On returning


When I turned 21, we went to the seaside.

It was spring, so we drank champagne on the pebbles in folds of viscous mist with disembodied hands and plastic glasses, picked at clams in paper cups.

We lay on Brighton Pier and stretched bare legs in pocketfuls of sunshine blown by the seabreeze. We went to a restaurant with enormous windows and ate panfried sole with beurre noisette.

It was an escape from London that involved running for the train. Later, the escapes spanned continents.

Returning is a peculiar thing. It lacks the profundity of epiphany, yet buries itself in your skin, your hair; woodsmoke the week after a fire.

There is fleeting familiarity on every London corner; uneasiness, gentle self-judgement.

There I am: terrifyingly young and blithely confident; on the Tube reading Alexander McCall-Smith.  There is the scent of stale Saturday nights, the imprint of crushed grass-blades on my belly. Purring bicycle chains, slow breaths of posh gardens wilting in the heat; twinges of annoyance at the tourists who never stand on the escalator-right.

It returns, in wheezing flashes.

There are old friends, old loves, old haunts and hauntings. The pub where my father and I drank post-graduation pints of sweaty wheat beer is closed for destruction. My secret wine bar on Lamb’s Conduit Street, glaring and deserted on a Monday.

I eat a fish dinner of perfect, plump skate with an old friend - “a triumph of textures,” he declares - and we walk arm in arm through a glorious West London dusk filled with flowers and what-ifs.

There are no longer All-Day Breakfast sandwiches in the Pret on Piccadilly, but there is the Korean Super Bowl, tangy kimchi doused in sesame oil, “just made”-tossed with edamame. I crumble kale crisps on linen, crushed umami licked from fingertips on the cold stone of the Royal Academy courtyard, under Conrad Shawcross’s steel Summer Exhibition clouds.

The British summer frolics on high street pavements.

I shrug on the city like a coat, pulled from the depths of an corridor cupboard, breathe in its musk.

Yet on Sunday, I find myself in front of Jacqui’s Brighton whelk stand, where her family has been doing this for 500 years. I dab on jalapeño Tabasco, press an extra wedge of lemon. Tender on a toothpick; they are bluster and sea salt and English Channel, comforting in their constancy.

I exhale.

Skate at Kensington Place, Notting Hill, +44 20 7727 3184, www.kensingtonplace-restaurant.co.uk
Pret, www.pret.com
Whelks at Seahaze, +44 1273 777007, www.seahazefreshfish.co.uk