I left things too late. I rushed and rushed. The hack bike I ride to the station to deter theft wouldn’t take me any faster. I arrive hot and flustered with two minutes to spare and collapse into a seat next to a rough looking guy, but he is friendly – ‘too hot to run’; yes definitely too hot.
We speed past a gorgeous field of poppies like an Impressionist painting. I am just about cooling down when we arrive and the rushing starts again. King’s Cross has completely changed since I last visited, metamorphing into some airy American shopping mall. It feels miles to the Underground, people dawdling and not knowing where they are going. I have only fifteen minutes to get to the Royal Academy and people keep getting in my way. Out into the bright day, I hurry past St James’s Church, Fortnum and Mason’s and into the cool concrete courtyard bathed in bubbling fountains.
I am five minutes late (my ticket says 11.30am) but it doesn’t seem to matter and I enter the blissful air-conditioned room with Rivera, Siqueiros, and Posada’s calaveras; and new friends (to me) Gilpin and Burra. Finally there is calm, quiet, coolness.
I brought the London map with me, worn at the corners, torn at the creases, but I didn’t need it. I know this corner of London, unlike you, who it seems, I do not know at all. You are an alien landscape, a wasteland of extremes, no room for compromise or negotiation. I saunter with my iced coffee, window shopping, trying on shoes I don’t need, and swimming costumes I do.
I enter my favourite restaurant and find myself ordering the same thing I always order. I devour the black beans – so creamy, so meaty, the tang of cheese and Mexican cream (more like sour cream), but it is never like the crema we had in Mexico City all those years ago. The tacos ooze that rust coloured juice; no other food ever makes that seepage like some kind of edible wound. I lust after the salt caramel ice cream, but decide I really am too full.
There is an older lady on the table next to me, regaling her friends with the saga of her iPhone and contract. They commiserate with her difficulties, the wife confessing she put £10 on her pay-as-you-go years ago and still hasn’t used them up. Gadget lady mentions her Kindle, before extracting an iPad from her handbag to show them how to play Scrabble on it. There is some sort of generational mismatch going on as I make notes in a paper notebook with a cheap biro.
I am a few minutes early to meet my friends, so I go to look at the Thames. The grass in Victoria Embankment Gardens is already brown and burnt from our late-onset two-day summer. People sit everywhere chatting and picnicking.
We spend the afternoon drinking jugs of Pimm’s, asking yet again why it is so long between our get togethers; such old friends who pick up just where we left off, with no recriminations or secrets or jealousies, always there when needed. We make new friends. I would not do this alone, too shy. Within minutes it seems we are casually chatting about all sorts of intimacies. When I leave, I hug them all, old and new, closer with strangers than I’ve been with you in months.
The day ends with rushing again; rushing against the dark. The huge red globe of sun slips lower and I wonder if I will see my way home. I have no bike lights to show the path. I just about make it. You have not waited up.