and my own memories deeper and deeper. I should have bought those shoes: any shoes worth having are worth hurting for.
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