My legs ache after the delayed flight. The train journey home is long but direct, and when it passes through London I instinctively start looking for him.
The vast buildings of Canary Warf make me feel small already at a distance. I’m wearing colourful clothes, bought at festivals and flea markets, and I know I’m different coming home from my home country. The London skyline used to signify opportunity, possibility, future and dreams. Now it signifies a past and all its failures.
The first stop is London Bridge, where he used to work. Where we first kissed. Where I waited outside his work, looking up at the Shard countless times. I can feel him and smell him as the train pulls in amongst hundreds, maybe thousands of commuters in shirts, skirts and headphones. I don’t know how many red rucksacks, beards, rolled-up jeans over Converses and black jackets I see. He could be anyone of them, but isn’t. I shrink in my seat into a terrified bunny.
He personified everything this city represented to me: my highest ambitions and my deepest fears. Unfortunately, it was the fears that came true and not the dreams.
The train slowly pulls away, few people having left but plenty having entered. I look for my bag; it’s on a shelf further down the packed carriage and I can’t see it. I worry someone will break or steal it. I hold my handbag close to my chest and breathe into it, wondering if I’ll puke.
We move slowly towards Blackfriars, where I worked when I met him. I see my old office and its rooftop terrace where my colleagues arranged my leaving drinks. I left that job to become a writer, inspired by him and his freelance creativity. That was over three years ago, and I’m sure the thoughts he kept to himself are what came true.
My breath becomes shallower across the river, towards City Thameslink and Farringdon. There is nothing special about me now, only bad writing and failure and bad smells. I feel like crying or screaming or breaking things, but also like disappearing from the train, the city and the island forever.
My dad asked this morning what’s keeping me here? ‘As long as it’s purpose and not prestige,’ he said. Did I lie when I say it was?
The tunnel into St Pancras is black and as the artificial light of the platform breaks I think he might actually be here. He gets the train to his mother’s from here. My eyes read the faces like letters and as the train slows so do I, on the back of a head with the locks of not-recently cut hair, thinning at the top and now longer brown but not yet quite grey, topped with black headphones over a black jacket and a red rucksack in hand. It’s him.
In a city of millions, more people in my entire home country, what are the chances I’d see him on the opposite platform from a stopping train? Minuscule. I remember this as the train comes to a complete stop next to the face of the man, and I see that it isn’t him. Grief and relief blend with the subsiding panic in my stomach, as more people leave the train and more people get on.
What has he reduced me to? It’s been over a year and he still has the power to reduce me to the tiniest and most terrified part of myself, even when it isn’t him. My fear of failure was so realised in my relationship with him, that it wasn’t anything he did as much as me myself fulfilling my own prophecy that still grips. The darkness and green fluorescence of the underground station give way to evening light and August sky, and at Finsbury Park more people leave the train than get on. He will not be on his way to Cambridge tonight.
I always preferred being a small fish in a big pond, pretending it was the sea. But a pond is still a prison, and perhaps I’m ready for the ocean. Perhaps that means I have grown. Perhaps I can even count that as some kind of success.