It is the most London of days. Rain cascades down the glass roof of the coffee shop as I pull on my coat and head for the door. Outside, Wardour Street is a fast flowing stream, cars racing carelessly against its flow. We stand inside the doorway, waiting for a break that won’t come and step outside, saying muffled goodbyes from deep within hoods.
My pace is electric, my old London self wrenched back into being as I skip puddles, swerve pedestrians and cling close to walls as water aquaplanes from buses. I am at Cambridge Circus, the city a brash reflection of itself in the bronzed paving slabs. It is hours until I need to meet a friend for an afternoon drink. The forecast is a typical, January disgrace. I make for the big name record store on the corner and browse vinyl that I want badly but talk myself out of buying. Whatever money I have is for another, unspecified time.
A security guard brushes water across the threshold and back out into the street as I leave. My umbrella is nestled behind the front door, some sixty miles away, so today my coat is admirably taking the strain. I turn down Charing Cross Road. This is a well worn route. I ponder how many pairs of shoes I have worn out on this stretch of central London street as I stare at my current pair of green, box fresh trainers.
Like everywhere in London, this street has changed beyond all recognition to me. In the two years since I have left the entire western side has gone from rows of tacky tourist souvenir shops and all–you–can–eat pizza buffets to some kind of luxury coworking space. The bookshops which enticed me as a teenager are largely gone too. Instead, this feels like a rat run between sights, from the chaos of the shops on Oxford Street to the gathering point at Trafalgar Square.
My destination is supposed to be the Tate Modern. Usually I would walk the entire way, passing down Villiers Street and over the Thames at Embankment, watching skaters impossibly glued to their boards beneath the undercroft, before mooching slowly along the South Bank in a reverie about a city I was once in love with.
Today I turn into Leicester Square station, but step back out, unable to bring myself to cut the entire journey short. Instead I walk on, past queues of dripping theatre goers. Dropping into the National Portrait Gallery, I open my jacket and pulling out my phone, pawing at its screen like a sad addict, checking notifications, firing off text messages, fretting silently about dwindling battery life. I never feel sated after looking at it, just desperate for the next hit once it gets stashed away in a pocket. I am back out on the street again within minutes, crossing towards St Martin’s In The Fields and down into the tiled bowels of Charing Cross Tube station.
A pair of street cleaners stand just inside the entrance, pulling slowly on cigarettes. The forgotten smell of smoke indoors lingers as I pass down into this untouched space, still the same as I always remember it. A gym kit shop, the tough lives of rough sleepers, the sense that London can only be gentrified and cleaned up so much, that you can’t wash away or hide its problems behind chrome, glass and anti–sleeping spikes.
On the walk down to the platform, a man plays a jaunty accordion tune. The ride to Blackfriars is uneventful, the sogginess of jeans aside. I emerge into the mainline station and baulk at the prospect of wandering across the uncovered bridge in a downpour. I pass through the barriers and walk along the platform to the southern side of the river. A starling, wet and ruffled, trills and looks forlornly downstream, willing the smudged out horizon to clear, for a sign of blueness and hope.
Outside the gallery, the paths are flooded. Tourists cling to entrances, bag checks in force. I open mine, show off my soaking book and notepad and head into the heart of the former power station. I shall stay here for a while now, drying off among priceless art, before strolling out once more into the London rain.