It is exactly 1.3 miles from the Spaniards Inn to my childhood home in East Finchley. I know this because I once had a bike with an odometer on it, and it’s a fairly easy figure to remember. Cycling downhill from there was no problem and, once I’d progressed to a car, when I drove the family down it I would coast in neutral, easily getting up to the 40mph speed limit on the Bishops Avenue. It irks me when people assume the limit is the more common urban 30; do they not read the signs?
Cycling up the hill, though, was another matter. The gradient is barely noticeable on foot, but on a pushbike it fair wore out my little legs. I am going downhill now, on foot, having had dinner with A—, one of my exes, at the Holly Bush, followed by a mile-long walk along Spaniards Road, the Heath on either side of me. The western side, in which I would play hide and seek with my father and brother, is called either Hampstead Heath Extension, or Wildwood, depending on your whimsicality; a few years ago I went for a walk there with A— and was gratified to discover that I had forgotten none of its paths.
It is raining, but I am insulated with Scotch, and neither the rain nor the ghastly McMansions on either side of the Bishops Avenue bother me much. I would come down this way after getting off the bus from school and collect conkers in the new autumn term. I always liked the start of school after the summer holidays. It meant a new start, a new classroom, sometimes new teachers, who were not always an improvement on the previous year’s lot, but one lived in hope.
I look down on the ground for conkers, but either the sodium lighting is camouflaging them or the horse chestnut trees no longer bear their fruit. Ah! I sigh to myself. Où sont les conquères d’antan? I know the French for conkers isn’t conquères but I like the sound of it.
I suppose that was the thing that kept me going through childhood: not conkers, but living in hope, hope that I might get away from the family home. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the last time I ended up in the family home because I had nowhere else to go was in 1987. The first night back in my old bedroom I cursed my fate, and the storm brewing outside matched my mood. That was the famous hurricane that swept across the south of England; had I stayed that night in my lodgings of the previous three years, I’d have been killed by the collapse of the flat above.
No such auspicious escape has happened now. The awful sense that Providence has been looking after me for some reason has dissipated. The hurricanes are more devastating but they are happening on the other side of the ocean. Frankly, I wouldn’t say no to a hurricane right now, I’m in that kind of mood.
The benign feeling generated by my visit to Brighton popped like a bubble as soon as I got back to East Finchley. The place has that effect on one, as I believe I may have remarked before, once or twice. (I remember the first time I wrote about East Finchley in this column: I summoned the wrath of the East Finchley Society, or some such, and if they have been upset by my latest remarks all I can say is that further acquaintance with this grisly suburb has not improved my view of it.)
The dog returns to his vomit, as the fool to his folly; but what if the dog never felt like returning to his puked-up Winalot, but was instead dragged there by fate, howling and whimpering in protest?
So now I am in my childhood room, smoking out of the window, as I did when I was a teenager, and considering the cost to my dignity. What, I asked some friends on a social medium, is the maximum acceptable age for a child, in his or her bedroom, to be walked in on by a parent without knocking? A spread of ages was offered, from five to puberty, but the general consensus was that it’s a bit of a liberty if the child concerned is 54.
As so often, Beckett’s words haunt me. Here, from the opening of Molloy: “I am in my mother’s room. It’s I who live there now. I don’t know how I got there… There’s this man who comes every week… He gives me money and takes away the pages. So many pages, so much money.” And this is why I have bought a train ticket, to Scotland, to a place nearly half a thousand miles away from my old bedroom, which I will be using first thing tomorrow morning.