Through the haze of the morning-after-the-night-before, amongst all the channels that I flicked through on my friend’s living room telly, I found myself settling on Dave. There was something about watching a couple of vaguely familiar comedians drive a dusty 4×4 on the “Road of Death”, followed by a loud American eat a gargantuan sandwich dripping with stuff that could have been retrieved from a bin behind McDonald’s, that was strangely uplifting.
Outside the sun was rising for its two-hour appearance, quietly laughing at the world who didn’t know the soft sunshine would soon turn to hail then more rain that splutters up under your coat hood and camouflages the dog shit on the pavement.
I was back in London.
Seeing my friend who I’d missed so much, and visiting places I know so well, I felt, not for the first time on this trip, a rush of desire to stop time, to stay, to cancel Beijing out of my existence. The more I talked about my new life in China, the more it felt irrelevant and distant, an unwanted distraction from my reunion with the precious and the comfortable.
“Er, you might need to wean that out of your system,” DD said on the other end of the phone when I called him up on the way back to mum’s. He’d arrived in the UK a week late and was staying at his parents’, slightly distracted himself as he’d gone down to the shops to stock up on beer and crisps before his mates arrived, only to find that he had no UK credit cards in his wallet, just a tenner and a wadge of Chairman Mao.
“I know,” I said, remembering how he had joked, with a strong hint of seriousness, that he was glad we were flying back to Beijing together in the New Year so he could make sure I got on that plane. “Have a great time with your friends, and see you on Christmas Day.”
I was now, like the rest of the UK, switching off into family mode. I’d gone with mum for the big shop at the big Tesco’s, where the traffic of warrior shoppers and their overflowing trolleys made Beijing’s roads look tame, and now it was time to shuffle around at home in my Sixth Form Leavers’ hoodie, and negotiate sofa space with my sister’s boyfriend and my dad’s farts.
London was in full Christmas swing when I landed at Heathrow last week and sat on my suitcase along the Piccadilly Line. Adverts told me to buy stand-up comedy DVDs and not drink too much, bright lights twinkled in windows with no concern for high electricity bills, and the homeless called out “Merry Christmas” as pedestrians pretended not to hear. My eyes adjusted to the crowds of people of all ethnicities and to the very dark darkness of the suburbs at night, and the skin on my face rejoiced at the moisture in the air.
British people around Christmas seem more animated than usual. A few days ago on a midnight train, I sat next to a drunk guy who was listening intently to an even drunker friend dispensing some advice.
“I just want you to be doing fucking good man, fuck that shit. As long as you’re doing the right thing I’ll fucking support you man. It’s your own fucking life mate, you need to believe in that shit. I fucking trust you mate. I wanna go through that shit mate, all that shit mate. Life’s not all about money, don’t think about anyone else, I’ll support you mate do the T-shirt thing, do the Instagram thing, whatever. I don’t give a fuck about that shit, your business is my business, whatever mate, you help me out I fucking help you out mate.”
I was back in London.
This town is unrivalled for its range of world-class entertainment in authentic settings at affordable prices for the middle-class, and on this trip I managed to indulge in a few of them. It was afternoon tea by a log fire, it was cocktails overlooking the Thames, and it was watching genius Evgeny Kissin play Tchaikovky’s First Piano Concerto at the Barbican, my favourite concert hall. As we drove back home from the Barbican, Tchaikovsky’s vast Russian melodies were still crashing like waves across my mind, while from the car window I could see the austere listed buildings of the City rolling into darkness.
“Old buildings are so the way forward,” I thought to myself, remembering the crammed skyscrapers in central Beijing, barely two decades old. “They’ve got such rich texture, all shadows and stone.”
My mobile beeped.
“You weren’t at the Apollo theatre tonight were you?” a friend asked.
“No why?” I texted back.
“Its roof partially collapsed.”
I looked up the news. In the middle of a performance, the roof had caved in on a packed audience, taking parts of the balcony with it. I looked up the Apollo theatre. It was the one on Shaftesbury Avenue that I’d walked past countless times on my way from work in Trafalgar Square to Soho, the one where I’d recently seen Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” – a Grade II listed building more than a 100 years old.
I was back in London.
Away from the musical reveries and architectural decay of Zone l, out in the frays of Zone 5, I enjoyed a more humble pursuit of walking everywhere around Croydon. I wanted to make the most of being away from the smog of Beijing, and even marching along dull A roads was refreshing. I took in every front garden, every chippy, every MOT garage and every old-pub-turned-Tesco-Express with glee.
Apart from being the only form of exercise I do willingly, walking fascinates me because I can experience how the landscape changes step by step, how far one place is from the other, how every place looks, sounds and smells. Having been on a hundred long-haul flights and counting, I’m used to stepping into a sealed box, watching bad movies and emerging 12 hours later on the other side of the planet, utterly unaware of what lay in between, how and why the scenery, the weather, the people, the food changed between there and here, with nothing to tell me where I am in relation to the world other than the long immigration queue and a jet lag that won’t budge. While Beijing is a bit too far to walk, the Whitgift Shopping Centre is a good compromise.
Now thanks to apps and quick fingers, I can stay in touch with friends in real time when I’m in Beijing, and they don’t seem so far away. But it also reminds me how intangible they are, when I look up from the screen and they vanish, and how different London is from Beijing, when I put my phone away and carry on a new life that’s hard to entirely explain and tedious if I tried.
Being back home this time has felt like one long, real, human hug. It’s been a shock whenever I remember that I’m merely a guest here now, and that I’ll soon be stepping back into the sealed box and be transported across oceans, deserts and snowy plains, to where my husband is, where I need to find work, and where I need to find things to write home about.
But for now, it’s dark and gale force winds outside my childhood bedroom, the family will be arriving from work and from the airport, and I’ve yet to get out of my pyjamas. Merry Christmas to all my dear friends and everyone who is reading this blog, and here’s to less moany posts in 2014.
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