This Time Last Year

It’s summertime in Europe again, and slowly people are finishing their exams, taking leave from work and trekking through airports to chase the likes of beach holidays and Contiki tours. I remember the strangeness of my first English summer, how the snow all thawed and sun started shining out through cracks in the softest places. Like clouds, like playgrounds. Like trees swaying in the fields that lay spread behind the village pub. They were sleepy from the winter, but illuminated just the same. I used to play that same Joanna Newsom album on long drives through the greenery from my house to Cambridge, and as she sang me stories of queens and castles I used to glance sideways out my slightly open window and wonder, truly, if all this was my life now. Beautiful sights and a slight feeling of disconnect. Now that I know how things turned out, though, it’s far easier to see that the alienation of those long months only added to their allure. Who doesn’t thrive on getting a little lost? I’d decided to live by omens and signs, flimsy little things. Long term plans held no sway or authority. So, like some heroine in a dusty Austen novel, I spent weeks trailing through the countryside alone in long skirts and squinty eyes. Mud creeping up all my hems. Earphones dangling from ears. With the warmth came restlessness, and although I knew I was emerging from something, still shell shocked, there’s nothing like months of sleet to make you appreciate the simplicity of light.

And light there was. On weekend trips to London I’d shed my coats and wear dresses through streets, not even shivering. My friends and I would catch the tube eastbound and sit on rooftop bars while the day faded and fairy lights jumped across the shoulders of strangers. You could recognize a younger me by the fact that I was always drinking cider then – some sweet, sticky potion in whatever flavour – having not yet made the irreversible transition to gin. My favourite was strawberry and lime. Now, I like something I can sip on my own if need be. Something red, something clear. Beer is for the nights when I sit around pub tables with work (life) friends, challenging people to darts though I can’t really play and letting my phone ring out at the bottom of my bag. It’s something I came to appreciate in Brighton when I was always one transaction away from broke, and we had to make do with cheap cans clutched on the living room floor. When I drink beer it’s for outrageous conversation and waking up with a full face of makeup, still. But when I drink liquor, I’m actually trying to behave. Like suburban bourbon. Like pink chipped nails and a pearl string necklace. Like something that unfolds slowly inside you, so slowly, in fact, that you lose track of it unfolding at all.   

I told myself that coming home was temporary, a breather to get my bearings, and the hardest part of that is trying to figure out which parts are pit stops and which parts you should sink roots into without fear or hesitation. With time comes a strange amnesia. It’s almost been six months, and already the people I bump into who ask me about my time abroad are dwindling to an insignificant few. ‘Amazing’ is always my answer to the So How Was It question, and I deliver it with all the enthusiasm that is usually best saved up for those longer days in hospitality when forced cheeriness is a must. I sigh in reverie, or I gaze dreamily at some fixed point above eye-contact level. It’s all drama now. But this satisfies most people, and whatever interaction I am having continues as usual. To be honest I barely tell the elaborate stories I have saved up, not even to my nearest and dearest. Looking out the windows of Rundle Street’s coffee shops watching the bikes go by, they seem closer to fiction than things that I wrote out once by living them. But I remember everything. This time last year my life was fragments of whispered Spanish and a dark apartment full of strangers. Ocean spray in the moonlight. Whispering. Bonfires. Nights spent leaning out of windows, air-conditioned rooms, the first winks of morning and the growl of suitcase wheels being dragged down cobblestone streets. I’m not quite feeling Tumblry enough to compare my Croatian freckles (left shoulder, clusters) to constellations, but I sometimes pull my sleeves up and show them to people in the same way others pull out family photographs from a wallet. I wore dresses with the boldest colours and the most intricate designs, far more flowing and European Market Stall than I ever seem to fuck with now. There were pebbled beaches and concrete beaches and beaches you could only get to after a ferry, two bus rides and a half hour walk. There were golden walls and bays where boats lay moored in little colourful rows, bobbing like canaries in the blue. 

Back home, getting lost means something different. But the only cure for this is to focus intently on matters of the now. I go back to Uni with peachy intentions, then slowly start tapering off at the edges of my attendance as the nights get cold and mornings, more impossible to surrender from the comfort of my own bed. Getting up means coffee now, and usually the afternoon. I suddenly share a strange affinity with girls I grew up with who took time off for gelati licked with the Hudson filter and a yacht week bender – the ache that can perhaps only be contained within the #takemeback hashtag or the simplicity of yearning for a time soaked in anonymity and sun. It is the simple knowledge that you are rooted here in this hometown life, but recently you weren’t. To be jealous of your own self is the strangest, most terrible affliction, and it only ever happens in retrospect. But of course, of course, we know this much. And all the worst afflictions do. 

Since escape is something you develop a taste for, before the cold sets in we bundle up in someone’s car and drive up to the wineries. The weather is still reasonable. I’ve never been to the Barossa before, despite growing up less than an hour away and staying there for what remains to be the majority of my life. I am in a good mood. The kind where you call shotgun without hesitation, regardless of your relationship to the driver. It’s sunny, though cold, and we stop for coffee before the city roads run like ribbons into dirt ones and we can feel the crunch of every little rock beneath our wheels. Every hour is golden hour, and vines stand to attention in rows. My hair is some homemade shade of pink then, and the four of us traipse from winery to winery, swirling our glasses with raised eyebrows, playing fetch with the property dogs. I’ve been telling G for weeks about all the things I want to do and he corners me now, makes me promise him I’ll go home and write about this day (I do, eventually). J and I huddle together in a back seat and talk about her art, my school, and the all-or-nothing approach to being female that sometimes feels like the only option. With B, I run through fields and climb recklessly over walls. Next to him I am the youngest sister in a boisterous and slightly dysfunctional family, keeping up although I’m little, proving that I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty. I get drunk happily and easily, letting flavours unfold on my tongue in a way that I think I understand rather than just pretend to. I prefer the reds to the whites, but that has always been the way. Stronger, deeper, richer vices. Room temperature bottles that point blank refuse to weather the cold. Later, Mercury goes into retrograde and I take ballet classes. I quit smoking, twice. Failing, I realise that I probably didn’t really intend to quit at all. There are long drives through the hills, and it’s raining. I leave the windows open. I close other things, though, never tiring of my own petty ability to get caught up in my own plans and leave good people behind. 

So now, I sit through stories of other people’s plans. Now, I huddle into myself and wait out the winter. But I decide that it is not reductive. Not exactly an abyss we’re accustomed to falling into somewhere in the middle of each year before clawing ourselves out in time for spring. Yes, the trees shrink and the concrete stretches. A thin layer of drizzle covers the world with the ferocity of morning dew. But just because we burrow into our lives each day instead of springing out of them, it doesn’t mean there are spaces in places that need to be full.

Some diary fragments from my last weeks abroad:

  • I wonder what it will be like to have my own room again
  • It's 7am and we're sharing orange juice at the Glasgow bus station
  • I might never get to eat all the burgers on the Grubbs menu
  • I'm sitting in Bertie's back where it all began in the summer, twirling around on those goddamn chairs
  • It's dusk on the Brighton Pier and you're back in Adelaide, you're back in Therfield, you're back to the shaky beginnings of things
  • Pack up your stuff and go, go, go
  • Maybe the adventure isn't fun anymore

For the past few hours something has been repeating in my head, a phrase – none of my idols went to University – yet I wonder, as always, whether that’s a truth or just something I’ve decided to wake up one day and believe. I obsess over it for a while but decide to still go because education gave me books, and books gave me life, or at least a life that I thought was beautiful enough to justify going mad for. It’s strange, the things you find you know if you dig deep enough. I’ve spent half a year acting like coming home was something that happened to me by accident, but it was a calculated and deliberate choice. I knew well the calm I was choosing, and I chose it anyway. So I suppose that, if anything, is a sound and solid reason to pretend run in some direction now. For a little peace of mind, at least. Go, close doors are random, discard options just because you like the way throwing feels. It is always the swift whoosh of a baseball skimming past your ear (you imagine this although you’ve never cared about baseball, or sport in general). It is terror. It needs to stand up to your sensible half every once in a while to remind you that you’re still alive in all this quiet. 

And though both sides write letters to the same god, one inhales slowly while the other lets go. Do you gulp down air or expel it? We devour the questions of each new Buzzfeed quiz to find out which television character we most resemble (what is your favourite colour – red, green, yellow or blue?) but the ones we should wake up each day asking are made of different bones. They’re simpler, with clean lines. They sear through virgin skin and wait for the sun to bleed out the stuff of day, patient as they are sturdy. Stay or go? Commotion or quiet? Roots or wings, or roots, or wings? To me, they’re all perfectly impossible. But they are the ones we must ask, and only when each letter has blurred into the next will we perhaps be left, some day, with an answer.

some distant life

1 comment

  1. Perhaps the adventure isn't fun anymore. I've been afraid of that day for as long as I can remember but I never thought it would ever actually come. Where do we go when it doesn't even make sense to escape?

    / Avy