My favourite photographer, my fellow adventurer, my sunshine girl. Abby travelled five thousand miles to stay with me for the summer, and brought a little bit of our Californian coast with her.
I've missed this girl.
Abby and I met at UC Davis, when I was a student there not so long ago, and we both worked for the college paper. A big smile and big heart - even for a California girl - she's been a ray of sunshine ever since we shared travel stories on the long ride back from Frisco that first night. Today I am standing in the arrivals hall at Heathrow waiting for a small Filipina with a big rucksack to walk through the doors, and thinking about what there is to show her here. I've planned an afternoon at the cathedral, a day on the beach, perhaps a trip to punt the backs in Cambridge. We are due to start a journey across mainland Europe next week - an expedition through Paris, Vienna, Budapest, and Amsterdam - but before then I am looking forward to showing this place I call home.
So we head home,
and I suggest my top tips for beating jetlag, and try to remember that everything is new. It is so odd to be on this side of this experience. There is a kind of thrill in introducing someone to your culture, especially when the mis-steps appear without warning. (What does a Yorkshire pudding taste like? What is flint, and why is my house made from it? Isn't it amazing, how everything here is so green, how the skies are so wide?) I am on the outside looking in again, except this time the discoveries are sporadic and subtle. Abby brings with her a new way of seeing. We stay up late, sitting side by side on my bed with our laptops, editing photographs and footage and snapchatting our friends in California. I feel a rush of warmth every morning when I wake and remember she is here.
This is not California.
I do not live in a place with mountains and deserts and ocean and palm trees. I live in a small village in rural England which is hard to leave. Our house sits on the edge of a field which was planted with beets this year, rather than barley or wheat. It is not so beautiful. I take Abby on the long trek to my favourite spot, where I used to come as a kid with a camera and spend summer afternoons on my own. From my house we walk the lane to the village, and then follow the overgrown path between the farmers' fields to where the hay bales are still stacked from the harvest. I point out the nettles, explain how to use dock leaves if she gets stung, and we pick blackberries straight from the bush. The path continues, up and up, and while we're busy talking - there is so much to catch up, to remember - I miss the turning to the bridge where I once saw a kingfisher. Over the river and the stile we find my spot, and three muntjac deer grazing in the open pasture.
Abby tells me, again and again, how green everything is. There are parts of California that have changed while I've been gone. There are parts I have forgotten.
Elm Hill is the oldest street in Norwich,
and I haven't forgotten what a big deal this is for my American friends. I take Abby for tea and scones at the Britons Arms. Most of the buildings here date back to the Tudor period, and although the tree in the square is no longer an Elm there's still a feeling of genuine olde-worldiness. Spielberg likes this place for his movies. It's sunny and quiet, and we wander down towards the cathedral reading the blue plaques on the oldest homes and peeking into the hidden courtyards.
The organist is playing in the cathedral
when we arrive, so we sit awhile in the pews and tilt back to look at the stories on the ceiling. Abby knows more than me. She likes the stained glass, and we talk about how the church and the wars are intertwined. My friends at the cathedral school used to have their daily assemblies in here. I tell her about my high school, in case she gets the wrong impression. We take a turn around the cloisters and try to spot the peregrine falcons that roost in the spire. Abby's unsure about the tombs laid out under our feet and wants to read them all, but she loves the little painted doors and the texture of the flint walls for photos.
We walk down to the river and talk about wedding photography: how I've never photographed one here, how different it would be to the backyard ceremonies she shoots in California. Back in January, when we first talked about this trip, the plan was for her to come and be my second for the season. My year looked different, and I was impatient to travel, but as excited as I am now for our European voyage I imagine how wonderful it would have been to have taken on those extra three or four weddings, and to have worked together on them. Being with her is like borrowing new eyes. I see more, and I photograph it better.
Before the end of the week we take our first train.
It's cold and the clouds threaten the horizon, but I want to show her something that looks like a picture postcard - the kind of England I hear described back to me when I talk to my Californian friends. Cambridge is almost empty; it's too chilly for most tourists and term hasn't started yet, but that's perfect for us.
I don't have friends in the city to steal us into the colleges any more, but I show her Clare and King's. We follow the river and stop in at Michaelhouse for lunch, the way Alice and I would when I spent weekends here as an undergraduate. We look around St John's in the drizzle, find Tom's old room up one of the stone spiral staircases in New Court, and sneak onto the Bridge of Sighs to film the punts as they pass underneath. Abby says it's hard to believe this city (this part of the city) is real; everything is so old, so beautiful, and still living. It makes me so happy to see her this excited. She'd have loved my other home in Canterbury too, if I'd had the time to take her there. She keeps asking me questions I don't know the answers to.
When it really starts to rain
we sit on the floor in Heffers with our books for a while. I'm re-reading Adrienne Rich: we are trying to explore, again, an atlas of the difficult world. I've leant Abby my copy of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. The protagonist is a student at UC Davis.
Reading Fowler feels a lot like looking in a mirror. The book is a great page-turner, thoughtful and self-reflective and fast-paced and suitably gratifying; the perfect ingredients for a Man Booker prizewinner (which it almost was) and an international bestseller (which it is.) But I would never have picked it up, if it hadn't been set in Davis. Every time Rosemary name-checks a restaurant, or a coffee shop, or described her walk across campus, I get a shivery kind of thrill. A dozen students were crowded about the door to Mishka's, waiting for the cafe to open. It was a popular place during finals week, but you had to be early to get a seat at the back. The front tables were designated no-study zones; this was known at The Rule. Outside the cafe, the fog smelled of coffee and muffins. I am right there - I could have written it myself.
I would have written it myself. Back home I'm still fleshing out a handful of film diaries I thought I'd never finish, the Linger series that transcribe a space and a time I see so clearly, I seem to know so well. Fowler recalls everything with the same clarity that I do: One morning I was cycling to class when a large flock of Canada geese passed overhead. There was tule fog off the fields and I was wrapped inside it, pedaling through the clouds. // Chem 100, where all the biggest classes were held, was a large auditorium that sloped down to where the professor stood. // Through the glass walls of the cafeteria I could see some people on the quad… She recalls it, and she includes it all. This place is (spoiler) fundamental to the novel, the book couldn't have been set anywhere else. For Fowler, this is to do with plot. For me, it's to do with self.
I can't tell my story without this place. My story wouldn't be what it is without this place. I remember every detail about Davis with such intensity ("Bij, it's Rock Hall! Chem 100 doesn't exist, but listen to this description…") because it changed me so enormously, but also because I never had a chance to recognise it as the control subject. Davis was always the Other. It was always the place which was compared, not compared against.
This is why I know it so well. I have actively constructed it. In the place of years spent wandering its sidewalks and attending its schools and living on one of its quiet streets in a family house, in the place of growing to know it innately, the way you know a sister and not a friend, I have created it. I know Davis less that Abby know it, but I know it more clearly. And now I think, she might know Norfolk that way too. A deliberate knowing, a photographic kind of knowing. A knowing that takes ignorance. When she sends me her video I get a shivery kind of thrill, shot through with sunshine.