Eastbound Platform 2 is a swirl of sticky air that smells of hot rubber and old breath. The Piccadilly Line map framed on the tiled wall the far side of the track reads destination Cockfosters. But it’s Gloucester Road for you today, not the end of the line. Nor Ealing Common, in itself a final destination.
Cornflower skies spool above the train as it passes through the endless expanse of Hounslow. Passengers get on board dressed in much the same fare as those fresh off flights lugging hard shell suitcases. T-shirts and shorts are uniform. London is upbeat in July. I didn’t notice that on my first trip to Ealing twenty years ago but I can remember what I wore that day: a pair of £7 Dunnes Stores black trousers and a white zip up hoodie, also from Dunnes. And then, just as now, Wimbledon was on.
Bars and eateries around the station at Gloucester Road are festooned with tennis ball décor in homage to the tournament underway nearby. The plate glass front of a cocktail bar is embellished with crystal ice buckets brimming with green neon balls. Bottles of Veuve Cliquot placed beside them wear signs offering a ‘watch the tennis with a glass of bubbly only £25’ special. You struggle to see what is so special about £25 for a glass of fizz and a free to air match. In Ealing it had been £25 for the consultation, then £380 for the rest. The rates that Provident had charged on the loan, now they were ‘special’.
Queen’s Gate soaks in sunshine; Maseratis and Porsches gleam in all manner of lavish waxes. Great pillars guarding glossy doors add whitewashed brilliance. The broad terraces lined with identical houses are swollen with warmth and wealth. In all this sunshine Imperial College doesn’t have the draw it should. You would much rather pass by and head for a stroll around Hyde Park. But there’s a conference on and that’s why you’re here. A dark haired girl locks eyes with you on the footpath. She wears a lost look, measuring up whether she can approach but you beat her to it. “Are you going to the conference?” you ask. “Yes, is this the place?” she nods towards the red-bricked wall of a building, a limp piece of paper in her hand. “Yes” you say, and you walk in together. It’s your first time having company in London. The last time you travelled alone.
Alone to Ealing, with no one to confer with for directions or whatnots. And there was no stopping passersby to query the address – that would have confirmed you as a cliché: Irish girl lost in London seeks help. You found your way like so many before. There had been red bricks in Ealing too, dark red, stained with age and weather. The property was a beautiful Victorian house on Mattock Lane: a leafy street of old worldly houses. Early morning strollers took advantage of the peace of Walpole Park as you passed it that morning. Leisurely and peaceful: the exact opposite of how you felt. The only aspect that demarked the property from the others was a small blue sign affixed beneath one of the upstairs windows. It named the its founder – Marie Stopes. That’s not exactly true, another telling feature was a small group of people huddled on the footpath outside, some holding posters, others turning their heads to fix on anyone who may have been approaching the address. Any women. Any distressed and worried women. Quite the welcoming committee. The things they said to you as you walked towards the gate never registered. You’re not sure you heard them at all, although you remember someone saying a Hail Mary. Good of them really, you needed all the support you could get. Head down, you ignored their gory posters and made your way to the front door. Behind you a mother and daughter came up the path. The daughter turned out to have an appointment at 8:30 also. She was younger than you, mid-teens probably. She spoke to the receptionist in a heavy London accent. Her skin was dark, her hair in a carnival of braids. She wore a pink tank top that showed off her flat stomach. Her Diesel jeans were embellished with pink diamantes to match. You felt fat and rural. You also felt desperately sick as you had done for weeks. Nausea that never left you. Nausea that had meant you had to leave your exams many times to spew yellow bile in the toilets. Nausea that would result in you not having done as well as you had hoped in those exams although you wouldn’t find that out until the results landed on the doormat in August.
Results that ultimately weren’t to matter. You are at the conference today and it has all been down to hard work and that inner compass guiding you towards your destination. The Londons of July 1999 and July 2019 are a world apart. Gone are the pale-faced women, worn from their red-eye flights, hiding their Gaelic tongues, pretending they have family in London so they can be discharged and return on the last cheap flight to save themselves the overnight rate in the clinic. Tonight you will stay near Earl’s Court, many miles from Mattock Lane.