Sultry and empty: a city you can call your own

Julie Myerson savours London for the month of August
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The Independent Travel
London in August - for those savvy enough to remain on its dusty, oblivious streets - seems a bit like New York. It has a similar edge and ache. You do what you like, when and if you like and then change your mind at the last minute. You don't have to queue or talk to anyone (they're mostly foreign anyway) or book in advance. The pavements are hot and hazy and everyone you know is away in a rented Norman gite, or on a blowy Cornish beach, or a last-minute package deal to Rejkavik. You can own the city, make yourself at home.

I first arrived in London in the long, slow middle of August. I was 23 and didn't have a clue about the capital's different months and moods. I came from a place where you grew up knowing everyone on the late-night buses and I craved the promised romance of the rat race, the decadence of anonymity.

I had one duffel bag and - thanks to a gracelessly endured secretarial course - a Job. My flatshare was in Kensington, rented from the sister of a friend of a friend - and was inhabited by Pam, a physiotherapist, and Grace, a waitress and would-be punk rock musician.

Grace served pancakes on the King's Road. Her hair was jet black ("Should I go back to blonde?" she demanded as soon as I put down my bag) and her fingernails gleamed black, too.

Come on, what should she do? Go back to St Albans and get married, or chuck in the pancakes and try to make it in the music business?

Like many uneasy extroverts, she revealed herself to be as lonely as me and we often wandered the sultry, empty streets together, exhausted and dazzled by the loud August light, reading our star signs in humid laundrettes.

The flat - a basement - was dark and stuffy: the windows barred, the obstinate, heavily upholstered rooms lit by bronze candelabra-style lights with leaves that peeled down like banana skins. At the end of the hall was a cluster of Harrods carrier bags stuffed with size 4 1/2 reptile- skin shoes, belonging to no one knew who. My room was at the end of the corridor, partitioned off from the bathroom. Water belched and gurgled all night.

Pam was "away" and Grace worked shifts, so I was frequently alone in the evenings, padding around on the thick, wine-stained beige carpets, listening to the hot, dark noises on the pavements above my head.

I didn't mind that I had no friends. I walked, got my shoes re-heeled a lot, eked out cappucinos in deserted cafes, day dreamed on chilly marble gallery seats, did everything that was free - and then went back and did it again.

Sometimes I got on the tube and rode the Piccadilly Line from South Ken to Russell Square and back again. The August tube stations were cool, yawning holes; I was an anonymous city dweller. My heart cantered at the mere thought.

In those first August days, I always set off an hour early for work. I told myself it was in case I got lost, but actually it was a mixture of creeping loneliness and the idea of that empty, languorous city out there, tempting me.

In Covent Garden, everything was still and closed, the pavements giving up their early morning smells of cleaning fluid, office workers snatching brief fags in shop doorways. One day as I passed the usual French Patisserie, a young man stuck his hand out of the pavement hatch and called me in and offered me a just-baked croissant on the house.

Too green to know this wasn't normal for London (though maybe it was normal for August), I went eagerly down the steps to a baking basement kitchen. Del clocked on at six each morning to turn on the massive steel patisserie ovens and had seen me passing more than once. He'd left New Zealand two months before and knew no one in the city and had wondered why I always looked so worried.

I explained I was still finding my way to work and he lent me his A-Z and showed me I was getting off the tube two stops too early for the South Bank. I continued to get off early anyway and kept him company for half an hour each morning as he flipped the croissants over on to their flaky, golden bellies. Then one day his French girlfriend turned up.

I don't know what happened to Del, or to Grace. But I became a Londoner and remain affectionately in thrall to this city in its Empty, Abandoned Mouth.

"Are you going away?" everyone says and, "When are you off?", "Don't you just have to get out in August?" - and I say no actually, we're all staying right here.

My man goes to the Test Match and my children and I roam tranquil streets whose edges are frilled with unhurried cafes and fruitstalls, and stacked banana boxes. We enjoy the smell of scorched pavements hosed down on hot mornings, the lavish, dingy cool of museums where you can wander peacefully for hours among dinosaur bones and meteorites.

The loneliness is all gone, but now and then little things jangle: the blue-burnt rush of wind from the underground, a waiter's teenaged face, the crunchy, singed smell of a laundrette, a bleakly wealthy Queens Gate Mews. And then I'm back, pounding these streets with no money or friends but a heap of excitement, always - rightly - convinced my life is waiting for me round some stifling, windy corner.

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