Earth and sky touch everywhere and nowhere, like sex between two strangers. There is no definition and no union for sure. If you chase that line, it will retreat from you at the same pace you set. Heart pounding, air burning in your chest, you’ll pursue. Only humans see that line as an actual place. But like love, you’ll never get there. You’ll never catch it. You’ll never know.
from The Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich
London is alternately clear and hunch-shoulder drenched in fine rain. A week ago I arrived and left spritzed with clinging mists of it in my hair but now the temperature has risen and the girls are defiantly wearing sleeveless dresses and sandals; the air is foggy with plane tree spores which settle in clustered corners of the pavement with sycamore leaves.
We stay at my parents’ apartment in Westminster. If you stand on the roof terrace with the bamboo leaves rustling behind you, you can look across the dome of Tate Britain next door, across the grey river to MI5 and the red London buses crawling over Vauxhall Bridge. Our street runs parallel to the embankment. I like this area of London so much; its microcosm of quiet, leafy, historic streets, quintessential mansion flats and, across the road, 1930s chequered edifaces of Lutyens buildings, all red brick and stucco and pavilions. It’s a goody-goody neighbourhood and at the same time, faintly salacious – something to do with those glistening lobbies and art deco staircases, or the smoked mirrors, perhaps.
Westminster is London in all its satcheled, waxed, lace-upped, pony-tailed glory. Home to Buckingham Palace, the Palace of Westminster, Downing Street, I always find the indigenous characters on the streets here resemble characters from children’s literature – it has become a game I play when I’m here, like making shapes out of clouds – the weary father and banker is Mr Banks from Mary Poppins, the toothy cabbie, Enid Blyton’s Moonface, the foghorn-voiced proprietor of the Regency Café with the 1950s Formica tables and the best English breakfast in Westminster village, Roald Dahl’s Miss Trunchbull.
If only I could, I would like to write a novel about the two distinctive types of elder Westminster wife – the Mitford-esque, neat, pleated, pearled category in Chanel pumps and expensive crepe and the rangy, tall crow-like creatures charging out of Pimlico tube in stained, 1970s Laura Ashley, accompanying their husbands to the Commons – not so much walking as flapping alongside with an expression that spells plainly that they can’t wait to get back down to the country house and their dogs. One day I follow a woman from Smith Square along Lord North Street, past the house where Lawrence of Arabia lived while he wrote The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Her husband is shorter, red-faced and balding, a Tory MP, perhaps, in an expensive navy suit and tomato-red tie. The wife is wearing a heavy cape, just like Noel Streatfield’s Great-Aunt Dymphna – I could imagine she might break the speed limit in a rather grand, rudely shabby car shouting ‘road-hog’ at anyone who dared to pass her by, eat toadstools for supper and bark poetry in automatic response to questioning.
My sister and I go to Gordon’s wine bar and then the Charlotte Gainsbourg gig at Somerset House, standing in the cobbled quad drinking cold, sharp white wine and feeling the music in our throats until it is dark. She sings some of her father’s songs in a gauzy white shirt under which her skin looks so translucent in the lights that you can make out every slender rib. My sister and I fall in love with her without the slightest hesitation. Later, we meander home along Whitehall, past the Cenotaph, towards Parliament Square. I have Lines and Squares by A.A. Milne going around and around in my head like an unwanted song: Whenever I walk in a London street,/ I’m ever so careful to watch my feet;/ And I keep in the squares,/ And the masses of bears,/ Who wait at the corners all ready to eat/ The sillies who tread on the lines of the street/ Go back to their lairs,/ And I say to them, “Bears,/ Just look how I’m walking in all the squares!”
Big Ben chimes midnight, my pale ballet slippers slap the pavement. There are shadows on the twisty-turny cobbles, dim lamplight, the smell of hot streets and alchemy.
We are home on John Islip Street and climb the steps to the reception of our building, mute with tiredness. It is always hotel-quiet here, a steadfast-ship, the heat from the engine room creaking through the radiators even in mid-summer, flowers on the console table of every landing. The porters wish you a good evening, nod good night, good morning (with a wink). I would quite like to move in here myself, I think – I love that you can take them your shirts and, for £1.60, they will wash, starch, press and deliver them back to your door within 12 hours. I love the plush red-carpeted corridors, the smell of wood polish, taking the lift to the eleventh floor and lying in bed side-on to the skyline, watching the lights twinkle and go out across London.
I fall asleep instantly and dream that I am writing letters to the man I am in love with; I write letter after letter until I am old and have a grey chignon. They are not about anything in particular, just iced oranges and a scrap of a poem and how I am currently obsessed by going to North Dakota or Roman food. And then my dream-self pulls on my old boots and walks down a dirt road on a hot night before sunset, eating cannoli siciliani. Such a very good dream.