Journey to London and Back, 29/12/09

We start at dawn. Still dark, though the clocks tell us it's high time to be up and about, starting our business, having our coffee. Breaking our ritual nightly fast. At the bus stop, in a thin drizzle, we wait. The morning lightens but does not brighten; all the world's covered in grey mist.

On the train we pass through a patch of snow. Beside us the Thames is thickening. A heavy brown mass; no longer the sleepy stream it always seems at Oxford. Then we diverge from the path of the river, sipping our coffee at 60 miles per hour, still half-asleep, reading our books without paying them proper attention (my mind, for instance, has already wandered to what I will write about this moment, on the train, sipping coffee). We observe the backs of business parks; strange architecture, engineering for a world built around cars and a certain kind of lifestyle, religious in its regularity. Even running away has become a bureaucratic nightmare; form-filling, proof of identity, proof of residence, pounds paid dutifully for administrative costs that no one will ever actually incur.

Then we rejoin the Thames, wide and wild now. Half-following the river into the city.

I say I like the grey austerity of London Paddington. I say I like the way the light comes in; I like the curved industrial metal. He says, Really? Disbelieving as we pass a Burger King and a W. H. Smith. But I'm looking up, past these things which are a marker of our confused time, to what once was. I see steam, trapped pigeons spreading their stained wings, the light catching dust above our heads.

(On the way back, I think: There's nothing quite like a good long train journey to clarify, liquefy the thoughts, so they come flooding in like snowmelt in a mountain stream. I threaten to hop on a train to Penzance. But what would I do when I got to Penzance? I wonder aloud. What would you do? He says, again mildly disbelieving. Find a pub, I decide, which is as good an answer as any, and in this grim mid-winter weather, probably the most truthful I could give.)

I have my photograph taken by a cheery chemist who asks what it's for and then, when I tell him it's for a visa application, asks where we're going. When I tell him Kenya, his smile widens, but he doesn't say anything, not at first. He shows me my photo on the smudged screen of a digital camera. I look wary, my cheeks flushed by cold, my eyes bright, my mouth crooked where he told me I could smile, if I wanted, they won't mind, it's not like getting a British passport. My hair, which I tried to tie back in a messy, self-contained bun, has come loose, and a long strand hangs past my left ear. I'm not displeased with the photo, though. Something in it, maybe the nonchalance, appeals to me. I tell him it's fine, and as he's printing it from a machine mounted on the wall, he tells us he was born in Mombasa, and then asks where we're going in Kenya. There are good flowers there, he tells us when we name the place. Beautiful flowers--you'll see. I pay him in cash and he tells us to enjoy our trip, and goes to help a woman pushing a pram, rummaging through the cough medicines.

At the embassy, which is like all embassies--serious, hushed, full of patriotic images and metal detectors--only in miniature. We sit and fill out our forms in a narrow room. The whole affair is much more casual than I had anticipated. I'm comforted by this. It's not like standing in my own embassy, surrounded by armed guards, being asked to relinquish my mobile phone, my iPod, my freedom for hours on end.

We hand our passports over. And there I am: a stranger in a strange land, without any proof of identity, without any means of leaving. For a moment I feel panicked; then I feel free, and lighter than I have in years. Separated from my history, my birthplace, my future plans, my work permit. Forced into the present; and he, too, beside me, parted from his paper identity. For once we are are of equal, or same, nationality; that is to say, none. Into the wet droves we emerge, dodging puddles. We head back towards the station, the train, the river, the other city with her fair spires.

Our train out had been crowded, steamy, but now, at midday, it's as if nobody has the impetus to travel anymore, so we are as if alone in this carriage. A stray human or two, also caught on this slow passage from London to Oxford via every imaginable village in between, flips the pages of a newspaper. Someone has left a window open and the cold air comes rushing in around us each time we gather speed, but we do not protest, nor do we make any motion to close the window, for the motion of the train has already lulled us into that magical half-sleeping state of transit. The irony is that we're now too complacent to cross the narrow car and close the window, while all that keeps us from slipping away into a heavy doze is that fresh air.

So we're suspended by our own actions, our own inactions, our understanding of inertia.