I STILL HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I'M DOING.
A few weeks ago, I visited a writer friend of several decades. She lives in the top floor flat of a mansion block in London. As ever, as I step off the bus, I look upwards to check out her window boxes, full of red geraniums that seem to flower all year round. All is well.
From the off-license I buy a bottle of Prosecco. Also, as ever, I’m a few minutes early so I take my time observing the many changes in the street that seem to take place between visits. This autumn there is a posh cheese shop, a pizzeria and several stylish restaurants overflowing with stylish customers. I’m pleased to see that the shabby shoe shop remains. In preparation for winter the window boasts a display of old-fashioned men’s slippers similar to the ones my grandfather favoured almost sixty years ago. There is a range of thermal innersoles, shoe polishes, shoe cleaning kits. I nod my approval and head for my friend’s communal front door.
Puffing up the final flight of stone stairs I hear a door open above me. My friend wearing a sky-blue pullover leans over the bannister. The following day she’ll wear a pink cardigan. Here is a woman who has always loved vibrant colours. She has an emerald green dress and a scarlet one. Both dresses have fitted bodices and full skirts. Sometimes at the end of an evening if we’ve been on holiday in Greece, she will dance her way home from a taverna flapping her skirt like a Flamenco dancer. She owns a red swimsuit she loves so much, she refuses to relinquish it even though the material is now so thin, it is almost transparent and the seams are parting.
She welcomes me in to her tiny hallway from where every room is visible. Outside the windows, the day is darkening – inside the lamps are switched on and all is cosy and familiar. At one point during the evening she says, “I don’t understand why people hanker so desperately after new things. Everything I own represents a memory of a place or a person.”
I am in perfect harmony with her. In the living room, little has changed in a long time apart from the indoor palm which has almost reached the ceiling. On the sofa bed where later, I will sleep are scattered the same cushions, their covers bought from Turkish shops on the high street; once jewel coloured but now faded, but pleasingly faded. Rugs she has brought back from a lifetime of travels abroad cover the threadbare fitted carpet.
In the chimney breast alcoves are the plywood bookshelves my friend Mary put up for her two decades ago. They are so bowed in the middle under the weight of books that the shelves appear to be cheerfully grimacing at me. There is a framed photograph of her late parents, in their thirties, vigorous and happy, marching along a Scottish seafront.
In this room I am represented by my father’s marble-topped coffee table brought down from Yorkshire after his death. It is excruciatingly heavy and was the devil’s own job to carry up four flights of stairs. Today I’ve brought as a gift, a length of red satin decorated with pagodas and stylised people wearing kimonos. Around the border is a message in Chinese characters, which probably translates into something prosaic like, ‘Present from Beijing’. My friend throws it across her bed. The satin takes on a life of its own falling into shadows and glossy hillocks.
“I expect it will slither to the floor in the night,” I tell her.
My friend nods gravely. “I may cover my window seat cushions with it eventually. I need more colour in my study.”
We talk and talk. I tell her about the novel I’m writing about my father. We have known each other so long that little of any backstory needs explanation. She tells me about the poems she is working on. My friend has published many books, novels and poetry. She has won prizes and yet she says thoughtfully, “I still have no idea what I’m doing.”
We go out to dinner. I choose fish cakes, fries and salad. For the first time she tries a veggie-burger but leaves half of it. “I can’t recognise any of the ingredients,” she tells me.
Back in her flat we continue talking till midnight. I sit in the cane chair next to the giant palm as I always do. She sort of crouches in the corner of the sofa, as she always does. She tells me that the council is finally giving her a new bathroom after forty-one years. She says that although she has an affection for the wide bath, she won’t be sorry to see it all go.
Before I fall asleep, I start to read a book she has given me, glancing up every few pages to look around the room. I believe for most of us there are few places outside our own homes where we feel relaxed and safe, but in my friend’s eternal flat at the top of a Victorian building overlooking a busy north London street – that is exactly how I feel; relaxed and safe and somehow humbled – but in the best of ways. After I’ve turned out the side lamp, I quickly fall asleep. In the night, I’m woken just once by the sound of sparrows chirruping.