(a series of notes scribbled here and there over the Christmas and New Year period, between fevers, coughs, back pain and fatigue)
London comes back to me as if through the fog this Christmas – we had a miserable two or three days of burst pipes and no heat in our new Belfast home in the run up to the festivities, all of it aided by my back problems – I pulled some muscles in my back carrying around 30-gallon drums of home heating oil and bags of coal, while walking gingerly on the ice.
(I realised during the big freeze that the biggest effect the whole process had on me was to make me act like an old man. I found myself looking out the window and wondering if it was worth going out at all. When I did, I dressed like a retired dinner lady, I walked slowly, drove slowly, stepped off pavements like they were four feet high and generally was more grumpy and impatient with everything I encountered)
We had a wonderful Christmas Day with family and friends – our dear friend Stephanie Young was staying with us, and my daughter Sian and my parents all managed to make the journey from Coleraine in the sub-zero temperatures to enjoy Christmas dinner, lots of booze and a crackling wood burning stove.
Everyone left on Boxing Day, as got ready for our long-awaited Trip to London – a time to meet with old friends, see some exhibitions, sit in cafes and generally wind down after the Christmas activities.
All was not to be smooth sailing, however - we came in three hours late on the way over, as our flight was delayed to start with. I sat in the City Airport on Boxing Night with a copy of the Independent, whose front page headline was (I kid you not): ‘Spend, spend spend – nine days to save the economy!’
Then after we finally got permission and climbed aboard, the pilot abandoned the take-off just as the engines were roaring and the plane was gathering speed on the actual runway. This was a little unnerving – to feel the power of the engines literally die underneath you just as the nose of the plane is about to lift off the tarmac.
We taxied back to the stand and waited for some flashing light to be fixed – and for clearance for another take-off attempt. Second time around, all was well, but by the time we got into Luton, all of the buses into the city centre had stopped and we had to queue outside in the cold to get on a Greenline coach bound for Baker Street. It was a little like the fall of Saigon – jittery people with kids in prams, who had queued without a ticket, their breath rising in the midnight air as the number of available seats on the coach started to dwindle. Tempers were starting to fray. Everyone was tired and cold and anxious.
In the coach, the driver sits in front of an enormous windscreen as the vehicle barrels down the road towards London (you just know that the windscreen will afford him no protection whatsoever should the coach actually strike anything. He sits there, essentially, like a caterpillar sellotaped to the nose of an anti-tank missile). We sit staring out of the huge windscreen, complete with two wide draw-down blinds, I notice, as we hurtle towards the city. It’s like roaring down the road in someone’s bungalow.
At Maida Vale tube station there is a fierce wind that blows down from the street, snaking through the turnstiles to meet you stiffly face to face as you come up the escalator. In the summer, it brings with it the heat of the world above, and serves only to agitate the airlessness of the world below. The wind carries the smells of the street – car fumes, hot rubber and dust. Tonight, as the year nears its end, it is a cold blast, tinged with moisture from the dirty wet pavements above. On the platform there is an advertisement, in which Ricky Gervais stands holding a sign which says ‘Lung Cancer is No Laughing Matter’. As I struggle off the tube to be met by the wet blast coming down from the street, I look closer and see that under the slogan, some wag has scrawled: ‘neither is Ricky Gervais’.
That night I will have restless, strange dreams. A friend who passed away a few weeks ago appears to me in a dream – he looks unnaturally smooth-skinned and tanned, and he’s telling us how wonderful Heaven is. How happy everyone is, and how much everyone gets paid. He’s wearing a shiny pair of Aviator shades, and I remember in the dream being frightened and mistrustful and thinking that I didn’t want him to take them off – I NEVER wanted to see what was behind those shades. When I woke up the next morning, my hands felt like two bunches of bananas, and I was running a raging temperature.
I realise now that this flu, or chest infection or whatever shape it takes now, has been working on me since before Christmas (I write this in Luton Airport while waiting for the gate to open on my flight. People are piling up at the screens in what looks like one of those ‘air traffic controllers strike’ kind of days. Overhead they’re announcing the departures – Geneva, Frankfurt, Glasgow).
Back home there are serious water shortages and people are queuing at standpipes with drums and lemonade bottles. I’m an anxious traveller at the best of times, but I must confess I’m more worried about going home than I have been for some time – the frozen pipes and pumps and everything else have left me fearful that some damage will have befallen the house in my absence. That it’s so pretty and beloved that we’ll be... punished in some way by natural disorder, fire, burglary or neglect.
So I’ll be glad to turn the key in the door and hope to find all well. I travel with hope, and with optimism that our new home will welcome me back, will fold me in its arms for a few days of rest and work and comfort before 2011 breaks open its possibilities and its million tasks.
PS – As a deliberately irritating repeated joke during the trip to London, I told Andrea and Stephanie every time Baker Street was mentioned ‘oh, I know a song about Baker Street’. So it was constantly in my head over Christmas. And now the world is without Gerry Rafferty, the man who brought us this little slice of rock’n’roll heaven. It’s been a strange time of spooks and fevers and portents and chills.