When you live somewhere long enough, it becomes a gallery. It’s no longer just a street, it’s where you slipped on the ice when you were fourteen. That’s not just the river, it’s where you first confessed your love to someone, who later broke your heart. The shadows of your past linger on every corner, ready to assault you if you look at them for too long. It is impossible to escape your past because it is also your present. For as long as you remain you must curate your gallery, and so it continues to define you in the eyes of others.
The people too, are a part of this public exhibit.
“Hey, do you remember when we rode down that hill in a shopping trolley?”
“Hey, remember that time you broke my fence when you fell off of it?”
Then other, less welcome memories re-emerge from the recesses of your mind.
Remember when you used to get beaten up just behind those houses?
Remember when that friend lied to your face and never apologised?
Do you want to remember all the mistakes you ever made as a child?
Well, you’ve got no choice.
There was a point, when I was younger, that we moved almost every year. We never left the area, but for various reasons we had to relocate to different parts of the town or its outskirts. I can chart the parts of my life by which part I happen to be in. North-West? That’s where I lived when I was eight. I used to play with a bucket of water by spilling it out and watching the water as it flowed down the hill. I nearly broke my leg when my friends made me to jump off the garage roof, the same friends who later wanted nothing to do with me. South? I was fifteen, and newly diagnosed with epilepsy. East? That’s where I’ve lived for the past six years, no matter what I do to escape that.
Since then, every time I walk back from the station to the family house it’s the same ten minute walk. No matter how far away I manage to get, I always end up walking back along that same road, past the same houses, and playing field. I know every divot in the concrete. I sometimes wonder if they would still host Guy Fawkes Night in the old football club, if it hadn’t been turned into council houses. Such thoughts kill time on the way back to a home where I cannot settle.
Feeling like you’re anchored to a status quo could also be calming. There is security in normalcy, in an everyday routine. There is comfort in the expected. Simple pleasures arise from simple actions. Being able to sit on the salvaged church pew in the garden and listen to the morning chorus as I sip from a steaming mug of tea is a simple, recurring pleasure. If I must walk back to the same house over and over again, at least I can sit by myself in the garden for a while.
Unfortunately, I cannot sit still at home without feeling like I’m wasting time, time that could be spent doing anything else anywhere else. So, in lieu of a one-way ticket, I often pick a direction and walk. Thankfully, the positioning of the town leaves you with a great deal of countryside to explore, which I have, thoroughly by this point. I have walked through ancient forests, run from the bulls in a field, and smelled the wild garlic in full bloom. Outside, it is a sanctuary from reality, and a calming reminder that there is an escape, however brief, should you need it. Perhaps that’s what made Jane Austen so infatuated with the area.
It is unfortunate that my town is the least pretty part of an area of outstanding beauty. Reality is left in its supermarkets and car mechanics’ whilst people play at Pride and Prejudice at their manors during the weekend. Upscale tearooms are shadowed by bargain bin supermarkets. The dichotomy between those who live in town and those who live just outside is pronounced and irreconcilable, as old money clashes with no money. Yet the appeal is so blatant that it is difficult to be outraged at any one group. Of course you would want to live in the area if you could afford it! The woods are bristling with stags and foxes, bluebells in the spring, and hedgehogs in the summer. There are bridleways that meander deep into nowhere, emerging at hamlets composed of three houses, a church, and a pub. There are valleys of golden wheat that hide pheasants too inattentive to fly away. You can stumble upon a secret garden, or watch the dragonflies dart across the river, or walk the walks of saints without threat of disturbance or distraction. You can pick a direction, set out in the morning, and come home in the evening without ever having paused.
The feeling is exacerbated when riding a bike. The miles roll by as you thunder down a hill, or pedal fast through a stream to avoid getting wet. I would sometimes make a picnic for myself and leave in the morning, and not return until the sun dipped below the horizon. I found old World War II airfields, ate lunch with a stowaway caterpillar, and discovered even more villages and towns with impossibly English names like Binstead, Wivelrod, Lower Wield, or Thedden. You can ride over tarmac mottled by yellow sunlight under the tree tunnels, and village greens and thatch cottages are interrupted by fields of sheep or stables.
And the noise! The noise that such a little square space can make! Another virtue of a wider wilderness on your doorstep. This noise can carry you through the day, past the bad memories and sour faces. This noise is overtaken by others; mutterings of no consequence about who said what at the Railway Arms last night:
“If I was gonna do it, I would’ve done it better than how he said it was, but he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
“Yeah, and anyway, it’s not like it’s even that big a deal. Honestly, mate, if it were me, I would’ve done the same thing.”
Conversations as impenetrable as this fade in and out of focus, and are in turn overtaken by the nattering of nannies chatting by the bus stops in the town proper:
“It’s a bit hard for me to run around after them now, but they are just the sweetest children. How’s your daughter after the operation? I do hope you send her my love!”
“Oh, she’s doing much better, she feels so much better. She’s coming to visit tomorrow so I’ll be sure to tell her you say hello.”
Tiny holes-in-the-walls, no more than a tight triangle on a street corner selling old Navy uniforms and Toby jugs, are squeezed in net to the sandwich shop next door. It can be, from the right angle, a wholesome country village. Both of those shops are closed now. In fact, nothing is open, bar the supermarkets. There are no lads outside the pub, no nannies at the bus stop, and if there are, they’re at least two meters apart.
Nevertheless, some good memories do shine through with the sun. Perhaps a negative association encourages a negative disposition, but even a cynical happiness is a type of happiness. Blossoms remain blossoms, even as they are thrashed by wind and rain. The stars will still shine out, occasionally. It is in this spirit that I view the good in my hometown. It is not a proactive modality; it is a constant passive appreciation for the small things, which is all the energy I can muster anymore.
True enjoyment comes with escape; if not total, then temporary. Space is a valuable commodity right now, and where can one find a greater space than outdoors. In five hours, you could walk to the next two towns on the train line. In five hours, you could walk to the nearest city. In five hours, you could find solace, distract yourself, or meditate. You could clear your mind of all the clutter as you put one foot in front of the other down a dusty road. Following a road to nowhere is a relief from a lifestyle with a clear conclusion.
Sometimes the unknown is less terrifying. Sometimes it is better to be in the wilderness, where no one can follow. Who would look for you in the back fields of an acre-wide farm? There have been times where I’ve severely trespassed and had to literally skulk behind the farmer as he works as I’m on my way out the front gate. In one case, I threw my bike into the hedgerow so I could hide properly from the tractor as it came around the corner. In one instance I stumbled across an old firepit in a sunken hollow, which was clearly inhabited because the tent nearby had some shabby clothes drying over the top of it. I thought it best not to hang around to introduce myself.
All the more bitter, then, that there is only so far you can go before you must turn back. For however far I can go, I cannot go forever. However far I travel – Japan, Hong Kong, California – I always have to walk back down the same street from the same station to the same house. I must always return to a household without privacy or patience. For now, and especially after the virus, I can never truly leave. Perhaps that is the true tragedy of a hometown: everyone has a Hotel California.
What frame of mind must I have descended to, that I would rather risk passing out from heat exhaustion on a hot, lonely road, than spend a day at home? How could the prospect of walking the dog in the rain be so tantalising just because I would escape an oppressive atmosphere for another hour? How unwelcome can you feel in your own house, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed? How do you reconcile that feeling with an enforced lockdown set to last weeks?
I do not have the answers. Maybe this is how it will always be. Perhaps my hometown will forever be overshadowed by a home-grown horror. Such a view does a disservice to the town as a whole, and yet every time I return here, and retrace the steps of a thousand homeward journeys, and take another deep breath before entering the front door, I am reminded of how inextricable the past and present appear here to me. One may overshadow the other if the climate is right. I wish it were all in the past.
Reinvention is a privilege, initiated unconsciously in the absence of memory. Without distance, there can be no reinvention, and without reinvention, there is stagnation. How cruel it is, then, to have stagnated in the nest, or even worse, to keep falling out when trying to fly.