Going Back

(August 2009)
Vogue Australia

The headphones are pressed to my ears as I look down on the flat brown sky above Manchester airport. Coldplays’s The Scientist is looping in my ears and I repeat the words over and over, “Oh, take me back to the start.” Below me, the ground looms up and I’m filled with nervous anticipation. I almost expect my younger self to run across the tarmac to meet me.

I was a student in the North of England; a place of cold, dark days, lunchtime viewings of Neighbours – and a fierce, tough energy. I met my husband there, in a student house, and together we moved further north, to Scotland. My husband and I met on a grainy day in Sheffield, where – in popular parlance – ‘it were reet grim.’ I’d moved to Sheffield to complete my master’s degree and stumbled onto a three story student house in the poorest part of this not-especially wealthy city. Richard was the first student I met in that house. Sheffield is a hilly city, and Richard – a keen uphill cyclist, was wearing cycling shorts. Are you getting the picture? I can’t say our eyes met across the cider-stained carpet and my heart skipped a beat because – I feel I can be honest here – I was staring too hard at his behind. My mouth may have been watering. His then girlfriend (ha! I soon saw her off) was glaring at me too hard, anyway, for me to do much more than shake hands politely.

That house became the site of our shy getting-to-know-you dance that took almost a year. We spent the early days of our courtship walking the hills in the Peak District and then, in the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, he got out his diary to see whether we might be able to come up with a wedding date. It was the north of England – and Scotland – that made me into a novelist; the exile I felt there made me write, longingly, about my homeland. Those places and the people who inhabited them took me under their literary wing, you might say, naming me as their own. Like an overwhelming tide, though, the pull of Australia became too much to bear, and I came back. Although I make regular excursions to London and the south of England, I haven’t been back to the north for almost ten years and last hiked in Scotland when my daughter was still a seed curled inside me.

My memories of the early days of our marriage are intertwined with memories of Scotland, and of the north. That love seat in the National Portrait Gallery where I committed to stick with one man for the rest of my life; our first ‘date’ climbing Ben Lomond, the heathery mountain looking over Loch Lomond, with a haze of blue below us. After Tony Blair was voted Prime Minister, after more than a decade of Conservative rule, we cycled around the Isle of Arran, wooping loudly as we soared downhill, fetching up at hotels around the island as we went. We didn’t realise how young we were, and how optimistic. We bought a house in Edinburgh with my first book deal. And then, suddenly, I was pregnant, fearful of the future, and my husband did the Sensible Thing and took a job in Oxford. With young children, returning north became too complex to contemplate. In truth – in spite of the richness of my subsequent lives in Oxford and now Australia – I have always regretted leaving, regretted my lack of courage. I pine, frequently, for our time in Scotland, for halcyon days of hiking and climbing with no encumberances (read: children). Frequently, even now, I wake from a dream which features heather, or peat, or thick walking boots trudging over rocks, kilt-wearing men leaping about in wild ceilidhs. Whenever I’m cross, I complain that I want to go back. When sad, I imagine that if I’d never left, it would somehow all be better. I miss my imagined life, the way we might be now, if we’d stayed; the way our children might be, with little Scottish accents. I want to go back, I say. But back to what? To a place? Or to a time? Perhaps what I desire is the possibility of undoing a decision already made, of walking back through that sliding door. I’m nervous that revisiting will reawaken the love I had for the place, will cut open a wound I’d taped over, and will make me desperate to return. Still, after more than a decade of pining, it’s time.

The student house in Sheffield has, surprisingly, not been eaten by rats, and it’s painfully strange to think of a new batch of students making their lives inside. No-one belongs to us there now, no-one is there who remembers us and our love story. After all that, it’s just a house, on a city street, near a Hallal grocery store that continues to smell uncomfortably of damp meat. After a few days recovery we leave our children with my in-laws and board the train to Glasgow for a return to our lost youth. For almost ten years I have prodded at the mild abcess of regret the way you might press your tongue against a painful tooth. But now, the pain doesn’t come. I wait and wait, but Glasgow, although still familiar, simply seems like a cold city with some rather good delicatessens, and on this particular day it’s considerably sunnier than the Glasgow of my mind has ever been. This is the city, though, and it’s the countryside which always held me. Surely there, I’ll face the full force of my regret. We drive out to the lowlands of Dumfries, and call in – unannounced – to visit friends in their cottage we helped renovate a decade ago. On their wall is a photo of Richard and me, all round-faced and thick-haired, covered in dirt, welding sledge-hammers. The cottage that was a dark shed is now a light-filled, high-ceilinged retreat. Like us, my friends are ten years older. Their son – a child when I left – is home from university, and his long legs swing over the couch. I am startled that he has become a man so quickly, but the dull ache doesn’t wake up. I missed it, missed him growing in the same way that my friends missed seeing my children grow. Outside, we don kagouls and stomp up the hill and it really is, for a moment, as though we have never left. Drizzle on our skin, and child free, we are able to climb to the top of the hill and stand like gods surveying the green fields and stone cottages below. We hire bikes and cycle along the laneways, as fast as we like, with the familiar hills and low crags on either side of us. Oddly, everything I see reminds me of my children; I try and store things up to tell them about. Although I half-expect to see some ghost of myself traipsing down a hill, I feel like an interested visitor to the place, not a love-sick outcast; the fact is that rather than missing the place now, or even a lost time, I simply miss my children. On the ferry that returns us to the Isle of Arran, I stand outside with the wind lashing my cheeks, and watch the majestic peaks of the island come into view. This time, we climb the ridges instead of cycling, peering down at the water we swam in years ago. One evening, we drive around the island on the route that we cycled during our celebratory election tour, our words a meditation on memory: remember? Didn’t I fall there? Wasn’t that where we…? My husband pulls up outside a hotel on the south side of the island and grins at me as he points up at a gable room. “Remember?”

I shake my head. He fills me in – we slept here, our bikes parked outside, and planned our future together. Smiling, I fake a moment of recognition – “oh…. yeees…” which is immediately seen through. Inside the poky bar, Richard vibrates with the pleasure of memory met and satisfied. “Look,” he says, “even the menu is the same.” After all this time, after all these moments of my versions of Scotland, I recall nothing of this place. Upstairs, the bedroom we stayed in is – allegedly – just the same. View, curtains, bedding – all unchanged. And I remember none of it. Looking at the dingy rooms and the stained carpet, I can’t imagine that I’d ever take a “wee bevvy” here, let alone spend the night. Aye, and there’s the rub: in my version of Scotland, the one I’ve made in my memory, it is a place of perfection. Like any memory, I have formed an untouched shrine which intersects only vaguely with the truth. Hiking the next day, I stop and look out across the mountainous line that cuts across the island. I’m imagining my unencumbered, free, self, climbing high above me, full of cocky confidence about the present and the future, and I’m thinking about all those hours I’ve spent pining for this place and for that time. In some ways, I’ve been looking for the ghosts of ourselves, waiting to stumble upon, to rediscover, the free creature that I was. Here, on highland soil, I expected to be filled with the full force of my own regrets, but I am not. Instead, I am filled with the knowledge of all that I have chosen well. Ghostly indeed, that former self was flimsy and light. Without the things that have now formed us, any of us are flimsy creatures. And this was my mistake, to believe that this other life, the life free, floating, gloriously unencumbered – to believe that this was the real life. In fact, here we are, now. Free because of all that we have, free because of all that grounds us on the earth, and free because of all that we have paid. It is the cost of my own responsibilities that have made me fully formed. I realise now that it is too late for the ghosts of the past to settle in with me. My younger self can’t run to meet me, of course, because she’s here, now, turned into the woman who travels with these three beloved people, my partner and our two children, and for whom the past is simply a beautiful prelude to the present. Finally, I can switch the melancholy music off. I don’t want to go back to the start.