In This City I See Ghosts
The older I get the more I struggle to comprehend time. The weeks and months fall steadily through my fingers without me noticing them stack up, only for me to find myself acutely aware of the passing of time when I hear from an old friend or catch glimpses of Former Me on my walks around the city I call home. As I write this I have just completed thirty-three and a half rotations of the sun. I’m not yet middle-aged, but I am not young any more either.
There’s a disconnect though. When I look at recent photos of me and of Ed, all I see is two overgrown teenagers who still haven’t worked out who or what they want to be when they grow up. When we turn the lights off at night and hold hands in the dark with Minou purring away beside us, I often wonder where the years have gone. Ed and I were fifteen on the day we met, at the foot of a climbing wall on an adventure afternoon at the local scout camp, close to eighteen years ago. On a residential school trip some six months after that, we stayed up all night talking while our peers got blind drunk alongside the teachers. Those were our beginnings, and they feel like they were just yesterday.
Minou came into our lives shortly after I turned seventeen in my final year of school. No longer a tiny bundle of energy hurtling around my parents’ living room, my sweet little kitten is now on the cusp of turning seventeen herself. She moved in with us in the autumn of 2012 when my parents were preparing to move down to Somerset to be closer to my brother in their retirement. I haven’t accepted or processed her advancing years, just like I haven’t really acknowledged my own. To accept that both of my parents are now in their seventies is another dose of reality I find hard to wrap my head around.
Despite still occasionally getting asked to show ID at punk shows, my own face is slowly starting to crack, though my fault lines are mostly only visible when I smile. I’ve been smiling a lot more recently, a side effect of finally getting my wonky teeth sorted with braces a couple of years ago. The fine lines that have appeared around my eyes and mouth are a happy side effect of feeling a little bit more comfortable in my skin than I did in my teens and twenties, so I try to embrace them as much as I can. Meanwhile, I sometimes catch Ed examining his hairline in the mirror when he trims his beard, fretting about the appearance of the odd hair or two that has started to grow in without the requisite pigment. My hair is lighter than his, so it might be happening to me too, I just haven’t noticed it yet. As for Minou, she was born grey, and she wears it well.
The process of ageing doesn’t scare me, but it’s still a shock to the system when life delivers little reminders of the number of tides that have ebbed and flowed since I was the age I think I still am. Last night an old friend called me for a chat. He’s someone I spent a lot of time with when I was a student, as we were just a year apart in our research and kept similar hours and haunts for writing, procrastinating, and compulsive over exercise. While I left academia, he stayed and is now a lecturer. Listening to his stories of the ongoing strikes – about pensions, work loads, precarity – reminds me that I am better off out of that unhealthy workplace environment, yet I also felt the yearning pull of ‘what if’ I often experience when I talk to my friends who stayed. It’s natural to wonder about the path untaken, and ten years is a long time to train for something, just to turn your back and walk away, even when you know that staying would have destroyed you. In the end the decision to leave was made for me when I couldn’t even find jobs to apply for in my research area let alone win an interview for the scant selection of tenuously linked, oversubscribed, part-time, fixed-term offerings that were on the table. A PhD in the social sciences in the UK isn’t even worth the paper it’s written on.
Five years out from having the rug pulled out from under my feet, I am still not where I want to be in my Plan B career. I’ve spent the past few years filming and photographing weddings, despite the fact I don’t actually like weddings and as a result of my childhood, hate going to church. Weddings were an easy way to start making some money while I rebuilt my confidence post-PhD and figured out what I wanted to do long-term. I’m finally taking steps to move away from weddings into the documentary work I want to do more of, but creative self-employment is just as precarious and uncertain as academia was, in its own unique way. Back when I was the age I think I still am, this wasn’t how I pictured my life panning out. I thought that if I put my head down and worked hard at my studies that I would be secure and stable in a well-paid job that I loved. It still cuts deep that it didn’t turn out like that.
Every year that passes I wonder when I’ll make it. That’s in the moments where I’m not lying awake at 3am stewing over the possibility that I’ve left it all too late, that my time has come and gone and that I squandered any chance I had of making a success of my life. In my head I’m still in my early twenties, I’m still young, I still have the world laid out ahead of me. Walking through this city and talking to my friends I feel the plates shift beneath my feet and I can see two worlds at once; the ghost of the life I knew and hoped for in my twenties, and the reality as it is today as I face down another birthday and enter my mid-thirties, no further forward in that part of my life.
Two weekends ago Ed and I spent Valentine’s Day covered in sweat – our own – and beer – other people’s – at a punk show in a grimy part of town. Music is a shared language, and going to see bands and live music has always been one of our favourite things to do together. When we got married at 23, we promised each other that we would grow old together but never grow up, and never stop going to see live music on school nights. I want us to be one of the couples in their fifties and sixties we sometimes see, holding hands in the crowd and singing along at the top of our lungs. For as long as the bands and artists we want to see keep touring, we plan to be there. I’m pleased to say it’s a promise we’ve kept.
Walking under the stone railway arches through the dark streets of Hockley to get to the venue I heard the familiar sound of thumping bass emanating from the doorways of the bars and clubs beneath the railway lines. I feel most at home in a crowd of music lovers. I’m not your typical punk or hardcore fan; I don’t have tattoos, I only have the conventional ear piercings, and I’m female, but when I’m at a pop-punk, post-hardcore or punk-rock show I feel like I’m where I belong. It’s always been this way, ever since I went to my first rock show in London back in 2002. Hand in hand with Ed in the present as we dodged the drips falling from damp limestone, I remembered the nights I had spent in those same clubs, albeit under different names and management. I searched the faces of the crowd, half expecting to see nineteen year old me in heavy black eye makeup, shivering in a vest top, oversized baggy jeans and battered Vans in the queue outside the door, student ID, a tenner and my door keys tucked into my back pocket. I looked for Ed, even though he was right next to me, as well as the friends who have long since moved away and grown distant.
In this city, I see ghosts on every corner, but they don’t all haunt me. Crossing the new tramlines in the city centre, I see the stone bench in Victoria Square where Ed asked me to marry him after a Biffy Clyro and Frightened Rabbit show back in December 2008. I see our first apartment in China Town, and remember how it used to feel to walk home from the station through the Arcadian and throw open the windows onto Hurst Street with all the trees in bloom. I walk along the canal in the spring and summer time and remember the year I taught myself to run around the lake in Edgbaston, and the first time I managed to run all the way to the city centre and back without stopping. I remember the snow storms, I remember the shows, and I remember the good times in this city I am happy to call home.
While I’m not yet where I want to be in my career, I’m moving in the right direction and I am exactly where I hoped to be in my personal life; child free by choice and married to my best friend who shares my politics and passion for music, still going to see bands on the weekend and on school nights. We’re growing older side by side, but I don’t think we’ll ever grow up.