We bid farewell in August last year. Seventeen countries, four continents, one international date line, and a complete circumnavigation later, we’re home.
Things are different. Boris bikes are red now. The Tories have a majority. And Robert Peston grew hair.
Men seem taller. Women are more glamorous but perhaps I only think this after a year in hiking gear. Heels. God, they feel amazing. Suddenly I’m elegant again. And then of course they hurt but, hell, they’ll get me from Charing Cross to Sagar where I’m meeting friends for dinner.
I scour the shops for a knee-length cardigan, my old ones still packed away. I can’t possibly see mother without covering my jeans, immodest when left bare. She kisses me hello. Ee kitha obesta oyseh beh? she greets me. What kind of state is this? She refers to the complexion she passed onto me, the one I’ve so carelessly sullied with sun. She ushers me inside. There are no tears. Tears are not our thing. The youngest of my five sisters is married now. Another has a new child. We Abdullahs are nothing if not marriageable and fertile.
The hipster invasion has reached Stepney Green. No-one owns east London but I am territorial nonetheless. I walk through St Dunstan’s churchyard and it calms me as it has always done. My step quickens past Ben Johnson Road. At 33, I am too old to be hassled by young boys on street corners but memories are stronger than muscle so I quicken my pace all the same.
I watch commuters on the London Underground and a traveller’s smugness wells up inside. It doesn’t matter, I chasten their haste – but the truth is that it does. People still have lives to live. No-one knows and no-one cares that I’ve been away so long or that I’m seeing things differently.
Soon, we leave for our few months in France so I embrace London as hard as I can. I eat. Oh, I eat and and eat and eat. Bangalore Express in Bank, Kati Roll Company in Oxford Circus, Lahore Kebab House in Whitechapel, Zeera in Mile End. To balance the gluttony, I run along canals. I do my first sub-30 5k. I am fitter than I feared.
I go to the movies – my first in a year – and I buy a giant combo of popcorn and coke. I sit by myself and I feel at peace.
I spend. I buy Estée Lauder Advanced Night Repair and Thierry Mugler’s Angel and Viviscal vitamin capsules and a versatile Italian tote. They swallow hundreds from my back-home-buffer and contravene the traveller’s philosophy but I don’t mind because I haven’t felt utterly clean and wholly beautiful in a very long time and now, I do.
I visit Richmond Park and watch deer roam. I walk Waterloo Bridge at twilight and watch skylines darken beneath late summer sun. I feel the hum and heartbeat of my hometown and I feel a happiness that’s deep and profound.
Hello, London, I silently cry. It is so, so good to be home.
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Very British Problems by Rob Temple is a hilarious insight into the British psyche.