It’s Monday morning. I wake up to the sound of seagulls screeching outside the window, sun straining through the blind.
I work for a bit, perched on the edge of the single bed in the hotel room with a bright pink laptop on my knee and my feet resting on the chair opposite, tapping out replies to emails and deciding on my Out Of Office message.
By 10am I’m on a bus through the countryside, familiar places passing by the window, invoking memories that have lain dormant since I last returned almost three years ago.
There’s the sandwich shop I used to stand beside at 5.10 every morning, waiting for the bus in the dark.
There’s the group of caravans nestled under the flyover near the horses. We almost moved into one of those.
There’s the path I decided to cycle along once when I was seventeen. I didn’t turn back even after it had grown dark. There was no moonlight and the front light was broken. Big hedges up around the sides, I couldn’t see a thing.
Where did that recklessness go?
Now we’re turning off the roundabout – in a couple of minutes we’ll pass the old cement works in which I based my A-level Drama exam piece. Every so often they talk about tearing it down, but there’s too much asbestos or something, so it’s left to gradually crumble instead.
I’m glad. The surrounding fields wouldn’t be the same without its industrialist contrast.
School. A teeming mass of students navigating the corridors, too caught up in their conversations to notice me moving between them.
Up the stairs to the IT department, talking to the class about working in technology as a woman: yes, it is mainly men I work with; yes, it can be difficult at times; no, it’s not just like CSI.
Down again, scouting out the Exams Office; it’s moved down the corridor and around the corner. Pat and Sylvia, smiling the same old smiles, reminisce about the piles of paper I went through in the exam halls and tell me they wonder if they’ll ever have another one like me.
I am a bit of a legend here. In my own way, I carved out a little niche.
I am proud of it, proud of this school, and it contains the only people I have ever felt were proud of me, too.
Over to Sixth Form, Sally flicking through paperwork, we catch up about what I’ve been doing since I left. I scribble my details on the back of one of her business cards and we promise to keep in touch.
Upstairs again, to Humanities this time, hugs and cake all round, Mark trying to persuade me to stay for coffee but I must get to Tracy’s in a little while and there are so many people to see.
Down the stairs and around the corner to Languages and – finally – Brigitte, in the same classroom I used to find her in, packing up from the previous lesson. She asks me how I am and I tell her honestly. It’s the first time I’ve ever been able to report back only good things about my life.
Brigitte points over my shoulder and I turn. Alana, in a brilliant pink dress, face lighting up as she realises who it is waving at her. She hugs me for a long time and makes me promise to send her an email.
I cross the car park, turn right down the little path, walk across the graveyard and into the lower school. Vivian looks up as I enter the library but doesn’t immediately recognise me, laughing when she does and telling me I look like a supply teacher. We exchange book recommendations and make vague plans for lunch in the summer.
Away from the school now, through the churchyard again, down the road in the sunshine. A man walks his two jack russels past me and my ankle nearly turns over when I step off the curb.
Tracy’s front door. A sign: ‘Welcome to the Mad House’. The dogs barking excitedly. The door swings open and there she is.
It’s been too long. She looks fantastic: bright, happy… sparkling. We lounge on her sofa and catch up on the preceding three years.
On another bus, even further into the countryside, the vehicle rattling along the road carrying pensioners and a stressed-looking mum with a baby in a stroller.
I walk around to my grandfather’s house and am momentarily afraid when I see a different car in the driveway. He’s had the same Mercedes since before I was born, why is there suddenly a Suzuki? I fear I’ve been away too long and there’s no him to come back to. Then I see him, bending over his fork in the garden, weeding.
I go a little way up the drive before crossing onto the lawn, trying to come up in front of him so as not to be startling. When he sees me, he plunges his fork in the earth and makes a little satisfied noise when he hugs me. He brings me tea and we talk about the war, Meccano and the increasing price of tickets to the Silverstone Grand Prix.
When I leave he hugs me again, longer this time, and when he steps back it’s like he’s trying to take me all in with one look. “See you again… somewhen” he tells me, using one of our family expressions. He watches until I’m all the way to the gate, waves me off with a little smile.
I think I must go and see him more often.
I think this every time.
Back in town, the bus doesn’t come and I have to call Brigitte to come and pick me up from the clock tower. She ferries me back to her kitchen and feeds me steak-frites as we catch up properly. Steve comes home just in time for dessert, back from the tennis club, sits on the sofa and tells us about his match.
It’s late by the time I get back to the city. I’d been considering going out, seeing some of the sights, but it’s been such a lovely day that I want to just lie in bed and think about it.
Besides, I went out last night and it got weird. I’d walked past a bar that was advertising Cabaret & Karaoke, so I went inside for the show. I’d been half planning to participate with my party piece, a karaoke rendition of Lady Marmelade which won me a competition in Fulham once upon a time.
But a Cockney man befriended me, asked what my sexual preference was and predictably refused to accept ‘asexual’ as a response. Told me he thought I liked girls, but that it was OK, he’s a drag queen so on Monday nights he’s a woman. Got a bit touchy and tried to persuade me along to a notorious club. I’d left, not regretting having gone but glad to not be there any longer.
Tuesday morning and I made my way through the lanes. Ran into my ex-husband with a rag-tag dude in tow; the dude said goodbye and the two of us went for coffee. He ordered toast and butter with a side of salmon and a side of scrambled egg, which altogether came to £2 less than the ‘salmon and scrambled egg on toast’ option a few points down the menu.
I told him about school, he read me some writing. We parted ways: him towards the swimming pool, me to the tattoo shop.
By one thirty I was in one of my favourite places: the big leather chair in the back of the tattoo parlour, hand resting on an adjustable stool, Steve firing up the tattoo gun and dipping it into black ink, then red.
The best feeling in the world: the hammering of the needle pushing ink under my skin. I ask Steve to go over a couple of older pieces as well. He smiles and tells me I’m a weirdo for enjoying the pain. Max agrees: he’s tattooing a treble clef onto a girl’s ear.
I leave with an arm wrapped in cling film, promising to be back in a few weeks.
Lazily I wander down the North Laine, stopping in the Dorset to check up on work. There isn’t much that needs to be done, but I spend an hour working over an asparagus salad and an orange-apple-lime mocktail.
In the Oxfam bookshop a word jumps out at me from a box of cut-price books: Lavengro.
It’s not often you see Romani words in day to day life, and I can’t resist its pull, so I buy it and then add a Matt Haig I haven’t read yet.
Dragon’s Gate has closed down but Bell Book & Candle now has a better-stocked cabinet than it used to and I buy some dragon’s blood resin and ask the person behind the counter to cut the tape that’s holding the cling film onto my arm.
Gradually, gently, I wind my way through the streets and up the hill towards the station. Every so often I sneak a glance at my fingers. I’ve been drawing this design onto myself with Sharpie for so long that I can’t quite believe I won’t wake up tomorrow morning with its imprint on my pillow.
I get to the station eleven minutes before the train leaves, just enough time to have a go on the free piano but there’s a guy already there playing it. Scruffy, dishevelled, a battered guitar case and a camo canvas bag next to him, looking like a smaller, less certain Kurt Cobain. He’s playing the same notes over and over, trying to pick out a tune, and I smile and leave him to it, stopping to briefly hug Liam the station man before settling down into my favourite spot on the train and opening one of the books that are weighing down my bag.
At Victoria I walk past the Lush shop, so by the time I’m on the tube my bag smells wonderful, a mixture of all the things I couldn’t quite resist.
When I get off the tube I remember I need to go to Boots and I accidentally end up buying all the Barry M Metallic range because they remind me of the shiny beetles that weave through the grass while I’m working in the sunshine.
I arrive home to a note from the house-sitter and a cat who obviously hasn’t missed me. I have a long bath with my new Lush acquisitions, light the candles, paint my nails and settle down to finish the novel I started reading on the train.
It is the end of a beautiful day.