South Woodford - the east London suburb I grew up in - is a quiet neighbourhood, free of the sometimes-oppressive crowds of central London. And yet every time I go back to visit, it seems to me brimming with life. There are people, people, everywhere, but, oh- they are invisible to everyone else. You see, Woodford is peopled with the cheerful ghosts of my happy childhood years, and every time I go back they are always there to welcome me. I am jostled at every turn by a little figure in a blue and white checkered school uniform dress with her black hair in two little plaits, or by her friends, racing down the street to see who would be the "rotten egg" for that afternoon. Little ghost Yuries greet me at every new street - there's one reading by the alligator bookshelf just inside the big windows of the library, there's another queueing to buy an ice lolly from the ice cream van, there's one excitedly rushing to push a child-sized shopping trolley inside Waitrose, and - hallo, what have we here? - Yurie and a whole army of merry little ghosts marching out of the Pizza Express, proudly carrying the pizzas they each made all by themselves on what was undoubtedly the best class trip ever.
It's impossible that going back to visit Woodford can be anything other than a happy experience for me when the place is crowded with the memories and people (both invisible and visible) of my happy early years. We are drawn to revisit places of personal joys, not necessarily with the expectation that we will experience the same feelings and relive everything over when we go back, but because just being there is joy enough. I know that I am privileged to have been able to visit so many times since moving away permanently, and each visit is like walking through the pages of a giant photo album of my childhood, except that the subjects in the pictures cannot be seen with the eye, and all the pages from different years blur together.
It is selfish of me, but I am glad to come back and find that things are mostly the same. That most of my friends and their families still live at the same address, that the Churchfields schoolchildren still wear the same uniform that I did, that the Odeon is still where people watch their movies, that the South Woodford tube station is still mostly empty and peaceful. But really, it would be ridiculous to have expected anything else. Children have been walking down Churchfields Road to go to school every morning for generations, and I'm certain the Odeon and most of the pubs are older than I am. When it comes down to it, my nine years in Woodford was just a passing through, of sorts, just a blip on the life and history of the place, and though my life changed radically and brought me to all sorts of unexpected places (I still marvel, now and then, that I ended up in California) after I left, the life of Woodford continued on in the same trajectory it has followed for years and will continue to follow. Which, as I said, is only cause for happiness for me. It is nice to come back to the familiar.
Most of all though, I am glad that the friendships I developed in Woodford are still intact ten years after I left. That it is not just little ghosts I come back to, but real, flesh-and-blood friends with whom I can catch up on our experiences of the past four, five, seven, ten years, and in whom I can still see the kindred spirit that caused us to first say to each other, "Want to play a game with me?" in the school playground all those years ago.