Her mother threw birthday parties on rationing cards, dressed three children in the living room curtains, and sent them to bed with a kiss on the forehead. Her father lived only in the stories, the captain that went down with his ship, the war hero.
Sixteen years later she stepped ashore where her father set sail, trying steps after crossing the ocean that took him, three dresses and a Bible in a tattered suitcase. Governess by day, she told tales of foreign forests before sending new children off with a forehead kiss, Lady in the evenings, at Dr Flemming’s dinner parties, keeping her kisses to her chest like cards.
When the words for hands and home and country were of no use anymore, they slowly slipped away.
Sixty years later, I get off the plane in the country she no longer remembers. Her memories are smoke signals no one can read, but I look to the sky to try anyway.
When I reach the sea, I put my hand in the water, I feel the cold against my skin, how it circles my fingers, my palm.
In a pocket with fraying edges I’ve still got her rationing card.
I swim through quiet waves of evening, enveloped by lazy currents. I am not afraid of the water.
As a swallow graces the surface, droplets falling from its wing, I think of all the lives lived by this fjord before me. Women wrapping their shawls tighter around themselves, waiting for sails on the horizon, for fathers, for brothers, for husbands to come home.
Young boys who went to sea, much like I went to university, clenched fists and starry night-eyes, who learnt that nothing can quell an unforgiving ocean, not even the children who challenged the shallow shores, those who never returned to their mothers’ lullabies.
Their stories are in every rock, in every seashell. in every tide that swallows the docks. Stories of islanders who read tomorrow in the skies, who knew that red clouds predicted weary storms the type that could orphan their children and starve their homes.
The water still cradles me, there is salt in my ears, my hair flows like jelly fish tendrils around my shoulders. I have no doubt that all the souls lost at sea, the stories and the children and the ocean are resting in these waters.
I’m turning 23 and I’m not entirely sure what that means yet. I’m aware it won’t mean that I’ll wake up taller, wiser or more confident. I know your birthday is just a symbolic notion and that what helps you grow are all the days in between. However, like with New Year’s Resolutions, maybe birthdays can function as a day of reflection, a definite marker of another year passing. Not for everyone and not for the world, but in your very own timeline. What have you learnt since your last birthday? What have you figured out? What new people have you met, and what new paths have you travelled down?
To “celebrate” that today is my last day as 22, I’m posting this little video. It is a poem I wrote for the OctPoWriMo challenge, last year, about all the things I’d love to tell myself at 16. In the original post I wrote “this took a long time to get right, but I didn’t want to post it before I was happy with it. Felt like I owed 16 year old me that much.”
Filmed in my bed, with a comfy shirt on and a cup of tea waiting. It felt fitting to post this on my last day of being 22, as a symbol of all the things I’ve finally figured out, and of all the things I’ve yet to learn.
I think I built you, formed you and designed you, drew you with green sharpie and the bricks of my pillow fort, sculpted you from cheap coffee and H&M basics, moulded you from a year’s worth of lazy Wednesday mornings, desperate for something to be mine.
On nights like this I press my back up against the wall. I let the edges of my bed indent my skin, the space is too small for my limbs and your nightmares.
If you’d let me, we’d stay up all night, and I’d paint galaxies on the back of your hands to remind you how inferior nightmares are. But I cannot wake you or make the swirls in your breath go away, so I shrink further back, I give you space. There is nothing I can do to make it better.
Instead, I place soft fingers on your back and write bright letters on the dark ceiling, for you to see in a dream. I turn to the moon for spelling and to the stars for punctuation, and wait for morning in silence.
The goal among the international students at my uni was to completely drop our accents to sound like we’d grown up with English birthday songs and ice cream floats.
We wanted to be able to go to any bar, to order any coffee and keep any conversation going for however long a time, only to be able to slip in an “oh, I’m not from England, actually” and watch peoples’ surprise.
We worked so hard to lose our accents, the sound of what we thought was “not enough practice”, not good enough.
Oh, how wrong we were.
Accents are identity just as much as names and clothes and the street corners you crossed on your way to school Your accent’s where you’ve come from, the journey to where you are now, it shows the world you dared to try.
Your accent is your family traditions, the lessons of your mum’s lullabies, the laundry songs of your house, a grandma’s lap, and the courage it took to get on that plane alone.
Your accent is a road map of the people you care about, those who took the time to sit with you while you were learning, who let you spin wonders of the words you didn’t understand and didn’t mind you trying on their pronunciations for size.
Your accent is your home away from home, the amalgamation of all that you are and all that you’ve been.
So instead of dropping our accents, let us celebrate them. For all that we are, and all that we’re yet to learn, and every step along the way.
In lack of proper wine glasses, we improvise with teacups, and as the shutter of a Polaroid camera goes off, she’s pouring rosé, small, pink oceans, bubbles and light storms in our glasses.
We’ve made a cave of my uni room, filled every nook and cranny with silly laughs and fairy lights, hot chocolate scented candles, and unfamiliar words in both our languages. Words we hope’ll make sense when English just doesn’t cut it as our middle man, when the words of home become impossible to translate, – so we let her German paint pictures in the air, and Norwegian show off all the words it has borrowed; we meet in the middle.
There are some things you just cannot learn in your home country.
Dreams are dreamt up tonight. Plans for all the cities that are yet to be seen, Northern Lights still to be chased, the cross stitches of who we’d wish to be one day hopefully coming together. Everything navigated in between sips of pink and the idea of fairy story cities.
There are no thoughts that cannot be put into words, no words that cannot be sown into these blankets, and the four years separating us don’t keep our musings from dancing, from twirling, from harmonising to the same melody.
Because, in the strangest way, it’s like she is me three years ago, just with a dollop more maturity it took me an extra year to obtain. Alone in a new country, figuring it out on her own. We talk about being lonely; we talk about that empty feeling of evenings on your own, beating yourself up for not living your adventure abroad to the fullest, and of the nights that last forever, where you’re surrounded by friends and this new country feels like where you were supposed to be all along, We talk about how that’s okay.
And we agree that on those days, whether the sunset reaches us before we’ve even gotten out of our beds, or if 4 am finds us in the middle of a favourite song, we’ll pour the rosé in our tea cups again, raise a glass to ourselves and our empty rooms and celebrate.
There are some things you just cannot learn in your home town.
Because there are so many people to meet, so many friends to make, hands to shake, eyes to get to know. So many languages to learn, so many wines to taste and teas to test, so many pictures to take, that need their own space in an album somewhere, or hung above a bed, the memories of your own fairy tales lulling you to sleep.
So many stories, of the adventures that are waiting. So let’s raise a glass to that.
I want to pour you thirteen cups of tea, strawberry and cranberry, twirling, swirling, like your voice braided into my daydreams, songs made of honey, my memories vowen into your stories, as we make tomorrow something we do together.
I want to make you raspberry brownies and hot chocolate like my mormor used to make it – floral aprons and warm milk, like the smells in the café we’ll own one day.
I want to see poetry slip across your lips and art in hands on hips, paintbrush nails across naked skin resting next to each other; touching, home, safe.
I want to yell at stars with you like people have always yelled at stars. I do not know what astronauts eat, but if they eat freeze dried cheese on toast I want to eat that with you, our helmets resting next to us on the ceiling,
and as we pull the covers around us in our spaceship, I want to be next to you in bed so close that when you turn around I’m already in your arms, your hand across my waist, your thumb rubbing fairy tales into my stomach.
I want to leave kisses on your fingertips and never be wasteful with the touches on your eyelids.
The hillside is full of sheep.
They graze the grass we walk on, they don’t mind the steep slopes
and the cliffs.
The villagers call it a mountain, everyone else calls it a hilltop.
I want to call it an adventure.
Everyone we meet are prepared with hiking boots and walking sticks,
we are armed with sneakers and half a sausage roll.
This wasn’t where we thought today was gonna lead us.
Four hours up and four hours down,
we scale steps carved into the hillside,
past trees that have grown into each other
to seek refuge in numbers
from the sharp sea air,
gusts coming in from the northern sea.
Beneath us, Swanage wanes away.
The bay grows smaller and smaller,
until you could fit the entire town between your thumb and ring finger,
lift it up and put it in your palm.
Maybe that’s what I’m trying to do;
Lift Swanage out of its little nook between the hills and the unforgiving ocean,
nestle all the teacups and barefoot walks along the beach
into the crook of my neck,
keep it there to remind myself of the times I’ve felt like I belong here.
I clutch your hand in mine,
feel your nails against my skin.
In front of us, the terrain evens out.
Two chalk rocks stand side by side,
broken away from the hillside, they hold each other up.
They’ve been standing since long before the town came to be,
just as the town will be here
long after I have left.