We get into London just at rush hour. We’re like the elderly, shuffling through the city – limping, stopping, starting, groaning with every exertion. We’re slaves to the lights and the traffic and the roads which even having been expanded were really never meant to accommodate so many vehicles. They didn’t see this modern era coming, the old city planners. Even when they saw cars, and sniffed the air and knew everything had changed, they didn't see this. London really is the most revolting and yet compelling place I know. I feel disarmingly at home here, even though my actual home is still a few hours away. I could never live here, I say again and again, every time we visit London, every time we leave. But when I return from somewhere else, nothing can change the fact that I feel fluent here.
But look at the fat old city cats with their weary heads bent! How they parade their disillusionment! More disturbing still are the earnest youths, commuting with buoyancy in their steps. They all look younger than me; probably this is their first job out of university, and they take such inappropriate pride in their cheap suits and purple striped shirts. Their ties are all too straight and they wear their enthusiasm like a badge, but soon enough they too will just be fat old city cats with more expensive suits.
One of them hooks his arm through the orange limb of a girl in a short dress who likes the tanning beds too well. Oh, they look so self-satisfied! He is bringing home the bacon! She is taking care of her appearance! He dreams at night of a corner office, an overflowing savings account.
She dreams at night of expensive holidays, first in Ibiza, and then, when they’ve outgrown the trite scene there, Mallorca or the south of France, where they may someday, after many happy summers in the same sterile resort, buy a holiday home. She will wear pristine white linen and he will have a blush of grey at his temple, and they will stand on their terrace and sip a cheap white that she thinks is charming and he thinks is too sweet, not up to the same standards he’s used to at client dinners, but soon they will be drunk enough not to care much, and they will try to seduce each other.
And in their own selfish, modern-urban way, they will reenact the opening scene of Private Lives on that terrace, although neither of them is wholly sure who Noel Coward is (she read English Literature at Exeter and somewhere at the back of her mind something – that great beast Intellect – stirs, and for half a second everything becomes clear before the fog sets again and she’s wondering if Noel Coward was maybe some sort of actor?).
There will be no exes on a neighboring terrace, but it hardly matters. Their isolation is so complete, so palpable, that they can enact an entire drama in just a moment, with the way they pour their wine, the way she lights a cheeky cigarette, the way he wakes half an hour early to go for a run on the beach, where he misses the presence of his personal trainer and does only a very abbreviated version of his usual route because hell, he's on holiday, he may as well let loose and enjoy himself.
Yes: watching them stride down Liverpool Street it’s easy to think that soon enough she’ll move on from Topshop to Prada. But they’ll look just the same. And all of this is wretchedly, unnecessarily cruel, but I can’t help it. Even if it’s unfair, which it likely is, it’s what I think, and the way the bus squeals at every red light, the way my eyes have begun to burn on account of there being just so much to take in, the way my body thinks it’s still where it was this morning, in Africa, has made me meaner than usual.
“Look at them,” I say to the Man, half-asleep beside me, worn out by this crawl through the seething evening streets. “Look at who?” he says. “Them,” I say. And look at them indeed! The swarms, the hordes outside the pubs. Still in their work clothes; the men have removed their jackets to indicate an atmosphere of informality. They suckle on pints of Fosters, hungry like babies for milk. The women all wear shift dresses - it’s summer, after all, and even in England that means something – and their skin is too bronze, and they flick their ash to the ground flirtatiously. If a bra strap shows, no one makes any move to fix it, because it’s Thursday, nearly the weekend, and soon they will have the loose tongues and hot tempers of Saturday and Sunday and they will plunge their hands into the air at half-empty nightclubs and dance! They are unwinding!
(But what of us? Still we crawl. We’re somewhere in the vicinity of Victoria Station now. The start of another journey. The bus heaves great grumpy sighs. We’ll get home, eventually. We’ll order Chinese food and feel smug without even knowing why.)
The sky meanwhile turns the grim grey of a cheap suit and the sun sits heavy on the horizon, starts to sink.