104. Worn Out

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Photo by Kevin Grieve on Unsplash

This is the first time I have seen myself nuddy in a full-length mirror for twelve weeks. I’m physically stronger, more toned, with my arms and legs dipped in honey. It might be the fatigue and jet lag talking but I don’t know who I am anymore, or where I belong.

“Get a grip, woman. You’ve had five coffees, a bottle of wine and no sleep. This is a totally normal comedown for a cot case. You know this. You got this” I tell myself.

My friend said that every hour of flying adds a year to a face and I believe all of those tired 22 extra years. I now have the body and life I always thought I wanted.

How can my top drawer have better knickers in it than the ones I brought back with me, when I took the best ones away with me? He knew exactly what I would want to wear today, so had folded it neatly on the bed. I put on his trackie-daks, with the frayed drawstrings,  and my old University t-shirt.

“You smell nice.” he says, drawing me close for a damp embrace.

“I used your shower gel. I missed it.” I say.

A text to his mum to let her know I got back ok will have to do for now.

He makes me tea, beans on toast, and there’s a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate and a box of jaffa cakes next to the breadbin. Celery and hummus in the fridge.

“Ooh, that’s a nice cup of tea. Thank you.” I do a Mr Wolf mug raise. Our eyes meet but I quickly look away. I really can’t do this now. I don’t want to. He knows.

He takes my picture, wet hair, mug poised.”

“Post it for me please? Then they’ll know I’m back. I can’t face anyone today. I’m too tired.” I say. At least I won’t be a travel bore. Everything is all there as it happened, on my blog and twitter. I’ll  never have to talk about it again if I don’t want to.

I have the house to myself for the rest of the day as he’s going into work. We’re having a chinese later.

Everything is so different but exactly the same; just muted with the colour turned down. I understand the language, but the money has changed. I don’t who these people are on TV and how can English newspapers can get away with what they print?

Utterly exhausted but totally wired, I try to lie down on the bed but it feels wrong. I can’t just put on my swimmers anymore, walk out there and take a dip. My aching bones sore from sitting still in limbo for too long. The sun on my legs would soften the ache, for sure. There’s never going to be a good time to unpack, so I may as well just get it over and done with. So much baggage.

Those Danish shoes I can’t get here are really popular in Australia. I even got mine resoled whilst I was there. Rebooted. The delicate rhythm of breaking in thick leather shoes. Gentle baby steps or they will bite back hard. With dubbin and time, they perfectly mould to my feet until they feel bespoke. I’d like to see the forensic results of how far I’ve gone in these.

My favourite cashmere, softer with every wash. Worn sparingly and stupidly saved for best. Then nibbles of tiny holes from invisible moths. Darned and patched. I did what I was supposed to do, and I refuse to let it go. What else could I have done to have looked after it better?

Beautifully faded, thinning denim. I can almost see my hand through some parts of these jeans. I could easily get exactly the same pair again, wear them everywhere for a couple of years and never notice the imperceptible changes.

Fabric rubbed threadbare from friction under the arms of my silk shirt. I’ve grown so much that it’s no longer a good fit.

This wasn’t how I’d planned to spend my time. I’d ‘banked’ two weeks of my holiday every year for five years with my employer. They’d agreed I could have three months off paid, but not now, next year. They’d get a temp. I’d get my salary and keep my job. Mortgage and bills covered. I’d researched it all. I even knew the exact dates to fly, and when was the best time to get the cheapest ticket. Then Mum took crook just as he had his big work thing. This wasn’t even my Plan B but the big talk couldn’t have gone better, even with timing beyond our control. Money, perspective, trust, love.  All boxes ticked. Agreed. We called it ‘Operation Apple Pie’ and we did the best we could. I called it ‘Operation Terminal’ in my head.

We facetimed every day at first but the 11 hour time difference made it difficult, so we settled into a daily email routine and a 10 am early morning on Saturday for you, 9pm Saturday night for me and again on Sunday, with the occasional early morning alarm call from me. I’m so paranoid right now, that if I knew facetime would let me listen into his life without him knowing, I would have been tempted into crossing that line.

No matter what I did, it felt like I was running away from something. From my family, my work or us. I know your job was, is, stressful. I know she’s only a friend, a really good friend, and that nothing would ever happen. If it did, there was no way I could deal with it, not now. I didn’t want to be a part of it and I don’t ever want to know. I’m an orphan now and I can’t be on my own. But I know I’m not going to be alone. I need to trust myself.

I used to think we needed a thunderstorm, a grenade, a tragedy, clean break, and then we’d be sure. There was potential to be kintsugi or broken crocks for drainage in a plant pot. We would agree that if we were meant to be together, we would find a way to make it work. It’s the little things, the everyday moments that make a life together. And now I’m back. Clean slate. There’s so much to do and all the time in the world to do it.

I promised myself over and over that I would never, ever ask him, even though I want to, because I can’t be sure I would believe the truth. It shouldn’t even matter whether he’s making an effort because he loves me or because he feels guilty. I will have to find a way of learning to accept that I won’t get any answers to questions that don’t need to be asked.

It’s too soon, but then it will be too late, yet neither of us dare make a move. We swore we would not argue or drop any bombshells unless we were in the same room. Now we are. I’m holding my breath. This is landmine territory, with the awkward, deliberately faltering tension. Someone has to be brave. Take charge. One foot wrong and everything will always be my fault. I have two homes, with people who love me in both, so why am I so terrified of being abandoned? I keep telling myself that I officially have ‘indefinite leave to remain’ and if he was going to ditch me, why wait until I got back?

“Get a grip woman. This is not who you are. It’s all in your head. No worries, remember. Breathe, Just breathe. You’ll feel better once you’ve had some zees.”

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94. Hydrophobic

We run into the old bus shelter, giggling like schoolgirls who have just seen someone they fancy. Within a few seconds, we are mere inches away from a curtain of rain. Not the famous grey British drizzle that makes pavements slippy, but a stop/start torrent where gardens get battered with a side order of flash flooding.

The man who was earlier repeatedly throwing a ball to a soaking wet joyous dog, runs by, led by his bounding Labrador. They are followed by a drenched youth, dressed in a thin t-shirt and jeans. He’s walking quickly, head down, shoulders hunched, hands thrust deep inside his pockets, but he’s too far gone to consider trying to save face by seeking shelter. Fate accepted. This is a moment to remember, like when I got dropped off at the supermarket, still wearing my slippers.

We’ve all been there. Stripping off in the kitchen, today’s clothes thrown into the washing machine, running upstairs in wet underwear, stepping straight into a hot shower. Bragging rights come later. Newspapers stuffed inside shoes for a day or so, with no guarantee that they would survive.

We were reliably informed by the lady in the chippy, that the local premier-league football team who we saw training on the beach, had left this very chip shop just minutes before we went in. She didn’t ask for any selfies. Their anonymous steamy minibus is parked near to our bench. I suppose this weather gives them a rare moment of normality, away from the spotlight.

“I really do need to re-wax this jacket. It’s no good to no-one in this state. I might send it off, and get this hole fixed as well.” I say, waggling my index finger through the pocket at him.

“Or you could just get a proper jacket.” He replies. “Don’t you get hot in that? It’s really heavy. You’re dressed like Scott of the Antarctic and I’m, I dunno, Bear Grylls.”

“Would you drink your own pee though?”

“If it was filtered I would. Why not? If it was that or die.” He admits, unashamedly.

He unwraps the steaming damp paper parcel, to reveal “one fish, half chips and scraps please.” I take off my sodden coat, and drape it onto the wooden bench next to me. I run my finger over the ‘DS x GT 4 eva’ engraving and wonder if they still are.

We take turns to jab our tiny wooden forks into award-winning chips, then pant like we’re in labour, to try to cool our mouths. Fortunately, nostalgia also bought me a small bottle of bubblegum-flavoured pop.

“Look, see how the water forms little balls and runs right off? The seams are taped. No leaks.” He says, demonstrating the technical properties of his Italian-designed jacket, a favourite brand of football terraces. It really is water off a duck’s back.

I’m the opposite. I’m hydrophilic. I live to soak in the bath, revitalised by twice-daily showers. I’m the “aahh” after a drink, who deliberately splashes in puddles, washes up dishes, is queen water bomber and dominatrix of nerf gun fights. I swim every week and dream of dissolving my worries in a good sauna. That first cold shower is incredible.

We holiday in the UK, out of season, enjoying a run out in the car to the seaside on glorious autumn days. I call it ‘VIP’ because sometimes we are lucky and get the beach to ourselves. Returning to our holiday cottage with a pocketful of pebbles or shells, a handmade bowl or seaglass pendant and a selection of cards from a craft shop (to support local artists). Future memories for other people’s birthdays.

It’s the little things, like sharing a cone of chips on the wooden boardwalk on Lake Windermere, Cumbria. He stood, deliberately blocking the low winter sun from my eyes, one hand shielding me with his open coat from the icy wind.

That time I spilt hot vinegar on my only pair of jeans in Padstow, Cornwall. I love tangy, soggy chips from the bottom of the polystyrene tray, but I’m so clumsy. Someone should really invent a powdered version of salt and vinegar. Like a wet finger final dab at the end of a packet of crisps, but sold in a little tub in the herbs and spices aisle. I would keep it in my bag, like some people do with little bottles of Tabasco, to sprinkle whenever needed. Redistribution of flavour, then the first few chips wouldn’t have to be so salty, and the last few, so dangerous.

A toddler squatting to investigate every piece of driftwood and seaweed, apparently equally repelled yet delighted by the gentle waves that chase, cover then retreat from her yellow wellingtons.

We once stood up, mid meal, to let a small child continue their busy, important business of trying to walk unimpeded, the whole length of a low brick wall in Cromer, Norfolk, whilst we simultaneously shoed away aggressive seagulls, who were not used to tourists finishing their chips.

There’s a time and place for peeling chili prawns bigger than my thumb, sucking their heads, then dabbling my fingers in the water bowl. Lemon halves wrapped in muslin, white napkins, matchstick frites and elegant sips of chilled Pouilly-Fume. As there are for Jenga-stacked, thrice-fried chips, minted peas, local IPA beer battered cod, and their faux-hipster, gastro-equivalents (the basket/bucket slate-not-plate arrangement) of proudly sustainable pollock, gurnard or lemon sole goujons. Sometimes, they just cannot compete with the traditional northern chippy cafe’s plastic checked tablecloth, white buttered bread cakes, scraps, mushy peas or curry sauce. Oval plates, with crunchy haddock hanging over the edges. Utilitarian turquoise tea cups and saucers reminiscent of school crockery, non-brewed condiment, shaken granular (not flaked) salt and generic ketchup from a huge plastic tomato.

Fish and chips are on almost every restaurant menu in England, but no two meals are ever the same.

84. After Pride, Comes The Fall

I summer well. I know Welsh beaches and being a tourist in cities when all the locals have left. Stuck behind hedge-trimming tractors, I spy next month’s festivals evolving. From peas until apples, my life will adapt to farming time; I’ll become European.

My place in my family changes each year. Maybe one day I will be the matriarch.

I don’t want to interrupt the early-afternoon lull, but no-one heard the car door, or my suitcase skateboard wheels grinding. A dozen pairs of wellington boots of all sizes lined up to welcome me home. I step into the cool of the kitchen and gently pile up almost everything I own into the corner of the room. Even the water tastes different here. I wander, glass in hand, barefoot on stone, then oak, avoiding the squeaky board. I’m grounded now. The orange cat rubs its body against my bare calf and saunters out into the day. Such is a life of simple privilege.

Silence is a luxury and I drink it in. Clocks tick slower in the countryside. I lean over to kiss my aunt on her cheek and she stirs.

A different time, but at the same moment, traffic dribbled to nothing. A shimmering beast snaked closer, louder. Flanked by mounted police, the bare-chested Millwall crowd chanted with one voice, allowing itself to be gently guided towards the stadium gates. They belonged together. Accepted into the pride. A bit like me last month in London in the parade. I looked out for you. Then and now.

I hear dogs or children clomping down the stairs, and am smothered with their love saved up all year. After the “which one are you again?” and “haven’t you grown!”, my niece, Rosie, slips her hand in mine to show me her bedroom. Our bedroom. I’m on the bottom bunk for the next six weeks. She’s emptied a drawer for me and made some room on her dressing table. There’s a calendar on the back of the door with the days crossed off until today, which has a glittery pink star around the date.

My mother’s suitcase is at the foot of the bed. I won’t open it for over a week, until we go swimming. Everything I ever need is in this house. I take out my copy of ‘The Little Stranger’ and decide to read it again before the film release. A train ticket, that cost almost as much as a weekend in Denmark, falls out, losing its place. I remember that train journey. You saying you needed me. Now. I lived a whole life in those three hours. No signal. Voicemail full. I lost my place too that weekend.

I slip on a bangle I thought I’d forgotten, spray my wrists with a half-bottle of perfume, and push the suitcase back under the bed.