When Tony Bennett complains that he’s left his heart in San Francisco, I want to text him this message: how careless. Get it together, Tony. If you can’t keep track of things, don’t travel. I say that quite vociferously, having had a similar experience early in my life, and in a city in which little cable cars most definitely do not climb halfway to any stars. London. Immense, shambling, vibrant and stupefying London.
In late autumn, Jane and I tried to tell each other, in our overly polite ways, that this was not the time. Yes, we had tickets, but Jane no longer had a father alive in Devon…and having passed through Heathrow a total of 10 or 12 times during 2010, well, for her enough was enough. But, well, traveling to Britain is what I do. Other people buy Persian carpets, repair their septic tanks or make a killing in credit default swaps. I sit in an aluminum multiplex for 12 hours, breathing, and rebreathing, air imported from the Gobi Desert…and the first thing I know the soaring Victorian arches of the Paddington viaduct appear ahead while it comes to me, year after year, that right here, Westbourne Grove, 29 people died in a railway accident, and 30 seconds later I wonder where the Royal Oak tube station really is…allowing just enough time for my jetlagged brain to drift backwards to Westbourne Park where my cousin Caroline acquired her first flat. None of which sounds like losing one’s heart anywhere. Nor does it explain why I keep coming back. Even for this trip, seemingly one too many, or one simply at the wrong time.
Let’s take Westbourne Park. Let’s take it, hang on to it, shake it and see what falls out. It turns out that nothing much does, or what does is so jumbled with similar memories as to be as confusing as the London A to Z itself, particularly when reading that map with middle-aged eyes. But there it is, glimpsed from a passing train. The station is on or near a bridge…this being as close as memory can get me…and being located at the edge of a mainline railway canyon, there is no background, only foreground. Which makes the Victorian scrollwork outline of the small station look remarkably stark. As though everything around it had been bombed. Which not too long ago, was probably accurate enough. Anyway, it sticks out, the station does, in a way that is not characteristic of London. In fact, it gives the impression of being on a hill, which it isn’t. Unless you are a semi-quadriplegic hobbling with a cane toward that seeming wonder, a permanent home owned by a member of my own generation in a London neighborhood. Thus, my earliest tube trips to Westbourne Park, foursquare on the Metropolitan Line…and after descending the slight incline my recollections sink into the sand just like the Mohave River. Which, by the way, I have never quite seen, though I have driven by it enough times. Unfinished business in the California desert. But enough of me. Back to Westbourne Park.
Did Caroline own two different places in the same neighborhood at different times? Leamington Road Villas, that must have been one. But what about Chepstow Road, just a couple of streets away? Didn’t she live there? And why, most importantly, does any of this matter? Unless you think you are Marcel Proust or do not have a life, which is more or less the same thing. Problem is, the memories are so vivid. In one of these interchangeable flats Caroline had at least two levels of downstairs neighbors. I probably remember the neighbors because I remember the stairs. I must have schlepped up and down them often enough in that earlier neuromuscular era. Dee lived on one landing. She was chirpy and old, that is to say, 45 or so, and had a cat named Titty Poo. It would probably take an advanced degree in English history, sociology or linguistics to understanding the origins of this name. Which doesn’t matter because Caroline, who insisted that cat was a fawning monstrosity, promptly renamed it Shitty Poo. And this really doesn’t matter because the most interesting person in the building was a young woman who possessed several advanced degrees in sex…and when she wasn’t conducting research in this realm, made avant-garde films.
But the real thing was that this was Caroline’s own home. Not her parents’ and not a university residence. Things were shifting. Now there was no one to complain about picking up after Caroline except Caroline. She was at that early and rigorous stage of medical practice that required coming and going at all hours. Still, she managed to enjoy teatime and frequently make meals, in this her own place. I recall at least one of the dinners, a Sunday afternoon affair. And I recall the mice invasion. Somehow they got into Caroline’s flat and in no time flat captured the place. They were there and had taken over more thoroughly than the Germans in the Alsace. I suppose Caroline got rid of them somehow. Meanwhile, she was imperturbable. No girlish standing on a chair and shrieking. They kept skittering about, these rodents, and while Caroline may have given chase with a broom, she realized there was not much to be done…for the time being. I even recall her tapping on a hanging rope of garlics. Umm, she said, that one doesn’t sound right. She banged the garlics against the wall, a mouse leapt off and Caroline regarded its high-speed getaway to some spot under the fridge. Oh well. She resumed peeling courgettes.
Caroline’s mother described the place as a ‘grotty little flat.’ I tried to imagine things from her perspective, though I did not try very hard. Things were shifting. Things within me, principally. I was experiencing something vicariously as my cousins acquired their own domiciles. What it was to have one’s own life. One’s own place. At this point, I was barely employed, still struggling to find something like a job. I needed to imagine having my home, something that I owned, was mine. Britons and Americans may not quite appreciate the importance of this shared penchant for homeownership. Nothing quite like it seems to exist on the Continent, say. But whatever our differences, we have utter agreement on the worth of mortgages…which may have sunk both of our economic boats, in the short term at least…but that is another matter.
This matter of what was the matter was Caroline’s flat…well, it had something to do with my emotional growing up. They were like adoptive parents, Caroline’s mother and father, and it was time to separate. The flat, or flats, with their stairs and mice and oddities signaled a turning toward independence, adulthood. And I was trying to make a similar turning. Which had to be accomplished in California. Which, although it may not sound that way in the telling, was where I lived. Caroline moved into her flats after I moved back to California. I saw these places on visits. I lived my London life on visits. Which was distinctly different from what was happening, or not happening, in San Francisco. And that, as they say, is another story.