birthday, part i
It is almost my birthday. I go home for a flying visit and see my sister perform in her school's production of Beauty and the Beast, and the next day she and I and B and Kim pack a picnic and head for our secret beach.
B brings his kite and I my cameras, and I teach Lucy how to fly. (I remember how, back here, I couldn't do it at all. Recently home, my hands weren't used to subtlety; I couldn't feel the gentle pinch of the sea breeze to adjust my flight-path. How things change, how things soften.)
Lucy at Cart Gap
I take pictures of my sister and I, and then all of us messing around, and we eat our picnic and then head home. The sky is wide, and before I know it I am back in Canterbury.
I spend two days back at uni, and then find myself at the train station again. This time I head for London and then navigate the Underground at rush hour. The Metropolitan Line travels through the suburbs: the sky is pink and as we wait at a signal I watch an elderly couple eating dinner through their open backdoor. The air is warm when we reach the end of the line. I wait outside the station with my bags, finding Jupiter and Venus in the crystalline sky, and then Jonny arrives with a smile.
I've strained my shoulders, so he takes my rucksack and we walk through the town and along a busy A-Road to the Brunel campus. (Halls everywhere look like Halls anywhere. If it weren't for the traffic in the distance we could be back at Kent.) Concrete and plate-glass. His room is larger than mine, but there are trees outside my window instead of building blocks.
We cook bolognese for dinner (I watch) and I meet some of his hall mates. There are fifteen of them to the kitchen, and the cleaners have left messages on their fridge: 'There are rats in here, you ANIMALS! x'. We eat in his room. (I never eat in our kitchen either; now I feel a little better about that.) While we eat we talk, or: he asks me about life and I admit the sad things at home and the stress at uni and the reasons why I was so glad he invited me here for a few days, to escape. I feel much better. We walk to the Arts School and catch the end of a show, and then I choose 'Despicable Me' for us to watch on his laptop until I can't keep my eyes open any longer.
In the morning there is a cup of tea waiting for me when I wake up. We go for a walk across campus and into scrubland, and Jonny points out where there will be blackberries in the autumn but I can still hear cars on the M5 in the distance and wonder how someone as Wilde as Jonny can stand living somewhere so far from nature? "Give it five years and the university will have built over all of this," I tell him, and then we find what he thinks are the foundations of an abandoned building project. Jumping and photographs.
Back on campus we have mochas in the sunshine until he has to leave for a lecture. I sit in the sun a while longer, and then take a wander around the campus and try to get lost. I think about being anonymous, and also about how I also belong here despite the ID card in my bag which claims me for Kent. I too am a student. I pretend I am Brunelian for a while, and then find Jonny's Halls again.
He comes back earlier than expected and eager to leave again. We make sandwiches - pepper, onion, cream cheese, and cheese and honey - and my skills in the kitchen fail me again, but soon we are leaving campus and heading for the A-Road. We pass a student letting agency and it reminds me, and I ask him where he is living next year. He says he'll show me later, and soon we are in a park and I have Acer and the daffodils are already out, and I am happy.
We follow the path and it leads us to the canal. When we both first arrived at university I remember he told me, "I haven't found anyone to go for a walk with along the canal yet" and I promised if I visited we would. Here we are. There are boats all along the river, and runners and dog-walkers. Sine if the narrow-boats have flowerpots and garden gnomes. Washing lines. Whole lives. I spot one called 'Rosa' and point it out as though he has never seen it before.
Whistling turns to singing. (We're rusty: I can't remember any lyrics.) Voices echo under bridges. It is a really beautiful day. I suggest stopping for lunch and he says he knows a good place. We wander down to a marina and I laugh when he produces a key. (Trust Jonny to have already befriended the people with boats.) We walk between the narrow-boats and I stop to take photographs as he walks ahead. Eventually we stop by 'Camelot'. Jonny raps on the roof - "It doesn't sound like they're in" - but he has a key. I feel funny, as though we're breaking into someone's home. He's already going inside, though, as I say, "Are you sure they won't mind?"
"I'm certain they won't," Jonny replies as I follow him down. There is a tiny world in here: a sofa and cabinets, and a kettle on the stove. Jonny grins his Jonny-grin. "I said I'd show you where I'm living next year."
When I've found words again he offers a cup of tea, and I sit on the sofa and try to imagine having this as my home. The past two summers I have sailed the Norfolk Broads with Jonny and our friends in half-deckers, but he has known boats much longer than me. This might be luxury compared with nights on Sundew or Buff Tip's hard decks, but I still find it hard to picture living afloat for months at a time. (This, I realise too, is what B faces come to July, when he joins the Navy.) I am surrounded by boys with boats, and blue waters.
Jonny gives me my tea, and he has his grin on again."What's the point of having a house that floats," he says, "if it never moves? Let's take her out on the canal." I laugh at myself, because the prospect that I might "sail" today is as much a surprise as the prospect of Jonny living out his student years on a narrow-boat. He shows me how to start her engine, and then we head out on the water. I sit atop with Acer and eat sandwiches, and we travel back the way we had walked and after a while moor up by a lock and head for the pub.
In the garden I sip lemonade in the sun while Jonny talks about ship life, and make a portrait of his two sets of keys. It makes me smile, because they are double-lives. Just like him, my house-keys for Halls dangle from my student card. They lock me into uni life: a room with a laptop and wireless internet, and entry into the library after 9pm. They lock me into that feeling of mutual identity I felt with the Brunel students as I wandered the campus that morning. And that's great. But Jonny has a second set of keys, and they unlock the possibility of another identity. Perhaps: an individuality within all this student anonymity? It's not hard to imagine him living on a houseboat. He's Jonny, after all. But it makes me wonder what my metaphorical set of "other-keys" might unlock for me, if only I would cut them?
We wander back to Camelot. I refresh my memory on round-turn-half-hitches, and when we have turned her around (she's small enough to circle in the middle of the river) Jonny leaves me at the tiller and fetches his guitar. It's warm golden hour, and we sing Dylan's 'Tangled Up in Blue' as I navigate the bridges and the people on the riverbank wave to us. There's a haze over the water which reflects in my eyes.
We moor up, wash our plates and mugs in the kitchen sink and batten down the hatches. This evening Jonny's younger sister is singing in a Barnardo's charity concert at Wembley Arena, and we are running a little late. A quick-march to the station, and we travel through the suburbs as the lights are coming on.
We get a little lost at the other end, and I lose my temper with the stewards and what seems like pointless bureaucracy, but really it's only because I hate being late. Eventually we find our seats - but not Sarah, who is one in the 1500 children on the stage. I try to take pictures without being caught and admire the gear wielded by the paid professional who bobs around at the front like a fish coming up for food. During the interval Jonny and I chuckle over the audience of parents, who have brought everything but the kitchen sink to help their child locate them in the crowd. Light-sabres, glow sticks, five-foot flags flash around the arena. Jonny finds his sister by calling her mobile phone. The presenter for the evening insists on interviewing the kids after every number, but we are greatly amused by Nayfan from Essex! who belts into her microphone, and the 8-year-old in the front row who is so engrossed in the music that he fails to notice when no-one else is dancing.
At the end we race out to find Sarah before the kids are whisked onto a a coach bound for home - our real home, back in Norfolk. Jonny and I make our way back to the station but forget which line we are on and end up in the middle of nowhere. This is London, though, and another train arrives to take us back in no time. While we wait I teach Jonny tap paddles in my wooden-heeled boots on the platform edge. He plays with Aspen and reflections in the train window as we head for Uxbridge and I come close to falling asleep.
On our way to pick up fish and chips we take an underpass below a busy road, and there we meet a bushy-tailed fox. We watch one another for a little while, still and uneasy, and I haven't seen one of these anywhere but London. City-dwellers. When it scampers down one of the tunnels Jonny says he's sure it's the same one he saw not-so-long-ago on campus. Jupiter and Venus are out again: love and thunder.
Back home we eat chips and watch Wall-E, because it's another Pixar I've never seen. It doesn't feel late, although it is, and I have done more in this day than I have in perhaps the last month in Canterbury.
I wake with the dawn chorus. Jonny sleeps with both windows and curtains open, which I like, but I find it hard to sleep again. I stumble through waking and dreaming patterns (a small wooden trinket box with a tiny metal butterfly atop, its wings hinged on tiny screws.) When I wake properly it's almost 10; the day is already old.
I pack my things and we walk away from campus and again towards the canal. I weave catkins around my fingers and we talk about next-years. A cooked breakfast in a tiny café, and we flick through old editions of narrow-boat magazines. The future holds for both of us a year away from campus: for him, at work in industry as an engineer, and for I, studying in America or maybe Venice. There are rivers in my life, too.
We take the long route back to the station, and walk the opposite way along the canal. I don't take any photographs. It's a little cooler today. Jonny points out the boats he recognises. I joke that he needs a mascot if he's making one his home: a dog with a blue neckerchief or a homing duck to deliver his essays to campus, perhaps. When we reach the road he laughs and promises to stop talking about narrow-boats, but I have a feeling I am just as excited about it all as he is.
The tube is quiet and the doors close at each station with a sigh. Two Russian women sit across from me, and after a little while the daughter touches my leg and asks hesitantly, "Parlez-vous français?", and we converse in this language because I speak no Russian and she no English. ("Où est la station Wembley?" "Nous sommes ici sur la carte - descendre à la deuxième station") At Wembley a horde of school kids get on with their teachers, and make noise and distract me from myself. I watch the dynamics of their class and the way their brilliant teacher handles thirty Year Sevens on public transport. Their class is mixed in every way, but the girl in the hijab chats away to the boy playing with his Blackberry, and the loud girl shares her sweets with the specky ginger kid. They're perhaps twelve years old. I wonder how long these relationships will last.
They get off at St Pancras like me, but I find I have missed my connection by ten minutes. I help an Indian lady looking to get to St Albans and then steal a window seat in Starbucks and sip a fruit juice for an hour or so. A text from Jonny reminds me I should be reading a novel due for a lecture on Monday, but I don't feel like reading, or writing, or listening to music. I watch the departures board and know there is a chance I could not go back to Canterbury today. There are trains leaving for the North, or for Wales, or even across the channel to the continent. But running away is easy, so at half-past I leave my juice and find Platform 11, and as we speed towards Kent I listen to old Jackson Browne songs and watch the landscape turn from concrete to pasture.
At Canterbury West I should catch a bus heading up the hill, but I can't face home yet, so I walk into the city with my bags and find the photo counter at Boots, and ask for a one-hour service on the roll of film I have used up in the last twenty-four hours. While it's being developed I seek out a café with free wi-fi and catch up on this life I left for a little while, and when I collect the photographs I wait until the bus is taking me back to campus before I slip them out of the packet and turn them over in my hands. My room is warm and smells of juniper wood, and Blade will be here soon, and although it's an anchor I'm glad to be home.
birthday, part ii