Jul 17, 2012
Sunday evening, Oxford, mid-July. I’ve made dinner uncharacteristically early, and I’m not hungry yet, so I take my glass of wine outside into the garden. My boyfriend and I have lived here for five years, and we don’t own it, but we do have some sense of ownership over it. It’s a little run down, partly our own doing (we should have done more to stave off the ground elder when it first appeared, we should hoover more regularly, sweep away the cobwebs), though also the doing of time – the ever rolling stream, barreling right through our backyard, cracking plaster, staining the black and white ceramic tiles on the kitchen floor.
I sit on a wooden table at the back of the garden, near where I’ve often thought we would put a writing shed if we were ever in a position to put a writing shed somewhere. There’s a scrap of sunlight coming through the clouds, illuminating the bright leaves of the cherry tree, and I can hear the sounds of dinner being prepared elsewhere, and the students next door making loud girlish noises of glee tinged with dismay (I imagine them scrolling through the Facebook photos from last night’s party, though I suspect that admittance dates me: I suspect the kids these days, who are hardly any younger than I am, already find that sort of behaviour passé). I can hear church bells ringing; when they stop, I realise I’ve been unconsciously counting. Eight o’clock.
Things are green and, momentarily, mercifully, dry – no rain today, though I hardly dare look at the forecast. A wet British July. The air is warmish. I follow the line of rooftops with my eyes; I feel unusually detached from the neighbourhood, or at least semi-detached – unlike the houses along our road, which are terraced, snuggled up against each other, sharing walls and secrets. Terraced was not even a word I knew until I came here; I grew up in a place where your nearest neighbour was liable to be miles away, or at least safely down the road. There we knew everyone who lived nearby; here, I don’t know the names or the stories of any of the people with whom we share walls, except that some of them are undergraduates. One of them, a blonde girl, locked herself out one afternoon and asked to use our landline to call the university so that she could get a spare key. Sometimes I see her in the mornings, having a cup of coffee and a cigarette on the doorstep, wearing a dressing gown, and we exchange pleasantries. “How are you?” I’ll say. “A bit hungover,” she’ll say, and I’ll smile knowingly or sympathetically, depending on how I myself feel. But that house has been ominously quiet for some time now and I suspect the students have all gone home, or travelling. A new group will move in eventually. I’ll see the parents unloading sedans or Land Rovers; we’ll share a few uncertain looks – I guess they can never tell how to judge us, two youngish people, home in the middle of the working day, fully clothed and bright-eyed, stepping out for some fresh air with a cup of coffee, watching the procession of duffel bags and drumkits and whatever else these kids have deemed necessary for the construction of a familiar space in an unfamiliar place.
California. June. I’ve been listening to this song on repeat: “We were born with sun in our teeth and in our hair. When we get bored we like to sit around, sit around and stare at the mountains, at the birds, at the ocean at the trees, we have fun, we have fun, we have fun when we please.” I have never felt as Californian as I do now, now that I’ve been away for so long. I wear a crumbling sunhat and my old black bikini; I take a yoga class at 9 am on a Saturday morning, facing the shore, watching the lazy waves roll in, yearning to be out there, in the sea, on a board. 17-year-old me, reading a book, desperate to leave, proudly eschewing the traditional pastimes of her home state, would probably have a hard time believing such a transformation could be possible.
I’m surprised to discover that my memory of this as being a lonely place is false. And it strikes me, perhaps for the first time, that of course I’m not the only one with childhood memories of these hills and beaches. Other people were here too, then, doing people things – and if I ignored them, whether willfully or ignorantly or both, that was my own doing. There was a much stronger community here than I acknowledged, and now I find myself on the periphery, looking in, questioning what I used to perceive as my indelible right to be here. I never thought of it as entitlement before, but that’s precisely what it is: fierce, proud entitlement, to a place I didn’t really earn the right to feel entitled to. Birth, or growing up, is a way of possessing someplace, but going away is also a way of relinquishing it. By leaving, I gave away some of what I earned over the years. So I feel simultaneously entitled and unworthy; somehow both at home and at odds with my surroundings. When a bat flies into the bedroom I cower in the hallway, with the door to the room shut fast, wondering what to do, although once I knew exactly what to do. I wonder if it’s impossible to feel truly fluent in multiple places: if, in my effort to be comfortable in the uneasy, uneven suburbia of Oxford, I have sacrificed some of the knowledge of my youth; if the survival instincts I once had have been replaced by others, different skills for a different situation. How much can we really hold in our hands or our heads before something must go? I don’t mean that things have been lost forever: just placed on a different, dustier shelf, somewhere higher up, somewhere it takes a little longer to reach.
This is the first time that I’ve been here and thought, well, we could live here, maybe, for a bit. It’s a very tentative thought, and not at all a logical one: what I’m really thinking is, we could live here just like this, on holiday, with little obligation to work or even partake in the difficult business of keeping the place up, except as a novelty – wandering up the hill behind the house to admire the new water tank, for instance, while knowing that someone else actually installed it and knows how it works and will do all the hard bits. The reason it felt lonely when I was younger was that to have to take care of things here really is a lonely business. Even to get anywhere is a bit of a lonely business; half an hour, an hour, in a car, isolated. You have to have a lot of resolve to get where you want to go. It feels less lonely now, because there’s a frivolity about everything, a novelty, a light-heartedness you only really get at the start of something. But I do begin to feel like at least I haven’t renounced this particular homeland, or even emotionally abandoned it.
These days my parents talk occasionally about leaving, or at least about the possibility of leaving, the idea that age and logistics might someday necessitate leaving. They talk about where they would live if they didn’t live here. I can’t remember them ever discussing this when I was younger; I assumed they would live where they live forever, that this was what being settled meant. I think, too, that because my parents had actually built this home – and so, as a child, I saw its miraculous birth, saw it in all its unfinished stages, explored its crevasses before they even were crevasses – there was something about it that meant it could only ever really be ours. I was still in elementary school, but I knew about the impermanence of houses; I had friends whose houses had burned down in summer fires, others who moved regularly; I myself had lived in two houses before this one. But I assumed you wouldn’t give up something you’d built yourself. And when they talk about the distant but not too distant future, about the prospect of not holding on to this land forever, I’m struck by the realization that I can’t imagine a world in which I don’t have periodic reason (and, of course, the right!) to at least visit, let alone the underlying knowledge that, unlikely as it may be, I could, theoretically, settle here one day.
But it turns out there is never an end to the big decisions that one has to make, which comforts and daunts me in equal measure: imagine having to decide again and again, periodically, where and how to settle, where and how to live? But then again, the freedom to be able to do so is good. All you have to do is decide about things, one way or another, and stick with that decision.
This year has been mostly a period of waiting – for nothing in particular, but waiting nevertheless, and the sense I have of impotence or diminished importance has been no doubt intensified by the apparent decisiveness of everyone else around me; everyone else is in motion, getting married, having babies, changing careers, moving out, moving in – and here we are, still, quiet, calm, but very unsure, or maybe very afraid. But I’m starting to suspect that decisions are not usually as hard as we make them out to be.
In moments of desperation or irrationality, I’ve worried that my relationships, and particularly my Relationship, might be contextual, might not survive being transplanted elsewhere. For five years we’ve lived in the same house, slept in the same bedroom, made coffee with the same cafetiere. We’ve changed jobs, travelled, been flush and humiliatingly poor, been unhappy, happy – but always against the same backdrop, with our feet planted on the same weary floorboards. What if we had to move – to a new house, a new neighbourhood, a different city, a different country? I thought maybe it was geography that ultimately tied us together. I guess what I meant was, what if we’re different people in different places? I’d seen it happen, after all: I’d seen how fluidly I transitioned from being one way to being another depending on my surroundings. Obviously I was not accounting for all that stays the same, even if external features shift a little; obviously the idea that we could not be ourselves in a house down the road in the same way we are ourselves here is nonsense. And the more I think about it (and the older and therefore supposedly wiser I get), the more I like the idea that we could move anywhere, even if we don’t want to, even if I’m profoundly attached to the view of this house, our house, from that spot in the back garden where I’d put a writing shed if I could.