Bottle of vodka tucked under my jacket, sweat pouring, shaking but no tears. The tears didn’t come until later. A broken man whose only comfort came in cheap spirits, white cider, various powders, pills and the oblivion they took me too. Reality no longer had meaning, I wasn’t sure what was real or what was alcohol or drug induced as I watched as the tower blocks and the city disappeared. You’d like to think it was moviesque, all in black and white as I watched mournfully out the window. But it was all in colour and there were no background tracks. Just a pale, skinny twenty-one-year-old filled with pain, constantly cut by the shards of broken childhood dreams staring out the window, the nagging that the bottle of vodka would soon be empty. The roads were now flanked by green fields and I’d left the only place I’d ever lived. Defeated, I was never going home, that was it done. I’d not make it long enough to ever live there again. That was how I left London in April 2004.
The city had shaped those dreams and it was in the same place they were shattered. Walks to school up Kilburn High Road spent dreaming, evenings kicking a ball around a concrete pitch. Sunday morning strolls to mass, the shops closed, the only people about with a newspaper under their arm on their way home or to the pub. The old homeless fellas sat together on a bench, barely a word said between them. They’d come to County Kilburn in search of riches, failed and now too proud to go back home. Those old buses that went to far off exotic places like Bow. Christmas bus rides down to Oxford Street, staring wide eyed out of the window as the bus passed the window displays at Selfridges and Hamleys. An adventure almost as exciting as Christmas morning itself. Summer walks to St John’s Wood, evening spent in the pub with a Coke and a packet of crisps listening to my parents talking about people I don’t know, mind wandering to Italy as the World Cup final plays out on the television.
Saturday morning trips to Edgware Road and Church Street, the smell of fry ups and fudge in the air as my grandmother cooked breakfast. Her Dublin accent, her laugh. All brought warmth when it was often cold. The market would be bustling as we walked, ‘how ya!’s to everyone passing. Maybe a stop in the pub for a quick half pint and I’d get Twiglets. Listening to them talk about how things have changed, it isn’t the same anymore. You don’t see that, you’re too young, this is the only world you know. The people, the places, the shops, the streets, they’ll always be like that. She’ll always be sat there in the corner of the pub smoking a Silk Cut, sipping a half pint.
Then came the madness. Drunken nights in Hammersmith, long walks up Ladbroke Grove glugging from a bottle, feeling invincible. The belief it’d never change, it’d always be like that, a long euphoric ride where you pity those that haven’t gotten on board. Two best friends who’d never leave you, they’d always be there. Slowly, slowly the world became warped and twisted, the bottle consuming you, the ride not so euphoric, that high would never be reached again. The walks down Kilburn High Road were no longer a time for reflection and fantasy. Now it was filled with bitterness and fear, head down, no eye contact. Only the geezer in the off license would be granted the ill fortune of looking into those dark eyes. Elixir of life bought, there was more of a spring to the walk home, just the feintest of traces of vitality, soon to be extinguished by the liquid my body now depended on. Everything around you is moving forward, but you’re standing still.
My world is now defined by a bottle, each shop, each street, each person. Sitting on the Tube watching as a man opposite sips from Strongbow Extra and you’re back five years before. I’d have pitied him, now I was him, a mirror image opposite. People didn’t sit next to me, they looked at me with both pity and sorrow. Looking along the stations on the map, trying to focus, trying to find some place where there were happier times, when I still had a soul. Even that is futile, each stop is just a memory of what got me here. Another sip from the can. The train pulls into Brixton, into the shop to buy more booze, security guard following close behind. And then another night of drug and drink fuelled madness, God only knows where you will end up. Cheap vodka, ketamine and ecstasy in an attic. A taxi ride is just a blur of lights, places have merged into one. I don’t know where I am and I don’t who I am. That quiet boy sitting in corner eating crisps and sipping Coke was ten years before. The colour of the streets, the people I knew, the place I grew up in were now all grey blurs. Myself? I had been shattered.
Fifteen years passed and I was home again, sipping a latte. No vodka bottles now. Standing by the river looking out an unrecognisable skyline, the Tate behind me. A place I’d never have gone in even if it’d had existed at the time, yet I’d just spent hours wandering around it. A wry smile to myself as someone asks me to take a picture of them. They’d never have done that before. Strolling by the river, thinking over the years since I’d left. I’d almost died, wouldn’t have made it through 2007 if I’d not gone to rehab. Then I came out in 2008 and had to grow up. 2009 to India, 2010 to China where I stayed for six years. Another three in Ireland spent writing books. It was a long road back home. I never thought I’d come back. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to come back. Visit? Yeah. To live? That’s a different story. I feared the city I grew up in. The memories, the changes, above all, that inner child of mine that’d come leaping out.
Memories, they come at you in the most unexpected of places. Tastes, smells, sounds all triggers. Standing on the Tube and suddenly I’m back twenty years ago, friends standing next to me. For a brief moment I’m on my way to the Old City Arms on a Friday night, laughing and joking. Shivers run through my spine as it fades just as quick and I’m back on a Circle Line train in 2019. Sitting in a pub eating salt and vinegar crisps and I’m on Church Street, the old man filling in his betting slip, my grandmother walking in the door with her shopping from the market. There’s the bad ones too. A glimpse of a bottle of cider in a corner shop and suddenly I’m picking it up and running. Someone sat in a heap outside King’s Cross, a can in their hand and I have to look away. That was me. Never had these feelings been so intense, never so vivid. I didn’t expect it. Perhaps naivety, perhaps the ease with which I’d handled the previous thirteen years. Now I was home, it all came flooding back. Ghosts everywhere.
Change is good. That’s what they say. And it is good. Some of it, anyway. I mean I’m alive. But when you go home, and it’s changed, it’s hard. It all looks the same, even some of the people are the same but there’s a disconnect. Maybe it’s expectation. You want to have some kind of high, after all these years you’ve finally gone home to Kilburn High Road. You want to say “Look at me! Bit better than the last time you saw me!”, but it’s seen people worse and now you’re just another face passing through. It isn’t home anymore. It’s not how you pictured it in your mind. And it’s all changed. The whole city. Where you wouldn’t walk are expensive flats. Where you wouldn’t drink are trendy pubs. And where you would have drank or where you would have walked, they’ve gone. Each area, all with their own identities and souls, now being sucked into one mass, character lost. The shiny new buildings barely covering the frowns of those displaced. But, it’s for the good, and fuck your memories, the people you knew and the places that shaped you. Fuck you too.
That’s that inner child. The one who never thought anything would change. Who thought friends would be there forever, that my grandmother would be sitting sipping a half pint as I walked into a pub. But she’s gone. Who thought his best friend would always be there. But he’s gone too. As I approach his grave, sitting down on the bench, I shed a tear. This would always be the hardest thing to do. Can’t even have a drink for you now mate. That’s probably for the best though. I never thought it would be this hard. But it’s just part of the process. That’s what they used to say in rehab, trust the process. I know it’ll pass, yet there’s part of me that doesn’t want to let it go. I wish we could have sipped lattes together, mate. I wish we could have done all that shit we said we’d do together. I guess it’s time to make new memories, but I’ll still keep some of the past, the good and the bad. Take care, brother. I’ll be back soon, I’m home now.