How’s it going? It’s starting to feel like we’ve been away forever.
Or maybe, seeing as we’re back in Muswell Hill again, it just seems like we’re going backwards rather than forwards. Sometimes I wonder whether we’re trapped on some endless cycle of hope and disappointment.
This time my girlfriend’s cousin and her family are home, which is great. We don’t see enough of them given they’re only on the other side of the city. Although, the city feels so big at times like these and so hard to cross, they could be over the ocean.
I worried that their house, despite its expanse across multiple floors, would feel a cramped with us all there. After all, babies take up a disproportionate amount of space, but I was wrong – there’s plenty of space, of course there is and it’s great to get to know their daughter.
In fact, the only possible problem is that they think I might drink too much. It’s not like I’ve gone crazy. It’s not like the old days. No, we just have a little more mid-week wine with dinner than normal. There’s something about sharing a meal with friends, you automatically reach for a bottle to open.
At least I didn’t embarrass myself by getting ill again. I must be acclimatising to north London’s air.
Being in better spirits, I feel obliged to explore Muswell Hill more than last time, even though we’re only here for a few weekday evenings. I divert via the Broadway on my bike on the way home. It seems nice enough. The views are as mesmerising as I remember. There are steep, sharp slopes dipping off towards distant Canary Wharf. Its height reminds me of Ermine Road, of the place we’re still trying to buy. There is something about being elevated above the world that gives you a sense of perspective, perhaps.
I found myself spending an hour or so in what seemed to be one of Muswell Hill’s two pubs. Not the O’Neils in the converted church. Even the most desperate times wouldn’t pull me into an O’Neils these days. It was a keys thing, again. My girlfriend had them and was stuck at work. So I lurked, supped a pint and pretended to read while secretly listening in to other people’s conversations.
In many ways it reminded me of the pub where I was born in the West Midlands. The clientele was generally well to do, much as it was on the edges of Birmingham, but also there was a hardened core of those who were less so hanging out close to the bar. All the better for that prompt service. No-one seemed afraid of those slightly odd exchanges that happen between amongst those slipping into their routine drunkenness.
There was a gentleman sitting alone with his ale in a tankard that bore his crest, or at least a mark to showed it was his. He wore a smart, probably tailored, city blue suit and sat with his ankle crossed over his knee. What was left of this white hair wisped over the lip of his ears. The heavy text book in his hands was something to do with economics. As he read he kept tucking his thick glasses up his nose. He wasn’t afraid to leave his possessions, brown leather briefcase and all, at his table while he went to the toilet. He was more afraid of losing his seat that his stuff.
Meanwhile, the guy in pinstripes for which he looked too old, supped his lager and looked uncomfortable. His face was tired, as though there had just been far too much life. He looked like he felt as though he didn’t deserve to be there. When his girlfriend turned up they switched to a bottle of champagne. They were celebrating. She’d just sold her house, the one down the road with the Farrow and Ball green door. The one she’d lived in for twenty years, where her ex had never come home that one night and now, years later, she was finally comfortable sprucing it up in a way that didn’t feel quite right, but it was what that sort of buyer wanted. For one night at least, she felt richer than God. Her daughter and her boyfriend turned up. They were vague about where they’d left the baby and took some champagne despite suffering from teenage melodrama food poisoning. They drank until asked by the bar staff for ID which resulted in a loud fracas from which pinstripe didn’t know which was to look.
The same barmaid who dusted them off spent the rest of her time flirting with the guy whose habit was to order a pint of bitter and then go out for a cigarette. Every time he would leave his fresh pint under supervision on the counter. It all gave him another two excuses to speak to her. Can I? Thanks. He’d clearly been there several hours already, but showed no sign of leaving. She leant in closer and let her fingers linger a moment too long on the back of his hand. It was a hand which could have belonged to her father. Maybe she was hoping for and one for yourself.
A younger man sat alone typing furiously at a laptop. He looked a little like me – glasses, crumpled hair, dishevelled hair - only more productive. I feel like I’m writing in treacle these days. Like any momentum I had has been lost. Like I’ve forgotten what I was trying to say.
A group of men sat and noisily talked rubbish, mainly about cars and the enforcement of traffic regulations. Why, I mean why, shouldn’t they be allowed to double park if they wanted to? What sort of country was it coming to where one’s civil liberty to impede others because it was more convenient was being eroded?
It was mainly men. I guess it was that sort of pub, in that sort of area. Where the residents were a bit older. Where the wives stayed at home, with the kids or the laundry. There was one group of women I saw at the bar buying a round of three glasses of white wine even though four was a bottle and much cheaper. They must have gone up three times to be told the same, but they didn’t want a bottle. They didn’t want that much. They were only staying for one. It was the sort of place where they felt they had to lie to themselves and everyone else too.
My girlfriend rang me. She was on the bus. She didn’t fancy coming in.
I slugged back the end of my cider. There was a lot to like about Muswell Hill, but no matter how hard I tried it just wouldn’t feel like home.Surely it won't be long now?