I revisited an old place last night, a thought and a memory from long ago, when I was a person… on the ebb-tide of Europe. Five years old, and recently returned to the UK to start again. I already missed the crisp mountain air and the silence around snow; the lean-dark nights and echoing silence beneath the pines.
Austria. Germany. Norway (sleeping with the blinds drawn against the pale light, with eye masks soft over our noses.)
When Dad left the RAF, we had settled in a small English town at the end of a railway line, an hour or so from the capital, a mile and many from the places I had once known as Home. I took to wandering off down the twisting paths, with their sun-cracked tarmac and aching sepia shadows.
I already missed that wider world.
It revisits me in dreams, which were once memories. They bleed into one another until I can’t tell what is false and what is real, as with everyday life. Some things I know for sure, with photographs in faded albums to back up their facts in a glossy sheen of my father’s deft camerawork. He carried that heavy thing slung about his neck on a strap, took it wherever we went on our holiday-travels in the car, which was all we could afford. I still, to this day, don’t know how much of those travels were to do with his work.
But we were a family of four. Climbing hills and camping beneath mountains made of dark glass and rock, under skies you could shatter with a pinprick. My mother wore her champagne hair in long curls, and carried me on her back. My sister’s hair was attempting to grow out from the rugged crop she’d got around age three; those straight pale locks were never the same again. We trudged up and down the white Austrian slopes with our steel-shod wooden sledges, which would never get past Health and Safety tests now; I wore a Michelin-Man suit of red and blue, with pink mittens and snow boots with white kid lining. I was so proud of these – they had been my sister’s, until she outgrew them. I got most of her hand-me-downs, unless we were “gifted” with identikit outfits by our grandparents. They loved to see little girls dressed in gingham and plaid.
I beg to differ.
But those dresses did stop me being mistaken for a boy all the time, with my short-cropped hair and skinny frame.
We’d race each other through plumes of silver breath, rolling and skidding, while our parents slid gracefully past on their skis. It was another world, another time, full of very straight roads with sharp right-angle corners, elegant steel ‘n stone infrastructure, mixed up with beloved architecture that told their own quiet tales of tradition. Soft gingerbread rooftops and quaint gables, gothic spikes and dark-eye windows. A world of Germanic and Slavic fairytales, forests and fate (lots of death) and magic.
Last night, I watched an old favourite film, firmly bound up in childhood but vague in terms of my full appreciation of it. I hadn’t seen An American Tail since I was eight, though it was often played at my Nanna’s house when we went to visit. The historical and political themes had gone quite over my head (as I’m fairly sure they would for most kids.) I had to blink and look again when it came to the stinging truth of the dangers and difficulties facing Jewish immigrants from central and eastern Europe, bound for America. Stuck among the singing and dancing, it all seemed a bit …
Well, you can fill in with your own words. I did laugh to recognize where “The Giant Mouse of Minsk” had got its name. But my skin riddled up to finally understand the opening scenes of violence that drove the Mousekewitzes and their human counterparts from Shoskta, as part of the anti-Jewish pogroms. I hadn’t known because no one had told me, no one in my family thought to mention it, though they couldn’t possibly have failed to notice the connections. Likewise, on the one occasion the film was shown in my old primary school, there was no mention of the protagonists being Jewish, or of the persecution they had faced.
It would have made a difference to know.
The film aside, this appears to be a recurring theme in adulthood. So much is missing in mind and memory – whether through daydreaming in class (likely) or the subjects being entirely omitted from each year’s history curriculum. Important dates have come up, I’ve been well enough to acknowledge them, but have found myself with empty holes where details should have been.
It’s true, we never stop learning. It’s only in recent years that I’ve managed to piece together more complete and complex pictures and timelines: of the First and Second World Wars, the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire, the Cold War and the Soviet Union … among many other things, across the world.
I could have told you about spits and spots: about Egyptian hieroglyphics and Stone Henge, about the Victorians, how to use old teabags to brown-up paper to make “papyrus scrolls.” I could have told you about the war poets.
But I didn’t know about the significance of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, or Yalta, or the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. I learned about the Holocaust mostly through my own research (with a lot of help from Art Spiegelman’s Maus) and about Weimar Germany and hyperinflation from A Level Film Studies – where it was necessary to have a grounding in the historical context of the Expressionist films we were studying.
But is it possible that I fucked around so much in classes that I missed some rather crucial points in human history? Were they even taught then – should they have been? Are these subjects the preserve of further and higher education? (I lasted nine weeks in University before dropping out. Health reasons, as ever.) I wonder, because they seem to be more relevant than ever. And, I’m getting well enough to look backwards as well as around, and forwards; at other people’s lives, rather than my own.
I study, taking time away from faces and noise, to read; to absorb what I can, to make more sense of Today. It’s also possible that whatever I might have learned in school has been burnt out of my brain by years of anorexia and malnutrition. I still find it difficult to retain key facts above the constant white noise, though there’s been a definite improvement in the past couple of years. Never underestimate the links between physical and mental health.
The past few weeks have shown as much. I’ve lost about a kilo, despite a serious increase in food and fluids (it only came home to me how much when I saw a friend’s tweet about his calorie intake for a marathon – it near enough matched my own. But I’m not training for a marathon. I just work, and work out.) I’m reduced to an insomniac with a constant low-grade burning appetite, a short fuse, lowered mental cognition and weaker muscles. My emotional state is a trip-hazard. This is another reason I’ve taken time away, so I don’t inadvertently start WWIII.
I’m going for blood tests next week, to rule out anything other than a long-running aversion to change (we’re slowly starting to pack up at the Nick, with some departments closing to move on), and stress.
The haunting strains of the violin call to a past that leaves an ache at the back of my throat. I once walked barefoot in snow without pain. Even then, there was the tingle of Bigger Things in my spine, and they came most often in dreams.
Once, I climbed hand-over-foot on hot stones the colour of sand, under a blazing blue sky; though I never reached the top, there was sight and sound, the burring whine of many insects, the pulsing heat from the overhead sun. Across the years, that element of wandering-away from familiar places to unexpectedly stumble upon a great looming presence – a monument, a temple, a building – has never died. But I didn’t link them all together until last week, when the latest rendition of the dream came with a lowering night sky, pale smudges at its horizon, as of storm clouds obscuring the dusky rose. The monolith rose up in glittering darkness like a fallen spaceship, with panels and a size to silence anyone. Silence all around, and no way in. I wandered about its hulk, feeling the ping from its cooling metal, seeing the faint swirl of beetle-back colours; that toxic beauty.
It was the jungle temple, all right. The same location, accidentally found, as ever, but changed. No way inside to find the cool darkness and the echoes – now, they lie without.
I am always leaving home. I always return, empty-handed, with bare feet and an aching heart.