I live in a place where, it is said, old lags come to hide and grow old and die. Hillingdon is an anonymous, end of the road, out in the sticks place. I don't know who would choose to live here unless they were brought up here, or are studying at Brunel, or working at Heathrow. I have met a few ex crims round here, including Mad Mick the Murderer, someone who used to play chess in gaol with John McVicar and some others who it's safer not to mention. Just last week, a Mafia boss was flushed out who had lived here undetected for twenty years.
It's that kind of place. Nondescript, suburban, where nobody really knows their neighbours. Where every street culminates in a grotty main road full of cheap curry houses, nail bars full of illegal Thai and Vietnamese girls who by night turn tricks in the flat above, and estate agencies that vanish as fast as they have appeared.
Here, I cannot wear the clothes I used to wear in north London. I can't be myself. I would get stared at and mocked in my beautiful embroidered velvet coat. It has remained in the wardrobe for six months, ever since I last wore it to go to an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Acceptable clothes here mean duvet jacket, leggings and boots. I can do acceptable, but I'd rather not.
But tonight, I went out loud and proud in my gorgeous velvet coat and purple dress for a pre-birthday meal. I met my friends in a local restaurant where the acoustics were so bad that we had to bellow in order to converse, being drowned out by a table full of twenty teens next to us. Looking round, everyone was in their teens and twenties. We were by far the oldest. But the food and wine were good and I was enjoying myself until...
Until I came back from the loo to find the friend who was treating me to dinner (apart from the £20 I'd thrown in for a second bottle of wine) having a stand-up row over the bill with the waitress, who looked most distressed. After the waitress had departed, I asked what was wrong and was told that my friend had objected to the fact that the card machine automatically added the tip on. I didn't see the problem, but she was irate and it meant we left on a sour note, with the staff, who had been so sweet and so willing, glaring after us.
As usual at weekends, the tubes weren't working and, this being the end of the Metropolitan line, our North London friend, who had borne the brunt of the replacement bus service to get here (two hours door to door from NW to West London), decided to get the express bus to Shepherds Bush. The rest of us planned to go to a music gig at a pub that started at 9 pm. By now it was 10 pm. We nobly agreed to see our friend onto the bus first.
Bus stations aren't beautiful at the best of times. They are places of brutal architecture, of gales blustering round sharp corners, of mumbling winos and slumbering junkies and people who would rather be any place but here. They are like holiday resorts at the end of the season, when sex and heat have gone into hibernation, leaving behind echoing footsteps of desolation and lost lovers and a wind that wraps dead leaves and chip papers round your ankles. They are the hub of shattered dreams, broken sleep and soon-to-be-slit wrists. They are not places to celebrate your birthday in. Yet 35 minutes later, we were still standing there like loonies, waiting for the bus that never came because, when I checked the timetable again with wine goggles that were starting to defog, I discovered that the last express had left at 9 pm.
The non-express came and I got on it, together with the Primrose Hill pal who wouldn't see his bed before midnight. I am now back home, with it having been banged home to me even more forcibly than usual that I am not an end-of-the-line person. I didn't hitch-hike from Liverpool to London in 1967 to end up living in the place where old criminals come to die. Me and my velvet coat have bigger plans than that. Beam me up, Scotty!
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