Sunday nights are the quietest on Chestnut Grove. The bustle of the week – that triumvirate of commuters, school children and drunken revellers all jabbering away as they pass outside at their allotted times, as well as the buzz of planes overhead, the unharmonious discord between trains and traffic, and the yell and pelt of the footballers on the court across the way – has, come the evening of the Sabbath, given way to a funereal silence.
There's the hourly chimes of the bells from St Mary and St John The Devine on the High Road. And occasionally the elongated rattle of a wheeled suitcase will reach its crescendo outside my window, one after the other, the sonic motif of returning Londoners scurrying back from fervent weekend breaks, desperate for their beds before a new week begins and the maddening tempo of inner city life commences once more. But for now, a hushed pause ensues. It's a quiet redolent of that of my former home. As such, the moment's precious.
It's odd I should return here. I first moved into the house 9 years ago. I'm like an infallible homing pigeon. It feels different this time though. Not only because I'm in a different room; the master - larger, high-ceilinged, and necessary given what I've collected in the intervening years. But because I'm older. When younger I'd scoff at elders who'd protest at how quickly time flies. But the time indeed flew. I can barely remember living here first time around, and am reminded, I decide, only through photographs. I look much younger in them, child-like almost. I had hair then. I miss hair. I miss its coverage and what it represents. Which is, in a roundabout way, youthfulness.
Balham, though, is much the same as it was then. These days it has a preponderance of middle-class refugees, and a discernible yummy mummy sensibility. The Northern Line is still wretched. In fact the neighbourhood is no less shabby. In this past week I've counted two smashed windows on my street alone. A convoy of travellers has set up camp on the bowls lawn out back, and The Moon Under The Water public house still blights the high street, from where last week an odious-looking woman emerged on to the street, still clutching her pint glass, whereupon she projectile vomited onto the pavement, narrowly missing my shopping bags. Still, the encroaching summer, one hopes, might elevate the tone.
The winter was long. A harsh, seemingly infinite, season of gloom with fluctuating weather, both unpredictable and hostile. Yes, winter tested our friendship this year. Cold snaps came in increments, with gradations of biting cold, the type of which proves injurious to the bones, especially in February when temperatures dived below zero. They soon abated, mischievously convincing us the worst was over, before cunningly returning in March and turning colder than both the December and January before it. The first time in 40 years, I read.
There were blankets of snow up to 41cm deep, widespread flooding and a pitiful 82.9 hours of sunshine during March. Compare that to the positively spring-like 156 hours in 2012 and one is inclined to take seriously the repudiated chatter of the Climate Change brigade rather than yield to the oft-heard mantras apropos of sluggish cyclical jet streams and the like. Is it any wonder people are leaving these fair shores in their droves (shivering as they go)?
But I digress. The tenebrous weather patterns this winter only served to provide a pertinent dramatic backdrop to the vividly drawn emotional terrain of the discontent occurring closer to home. It started in autumn, my favourite season, which had arrived swiftly following a week spent alone on the Cornish coast. I love the burned orange hue of autumn, the smell, the copper leaves which collect in gutters in elegiac abandon like rivers of gold. Where some see decay others see hopefulness, and it matched my mood back then. But something wasn't quite right. We all felt it, but refused to believe that its presence was malevolent. It's not just ignorance which is bliss. So too, it seems, is denial. Who wants to believe a malign agency has crept into out lives, threatening the life we've held dear for so many years. The season marched on.
I'd always liked that transition from October to November; the longer nights, the frosty mornings and the gathering momentum of darkness as autumn segues into another interminable winter. But this time it felt we were preparing ourselves for a storm. Ordinarily, we make peace with this time of year sometime in September. It's inevitable, like clock-work, and as such it's futile to resist. So instead we indulge in the comforts of home. Some will dust down their DVD box-sets, crank up their heating and seldom change from out of their pyjamas all weekend. I drew more bubble baths than was seemly and had the Taj Mahal on Streatham High Street on speed dial.
I'd been seeing quite a bit of someone who'd recently moved to Primrose Hill, the salubrious and literary (and latterly celeb) enclave north of Regent's Park. The relationship allowed me frequent evenings and alternate weekends there to, for want of a better phrase, live the London dream, before having to return, with a heavy heart, to the antithetical Streatham on Sunday evenings to continue what can only be described as living the dream's 'malfunction'.
How pathetic to feel grateful for the taster of what I believed to be the authentic and desirable London lifestyle, sipping al-fresco coffee on immaculate pavements beside the hoi polloi, walking shiny-haired dogs on the hill, and though a vicarious lifestyle, I tried my hardest to feel it to be real. Looking back, it wasn't. I'm reminded of a line in Willy Russell's Shirley Valentine when she sits alone on the Greek shore line sipping a retsina with the sun setting, and the long-held fantasy is instantly tinged with disappointment, as the dream has only served to make her feel silly for wanting it in the first place now that it had become reality. A forced reality.
On a whim, I put the flat on the market capitulating to the fact that convenience is more important than independence. I vacillate over leaving my job (which I later do), and finish my acquaintance with the Primrose dweller as it solemnly finds its way soporifically shuffling down another dispiriting path to disappointment. I've long been of the opinion that one shouldn't remain in unstimulating relationships purely out of fear of being alone. So many people do. If more people were less afraid of ending something stagnant and unfulfilling they'd quite possibly get more out of life.
I've often waded into relationships, small guns blazing, to find that the person was only fulfilling something in me fleetingly, and perhaps me them. There's a time limit to that, whereupon one must accept that it has to end. For each day that passes in an unhappy relationship, I would find myself growing away from my true self, with every step a betrayal of the highest order. To me, to them, and my happiness as well as theirs.
When I was younger I never expected love to be so imponderably and unmanageably difficult and in some cases, so assailed by doubt as it has been. Lysander's words were utterly prescient and applicable to every shattered partnership: The course of love never did run smooth. But then perhaps if one feels pain to be beautiful, and longing comforting, then love will forever be doomed. Similarly, if one is frightened of the grand shadows of feeling conjured by loving someone so profoundly, then they too could find it passing them by.
But then love, romantic love at least, seems wholly irrelevant and a mere conceit amongst the chapters of the first half of ones life, when one is faced with the spectre of malady and mortality amongst family. As winter dragged us all to her stone cold heart, out of our febrile complacency we were shaken, when forced to muster the mental resolve to confront one of the biggest challenges any family must face, one which could irrevocably rock its foundations. Life, they say, may never be the same again.