My clock says in small print, ©1985 American Greetings Corporation. On its cardboard face – by now rather sticky and dirty - are five carebears playing among rainbows. I've liked this clock enough to have hauled it with me through the last ten years, and now it's residing with me in Bradford-on-Avon. It's a little piece of home, this clock. When I packed for this stay, my goal was not to bring all my favourite clothes, nor all the books I've wanted to read in the last few months – my goal was to bring the bits and pieces that would make Flat 5, Westbury House, home for the next four months.
I wanted to write something about the last year's travelling. But it seems so... so past. And I'm so... so here.
Blinking, I wake up, the sheets knotted around me. Body in Vancouver, mind in Bulawayo, I kick my legs out from the duvet and wait while the dream wafts in the air awhile before Zimbabwe gently floats away. There's a faint shadow of a petite African child somewhere in the distance the rest of the day.
'Where are you from?', I'm asked, buying coffee. When I say England, the young man nods. 'I was wondering about that, or New Zealand'. Well, I just came from New Zealand, I reflect. Perhaps I picked up something there. 'Sweeeeet as!', I drawl.
'When are you going home?', people kept asking. Well, I'd say, I'm not going home from here, I'm going on. Even when I get to England (oh, England my England!), I'm not going home for a couple of months. And even when I get home, I seem to making travel plans for the autumn ... when, oh when do I get the house and the dog?
Packing, unpacking, the unwelcome discovery that I'm out of clean underwear, half-unpacking, dragging bags on and off buses and trains, filling my notepad with directions, directions, packing, sleeping, finding a tap or a fountain to fill my water bottle, trailing my bike onto a ferry, shuffling currencies like a pic'n'mix, digging through a half-unpacked bag, shuffling forward, onward, step by dragging step with shoelaces tipping out of my bags in the dirt...
This, all of this, is Canada.
Canada is also the surprise and homeliness of a warm, cluttered sitting room, after houses of empty living rooms with widescreen TVs. It's the astonishing friendliness of tenuously connected cousins-of-friends-of-friends. It's bears and otters on the door step. It's the edge of the world. It's the surprising newness of the country. It's the accommodatingness of strangers and the girl who offered me her bus ticket. It's GST on every purchase and French and Northern English accents (oh, England) and the relentless march forward to packing, more packing.
Why, in Canada, did my mind and memory fill with Zimbabwe? Some connections my brain felt for in the books I was reading? A consequence of my evolving theory of relationships? The music I chose to play? Nights, in my dreams, familiar figures stand around me, and in the daytime, looking out of a window, friends dance on the edge of vision. I miss them all.
Bulawayo is not about travelling, packing and unpacking and shuffling onwards. Bulawayo is not about staring out of bus windows and wondering. Bulawayo is about being, being busy, bicycling back and forth. Soup kitchen, clinic, music practice, church, Bible study, Shepherd, Sally, Tish, John and Dorothy, the academy, shops, Dams, town, flute, Mashi, Lynnette, forwards and backwards, in and out, dancing, listening. Here. Here is where I am, here is where I must be. My community – well, my community evolved the way it did because of where it is. Bulawayo is inextricably the background of the weaving. But it's the foreground I see in my dreams, the faces, Hannah's astonishing smile. Here I am, swimming in Sally's pool the day after Jan went home, my thoughts whirling in bewildered circles. Here I am, sitting by the poolside, comparing notes on our leaflets, my thoughts focused and worries settling. Here I am, eating potje with John and Joan and Sheila. Here I am, watching Lynnette enthusing over something in the dams. Here is Jan, leading a circle of 50 people in singing grace at our final party. Here we are.
And then I'm on my own, in the Jo'burg Protea, ordering room service and gorging myself on internet. My fingers reach ineffectually across oceans for my family. Another day passes in a fog of planes and naps and the weight of my bags. Australia is big. Everything is big. The heat is big, and the shops are expensive. We eat takeaway and sweat and watch huge cars roar by. Don't they realise, I wonder, my mind in Bulawayo. Don't they realise they can walk... don't they realise the world is not like this? But of course they don't. They can't. It is. Perth is.
What's it like in Zimbabwe, people ask, is it terrible? Pressured by expectations, confused by the straining of internal battles into external realms, my blurred memories reshape themselves. A blobby watercolour of a tired girl stumbling from day to day, searching for relationship, for family, for love, is rebuilt into a sketch of a warm country, a generous white community living graciously on the edge of poverty. I move on.
Another day, another plane. Another accent. Jet lag. Tea. Feijoas. Feijoas? A kind of fruit. Smarties. Swimming. Planning, booking, buses, Buddhists, buses ... and there I found mountains. In the National Park in New Zealand's North Island. There, fighting my way to the snow line in the wind, I woke up. Later in New Zealand, I'd find many more mountains, climb through hours of trees for views, but the volcanoes of National Park really blew off some cobwebs for me.
New Zealand was a long struggle with homesickness and weariness, the endless fear of missing out disturbing my leisure, restlessness and planning and replanning and tangled thoughts knotting past and future into a struggle for a satisfactory present. New Zealand was often beautiful, the bus system mostly a delight, the weather was generous, and I met so many kind and interesting people. My photographs show a splendid external landscape, but my memories are of the internal landscape.
I didn't set off on a quest to find myself, but what have I found, as I wander without a home (oh England, my England) and far away from the motley family whose photos I've carried from country to country. I find myself involved in a struggle begun in Southampton, a struggle to root myself in myself. A search to recognise myself without a mirror, to stand securely without home and history to lean on. Sometimes the delights of outside draw me from this internal struggle, and later I find myself relaxing on another hostel bed, exhilaration sinking into exhaustion and loneliness seeping in.
Many, many times I've sat at a bus stop, a station, a ferry terminal and wondered how hard would it be?, how hard to change all my flights, to go home tomorrow?
Here I am now. Here I am on a train. I plant my feet on the ground and look out of the window. Here is me, right here, right now. Don't miss it. Don't lose yourself in the mental tumble of there, and there, and there, of then and when, of past and future and other people other places. Here I am. There are the mountains. There are my feet, flat on the floor ... and upwards, all the way to my head, calling for coffee I'm determined to refuse it. Here I am. This is me. This is where I am. This is how I am. This is who I am, racing into the future before I've found my task for today.
Off that Canadian train, I lived with myself, ambling gently through the days, for two weeks, cycling steady through mountains, listening to my thoughts slowly churning through the days, a four day journey to England. Excited, bewildered, tired. I missed the slowness of that time in Canada. At Greenbelt, 'Dreams of Home', busy, my head of wheelbarrows and tape and tea mugs, I realised to my surprise that my family would be arriving shortly and despite having longed to see them for so long, Greenbelt had occupied my head so completely, so fully, that I was not looking forward at all.
Thursday morning – maybe? I drifted into crew cabin in my habitual state of early morning bewilderment, and Tom announced that I needed to go and see Cathy. I boggled at him, and drank tea and ate breakfast. At quarter to nine, just before a ten-hour day, Cathy asked if I would like a home for four months – her home, while she travelled. Lizzie showed up to set us to work. The offer dazed me, baffled me, excited me. Greenbelt ended. We cycled the Way of the Roses. I travelled to Lincoln, rummaged, rearranged, packed, forgot. Hauled an unrealistic amount of baggage on and off trains. Fumbled ineffectually at the keyhole of flat 2, having quite forgotten my own front door was around the corner. Tumbled my baggage in. Here I am. Here I am. The past is only history – travelled through and left behind. The places I have left roots – ah, Zimbabwe! - they remain with me, in me.
Now here is the pink carpet, my mother's pink carpet. Here are plastic bottles, trays, yoghurt pots, where shall I put them? Why under the sink of course. Isn't that how every home is arranged? No? Only mine? Here is a house which I have stamped – until January – with myself. In April I wrote to a friend,
Oh when I get back I dream of having a house, and keeping it clean and tidy, and baking cookies and having a teapot, and ... being at home to visitors and whoever drops by.
And bicycling and swimming and taking flute lessons and going country dancing and joining a church and a study group ...
I haven't got a teapot, but I've got two tea strainers, and a variety of bagged tea. I haven't baked any cookies yet, but I've made bread and apple cake. I've hoovered twice in the two weeks I've been here and I do the washing up every day. I'm bicycling and swimming and taking flute lessons and I've joined a church and I'm going to study group on Thursday. I haven't yet found any regular country dancing but there's a ceilidh on saturday. I'm bellringing. I feel like I'm playing at being grown up without having to do the difficult bit of fitting it all around a job.
So yeah, I'm living the dream ;-) What was all that travelling? When I think of it, I feel as though I'm in that moment where you don't quite know what's real and what's a fading dream... I don't know where I'll go in January, when I roll up my carpets and put my clock in another box and give Cathy her house back. I'm trying to make time to work that one out, but it's hard when I'm so busy being here. Who wants to visit?