Last night, yet again, I woke in an unfamiliar place. The room was pitch black and I was surrounded by ringing silence. The absence of piercing sirens, traffic, people talking, arguing on the street outside, or stumbling home from a night out was unnerving. There was no roar of buses as they slowed to turn a nearby corner, or laughing voices from my housemate on Skype. I couldn't see a faint glow from the streetlights below, or from the starless, orange sky. And then I remembered. I was home. And no longer in London.
I moved back to Australia a few weeks ago after the best part of two years living in London. My departure was as abrupt as many before me, my working visa had expired and without so much as a chocolate Hob Nob I was back where I began, at Heathrow Terminal 5. Being unable to live somewhere anymore is the strangest feeling. It's abrupt and unfinished. It's like ordering dessert and leaving the restaurant before it arrives. In a transient and fast-paced city you're not forgotten, but you're easily replaced. I imagine someone seeing an empty place at the table and taking my seat. They'll be drinking my glass of wine, chatting to my friends and making plans for the next weekend. Discussing summer holidays in Europe. Deciding to visit the latest exhibition, try the new bar that's opened around the corner. Life in that beautiful, crazy and infuriating city continues but the only difference is, I'm not there to see it.
Like countless others I had a love/hate relationship with London. I struggled for months to find a permanent job, a decent flat, functional housemates and a solid group of friends. There were days when I'd seriously question why people chose to live in a city that ate me up and spat me out at the best of times, where simple tasks were a constant battle. But gradually that cold, grey capital drew me in and seduced me one day, one month, then one year at a time. I felt like London was the world and the world was at my fingertips.
When I think back I don't dwell on eating tinned tuna for dinner, three pound shoes that fell apart in the rain or flatmates that turned the heating off in winter to save money. I'll laugh when I think of cutting my fringe in the bathroom sink before work to save money, forget how homesick and lonely I felt, or how I never mastered the ability to dress for cold weather. Nor do I dwell on the initial temp jobs in nameless city offices, the relentless job search and moving flats in the rain because I couldn't afford a cab. I won't think about the time I sat on the side of the road with all my possessions stuffed in plastic Poundland carrier bags or the night I got so lost in Oxford Circus, it took me three hours to get home.
I remember how I breezed through the Tube barriers with a subtle tap of my Oyster. Learnt how to weave through heaving crowds of people. Read the Evening Standard in a packed Tube carriage by folding it into an expert-sized section. Mastered applying makeup on the 393 to Highbury and Islington, careful to pause at the right moment for speed bumps. How my walking pace reached record speed, my tolerance for dawdling tourists on Regent Street became non-existent. I reminisce complaining about the weather, avoiding eye contact while commuting, drinking endless cups of tea and knowing the best place for a kebab in east London. I finally know how to pronounce that sweet name 'Haribo' and to deftly avoid piles of vomit on the footpath when walking home.
I miss the peaceful green parks and beautiful old buildings. Late night drives with sparkling city lights and music playing through the rolled down windows in summer. Barbecues in London Fields. Weekend markets. Streaky jet streams across the evening skies. Mid-week gigs. Corner shop chocolate bars. M&S Food, need I say more. Cheap clothes. Bottles of wine with my flatmates on council estate rooftops. The exhibitions, theatre shows, comedy shows, bars, restaurants, clubs, opening parties, going away parties, birthday parties, just any parties.
But most of all I miss the cold days when I would turn my face to the sky, covered with a thick blanket of white clouds. The spindly, grey branches of overhanging trees would rattle and sway in the wind. The endless rows of terrace houses and terracotta chimney pots would open out either side of me, while the dull murmur of high street traffic was carried on the wind. I never felt more happy or more free on those evenings and afternoons I walked home by myself. Nowhere to be, no one to answer to, just walking the long north London streets with music in my ears.
I'll never be grateful enough for all the couches I slept on, the friends shoulders I cried on, suggestions on where to live, where to work and how to open a bank account. Tips on how to navigate the Tube, find the right bus stop, then actually get on the right bus. How to deal with recruitment companies. Where to find the best Sunday roasts. All those small pieces formed the patchwork of my life.
I'll laugh at all the ridiculous adventures; mornings spent hungover at airports, clearing the furniture from our flat to host parties, paddling blow up boats down Regents Canal, chasing squirrels for photos in Hyde Park, mastering tin foil BBQs in the park and being one of thirteen twenty-somethings playing a game of Sardines on a Saturday night in an enormous country mansion.
I saw an image on Instagram a few days ago. It was one of those cringe-worthy inspirational ones, but the quote struck a chord with me. "You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place." And while I'm happy to be home, to ease into a slower pace for the moment, take a break and reconnect with family and friends - London, you mad, eccentric, cold, and outrageously expensive, fun and ridiculous place. You will always have a part of my heart.
Follow Ashleigh Davis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ash_c_davis