A few years ago, I was meeting up for lunch with a couple I know, both of whom were still married to other people at the time, and they were very reluctant to come down to Brixton (where I lived), because her sister-in-law lived in the area, and they didn’t want to risk being caught together.
And since I’ve been couriering, it seems like only a matter of time before I spot a friend or acquaintance up to no good. And I feel slightly sorry for any of my friends who might hope to exploit London’s anonymity, or to come here in order to disappear – because, with me always around the next corner, it’s only a matter of time before they’re going to be caught out. (Which would be, of course, just as awkward for me as for them. If I see a good friend obviously cheating on their partner, for example, it opens the whole can of worms of whether I should tell, or whether I should encourage them to tell, or whether I should pretend it never happened, and live with the guilt.)
When I first moved to London (five years ago), I didn’t know where anything was. The city was a massive, disordered, bewildering mess of people and roads and buildings, which had no obvious end or limit (I was used to small country towns that abruptly turn into fields if you walk far enough), and I felt as I probably would if you dropped me into the middle of the Atlantic – lost, helpless, and knowing that the chances of reaching a familiar landmark or refuge, no matter how far I swam in any direction, were almost nil. As far as I was concerned, Brixton could have been in west London, and Notting Hill east of Dalston. I used the tube map to navigate – even for what I later discovered were journeys I could much more quickly have walked.
But now? London’s a village. I know all the streets, all their names and one-way systems, and all the branches of Starbucks (for toilet stops) and Sainsbury’s (for cookies and cheap croissants). If I see a street scene on TV, I can often identify exactly where it is, from no more than a shopfront or the corner of a building. I can get from the City to the West End in 10 minutes – and along the way, I know I’m going to pass maybe a dozen people I know, or at least recognize. It’s as though the small village community of London couriers has been superimposed over the much more insular, alienating, impersonal mass of commuters and lunch-breakers. Although it shouldn’t happen in such a big city, I’ll often run into the same courier several times a day – so much so that we both realize it’s beyond coincidence; it’s just what will happen if you cover so much of the city, and zig-zag back and forth across it so many times a day.
But as well as couriers, I run into people I know from other periods of my life – all the time! I went to the kind of university from which lots of people go on to become investment bankers and corporate lawyers, so I’ll often pass by someone familiar as I’m bombing along London Wall. Sometimes it’s a bit of a shock. The men all seem to be gaining weight, and losing hair, and taking on a demeanor they didn’t possess at 21, but will now probably have until they’re 60. Whereas the women all appear thinner, sharper, and more polished, as though the person they were at university has been photoshopped and airbrushed. The other day I saw a girl I’d once rowed with outside the Guildhall. She was sitting on a bench, talking on her mobile, and looking like a catalogue illustration of a young successful city worker. Perfectly tailored and ironed black skirt suit, delicate shoes with pointy toes and spiky heels, immaculately highlighted blonde bob. I was partly struck by how ably the scruffy boatie girl I’d known had managed to disguise herself as a businesswoman; partly awed because the disguise was far too perfect actually to be a disguise – this was in fact what she’d become.
And here I was, a sweaty cycle courier. I wondered what she’d think of how I’d turned out, if she recognized me, which I don’t think she did. I’m a lot more confident and muscular than I was all those years ago, and I probably looked just as self-assured in my new guise as she did in hers. But then again, she’s probably earning six figures, and has a car and a mortgage and boyfriend to go home to. Of course, I have no need of any of those things, but her success is certainly a lot easier to quantify than mine.
But there’s much more to it than the riches/rags dichotomy. I’ve run into quite a few other old university people in the past week (it must be the sunny weather, bringing people out of their offices). There was Conrad, who approached me incredulously one afternoon, as I was sitting outside Fullcity. We met when he played one of the brothers Antipholus in my production of Comedy of Errors, and he’s now writing children’s books for a well-known publisher in Clerkenwell. I nearly ran over Tara, another theatrical acquaintance, when she crossed against the lights on Holborn. Friends tell me she’s now working on public policy for the Tories or something. And yesterday I saw a chap called David – who I didn’t know at all well, but he lived next-door to me for a while, and was quiet and awkward, and apparently a published poet – staring into the middle distance on Charlotte Street, and wondered what on earth he might be up to these days.
And I wonder how many people might have noticed me, flashing past them, too absorbed in the road to see them wave. And wondered if it was really me, and what on earth I was doing pretending to be a cycle courier, and what had gone wrong or right in my life that I ended up in such a job. Or wondered, as I do, whether at some point we all made choices that meant we turned out the way we have, or whether we were just gently swept along with the thousand little currents and eddies and differences that send our lives the way they go.