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Home Coming

Home Coming: Pinner, in Suburban North London

An intimate tour of one writer's hometown, one early encounter of death at a time.

by Michael Segalov; photos by Chris Bethell
04 July 2019, 9:17am

Photos: Chris Bethell

It's 8PM, it's dark and I'm sitting on a bench at the top of a hill around the corner from the house I grew up in. I'm crying. My mum is with me, watching me cry.

These aren't tears I recognise: not the like the ones that poured out when I watched the Lion King, nor like those that appeared when I got lost in Disneyland Paris one deeply traumatising afternoon as a child. They're not even like the tears I cried when my grandma died. These are different: tears I can't control or explain; tears that feel both painful and cleansing to let out.

I'm halfway through my first year of university and have come home unannounced to see my parents in Pinner, the quiet north-west London suburb I've lived my entire life. I'm trying to work out how to tell my mum – who, by this point, is getting increasingly worried, and a little impatient – that I'm gay. It will be the first time she's heard me say it, but it'll also be the first time those words have crossed my lips. Saying it out loud feels important to me, like self-acceptance.

A week or so ago I had my first proper romantic encounter with a boy – one I couldn't write off because I was drunk or abroad or because "it really doesn't count if it's in a grotty tent at Reading Festival". This one had confirmed everything I already knew, and the next morning we were both still there: I could no longer run away. Somewhat bafflingly – rather than go out and explore my sexuality, celebrate my newfound freedom – I've decided to trundle back to this sleepy corner of Harrow to tell my mum all about it. I cry some more.

When I finally spit it out, mum's just relieved I'm not dying. Her response is underwhelming, really, given the performance I've just put on. My sleeves are sodden, my nose still snivelling, and she’s asking if I've been going to my lectures. I want to be misunderstood and to shout about my feelings and to cry more. She wants to go home and listen to The Archers and have some dinner. In this moment, she's perfect.

man on pinner train station

Back then, I didn't really understand what was happening, why my body went into autopilot – jumping on a train from my uni campus outside Brighton to this spot in Pinner – without explaining itself to my brain.

I've thought long and hard since then – eight years ago – about why exactly I ended up on that bench. The bench I'd smoked my first joints on; the bench I'd comforted my friend on when their dad had passed away. It's the bench I'd once "run away" to, when I planned to start a new life aged nine, but returned from before anyone was even aware that I'd left, after it became apparent that living on a bench as a nine-year-old probably wasn't much of a plan.

For a long time I believed it was because there, on that bench, I felt comfortable. It was only quite recently it dawned on me that perhaps it was actually the opposite. The streets of my childhood represented everything that my sexuality back then called into question: the wife, the kids, the Jewish community. They reminded me of the unrequited and unexpressed crushes of my school days, the teenage love affairs I'd missed out on.

Now, I think that when I took myself back to Pinner that night, I was actually saying goodbye to the life I'd always assumed lay before me.

pizza express pinner

Nestled in the outer reaches of Zone 5, Pinner is sort of in London, but it's also sort of not. There are red buses and you can vote in the London Mayoral elections, but there are also fields and everyone calls it a village and it's basically impossible to get public transport after midnight.

As a kid I always envied people who either lived in the centre of London or in the countryside proper; in my mind their lives and identities were defined by a place, whether "city" or "country". As children in Pinner we had neither easy access to the culture and excitement that the heart of the capital offered, nor the endless forests full of adventures to be had out in the sticks: it was just somewhere in the middle. Suburban. Pleasant and mild.

pinner high street

Today, when I jump off the tube and wonder through the dimly-lit labyrinth that connects the station to Pinner's high street – essentially a stretch of betting shops and Italian chain restaurants – I can't help but think the opposite is true.

Here, I got to understand the ways of the city. I could go to Camden Market and eat Japanese food and meet people from different backgrounds, and then retreat back home when I wanted to escape the crowds. Suburbia also afforded me a much longer period of innocence in my early years than I'd have probably had in Zone 1, or even Zone 2. Life was calmer and quieter and safer, and I'm grateful for that time. I was sheltered, and shelter was nice.

man sitting on bench

I first encountered death in the park at the top of my road. I was ten, and was taking Sam – our golden Labrador – for a walk, all by myself. Sam arrived in our house as a rescue dog when I was little, and he'd been my best friend throughout my earliest years. At first he was very excitable, loved to run and used to knock (a much smaller) me over with his wagging tail. By the time I'd hit ten he was older and slower and a little bit fat.

Anyway, we were in the park and we were halfway through the walk and he had stopped. As we made our way along a path – the playground in sight – he looked at me warmly and then slumped a bit. Then he lay down and gave off the impression he really would quite like to never move again. Instead, he'd just stay here in the park he’d spent a lifetime running, playing and shitting in.

I tried to make him stand up a few times, but he wouldn't. Putting him on a lead and dragging him also didn't help. This hadn't happened before. I stopped for a minute and took it all in. It’s like we both knew this was the end. And so I sat down next to him and stroked him and hugged him. I told him he was my best friend and that we loved him, and that if it was his time then it was his time.

pinner north london

A few minutes passed. He was still. I took off his lead, looked down at his now limp body, cried a bit and whispered a final goodbye to my friend. I turned to walk back to the house, to tell my mum and my dad and my sister that I'd seen Sam off into whatever awaited him. I felt like I’d matured in that second: three years before my bar mitzvah and I'd already become a man. I would walk home, comfort my sobbing family and tell them Sam was now at peace.

As I made it to the corner I turned back to take a look at Sam's lifeless body for a final time. He was having a piss against a tree, very much alive. We walked home.

man sitting in front of church

Whenever I'd come back to visit Pinner from university I'd keep my head down as my train pulled into the station, desperate to avoid seeing anyone I even vaguely knew. On campus I was confident, verging on arrogant. I was quite popular and generally happy. I got involved in some protests and pierced my ears. I fell in love, briefly, and started writing. I was even one of those attention-seeking do-gooders who ran to be an elected officer at my student union (and I won). But when I'd get to Pinner I'd feel anxious until I was safely back in the confines of my parents house. This carried on for a couple of years after I graduated – I'm still not entirely sure why.

Maybe it was because I suddenly felt like that weird teenage boy again when I arrived here, a kid who didn't understand haircuts or fashion or music or what it meant to be cool. I didn't have a particularly bad time at school, but I can't say they were the best years of my life. A handful of guys took a disliking to me, and I was probably quite insufferable a lot of the time, which didn't help. It's possible I feared bumping into one of those guys, who'd remind me of the weird, awkward schoolboy I once was.

Maybe it was because, by the age of 19, my political views had diverged somewhat from those of many in the often insular community I'd grown up in. By the time I’d finished my first year of university I was quite vocal about not liking Tories, and when it came to Israel/Palestine I didn't quite tow the United Synagogue line. Once I moved to east London after graduating, I started discussing my views in articles, on TV and online. I suppose it's possible I just didn’t want to be confronted with someone from the community giving me a dirty look, or wanting to tell me loudly and publicly why it is very, very bad that I don't inherently hate Jeremy Corbyn.

Maybe it was because, despite the fact I'd come out to my friends and to my family, and had written about being gay quite publicly, I still didn’t really want to have to acknowledge it with anyone I knew growing up. Doing so meant I had to think back to a time in which I hid a big part of myself. Plonk me in a room with a stranger now and I’ll wang on for hours about LGBT rights and "the community", but the idea of having to say "queer" in front of someone I went to after-school club with filled me with dread for a very long time.

fish and chips pinner

Maybe it doesn't really matter, because I don’t feel like that anymore. Today, I walk along the high street and past a green where I'd occasionally sit and read as a kid, and then I walk up to the bench I did all that crying on. There’s a new fence there blocking off the field. If I see someone I recognise, I think to myself, I'll say hello and smile at them. I walk to the park where my dog didn’t die, and to the family home (now sold) I grew up in, down past the library and the synagogue and into the chip shop.

Chris – who owns the chip shop – still remembers me. He says he sees me talking about politics on TV sometimes, but he can never hear me because the sound is always on mute on the chip shop telly. I laugh and say that's probably for the best.

memorial park pinner

I sit on the floor in the Memorial Park by the pond while toddlers feed the ducks and teenagers flirt, dogs chase tennis balls and older people sit in the new cafe drinking tea. I feel relaxed; like, if I wanted to, I could belong here.

I think I stopped wanting to hide when I went back to my old school to give a lecture to the sixth formers. A few stops away on the train from Pinner is Watford, where you’ll find the partially-selective state boys school at which I spent seven years of my life. Every Friday afternoon the sixth formers would come back from lunch (often stoned) and half-listen to an invited speaker talk about their work or their life for a bit. One week last year I was asked to do it. I talked about politics and climate change and social justice, and said "shit" from the lectern, which I thought would make the boys like me, and it worked. I thought about what I would have liked to have heard at their age: that they should learn to care about others; that, when planning their futures, they should explore and take their time.

And then I mentioned in passing, as if it was no big deal, that I was gay. For a moment, I was nervous: how would this room of teenage boys react? Turns out: not at all. There was no gasp, no heckles, no giggling. I looked out at them, a sea of eyes respectfully looking back. I felt powerful, stood up there, saying those three words in a place where for so many years I’d felt too afraid and too weak to utter them, opting to keep myself hidden instead. I’d always regretted not coming out at school, and now I sort of had done. There was closure – I could let it go and move on.

man on tube

Since that day, everything has felt different when I come back to Pinner. I no longer hide. I’m not embarrassed by the schoolboy I was and I’m not ashamed of my sexuality, beliefs or choices either. I’m grateful for the life this place allowed me to lead; it shaped me. I don’t feel like being gay excludes me from the potential of having the things a teenage me said goodbye to when I sat on that bench that night in tears, even if I don't want them right now.

When I look out at the young and the old of Pinner, here by the pond in the Memorial Park, I'm not filled by a sadness that this isn’t the backdrop of my life, of my future. I’m confident that I could make space for myself here, if I desired, in a place I once feared could never accept me. I could one day find shelter here – because shelter, sometimes, is still nice.

@MikeSegalov / @christopherbethell