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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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?
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
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!
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
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
When the Golden sun is
When from cares your mind is
When of absent friends
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.