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A sense of belon
Standing on a bridge, I was looking across the river Thames at the Houses of Parliament (gothic, statuesque over this city 900 years after it was built as a palace for Edward the Confessor) when my eyes were drawn to what looked like a slow moving arc of train tracks in the sky.
“Look,” I said, pointing excitedly on that as if I’d spotted a spaceship.
“It’s a contrail,” he said, predictably amused at my penchant for seeing the supernatural in everyday science. “It’s produced by the aircrafts’ engine exhaust. If you look closely you can see the plane.”
We can see the same things and experience them differently depending on who we are, what we love, how we feel.
Cities are like that too. I’ve lived in London years here and there, since I was 15.
The last time I was here, perhaps some two years ago, for a year and a half of studying and writing, I swore I would never return. The winter had been unending, days segueing into night with the same blurry, coal-grey sky, a howling wind wheezing into the buildings. Someone told me there were hundreds of mice in all the pipelines beneath the city and I felt my flesh crawl. I seldom left my flat and my daughter had to teach me how to be sociable again. “Mummy, you’ve forgotten how to speak to people.”
She’d witnessed my wordlessness at the Indian corner shop as I picked up essentials, water, fruit, an occasional pack of cigarettes, not bothering to reply in Hindi, refusing to engage. Part of me relished this anonymity, this stripping of all the ways we define and recognise and navigate around one another in the islands, saying everything material and nothing substantive about a person “This is so and so, the owner of so and so, the son of so and so, lives in so and so.”
So one evening, that could have been morning or afternoon, so dull were the days, when I left the flat in woolly pink pyjamas and an oversized sweater belonging to my husband, perhaps my way of feeling him close, I found to my shock that my impulsive request to buy a cigarette off a well-heeled woman waiting for a taxi led to her offering me some coins. She must have thought me homeless.
Perhaps I had forgotten to brush my hair as well. Instead of being dismayed, I took the cigarette and a light, refused the coins, and walked home enlightened in some way.
Isn’t this what the Sufis say we humans should be, refined, stripped to our subterranean selves, the selves that wake at three in the morning hearts thumping reflecting on our mortality, love, and the inevitable failures and hope in our lives.
To be here in London now, in unaccustomed sunshine, a thrilled impostor into one of the many private gardens that require a key (a flimsy defence in Trinidad) amongst June roses, lying in cool soft grass, threading daisy chains like a child, and later seeing a modern adaptation of Moliere’s Tartuffe, in the Theatre Royal Haymarket, revelling in the old theatre, gilded and crimson, and the French playwrights’ 400-year-old timeless insight, I think this city could be beloved again.
In the end, I think it’s not about the city, but our place in it. Earlier we had been to a Windrush exhibition at the British Library. The shocking threat of eviction of the West Indian children who arrived here in the 60s, their parents serving the city in hundreds of ways, recently ordered by British Prime Minister Teresa May, got a knock on the door by pugnacious immigrant authorities who told them that if they hadn’t bothered to get passports, they had to go ‘home’. They thought they were home.
Walking through Westminster Abbey in stained glass filtered light, and emerging in cool bright sunshine, with roses as flush and large as watermelons, I marvel at what we are capable of, as humans, flying through the sky, in tracks of clouds, and how, in the end, what drives us as humans is a sense of belonging that can be stripped down to the essence of feeling beloved.
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