Every time I return to the city of my birth, I prepare for a hectic and joyful flurry of visiting—my mother’s sister and brother, cousins (or as we say in India, cousin-sisters and brothers), their children and grandchildren, and old friends—friends of my parents from before my birth, their children, who go back with me to the beginning, and a small number of friends who have either migrated to Britain from the Indian Subcontinent or whom I have got to know over the years during one of my extended stays. I ache for London when I am away from it and certain places in it (Hampstead Heath, Kentish Town, Camden Town) have an almost magical resonance for me, but as I plan to return once again, this time after six long years, I am reminded that it is people, as always, who matter the most. This time though, it will be the people who have passed away during the intervening six years who are uppermost in my mind: for I will return to a landscape without them in it. This time, no one defines London more by her absence than my mother’s oldest and dearest friend Lily.
Over the years I have visited Lily at a succession of different houses, in Highgate, Haringey, Kentish Town—just a short walk from where Mum and she were born, in adjacent streets—and Regents Park. We have met for lunch or coffee in Hampstead, shopped for boots at Camden Lock (Lily had impeccable taste), or just sat companionably over tea in her living room and talked about everything, from difficulties with family to personal fears to favorite musicians (hers were Pat Metheny and Miles Davis), books, and writers. In retrospect, it was probably I who talked, mostly, and she who listened.
I never made elaborate plans in advance to meet Lily, simply let her know when I was coming and arranged to meet once I had visited all my aunts, uncles, and cousins. In fact, on one visit I surprised her by just turning up at her door unannounced. If she was put out she didn’t show it; she seemed unflappable, which was balm to me after the high drama that always attended my family relations. Although we were as close and went back as far as any member of my mother’s family, she shuddered at the thought of my calling her “Auntie” and strictly forbade it, saying that it made her feel old. So from my teen years on, she was always just Lily, who never judged or patronized me, never presumed to tell me what to do, but always listened, with brief responses that were absolutely on the mark. And she told me what to read.
Lily was a voracious and discerning reader who had her finger on the intellectual pulse of the city. She seemed to know everyone, had entertained Natalie Wood back in the day, had taken a creative writing class with Beryl Bainbridge before Bainbridge wrote her first novel, and had an impressive knowledge of the music and culture of our generation as well. Now that I look back, I realize that I counted on her to let me know what I had missed since I had last been in London, and to point me in the right direction for catching up. Only now do I realize that it was Lily who introduced me to the writers and ideas that have become the subject matter of my scholarly work and the touchstones of my sense of belonging in the world. Only now, after she is gone, do I realize that it was Lily who turned me on to Doris Lessing (“If you liked The Summer Before the Dark, that’s nothing compared to The Golden Notebook”) in the Spring of 1974 when I was studying in London and trying to read all the contemporary British fiction that I could (see TMA #135, Doris Lessing and Me); Lily (as well as my dear Uncle Ted) who sent us a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in the early 1980s, soon after its publication; Lily who, on hearing in 1990 that I was interested in Black British writing, sent me to Compendium bookshop to pick up a copy of Peter Fryer’s Staying Power; The History of Black People in Britain. Who else of my mother’s generation in England read all Maya Jaggi’s book reviews in The Guardian as well as remembering what life was like before the War? How is it that only now, as I try to process the shocking news of her death, do I see what a critical role she played in my intellectual development?
Lily had been my mother’s best friend from childhood. They were born months apart in the late 1920s and grew up together in the same working-class neighborhood of Kentish Town, North London. They aced their Eleven-plus exam together, went off to Grammar School at Parliament Hill School together (well, six months apart, but that’s another story), were both evacuated from London, along with their school, to live with different foster families in St. Albans during the bombing, left school together, got their first jobs at the same time, and went to the movies and out dancing together a couple of times a week. It was indirectly through Mum that Lily met and fell in love with Leon, the man she married; Mum met Dad around the same time and marriage was soon to take her away from England and Lily, but they remained close friends, writing to each other, exchanging cards, and getting together every time we returned.
After global communications became easier, Lily would always ring on my mother’s birthday and Mum would do the same on hers. She even came to visit in America once or twice, and Mum made a big fuss of her. She loved Lily, and always respected and admired her as well, her intelligence and dry wit, her beauty, sophistication, and style. Perhaps in her mind Lily had the life that she sometimes felt she would have liked to have lived if she had stayed in England rather than uprooting and traveling across three continents. In any case, whenever I visited Lily in London I couldn’t escape the feeling that somehow it should have been my mother, not me, who was enjoying tea with her in her sunny and elegant living room (no one else we knew, before or since, had a chaise longue). But it wasn’t my mother, of course; it was me.
Now, as I prepare once again to return to London, the city will present me with a bleaker, more impersonal face. Doris Lessing died in November at age 94, and though I have mourned her, the loss will come home to me again as I ramble over the Heath in Hampstead as she did so often (and where my mother once happened to see her, walking on the Heath herself—with Lily, I shouldn’t wonder). Lily died several months before Doris Lessing, although I still don’t know the date; as things turned out we didn’t receive the sad news until some time after Christmas. I will try to visit her daughter and son, whom I haven’t seen for many years and but nonetheless feel a kinship with. Even as I look forward eagerly to meeting my beloved friends and family, I can’t help feeling a certain dread, because for the first time I will be returning to a London without Lily.