Have you returned to where you grew up? Noticed how much smaller the streets are, and narrowed with more cars? Did you feel nostalgic, longing for good times past, or relieved to have gotten the hell outta there, no matter how picturesque it looks at sunset?
My experience was definitely the latter. My son ‘15’ and I were just in Dawlish, a quaint seaside town, full of aged tourists and desperate English families trying to find shelter for their beach picnic. I lived there aged 10-20, and haven’t looked back since I fled to Australia. We’ve come to visit my Mum, who now lives 100 metres from the house I grew up in.
The beach still smells of fish, piled with pebbles and seaweed. The amusement arcade still flashes distraction that sucks all coins. Ducks still waddle, but now outnumbered by monstrous seagulls, closely followed by multiple grey gangs of pigeons. The many gift shops still lack style; the strings of coloured light bulbs along the brook running through the town centre flicker like lost souls, with every fifth one dead.
Ghosts of me linger everywhere, just out of my direct view.
Here, I caught the bus to school, standing in rain or wind, legs mottled blue by the sea breeze. Here, I stepped off it again in the afternoons, tired from another day of feeling anxious and alone while learning not much. There, on that wooden bridge over the stream, I had my first kiss. There we sledded down the hill instead of going to school, in the glorious white winter of ’82, when snow fell so deep that all shops and businesses shut, suspending real life for a few crisp days.
There is the front door to my first home out of home; a damp basement flat, shared with single mum Denise, where we experimented with smoking cigarettes and joints, staying up talking till dawn, sleeping till noon, getting up to watch ‘Neighbours’, and baking potato cheese pie. Plus drinking endless cups of sweet tea.
There I am, skinny, gangly, spiral permed hair and soft pink cheeks; a virgin longing to fall in love. In the days before Internet and mobile phones, there’s ‘the Wall’, where we simply sat for hours as teenagers, waiting to see who would stroll by, and what might happen. Literally hours of sitting.
Now here I am: 30 years an Australian. Have I come ‘home’ to England? Certainly not. Do I miss it? Certainly not. I see myself as the luckiest woman in the world, escaping as I did all those years ago; gifted the chance to re-invent myself, leaving behind the smallness I felt was restricting me.
But I see them now on the streets of my old hometown: those who did not flee. With strong family ties, or solid job prospects, or even the curse of laziness to blame, I see them walking the same narrow pavements three decades on. Grey-haired, stooped, often overweight. Dull of eye and spirit; defeated by life’s choices and options. I can see the ghosts of me, but I can see the living skeletons of them, jangling on their backs like giant insect husks they can’t shake off. Skeletons of broken dreams. Or else they’re trapped inside them, squashed up in too tight a fit, distorted by restraint. A clear empty shell of dreams of who they could have been.
How the hell do you stop it growing on your back? Or get it off once it starts to form? Deep effort: hard work/risk-taking/travel/study. And for me also: Dance, especially 5Rhythms. Saying ‘yes’ to sheer luck. Saying ‘I’ll try’ to blatant opportunity. Saying ‘why not’ to blank horizons.
None of it easy. Nor simple. Yet for me, essential. And for my escape and reinvention, I only have myself to thank.
So long Dawlish, and “thanks for all the fish”- plus the décor in my bed & breakfast room:
PS: But to the local resident who grew this small ‘tree’, stalk as thick as my leg, taking over the entire front yard, I salute you: