I land to rain.
This isn’t all that surprising. After all, last time I was here, I joked that I didn’t see the sun for the entirety of my stay — which is almost true, though admittedly more fiction than fact. But it’s raining now, and not just the mists and drizzles that usually grace the city, but true rain. I suppose London wanted to make sure I didn’t miss its usual weather. I can’t help but quirk a smile.
If there’s one plus to landing in a part of Europe when an American, it’s that you’re usually in the shorter line at Border Control. No exception here, and I had a lovely gentleman as my “officer.” And by lovely, I mean, didn’t make me feel like I was going through an interrogation — I regret to say I have gone through borders where that felt like the case.
They grab me roughly by the shoulder, ignoring my cry of protest and surprise, dragging me through the glass to shove me into a chair. No doors, no windows — though one wall is made of two-way mirror glass. I try to stand but, no, they’ve wrapped shining coils around my wrists; they gleam like golden whips, pulsing with heat and energy, as if alive. When I pull on one, it flashes a dangerous shade of copper and squeezes back.
This place is strange and, like the restraints, it feels alive, flexing and breathing like a set of perfectly-square metal lungs.
“Why are you here?” The uniform stands several paces from my seat, hands clasped behind a suit-donned back. Blue eyes pierce my own with an unnerving steadiness. They’ve done this before and they’ve done better, done worse, done…
“Vacation,” I say.
It felt strange to say I was there for “vacation,” since that always feels like such a foreign word coming from my own lips. I’m usually more like the lyrics to “Work this Body” by Walk the Moon:
And I will work this body I will burn this flame
Oh in the dead of night, and in the pouring rain
Yeah, I’m a workaholic and I swear, I swear
Yeah, and one day I will beat you fair and square
But save for a few questions, that was it. I’m just here on holiday, I’m here to wander.
The tube ride is thus far uneventful, and I already feel myself sliding back into the habits I picked up three years ago. Eyes averted from anyone else’s, I stare out the window across from me, earbuds in, speaking to none. The rumble of the tube vibrates through my feet and sometimes over the melodies that waft through my mind. Much of the early journey is above ground, so I can see the gathering of the city.
A city is a city. What amazes me is the ability to easily recognize that you are, indeed, in a city. And yet a city is not a city, and no two cities are alike. I live in a city, within the Monument District of Richmond, VA. I suppose you could say I live in a slightly swankier part of my city — it’s certainly one of the “hipper” areas of the Southern capital — but it’s still a city. But that city is not this, is not London. There is a hegemony to the architecture to these outskirts, these clearly residential areas that surround the British capital. Tightly-knit, and dark, with little smoke stacks piercing upwards from the sloped rooftops. It’s not a bad thing, in fact I find it comforting: this is something I can know, can easily recognize. Though I did not tube in upon my first arrival in London, I know I’m in the same place.
That’s something that’s different. The anxiety. It’s not the same, for sure. Last time, I landed knowing that, hey, there’s going to be someone to pick me up, to show me around and help me acclimate. I will be taken care of, because I am still a child, even at 21 years old. I was a student, a senior in her final semester, and yet I was still a child. I say this with no sense of indignation, because it was true, and even then I wouldn’t have made any claims otherwise.
I am still a child in many respects, but there is no one picking me up from Heathrow now, no one whisking me away to the safety of a bus that will take me to a prearranged house that was paid for by tuition, with a weekly allowance, and a group of people all from the home-away-from-home that was JMU. This time, I am alone. I tend to travel alone a lot, and it’s something I truly enjoy. Back home in the US, my friends say it’s so brave and intimidating. It’s not, really. It’s more just that I’m not great with people, and the fact that my life is fairly scheduled enough as it is, so on vacation, I want to do a bit of flying by the seat of my pants. Hard to do that when you’re traveling with other people.
Three years ago, I needed that schedule, that sense of certainty. I don’t need it right now, and the anxiety I feel is that of knowing I still view London through the glass of memory. I imagine the city that I knew, which may not be the city that is. Three years is not a long time, and yet it is a long time. How much has happened in the past three months, let alone three years? I am anxious that I will step off that tube platform and find myself in a city I no longer recognize, and while I do not claim to be an expert on the city of London, the dread that I will not even know the streets I walked every day during that final semester flutters through me.
It’s still raining when I exit the tube station at Warren St. In Fitzrovia. This is not a part of London I know that well, though it is spitting distance from my old stomping grounds. (It’s just about 1 mile exactly form my former residence.) There is still that same feel: cobbled, narrow streets, with hole-in-the-wall business aside some larger-spaced chains. There are great, shimmering office-like buildings that tower along what part of the skyline you can see when you look up. One seems familiar, a ghost tugging at a strand of memory. But it I still sounds like London, still smells like London, and that is the important part. The glass is being wiped at, thinning under the heat of my skin.
Several hours later, having exchanged brunch, keys, a walk, and much laughter with the lovely woman in whose flat I’m staying thanks to Airbnb, I am alone with my jetlag. Hypnos pounds upon my limbs when I sit, the stillness of my body turning it to stone. There are still too many hours left in the London day for me to sleep, and I must adjust. I must push my body forward through the very extremes of its exhaustion and limits to acclimate.
Through the tireless, ever-moving streets I walk. Sunglasses keep my eyes from the crowds of people, an audiobook in my ears shielding me from the city noise. The rain has stopped, the sun peeking out every now and then behind scattered clouds. I remember it now, feeling like a small ripple in the fast-rushing current of life that surrounds me. I walk to find familiarity, to find the places I knew, and as I wander, I wonder.
The memory glass is there but not gone. ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall,’ I laugh to myself. But this is no mirror, because I do not see my own reflection. I see the world with a strange halo, a hue of rose-colour that is cracked and dimmed. I know I should feel sad in this dimming of the rose, of the happy past, but I am not. This Evil Queen need not fear the ending of a past, for whatever Snow White arrives to seize the throne is but a new experience in the same palace. The walls and halls and floors and doors will all be there, but a new set of feet tread these old stones — old, but not tired.
And then the familiar suddenly appears, shining and bright. The rose is melting, swirling and fading in the glass to turn back to a blues and greys and browns and all the kaleidoscopic motion and noise that is the palace coming to life. The spell is broken, the past takes flight. The present is when the future begins.
As reality settles in, I cannot help but smile, the tugging at my lips growing wider as I approach the streets I know. The streets I walked so many times that I do not need a map to find my way. So much is still there that it almost amazes me. This is a city that is both forever-changing and changeless, which is perhaps why I love it. I can’t help but hold my breath as I approach the Madison House; when I was living within it, I jokingly called it the MadHouse, for the many levels of punny-ness associated with the moniker.
It’s still there, still standing amidst a row of similar brown and white buildings on Bedford Place. Still bookended by Russell and Bloomsbury Squares. There’s flowers blooming in Russell Square; they’re purple and yellow. I smile at seeing another, more colourful reminder of JMU here in London. I know that’s not why these flowers are what they are, but it’s a particularly happy coincidence.
Memory often feels fleeting and effervescent; no matter how we hold to it, the present wipes it clear as we trace our steps over and over again. Perhaps this is true, but sometimes I like to think we chase that temptress, Mnemosyne. We chase memory in all forms: memories that were, memories we are living, and memories we have yet to make.