22 December 2018
At my boyfriend’s parents’ house, I woke up with the sound of the pipes. The low, mooing trombone wailed through the walls and I curled up a little tighter in bed. Patrick got up to make coffee and bagels while I attempted to shove my stuff back into my suitcase (even though I’d only been there three days). Then I gave up and annexed the overflow into a tote bag.
In his family kitchen, he discussed with his parents when I should leave to catch my train. How early is too early? “Well you never know with the traffic…”
In the end, I had time to buy snacks and drinks. Patrick waited with me on the platform and we said a quick goodbye. It was too quick, though, and we stared and mouthed feelings at each other through the window before the train left. I was sad to say goodbye, since I wouldn’t see him until we were both back in our flat in Berlin in January. I cried a bit as we pulled away.
On the train, we swam south through green fields and rolling hills, past wooden fences. I had a four-seater section to myself with a table, a luxury. We were going slow enough that I could catch glimpses as we passed: a woman with a beautiful golden retriever on a midday walk; three pink patterned sheets drying on a line in a tiny bricked-in garden; a man with a tight drawstring hood unloading his boot in the cold; low sun.
The conductor came to check tickets, as two young guys with sports bags next to me bantered at each other with their airbuds in. “Have you seen where the toilets are?”, “First thing I noticed, like!” I had no idea what this meant, but it sounded ominous. Maybe one of them was going to vom? I shifted in my seat a little. The train was quite empty but the conductor keeps announcing that it was expected to be ExtremelyBusy.
Even though it was basically Christmas, I put on music and tried to work. I had been ignoring less important stuff while I was at Patrick’s parents’ house, just enjoying the feeling of being in someone else’s family, knowing all his family’s habits but not being annoyed by them.
At Eaglescliffe, an older couple took their seats in the window next to me, and there was some confusion about whether the sports-bag teenager opposite was my partner. “Oh, you’d just make such a lovely couple,” the woman said, as an excuse. I laughed pretty genuinely, mostly because of how embarrassed this guy looked at being accidentally paired up with me. Her husband kept chatting to me until she told him to leave me alone. “It’s just because you’re young and pretty,” she said. I was weirdly not annoyed at being pigeonholed. Maybe because I don’t often understand the nuances of chit chat in German.
A mum with four kids got on and informed me and the couple that we were sitting in her seats. We weren’t, it turned out, but she didn’t apologise. Before the four kids sat down they were told sternly to turn their coats inside out before placing them in the luggage rack. “So that they don’t get dirty on the outside.” I watched her and the kids as they carefully turned everything inside out, before shifting my eyes to the other side of the aisle, where my coat and scarf were lolling out of the luggage rack in a weird messed-up bundle, extremely not inside-out. I wondered what happens about the insides of their coats getting dirty. The kids sat and ate coleslaw, pasta salads and sandwiches while their mum straightened her thigh-length blonde hair in a pocket mirror, using the plug-in the table seat. My Wifi cut out and I stared out of the window.
Once I was off the train in London, I realised how many bags I had, lugging them through the Tube gates. Most people on the platform have suitcases too. Every advert was for a startup that saves you money or a musical that has rave reviews.
My Dad gave me a lift from the station and it took all of thirty seconds before we both started moaning about Brexit and how the government is in shambles. We both used the phrase “piss-up in a brewery.” When we got in, we had a cup of tea on the sofa and the cat instantly jumped onto my lap, a rare gift of affection. My mum left homemade mince pies for me on the kitchen table, which I ate quickly.
I was heading out to see some friends so I dragged myself up off the sofa to get the Overground. I was late to meet them in the pub but someone else was even later. I ordered fish and chips and Brixton pale ale and we made a list of all the things we didn’t know: when was the Bronze Age, and what’s steel made of, anyway? My friends came up with a crazy idea for an app. I told them they shouldn’t do it because it’s unethical anyway.
At 10:00 p.m. on the dot, a DJ appeared at a booth and turned Vanessa Carlton up to an uncomfortable tinny level that had us all wincing. “Do you think I can ask him to turn it down? I’m going to ask him to turn it down,” I said, before remembering how British pubs work: this was the point in the night when the bar area was going to turn into a dance floor. Within half an hour, fingers were pointing in the air, song lyrics were being yelled, and there was that clammy feeling that there were too many men in my vicinity. Meanwhile, we’d moved to the back of the pub and were tipsily planning an unlikely group holiday to the Caspian Sea (“which is actually a lake, you know?”).
Around 1 a.m., the bell rang which meant they’d finished playing Destiny’s Child and wouldn’t sell us any more drinks. It was too late and inconvenient for the Tube so we ordered an Uber, which dropped my friend off at his Central London hotel first before taking me west.
Driving through London in those late-nightlights always makes me feel nostalgic. I chatted to the driver, who asked me what German people are like. “Direct,” I said. He laughed. Over the motorway, I looked out for Grenfell Tower, the block of flats that tragically burnt down in 2017. I couldn’t see it in the dark, or maybe I’d forgotten where it was. Before I knew it, we were off the flyover and into West London. Nearly home.