I am on Oxford Street again. Try as I might, every time I come to London I find myself here, among excited tourists, world weary office workers and shopping mad kids from Essex. I am so tempted to make this my end point, to tread the wet steps down to the Tube and leave this place behind and make for home.
But the idea of a different ending, with no planned route in between, holds greater appeal. I am channelling Dickens again. I finger a denim shirt on the point of sale display at Uniqlo, realise I own a near identical piece, albeit one that hasn’t seen an iron in three years, and step out into the spitting rain. I will walk to Baker Street.
I keep my hood down, fold my glasses and slip them into an inside pocket. On Great Portland Street, I drop my pace as lurid lunch time runners bustle past, heading north, to Regent’s Park. Some run in groups, collectively escaping their desks. Others busy themselves with smart watches, fiddle with headphones, strap phones to arms, plugging themselves into the fitness mainframe. The twinge in my left knee, a souvenir from running a half marathon ten days ago, feels more pronounced as I am overtaken by one, then another, then another.
In a coffee shop, I hand over my recyclable bamboo cup with a shameful sense of smugness, emerging with an Americano and the need for asbestos hands. It’s no use having a posh cup if you’ve lost the silicone sleeve. I take small sips and try to cross the road with less urgency than I would usually display while wandering around the capital.
At Park Crescent, I eye the traffic along with the runners, who I’ve managed to catch up. We are all desperate for greenery, an escape from the fumes where the Euston Road becomes Marylebone Road. Everywhere I step in London these days I see myself in a past life.
Here I am, ten years ago, working at the first job I ever loved, leaving a derisory 20p tip for a cab driver who has driven us from our office to an Albany Road pub, just a few minutes from where I stand right now. I had mistaken my parsimony for generosity. I don’t cringe at these memories any more. Instead I try to find amusement in my youthful arrogance.
In the park, I stop on a bench, the flower beds still bereft, the bulbs not yet in bloom, and finish my coffee. Teachers shepherd schoolchildren in tabards towards the zoo. Fellow flaneuses and flaneurs amble by, headphones in. I have no such luxury, my means for cancelling noise in a bag by my desk back home. Instead, I listen to the insistent song of house sparrows.
I trace a route that was once one of my favourites, past the public loos and westwards, towards the lakes. In a fenced off wooded area, feeders attract the first of the spring’s birdlife. Goldfinches whir around fat balls. A vocal blackbird struts across the eye line of a nonplussed female. I look for fieldfares, which have apparently been blown in by ‘The Beast from the East’. But my lack of binoculars and an inability to match facts cribbed from Twitter with real world skill means that I walk on without having seen any.
On the water, geese and goldeneye ducks ply winding trails. I follow the banks of this narrow stretch, before crossing the boating lake. In 2001 I thought I saw David Bowie rowing with his daughter here, dressed in full Hunky Dory regalia. It was a brief glimpse, but in the intervening 17 years, and especially since his death, this has become the location of a definite Bowie sighting.
I step off the bridge next to the cafe, the pedalo lake dry, its craft moored neatly around an island at its centre. Black headed gulls dive bomb exchange students. Canada geese take imperious steps across the footpath, sending me on a muddy route towards the park’s nearest exit.
I had planned to pass a pub where friends and I used to while away work lunchtimes. It billed itself as ‘probably the smallest pub in London’; fliers on the tables featured a printed map which placed it two blocks north. When the smoking ban came into force, the landlord would lock the door so we could smoke without fear of rapprochement.
But I know it’s gone, now a house on a quiet pedestrian street in Marylebone. So instead I take those memories with me and drop down to the Bakerloo line platform at my destination, happy to have left Oxford Street behind and had a brush with the past.