WHAT I SENSED / OH COMELY

I always make a show of looking at the menu at my favourite Vietnamese restaurant, but it’s purely for the sake of social decorum. There’s no question about what I want. Number 16: stir-fried chicken with lemongrass, ginger and spring onion. A bottle of Huế lager. Maybe a few summer rolls and a green papaya salad if I have an obliging dinner companion. Essentially it’s less a favourite restaurant than it is a favourite dish; the other items on the menu could just be scraps of old newspaper and some pipe lagging and it would have no effect on my feelings about the place.

An ungenerous and accurate person could find much to judge here about my attitude to living. In the sensible part of my mind, where I keep instructions on erecting tents, my most egalitarian opinions and my online banking password, I’m aware that change is necessary and right and very often tremendous. But still: I hate it. If I was out and spotted change walking down the street, I would pretend like I hadn’t noticed. I would mute change on social media. I would get my book out as soon as change sat next to me on the bus. I would give change an excuse for why I couldn’t attend its birthday drinks. I need to find an completely different way to set text in order to demonstrate how much I hate change. It drives me to italicisation. I hate change.

Accordingly, many aspects of my life are merely variations on stir-fried chicken with lemongrass, ginger and spring onions. For the past nine years I’ve lived not just in London, or in east London, or in Hackney, but in the postcode E5. While I’ve regularly ventured beyond the sunny Victorian terraces of Upper and Lower Clapton, there remains whole chunks of the city that could fall away into the Thames without me noticing. For almost the whole of my twenties my home hasn’t been London, it’s been two and a half square miles, with little reason to try anything else. Why would I need to when I already live in finest patch of Britain’s second finest city? I walk the streets like I own every house, every public building, every Percy Ingle bakery.

This couldn’t last, of course. My desire to escape from my beloved E5 grew over several months, as my relationship with a housemate curdled and I became unable to leave home without running into my ex-girlfriend and her baby. As someone who owns eight identical pairs of shoes and hasn’t been seen out of corduroy since 2002, the thought of leaving was unimaginable until a splendid pal with excellent taste in cushions suggested I move in with her. Now I am south of the river, a place I wasn’t entirely convinced existed until I came here. It is lovely and I was wrong, but the most profound change was something I hadn’t even considered; what has discombobulated me isn’t that everything is different, but that I don’t know where anything is.

My brain, working of its own accord, has spent the past decade constructing an elaborate map of my stretch of the city. It’s like being in a kitchen and knowing the contents of every single drawer. If necessary I can wake up anywhere in east London, dishevelled and confused, and make my way home again. Or I can point you towards a shop to buy hemming tape in the middle of the night. I have strong opinions on the relative merits of local green spaces. I can tell you when’s the best time to visit the Lido. I know where all the good sandwiches are sold. I can provide a comprehensive rundown of all nearby Vietnamese restaurants, assuming you have taste that is decidedly similar to my own. I know the area because I feel connected to it, and I feel connected to it because it is home. Even as parts of E5 have changed beyond all recognition, they still belong to me.

This mundane superpower is lost now, and I’m surprised to discover that I don’t mind. It makes me feel vulnerable to live without a sense of geographical knowledge, but that’s enormously freeing too. For now, at least, every street is an adventure. Who knows who I might meet? Who knows what might be around the next corner? It can’t all be industrial estates. I have no memories here, good or bad. It’s just me, and whatever I can find.

Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Three.

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