One from the archives of the old blog, posted 14.06.2013
To pull a reference from Alice Hoffman’s The Improbable Future, it has been a weekend of the rains. Fish rain, sluicing dark and green in the gutters; the pale yellow daffodil rain, which floats as webs from a silvery sky and causes my hair to bunch up like bed springs. My old home town always seems full of rain, of many distinct colours and attitudes; particularly around this time of year, when the humidity from the river causes the air itself to turn faintly green, and the buddleia along the old railway line to sway regally with the weight of its own sweetness. It smells like liquorice, in the summer haze.
I am back in town, to find quiet inside. To hunt down demons, long sat on my shoulders and now fleeing for their lives. I find my heart hurts with every street corner, every familiar face that has aged and somehow still remains encoded with the memory of me. I have probably changed the most, of anyone. No longer the wasted wraith of a girl who, four years ago, had built up enough wellness to profess herself in love, ready to start anew elsewhere, to escape the small-town mentality which had dogged her heels and mindset since childhood.
Of course, no one can run forever. Demons aren’t choosy about location. It’s only when we stop, stand and turn to face them, that we find their faces are disturbingly familiar.
I should’ve known I was only running from myself by the bitter cramp in my chest, walking the old twittens under the strange half-light that always seems to hover over the Downs, on days when the sky is an upended lake.
I clattered up and down cobbled streets, thin as my arm; turned corners, to chase wavering ghosts of old friends long gone across the world. Stood on the bridge overlooking the river, seeing its green-gold sluice of old tides and new, remembering the hot afternoon when I stood here at age 17 with a boy who would love me and only ever be a friend; how we’d joked about snagging one of the many sailing boats hooked along the bank, to freeload our way to the sea. We almost jumped in the water, the air was crackling with that raw summer static that makes kids dream of crazy things, while the adults actually enact them.
I think they call that “living the dream”, but don’t quote me on it.
I almost climbed the railings to seek the water’s burning touch, but the crowds nearby weren’t who I was looking for. Their indifference wouldn’t solve anything, or parcel away a memory for good.
My old college town is simple and antiquated in its beauty, haunted by more ghosts than the faces of the living. I found them at the college point where, aged 16 and already riddled up with raw bones and wary eyes, I’d stood in the brassy September light and waited to enrol for courses I wasn’t sure I cared enough about to complete. Everything feels like a good idea in the spring. Autumn has an unnerving habit of marking the grave of dreams, and for me, 2001 was no exception.
Still, wandering the streets full of intermittent leaden squalls and flowery mist, I found a quiet peace inside, even as my heart ached. I reaffirmed my presence in this place, this town with its sudden sound of gulls, ancient street names, house-of-cards architecture. Grey stones, yellow sky, still more buddleia to fill my throat with sweet fire. They always grow in abundance along the river, towards the marshlands. I found my boots clumping towards the cliffs, hunched as they were in the distant mist, a reluctantly fond set to the shoulders of some gruff old relative waiting for me to get my shit together, and come say Hello.
Finally alone, I set my face to the coastal wind and let the thoughts come. How my father would be gutted to learn I have been in town, and not visited. How I have a backlog of people I am supposed to see, to reminisce and share future dreams with. How small and inarticulate my old family home had looked, stood in the rain with me on the pavement, darkened by the ever-taller treeline in the back garden. I used to sit on my windowsill under the stars, swinging my legs to empty air and filling my ears with sweeter sounds than that of my parents arguing downstairs. I’d itch to jump right out of that window, and my own skin. But running away through the heavy night, only brought its own troubles. Had I not chosen to run with a particular crowd …
Biting down on such thoughts, brings a foil-tang to the teeth. But it’s essential to letting go. The teeth don’t have to stay clenched, as mine have been all these years. I let the matter drop into the river, to fall in the mud. The silver-yellow sky beamed, with its wavering sun; the buddleia nodded and winked wetly, filling my nose with purple.
Standing on the rain-dark street before my old house, I saw again my older sister getting ready for nights-out, heard my father’s sullen excuse for love as he grumbled about her getting like her mother, the inference being forever a negative blow now that the decree nisi had come through. My father struggled to articulate his raging grief; back then, he was unable to find in himself the means to apologise for misdemeanours, his own youthful mistakes and controlling nature. I will never forget his tears, in the odd moments of clarity, when late at night we’d duet over our guitars.
I have heard he’s a changed man. I’m still trying to find the courage inside to forgive him. I know it’s there, waiting in maturity’s wings, emboldened by having to play for a larger audience these days. I must grow up myself, and be strong.
At some point, the buck has to stop. We can continue to blame our pasts for who we are – parents, circumstances, filthy actions and hope-breaking lies. We can allow the demons to foster fear in our hearts; keep turning from where we began, to run across the face of the world with all her indifferent woes and palaces and bins and railroads. I can latch all of my social insecurities onto the footloose manner in which we lived, when Dad was in the RAF and my small roots were constantly dug up. I can blame his loud silence and my mother’s shouting, his stubbornness and her golden rage.
But they were not infallible, as I once thought. They were muddling along in the same way that all young parents will. Had I known this as a teenager, I might have been kind. I might not have disappeared into the lamplight haven, to make them notice that I had gone.
Or perhaps not. Kindness and consideration have been a painful process, through experience; I still have much to learn.
Turn and turn again, the same vicious things hunt us down – but I am ready now to pull teeth. I return to my old home town as a writer, and a woman at last. No longer the anorexic, the child-shadow with cracked feet and downcast eyes. I have far-flung friends to thank for each new spark of hope and inspiration.
(Not that I could explain this adequately to anyone who hasn’t experienced how it feels, to stand before the world and upend your thoughts into its collective ear, and to be heard.
I am coming to terms with the fact that I do not have to agree with others all the time. Once the world has been embraced, with all of its complexities and influences, we are changed as people. I know I’m not so glass-half-empty as that time in my youth, so bothered by certain mindsets that it was presumed I would adhere to by default. Friends and family can provide us with an early format, but may never fully understand the finished program.
The guilt that so plagued me as a child – for bringing books to the dining table and to family outings, for being unable to hold a conversation longer than five minutes with anyone except my Nanna, who is herself a shadow on the wall – is finally seeping away. Finding like-minded introverts has been as much an awakening as a burial of deep-seated fears about myself. I was raised to dote on my family, to trust them as bed rock. When that split down the middle with my parent’s divorce, and bad feelings leaked out, the world became darker.
I feel I may yet be able to return here again. Residual fears were washed away with dreams for the future; the landscape is as lovely as ever, and holds a fresh poignancy with the collision of memories, which accordion-pleat on themselves. Childhood and teen years, anorexia-fever (over a decade long) and – in the last four years – a cautious opening of my wings to the light of the world, and to love (now dulled in the face of the world, blunted by this year’s unhappy times – probably the greatest tragedy of all, though we remain friends yet.)
Passing a beer garden, I’d find those rusty-light afternoons spent nattering over a pint or three, whiling away the all-too-brief weekend visits. Long-distance went to long-term.
I wave at these new ghosts with the fondness of one who once thought she knew what the word Pain meant. But we keep on relearning ourselves.
These memories, I hold high to the southern wind that has the voice of the gulls, wheeling over the steel river; I set their message to flight.
I may yet call in on my father, before heading home.