Our flat is the bottom two floors of a four-storey Victorian terraced house. It’s one of a dozen near-identical houses in a row, punctuated by an ugly red-brick council estate at one end and a semi-detached pair at the other. Perpendicular to us run three streets of unbroken terraces, forty a side, some in flats and some still houses, probably four hundred dwellings in the space of two suburban blocks. Once they would have been properly identical, differentiated now by the accretions of generations: plantings, railings, front-door paint-jobs and ornamental street numbers, steps tiled or painted or covered with asphalt that has melted and dripped like cake icing.
At the back, out of view of the street, the terraces are a mish-mash of conservatory add-ons and kitchen and dining extensions, layered above with bodged balconies and illegal-looking roof-decks. Gardens are divided, lengthways or crossways, with narrow right-of-way paths or bolted-on stairways granting access to upstairs flats, or astroturfed, or concreted over, or crowded with planter pots. Someone nearby has chickens that gabble and cluck on sunny mornings. At night cats yowl and screech as if they’re being dismembered by foxes, which they probably occasionally are. We’re almost blasé about the squirrels now, though the frog that appears during a rainstorm one afternoon, a mile from the nearest canal, is an exciting novelty.
On warm days, with everyone’s windows flung wide, we hear fragments of conversation from the dozen flats either side of us: the wheezy laughter of a couple of old Jamaican guys drinking coffee two gardens along, the plummy vowels of the middle-aged white couple above them. A few doors away someone plays brilliant classical piano; over the back fence a teenage girl croons with her guitar. Cooking smells and cigarette smoke drift in on evening air already thick with the rank scent of privet flower. Privet, the mossy damp of concrete, the cloying draught of over-scented laundry products in strangers’ slipstreams: the smells that will recall this time and place for me forever.
The house is similar in age to our Auckland villa, with its own more-so versions of the creaky uneven floors and squeaking sash windows and window glass rippled with age. The ornate ceilings and fireplaces are plaster and marble instead of wood, the brick walls quieter and more solid than weatherboards. At night, lights from the kitchen send little golden beams up between the floorboards into the the boys’ room above, and the woozy window glass casts reflections that stream down the walls like rain.
Little noise travels between adjacent terraces, though the flimsy division of the flats within our narrow vertical slice allows sound to leak through at unexpected times. Late in the evening the upstairs neighbours let themselves in their front door and climb their stairs, the clatter of keys and feet and voices passing through the hallway behind our heads as audible as if they’re inside our flat. When the upstairs washing machine hits its spin cycle our bedroom judders as if the front of the house is about to take off. The arrival of the newborn in the flat immediately above us is heralded by the appearance, over the preceding weeks, of baby buggy and bottle steriliser packaging in the communal recycling bins. We brace ourselves for three a.m. squalling, but at least in the early days we hear almost nothing, just the washing machine going at different times of the day.
Six weeks after we move into the flat the boys graduate from couches to their new Argos bunks, our first significant London purchase.
“My bunk is soooo comfortable,” announces Number Two Son, who’s been on one of those sofa conversions that double as beds more in theory than as a viable sleeping option. “There aren’t even any bars cutting into your back!”
“It’s great being able to sleep with my legs straight!” says Firstborn, who spent his convalescence lying night and day on the squashy two-seater in the lounge, his broken arm propped on a pillow and his legs stuck up over the sofa arm.
Their relief at being in beds partially offsets their deep disgust at having to share a room again. Mornings begin with a litany of grievance about who woke who up, who snores and breathes and wriggles and closes the door too loudly. And that’s just me and Hapless. The family’s efforts to reclaim the lounge from Firstborn aren’t entirely successful; he might not be allowed to sleep in there any more, but he’s not giving up his guitar studio so easily, and has to be forcibly evicted, wailing, if anyone else wants to watch TV or read in a comfy seat.
With Firstborn’s arm weak but no longer painful, the boys and I resume our London adventures, soaking up the strangeness, the daily surprises beautiful and ugly, the random amazingness of the city. We explore the local bus routes and back streets, roaming further and returning home less wiped out at the end of the day. We follow a murder mystery trail through the oldest alleyways of the City of London, ride pedalos on the boating lake at Alexandra Palace, gaze at pickled foetuses and testicle tumours and videos of brain surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons. One sunny morning we wander through the green dappled shade of Highgate Cemetery, searching the headstones under the moss and ivy for its youngest and oldest residents (5 hours and 108 years respectively).
“Auckland is so lame compared to London,” remarks Number Two Son, gazing out from the top deck of the Number 4 bus.
“There’s lots that’s beautiful and amazing about Auckland too, though,” I say.
“Like what?” he says, but he’s not listening for the answer. “Look, that hobo has a dog!”
Sometimes it seems like a city populated by eccentrics, drunks and madmen, though it’s just that there’s more of every kind of person, including those at the outer edges of the bell curve. More Serena Williams lookalikes in blonde beehives and platforms, more severely bandy men in stetsons and tight purple capri pants with matching loafers, more Mensa members, more psychopaths, more people who can dislocate their elbows to get out of straitjackets (we saw one in Covent Garden last week).
A man outside the tube station raves through a megaphone about armed marauders in our midst. An elderly woman waits for the bus with her shopping trolley, her white vest revealing arms tattooed wrist to shoulder with brilliantly coloured flowers. A brutally emaciated young woman in a sweeping backless evening gown limps across the street with a silver-topped cane, her smile revealing several missing teeth. A young man in a Freddie Mercury moustache, mullet and full makeup quick-steps past us on Lady Margaret Road, his winklepickers clicking as he frowns and thumbs his phone. And that’s just Tufnell Park. The assembled heaving humanity at Notting Hill Carnival – parade participants and spectators alike – is a vivid illustration of how deep the fringe is.
With a child more or less permanently attached to each of my hands, I’ve had few chances yet to immerse myself properly in the seething, gorgeous, crazy diversity of the city. There are so many places I want to go, old haunts to revisit, familiar walks I want to retrace; I catch glimpses here and there of places I long to go back to, and must be patient about.
It’s a memorable day, the first time I leave the flat alone. It’s my fourth weekend in London, a bright, breezy Sunday, the first day of freedom I’ve had in months. Suddenly I can go anywhere, the city sprawling gloriously ahead of me. I surf to the tube on a rush of near-tearful euphoria and get on the first southbound train without checking the destination, no plan but to plunge myself into the city as quickly as possible.
At Leicester Square I turn instinctively to the correct exit, away from the square itself which will be lousy with tourists, towards Covent Garden and the streets I used to walk at lunchtimes. I keep stopping on street corners to stare one way, then the other, at what’s different and what’s, astonishingly, the same. “Oh, my God!” I say, dozens of times, not quite silently. I know this place, know which way to look to cross the one-way streets, know where those tiny brick alleyways go, the secret pubs and hidden gardens and courtyards. It’s all still here, it has been all this time. Its familiarity fills my head like fragrance, like something I can taste.
That day, still the only properly free-range day I’ve had so far, with its long, luxurious wanderings through the National Portrait Gallery, Soho, Chinatown, the theatre district, the shopping shitfight of Oxford Street, is only the most intense distillation of the foreign-familiar experience. Every new-old place I go offers an element of the same surprise. Tacky theme bars and restaurants – who even goes to these places? – are still there, exactly the same. Stores that were newly arrived from abroad and hot fifteen years ago – Mango, Zara, Uniqlo – are now just part of the London furniture, branches sprouting everywhere. North American brands like Banana Republic, Urban Outfitters, American Apparel, Lululemon, stores you used to have to go to America for, have finally invaded. Selfie sticks, texting pedestrians, social media tie-in campaigns: all these things that weren’t invented last time I was here and are now ubiquitous. Tourists don’t clutch guide books any more, they stop abruptly in the middle of the footpath to swipe and peer at smartphones.
Everywhere I catch echoes of my twenty- and twenty-five- and thirty-year-old selves. Flats I lived in, places I dossed, buildings where I temped, areas where I held down my first ‘career’ jobs. Places we visited friends, shopped, went out on the town. Details flood back: clothes I wore (wide-leg trousers, cropped tees, little cardies, trainers), meals we ate, birthdays we celebrated. It’s the same city and yet here I am, in early middle age, a parent, sober, supposedly sensible now. Renting and broke all over again.
Always a reluctant runner, I begin to actually look forward to my twice-weekly runs, the chance to roam alone over an incredible two-mile radius taking in Camden, Chalk Farm, Primrose Hill, Hampstead Heath, Highgate, Crouch Hill, to put together the patchwork of north London in my head. I spend days plotting my next route, zooming in and out of Google Maps, memorising street names to counteract my hopeless sense of direction, finding the railway bridges and underpasses so I don’t get stranded on the wrong side of the literal tracks. Weekday mornings I have to be careful not to get too lost in case I’m not back in time for Hapless to leave for work. On weekends, though, I strike out more ambitiously, heading off on wide loops planned to take in a new series of landmarks. Once out there I’m quickly diverted, swerving off course to explore some little cobbled mews or quiet green churchyard or irresistibly-named street (Girdlestone Walk, Frideswide Place, Swain’s Lane), or up one of the sudden rare hills that afford astonishing views back over the city.
My left knee begins to twinge again, the sign that my running shoes need replacing: something else to add to the list of things-we-need-to-sort-soon-but-can’t-quite-prioritise-yet. My knee and I run through vast labyrinthine council estates, along crescents of ornate mansion blocks, past halal butchers and kebab shops and Dodgy Fried Chicken outlets, smug minimalist boutiques and yoga studios and organic wholefood ateliers. I walk when I’m knackered, consult maps in bus stops when I get lost; I start taking a travelcard tucked into my sports bra so I can range further and rescue myself if necessary with a bus or tube home. Every outing is a powerful little shot of freedom, a small jolting reminder of the limitlessness of this city. Every time there’s that rush, and I’m addicted.