Home > London, With Love

London, With Love
Author: Sarra Manning

 

PART ONE

1986

 

 

Chapter 1

September 9th, 1986

High Barnet Station

High Barnet was the end of the line. The end of the Northern Line. Though actually it felt like the beginning of nowhere. It wasn’t even in London.

Jen, trudging up the steep slope from High Barnet station, prided herself on being a Londoner. It was an intrinsic part of who she was, like having blue eyes and not eating any vegetables except tomato and cucumber. Though her dad said that tomatoes were actually a fruit and her mum said that cucumbers were mostly water and had very little nutritional value and maybe she could just try a courgette, which was a bit like a cucumber and a valuable source of vitamin C and potassium. To which, Jen countered that if she needed vitamin C, she’d eat an orange. (Being argumentative was also an intrinsic part of who she was.)

When it came to being a Londoner, although Jen liked to think that she was a child of the mean streets of the inner city and the grimy alleys of Soho, the sad truth was that she lived in an outer London suburb. Mill Hill. It did have a London postcode, but the little 1930s semi where Jen lived with her mother and father and her hell-spawnish twin brothers was practically on the last street in London before London became Hertfordshire.

And while she might have gone to school in London, she’d actually chosen to do her A levels at Barnet College. In Hertfordshire. But Jen had decided that she wasn’t going to let that define her.

During the summer holidays, Jen had decided a lot of things and they all centred on her becoming someone new.

For instance, she’d stopped being Jennifer and become Jen.

Jen.

There was something uncompromising yet mysterious about Jen. Those stark three letters could contain multitudes (or at least Jen hoped that they might).

There had been seven Jennifers in her year at school, but they’d all been called Jenny whether they liked it or not. She’d been Jenny R to most of her classmates and Jenny the Ginge to the gang of girls who’d done their best to ensure that if your schooldays really were the best days of your life, then Jen was due a refund. Besides, she wasn’t even ginger. Her hair was auburn. Dark auburn. The same dark auburn as beechnuts or even conkers, but that wasn’t the sort of subtle distinction you could point out when five girls were dogging your footsteps along corridors that reeked of disinfectant and boiled meat, chanting your name as you stood shivering behind a towel in the changing rooms and cornering you at the bus-stop.

No wonder Jen had read up everything she could on rheumatoid arthritis and had managed to convince the head of PE that her knees were crumbling and instead of netball or rounders, her time could be put to better use in the school library with an improving book.

That was all in the past. School was a memory. A series of unpleasant incidents Jen had already started to refashion and reframe into a handful of amusing stories that masked all the pain and loneliness of her early adolescence.

Now Jen could be the person she’d tried on at weekends and within the walls of her tiny box bedroom in that little mock Tudor house where daily life was punctuated by the steady roar of the motorway at the bottom of the garden and beyond the motorway, the railway lines.

Jen had moulded her new self from every book that she’d ever loved, from Ballet Shoes to The Bell Jar, and all the songs she listened to on the John Peel show on a tinny transistor radio under the covers. But new Jen had only been fully realised a few short days ago after a shopping trip, funded by the money she’d saved from babysitting and a summer holiday job in a photocopying shop in Edgware. There’d also been a one-off clothing allowance from her parents, who knew they’d lucked out in the genetic lottery with their eldest child and only daughter. Yes, Jen was argumentative and from an alarmingly young age had specialised in flouncing out of rooms, stomping up the stairs, and slamming her bedroom door but that was the worst of it. She tolerated her younger brothers, Martin and Tim, she’d come in from school and after doing her homework, would make a start on cooking (a vegetable-free) dinner and as she’d failed to make any real or meaningful friendships at school, she rarely went out. Without any pernicious peer pressure, Jen had never drunk alcohol, smoked or hung around with boys in parks and railway stations. Or got pregnant by one of those boys.

So there’d been only mild dissent from her mother at what Jen considered an essential college wardrobe. A prized pair of Levi’s 501s, turned up twice to show to better advantage her new eight-hole, black Dr Martens boots, two stripy T-shirts, a collection of garish patterned skirts and dresses from charity shops, which her grandmother had taken up for her so they came to that sweet spot between the knee and mid-thigh. There was also a huge baggy Aran cardigan purloined from her dad’s wardrobe along with the Crombie coat he’d worn when he was a teenager. Completing the transformation was a full collection of Seventeen make-up from Boots (no more using the Marks & Sparks palettes that she got every Christmas) along with the usual back to school kit: pencils, pens, notebooks and folders.

Jen was wearing her DMs, Levi’s and a Smiths T-shirt with the cardigan today and lightly perspiring as she walked past a chip shop, past the Courthouse, past a newsagent’s. Early September was too warm for a very hairy, very heavy wool cardigan but Jen had wanted to make a great first impression. Because today truly was the first day of the rest of her life. School was behind her. Ahead of Jen was the freeform, organic life of college. There were no timetables, nobody taking the register or shouting at you for running down the corridors.

It was a whole new beginning. Or it was meant to be, except an hour later, as the A level English literature class gathered in a first-floor room in the main college building, Jen felt like she might just as well be invisible. No one seemed to notice her at all, even though she’d purposely placed a copy of Bonjour Tristesse in the original French on the table in front of her. She’d found it in a charity shop in Paddington and though she’d got a B for her French O level, she was struggling to make much sense of les travailles de Cecile. But what was the point of pretending to read Bonjour Tristesse in French if no one was there to see Jen do it and think to themselves, Oh my God, that girl is so mysterious, so fascinating, so cool? I must become friends with her immediately.

Unlike school with its old-fashioned desks with inkwells and lift-up lids arranged in serried rows, the tables and chairs were arranged in a haphazard horseshoe with their tutor (no teachers here) at the front. There were twenty students, two to a table – Jen was sharing hers with Miguel, a strapping, biracial boy with an easy, drawly American accent, who had angled his chair away from hers so he could trade insults with his friends at the next table.

Jen kept her eyes down and focussed on the other book she’d brought with her, a copy of Longman English Series: Poetry 1900 to 1975. In the orientation pack that had been posted out, they’d been instructed to choose a poem from the anthology that spoke directly to them.

Jen rested her chin on her hand as she listened to most people rattle through the rhymes and rhythms of John Betjemen’s verse. ‘A Subaltern’s Love Song’ was proving particularly popular. One boy, Rob, a raw-boned, sultry-lipped youth with a quiff, insisted on reading ‘This Be The Verse’ by Philip Larkin even though it wasn’t one of their set poems ‘because they’ve fucked me up, my mum and dad.’

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