Friday 24 March 2023

The Chain

Disclaimer: This is a story based on true events. It’s about my recent…ish trip to the UK. Sortof. Because I’ll be referencing real people and events, names have been redacted and various details left suitably vague. Except where I speak about people who have passed, because I think it’s important in that context to speak their names as often as possible.

It’s also important to remember that all of this has been filtered through my subjective memory and, naturally, some artistic licence has been taken. But this story can’t be told without those paraphrased recollections, and I hope by now my family and friends trust me enough to know that this is all shared with love, respect, and due discretion. That’s the intention, at least. But there’s always three sides to any story: mine, yours and the truth.

Oh, and don’t expect no linear storytelling, neither, you know I’m no fan of that!


There’s no place like Home

Where’s home for you? Home has become somewhat of a nebulous concept to me over these last few years. Is home the place where you’re literally living at this moment in time, the space you feel most comfortable in, the place where you grew up, the place where your family is? Or is it something else entirely?

Home is where the heart is, that’s what they say. But what happens when your heart is in more than one place, like mine is? And parts of it sometimes feel like they’re in places I’ve never even been to. Which doesn’t seem possible… and yet. You could say that home is the place where you grew up, where you originated, the land that dictates your vowel sounds. But in that sense, I’ve grown up all over the place, my accent is all over the place, and the version of me that exists now is no longer a product of only one place. I’ve been shaped by all the things I’ve experienced here, there, all over everywhere.

None of us live in the present all the time. In fact, most of use rarely do. We’re usually ruminating on the past or worrying about the future in some form or another. The only time I ever seem to be fully in the present is when I’m writing. Or sex. Sex does that, too. A few other far less pleasant things do it as well, but more on that later. When I think about the concept of home, the idea of having a place in the world, an identity, it’s often tied to history. A place usually starts to feel like home when we have history there.

Ah, history. Our personal histories. We’re all tied to the past in ways we don’t often consciously think about. Whether we’re surrounded by it, adjacent to it, or literally as far away as we can physically get from it, we can never really escape our past. What the fuck am I even talking about? I’ll expand.

There’s ghosts in the village

I’m sat in my parents’ new house, in a village near to the one we lived in when I was growing up. But this other village was as much a part of my childhood as that one was. Just not necessarily in a good way. I say “new” but it’s not really new, they moved there in 2018. I’ve just not visited before, because: I live abroad; see also: pandemic. It doesn’t feel like the same village I used to know, though, not within these four walls, and the hugemongous garden surrounding us (no joke, there are actual National Trust trees in it. That little mower robot has a hard life indeed). Only miles away but also worlds away from the house I grew up in. Where all four of us shared one toilet until I left for Uni, where the floorboards creaked so badly it sounded like whoever was on the floor above was going to come through the ceiling, where the back garden sprouted poisonous mushrooms every Winter cos my dad put down some bad mulch one time. But I digress. My dad, mum, godfather and I are sat around the dining-room table having just finished dinner.  

I wasn’t expecting to see my godfather, but he now lives in a house across the road from my parents. I had two godfathers and one godmother. My other godfather died at the start of the pandemic. Possibly from COVID, nobody is really sure. It was probably about fifteen years since I’d seen him. It has been about twenty years since I’ve seen this one, so it was surreal when he walked through the door. Exactly the same as I remember him, mostly, just older. Which is the case for all of us.

A fairly decent amount of whisky has been consumed by myself, my dad, and my godfather, and we are well into the ‘talking general wankery’ portion of the evening. At some point, one of us mentions a photo on the wall. The black and white photo is of a house that was on the land before this house was built. There’s a man in the picture, wearing a flat cap, I think, and two children, all stood in front of the house in the far left of the photo. The man in the photo was the village gravedigger, and he used to live in that house. My dad remembered him, because he grew up in this village, not five minutes up the road from where we’re sitting. My dad says

He said he used to see ghosts. People he knew. People that’d died.  

I immediately whip my head around to check the unfamiliar corners of the place for spectres, and blurt out

What here?!

No, not here, just around the village.

My dad is smirking, though. He’s a card-carrying atheist and most certainly doesn’t believe in any kind of afterlife.

Then my godfather casually pipes up that he’s seen ghosts in his house. All three of us turn to stare at him, exchanging glances as he continues. Not recently, but when he first moved in. Or, at least, figures. One moving past his kitchen window that he was sure was just a person, but he couldn’t find them anywhere when he investigated further. The other was quite sinister, in the corner of the living room… watching. It scared him at the time, but whatever it was stopped returning after a while.

I’m too jetlagged and drunk for this conversation. Despite my dad informing me earlier that jetlag isn’t real. I’m easily spooked in this moment. Then I turn to my dad, curious to see his reaction to this revelation. It’s exactly as I expect – he’s all but stuttering in disbelief. Surely not his friend of nearly 60 years now revealing himself to be one of those people who believe in anything more than what science has proven? My dad then starts to tell us how we may think we see ghosts sometimes, but that's merely the emotional parts of our minds playing tricks; see above: jetlag. But he goes on to explain how he knows this to be fact, because a week or so after he married my mum, he saw the ghost of my mum’s grandad.

Now it’s my turn to stutter in disbelief.

Mum’s grandad was very protective of her, and he’d passed away a short while before they married. My dad explains that it was the awareness of the weight of that responsibility that made him see this apparition.

Now, I’ve got some weird stories, but I’ve never actually seen a ghost. It had never really occurred to me what would happen if a ghost revealed themselves to someone who doesn’t believe in ghosts. Faith can talk us out of, or into, anything, if it’s strong enough, even if that faith is in the complete absence of faith. My mum and I exchange glances, apparently this is a story he’s never told before, not even to her. I turn to my mum and whisper under my breath, that was definitely your grandad.

In an equally hushed tone, she quickly agrees with me. Both of us falling more on the "kinda maybe could be” end of the spiritual spectrum, rather than the bleak certainty of nothingness that my dad ascribes to. The debate about the existence of apparitions goes back and forth for a bit. It even nearly takes a dangerous dive toward séance talk, but eventually my dad wraps it up, quite kindly I thought, given his feelings on the matter, with the Shakespeare quote

There are more things in heaven and earth.

Do ghosts exist? I’m not sure that it matters in the literal sense, because in every way that does matter, they do. We’re all haunted, not just by those who have passed on, but by the ghosts of all of us still living. And by the former versions of ourselves. Different versions of all of us, lapping over each other in time. You can still hear the echoes of those experiences, the voices of our past, especially when you’re stood in the places where your past happened.  

It's always the ex

It’s my first Monday back in England and my sister has just left for work. I’m lying on the sofa staring out of the window trying to let it sink in that the sky I’m looking at is really the sky of home. Not my other home. It’s trippy. Two of my closest friends are coming to pick me up late morning, and we are going to go to Sainsburys. A trip I’m deeply excited about… all the food I’ve been missing! It’s amazing how badly you can miss even the shittest of foods when you can’t get it.

I decide to be helpful and put on a load of washing. I paid attention when my sister told me how to work the machine. I intend to be a helpful house guest. I head back upstairs for a shower and when I return to make a coffee, I find that the washing machine is…. not working. It’s full of water and showing all these red warning lights. I try doing all the things one does in these situations. I turn it off and on again, I try changing the setting, I open and close the soap drawer a couple of times, I shout at it, I stare vaguely out the window as though a washing machine repairman will just happen to be standing there. For fuck’s sake! I’ve been here for less than 48 hours and already my chaos has caught up with me! But then, it has been well over 72 hours without major incident, so this was to be expected. The other incident? Oh, that was the whole thing with the luggage and how I nearly wasn’t able to get out of New Zealand… but trust me, kids, there’s no time for that story.

Thankfully help was on its way. My friend knocks on the door, I rush to answer it, realise I don’t have my keys, shout hang on!! Thud back up upstairs, rummage around trying to find the keys, thud back downstairs and swing the door open onto the chaos.

I start with

It wasn’t my fault!

Oh, what have you done now, you silly bitch?

My friend in the car takes one look at my face and realises we’re not going anywhere.

Three heads are better than one. Especially as the other two heads aren’t mashed from travelling across the whole world. We put the kettle on and work the problem. By which I mean, we goggle it. Something’s trapped in the vent at the bottom of the thing. We have to drain it. We get it propped up off the floor as high as we can do and take it in turns to slowly drain the water into a baking tray (the only thing thin enough to get in the gap. That’s what she said) We also soak every towel in the house. I am no longer the helpful houseguest of my dreams.

Eventually, we find the blockage. It’s a little plastic tag that to me looks like something you’d stick in a plant pot. Where the fuck did that come from?

Finally, we leave for Sainsburys! And I spend an hour beaming like a kid on Christmas, having forgotten how amazing it is to be able buy things like knickers at the supermarket, running up and down the aisles picking up everything and shouting

This, yeah, a quid?! This is ten dollars back in New Zealand!

I throw it in the trolley and run to the next thing.

And this… right? Ten dollars!!

Every fucking thing is ten dollars in New Zealand. Or it was back in October, now every thing is twelve dollars.

We make it back and start cooking dinner with barely time to spare before my sister arrives home from work. I’d decided not to tell her about the chaos while she was still at work. She just got vague text responses, like

Yeah, nah, all good bro, no worries!

And a suspicious amount of emojis.

We bombard her with the story as soon as she walks through the door, I proffer the offending piece of plastic.

What the hell is this, anyhow?!

Oh gawd. They’re the things they put in shirt collars to keep them straight. My ex was always leaving them in…

Ah ha! I shout victoriously.

So it wasn’t me! This would have happened whoever used the washing machine next!

We raise our glasses to toast this. It was that guy, leaving chaos in his wake. Of course, it was the ex-boyfriend.

Because, dear readers, isn’t it always the fucking ex? 

Spa day

I’m sat in a spa pool with three of the best friends I have, somewhere in Yorkshire. Just the four of us, for the first time in years. But all the moments and time that has passed outside of this room feel abstract and far away right now. Talking about our lives, the differences, the similarities, the places we’re at and the places we want to be. I know I’m going to be friends with these ladies for the rest of my life.

I didn’t realise this today, I realised it about ten years ago. When we were sat around on tree stumps with belting hangovers outside our Center Parcs cabin somewhere in the North West of England. I mean, that’s probably where it was. I don’t drive so I wasn’t really paying attention. But it was that moment, not this one, when I first realised it, deep in my heart.

How did I know? How do I know it to this day? Well, aside from them being truly awesome, beautiful and endlessly interesting humans, it really boils down to three things. It’s our chemistry for one thing, each relationship having that unique component of you just get each other. You share the same humour, you have adventures, there’s a sense of play. There’s a feeling that we’d be having fun no matter what age we’re at or what we’re up to because we just enjoy having fun together. And that looks different in the context of each relationship. I’m reminded of this as me and one of my friends stay in the steam room for longer than we really should, like we’re on a dare. Because it’s weird and slightly testing, cos it burns so good. Like when we kept going around on the water slide at Center Parcs, again and again and again until we were dizzy.

The second thing is the honesty. It’s the fact that I know they’re going to give me the honest truth as they see it about whatever situation I’m in and whatever new thisisgoingtoendintears mission I’m currently embarking on. But I don’t ever take this the wrong way, or the very least, I don’t take this as an attack, because I know they’re telling me whatever it is I don’t want to hear because they love me. They fiercely truly deeply love me. Which is why I always listen.

And that love is the third thing. The unconditional love they give me when everything falls apart, anyway, often when I’ve done the exact opposite of whatever was best for my emotional wellbeing. Because of course I did, we all always fucking do. And they’re always there. To love me and help me pick the pieces up.

That’s how I know. And I hope I provide at least a little bit of this all back to them. Although I’m fairly confident by now that the feeling is mutual.

But distance is hard. Not being a current presence in their lives is hard. And in some ways, it’s only getting harder. But right now, right here in this spa, all I can feel is joy. 

Gone, but not really

We’re at a Thai restaurant, in the North this time not down where my parents live, celebrating my dad’s 70th. My dad has gone to check on my sister who’s trying to find a place to park. There’s unanticipated parking chaos because none of us follow football and we didn’t know there was a local match on. I’m not sure how my dad is planning to help. Other than observe as my eminently capable sister finds a place to park and then parks in it. But I suppose he plans to watch over proceedings in an authoritative dad kinda way. I suppose to him we’ll always be at max ten years old, despite us both now being on the alarmingly rapid descent toward middle age. One of us at a significantly faster rate than the other, mind. 

I think I mentioned something about wanting to go to the crem to visit Mark and Laura that week. That might be how it came up, but somehow it came up and my mum said something like

I always worried how that affected you. Losing Laura.

I was surprised by the comment. I’m not sure why, maybe just because she’d not said it before. And I replied with something along the lines of

Well, it did affect me. But there was no way around it.

The thing is, I’ve no idea, if Laura had lived, whether we’d still be friends now. The way I felt about her, the way I still feel about her, I certainly like the idea of that reality. That we’d stayed friends to this day. But we were only 13, and the odds are against it in most realities. That’s generally how life goes. But even in that reality, the one where we no longer have anything to do with each other, or another one where she hates me for some reason, I’d give anything to live in any of them. Not this one. Not this one where she died so young. Not just her. Mark, Sheree, Dayna… Not this powerless reality where they’re gone, and I can’t do anything about it.

Laura was just a baby, in all honesty. They all were. The older I get the more I understand that. I suppose I was, too. That kind of loss comes to us all, it just comes to some of us sooner and harder than others. I stopped believing in God that year, too. I’d been wobbling on the idea for a couple of years, anyway, but that year made me realise that nobody and nothing was out there that could or would make life any easier or any better. Existential hopelessness, is what my therapist used to call it. She said I have a lot of that. Which may sound pretty grim, but despite that, or maybe because of it, I have a great sense of humour and I’m a delight at dinner parties.

So yeah, it affected me, it couldn’t not. But we’ve all had our shit to deal with.

I’ve never fought in a war. I’ve never watched my friends killed in front of me in a country far from home. Like my grandad Ken did. Only two generations out from literally hell on earth for most of the world. Go one more generation back and we had half of my great great grandparents’ children dying on beaches in France. Trauma is relative and it’s generational. We all have our ghosts; all we can do is learn how to live with them.  

The call of the wildcard

We’re on a plane leaving Paris heading to somewhere else in France, my sister and I. The steward leans over to offer us our snack and beverage. My sister has this charming tendency to forget any French phrases in the moment and chirp out comments in a language that, at the very least, sounds like it’s based on French, like ‘bon sui!’

I’m not sure what she’s said to the steward on this occasion, but she turns to me with a flushed face and whispers

Goddamn that guy is so hot. I just brushed his fingers and I was, like,

She puts her hand to her forehead and pretends to swoon. Then blurts out

I think I need to move to Paris!

To which I respond

Dya know, I actually could… I mean, I could relearn French. Or learn it properly this time.

The thought of moving to yet another country, combined with all this recent travel and being back on planes, the freedom of being able to move in the world again, gives me a jolt of excitement I’ve not felt for a while. And it isn’t even related to the hot Parisians.

I sit back and start munching on what is allegedly a hummus and grilled vegetable sandwich. I’ve never seen fluorescent hummus before, but my sense of smell has mysteriously disappeared, so it doesn’t really matter what it is. I stare out the window and ponder further on another country-change. I don’t want to move to a country that speaks another language, not now that my latest career path, that I actually enjoy, pretty much entirely depends on my ability to speak the same language as the people around me. But then it hits me - I could move to Canada and be a fundraiser and learn French all at the same time - Boom! Done!

Is this a genuine “ready for a new challenge” thing, or just a contrary response to the question that everybody seems to want me to answer

Are you going to move home or stay in New Zealand?

The real answer is that I don’t know. And I don’t know whether throwing yet another country into the mix is really what I want, either. The thing is I don’t really belong anywhere anymore. That’s the real T. And there’s nothing stopping me from trying another country, another life. Why not? Why not keep doing it? I suppose there’s a part of me that would like to belong somewhere. To stop one day. And I know what would make me stop. I do. But without that, I may as well keep moving and finding new adventures. Because if that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing.

And that’s the call of the wildcard, baby.

The greatest song in the world

I’m sitting in the back of my friends’ car, with their kids, driving to what is supposed to be a day out to a pumpkin patch with a bunch of activities. It later turned out to be something so local and hilariously disappointing that even the writers of The League of Gentlemen would’ve found it to be a little too on the nose.  

The conversation is all over the place (naturally) and at one point my friend’s eldest child asks me

Do you know Tenacious D? They did a song called Tribute

I'm reminded again in this glorious moment (as I have been many times on this trip) that my friends are raising amazing humans. Which doesn’t surprise me too much because they’re amazing humans, but it’s still pretty cool to witness. More importantly, these amazing little humans get my references because of who their parents are.

Yes, I love Tenacious D!

It’s not the greatest song in the world but it’s the song about what they remember from the greatest song in the world.

To which my friend says, Of course, the greatest song ever written is actually The Chain by Fleetwood Mac.

Which is, of course, a fact. It is the greatest song ever written.

And, of course, the greatest love song ever written is Wicked Game by Chris Isaak… But that’s another story.

Double back again

That was supposed to be the end of this story, but another memory bubbles up. An old memory, twenty-five years old, but the time it’s from is indelibly burned onto my psyche for all the wrong reasons. Despite that, some memories stay buried for years before they get picked up, dusted off, and re-examined with the benefit of hindsight.

I’m sat in the lecture theatre, at secondary school. On the front row. There are lots of people in the room, I can feel the weight of their presence behind me. The whole year group, other pupils, family members… Laura’s family. There was a poem my granddad Ken shared with me years before, told to him by a beautiful woman he was… friends with… when he was fighting in the Burma Campaign, part of the Pacific War during WWII. The Forgotten War, some called it.

When the Golden sun is setting

When from cares your mind is free

When of absent friends you’re thinking

Will you sometimes think of me

I’d shared these words with people in the days following Laura’s death and it was decided by some authority that I should stand and read those words in front of everyone. I want to, and I don’t want to. I’m terrified. When they later plant a tree in Laura’s memory, they have those lines inscribed on a plaque. But they got the last line wrong. Because if there’s only one thing we can all have faith in, it’s the universe’s stupid sense of humour.  

But that’s not the memory, this is the memory.

Sitting there, trying to make sense of everything and not feeling like life is even real anymore, I can also feel my hand, sweating, in his hand. Is it me sweating or him or both of us? I’d longed for that moment, minus the sweat, but I never could’ve conceived that it would be happening under these circumstances. The situation surrounding us is so stressful that I’m unable to contain any honest reaction. I’m just raw.

Because a few days ago I’d been this chubby weird nerd kicking around with their best friend and investing in the biggest crush on this boy, and then Laura collapsed, and everything changed forever. And the moment after our year tutor told us that Laura was dead, that boy was at my side telling me he loved me. Until that moment him saying those words was all I’d dreamed of, but it only came after my world fell apart.

For the next two weeks that boy barely left my side, and even though this logically wasn’t the case, it felt like he never let go of my hand. Of course, we were kids. All of that was far too much pressure, and we had a lot to process. I ended up pushing him away pretty hard, and then regretting it. Then some teenage shit followed. To be fair, I don’t think he ever forgave me for hurting him. But this isn’t a story about long-lost love, we grew up to be very different people, that isn’t what I'm being reminded of. 

It's the memory of his hand-holding mine. It’s the memory that during some of the most painful moments of my life, someone was unconditionally, unwaveringly there, without me even asking him to be. Making me laugh, making me feel, infuriating me at points, even, making me feel safe at a time where nothing was. Keeping me tied to life, tied to being alive.

And all of that was only half of the insane life altering crap that happened that year. I’ve just never acknowledged that feeling before. It got lost in the chaos, maybe. And sometimes you can only really start to see patterns once you’re far enough away from events to get some perspective.

But, like I said, that sounds like a story for another day.

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