A week ago I went to my very first blogging conference – Blogtacular – in London. There will be a proper post all about it in the not-too-distant future I promise, as I’ve got loads of things that I want to share. It’s taking me longer than I thought it would to process it all – partly because there was such a lot to take in and partly for another reason, which I’m going to explain now.
If you followed me over from my other blog, you’ll already know that I lost my Dad very suddenly at the start of last year to lung cancer, having not seen him since he’d walked me down the aisle at my wedding eight months earlier. If you are a new reader, please don’t disappear just yet – most of my posts are usually pretty happy and upbeat. This blog is my little place to document my family’s story – the chaos, the calm and all the moments in between – and that includes my story too. So from time to time things do get a little bit personal and writing about it is my way of dealing with and understanding and allowing myself to feel stuff that would otherwise just get buried under day-to-day parenting and work and life.
I headed down to London the day before the actual conference to attend a photowalk arranged by the Blogtacular team. I’d been lucky enough to snag a place on Photowalk West, starting out in Notting Hill. I’d spent the morning feeling a tumultuous mix of nerves and excitement in anticipation of attending my first blogging conference and being surrounded by 350 other bloggers (none of whom I’d ever met in person before), venturing to parts of London I hadn’t been to for years to take photos with several very talented photographers and my first night alone in a hotel ever.
The universe had other ideas though. I got to the station to find that my train had been delayed – only by 15 minutes or so but I knew it would make getting to the photowalk by 2pm a bit tight as I had to drop all my bags at my hotel (in East London, near the conference venue) first. As soon as I arrived at Euston I hopped on the tube, emerged at Aldgate East and realised that I had no idea how to find my hotel on Brick Lane. I consulted the map app on my phone but by this point it was starting to spit with rain so I stopped a friendly looking stranger and asked for directions. He pointed me in the right direction and I headed off hopefully. Ten minutes later I got the feeling that something wasn’t quite right so I sought out another kindly face who pointed me back in the direction I’d just come from. Argh!
Eventually, feeling slightly stressed, I spotted a sign for Brick Lane and finally stumbled into my hotel, somewhat dishevelled and soggy-looking. Thankfully the checking-in process was super quick and easy so I raced up to my room and dumped my bags with the intention of going straight back out again and then caught sight of the time: 2.15pm. I realised with disappointment that there was no point trying to catch up with the photowalk – they’d be long gone by this point and it wouldn’t have been fair to ask them to wait for me while I tried to find them (plus, to be perfectly honest, I felt like I’d already had enough of an adventure for one day).
So instead I freshened up, grabbed my camera and Oyster card and went on my own photowalk. I knew exactly where my destination was going to be, but I did stop along the way to capture some of the colourful and vibrant scenes I came across:
MY (ALTERNATIVE) PHOTOWALK
I’d forgotten about the lifts. I’d spent the whole of the hot 20 minute journey on the Central Line searching my memory banks for anything and everything I could remember about the place I was heading and memories had been coming thick and fast. I’d forgotten about the lifts at Queensway station though – the indecisive wait as you tried to predict which one would arrive first so you could position yourself in front of it accordingly and be the first on one (and therefore off) the short ride to the surface. The determination to stare at the floor so as not to catch any other fellow passenger’s eye by accident. And that iconic voiceover instructing us to have our tickets ready.
I stepped out of Queensway station straight into my childhood. Suddenly I wasn’t a thirty-three year old woman with three children, a husband and a mortgage anymore. I was six-or-seven years old again, holding my Dad and Stepmum’s hands tightly as the traffic stop-started it’s way past and tourists and locals alike went about their weekend business. Standing perfectly still I knew that directly behind me was Bayswater Road, which, on a Saturday I used to love to walk along looking at all the artists and paintings and marvelling at how beautiful and diverse they all were. I remembered the hustle and bustle of people jostling to see and feeling very small in amongst the crowds.
I turned left and there right in front of me was Queen’s Ice Rink. More memories flashed before my eyes and coursed through my body – me nervously gripping on to the edges of the rink, pulling myself along the ice and not daring to let go and head into the middle of the rink, other skaters sailing past me at speed and the feel of the cold, hard ice on my bottom as I lost my balance over and over again not knowing whether to laugh or cry. My Dad sitting on the sidelines watching my StepMum and I.
I continued walking and soon arrived at Whiteley’s – a once proud and iconic shopping centre now full of empty shopfronts and cold white marble. I walked through anyway and instead of reality I was transported to another time and place – I saw the humungous Christmas tree right in the centre that stretched right the way up all four floors to the majestic ceiling. I loved that Christmas tree and begged Dad to take me to see it every year, marvelling at the scale of it and wondering how on earth the elves got the decorations all the way to the top branches. I saw the hustle and bustle of shoppers carrying great armfuls of bags overflowing with gifts and wrapping paper and curly ribbons for loved ones. I heard the laughter of teenagers making their way up to the cinema and the echo of my footsteps adding to the rhythm of the conversations surrounding me.
From there I made my way to the Porchester Centre, my footsteps ingrained into my muscle memory as my legs automatically took me along paths I’d walked many, many times before. As I stood in the middle of the road taking this picture (below) I could almost smell the chlorine. I remembered the rows of lockers, always wanting to be the one to put the money in to open it and shoving my shoes in at the bottom. I remember the key on a rubbery strap that was way too big for my tiny wrist and watching my Dad expertly fasten it on his instead. I remember the splashing and the coughing fit I had once that made me throw up, my Dad lifting me out of the water and cuddling me, wading to the edge of the pool as I forlornly looked over his strong shoulder at my little pile of sick floating away behind us.
From here I doubled back and turned onto Westbourne Grove. My eyes sought out the KFC that he used to take me to for lunch sometimes – “a plain chicken burger please, yes that’s right, no mayo, no lettuce, just chicken and a bun” – and I scanned the shops for anything familiar. But it’s all changed – it’s trendy now and has a vibrant feel to it, the complete opposite of the grey and dirty images I held in my mind’s eye. Th KFC is no longer there, replaced with a funky restaurant/bistro instead.
As I got closer I realised I was holding my breath. I slowed down and forced the air out of my lungs and then back in again, slowly and rhythmically, trying to get my heartbeat to slow down and match my breathing, feeling nervous. I was looking for the gold ‘Benson and Hedges’ sign above the corner shop. When it’s not there I felt a millisecond of panic and then realised that I was staring right at it, except it’s now a Caffe Nero. This time all the air left my lungs of it’s own free will in a rush and I struggled to convince any to come back in again. For what felt like hours but in reality was probably only microseconds, I stood there, frozen, numb. Feeling everything and nothing all at once. My head both full of words and questions and at the same time empty, incapable of putting together any form of coherent thought.
115 Westbourne Grove.
My Dad’s flat.
My home every other weekend from when I was tiny up until he and my StepMum moved to a house in Baron’s Court when I was seven or eight.
All at once the memories hit me in a rush… The rooftop out the back that held a few plant pots and a lot of pigeon poo. The smell of the Chinese restaurant downstairs. The whistles and drumbeats and chanting of the Notting Hill Carnival making it’s way past at all hours of the day and night. Dad’s lasagne. Having apple, cheese & crackers for tea. Playing Super Mario Bros on the SNES and being too scared to go in and face the big baddie until Dad was sat in the lounge with me. The budgie’s cage in the empty fireplace. Charlie the African Grey parrot that we used to look after when his owner Sue, who lived in the flat above, was away travelling again. Watching ‘Labyrinth’ curled up in Dad’s armchair. Fainting on the bedroom floor when my StepMum was drying my hair and waking up in bed with a cold wet flannel on my forehead. Coming home from a shopping trip to find the front door of the flat smashed in with an axe and all our belongings ransacked and thrown around, the policeman telling me not to touch anything. My StepMum drawing pictures of unicorns and princesses for me to colour in on the days that it was just me and her because Dad had to work. The coffee table. The collection of frog paraphenalia and library of books on the mezzanine level. The magnet on the tiny fridge in the tiny kitchen with the sticky floor that said “What part of ‘NO’ don’t you understand?” and me not understanding why Dad thought that was so funny. And so many more besides.
I moved closer and stood outside the door. I debated ringing the doorbell but knew I wouldn’t be brave enough to ask to go in and look around and figured that it probably wouldn’t be all that safe to do so in any case. Instead, I cried. I stood against the railings with my back to the traffic hurtling past and I cried for the first time in a while. Inside Caffe Nero a man sitting by the window watched me, concerned.
After a short while the tears stopped and I knew it was time for me to go even though I didn’t want to. There was nothing more to accomplish by being there and indeed I wasn’t even sure what I had accomplished other than to make the pilgrimage in the first place. I’d needed to do it and had been wanting to do it for some time but hadn’t had the opportunity.
So I made my way back to Queensway and headed back to my hotel knowing that I needed to pull myself together for the evening event at West Elm in a couple of hours time, feeling such a mix of emotions that I couldn’t even begin to start listing them here.
The photowalk might not have been the one I was supposed to go on, but it was certainly the right one for me that day and I’m forever grateful that things turned out the way they did and I chose to take the opportunity when it was presented to me.
Thank you for reading.