the bustle and butterflies and getting ready. the backpack and its almost broken zip. the going, going, gone out the door. the grey, grey roads. mirror, signal, manoeuvre. the parking up.
the walk, walk, walk.
the slooshy, silver sea and glassy sunlight. the tarmac to beach ombre. the flip-flops flipped off sandy toes. the picking a spot, backwards, forwards, back again. the nerves, nerves, nerves. the trying to forget my body. the quick strip down to my costume. the quick march to the water and the cool, cool, cool of it against feet, calves, knees, thighs, tummy, arms. the deep, deep breaths. the sinking slowly down to shoulders. the unsucking of feet from sand, flip-flapping them. the slip sliding forwards. the rippling waves slapping chin, cheeks, nose. the absurd thought of sharks. the imagining of pointy teeth, fins, death. the less absurd thought of jellyfish. the imagining of tentacles, poison, death. the closing of eyes and the don’t, don’t, don’t think thoughts. the stopping. the treading water. the goggling at blue skies all above. the resting. the bobbing. neck back, head up, hair wet, heart calming. the tippy toes peeping above the water. the tide tugging, pulling, teasing. the splash marks on sunglasses and the gulls crying. the paddle boarders. the serious swimmers, caps and suits and goggles. the runners on the shore. the cruise ships hanging on the horizon, sea cities turned to ghosts. the goosebumps flooding skin. the press of time, time, time. the strokes towards the beach. the soaked soles on shifting sands. the walking. the fear of falling over. the nerves, nerves, nerves again. the trying to forget my body again. the quick steps across the beach. the sand plastered to ankles. the relief of hiding in a gritty towel. the lying back. the gentle hush of waves. the tired lungs, tired arms, tired legs. the tingly skin. the icy breeze. the tangled hair, sticky and messy in a ponytail. the book, its pages snapping in the wind. the shimmering, sea-slicked shells. the wait, wait, wait to be mostly dry. the packing up. the double check. keys, phone. keys, phone. phone, keys. the drive home with a salty smile on my lips and a little weight lifted from my heart. the rest of the day sunny and sea drunk.
I was sat in Costa with a cup of tea clamped between my shaky hands, staring out at 6am darkness, and one word flooding my sleep deprived brain.
I had never done it before. Never travelled solo, never left the UK without family or friends. Without safety in numbers. Without backup. Without someone to talk to, to confide in, to hold my hand during turbulence, to take the piss out of my imminent-death-fearing tears. (Defying gravity is just asking for trouble, right?)
But there I was. All alone.
And I was about to learn some things.
My first lesson: I can fly without crying. There and back my stomach was filled with butterflies, but my eyes were empty of death-fearing tears. Which is a positive development. (Side note: I did almost have a panic attack in the toilets after arriving at Dublin Airport, but I managed to rein it in. Which I guess is positive?)
Second lesson: the Irish are super friendly. I was never far from a conversation, whether it was about rugby, the right way to make a cup of tea, books, Irish history, Dorset, doughnut unicorns, the new Mary Poppins film, Brexit *sobs*, or even just the weather. It was very rare that I actually felt alone alone.
Third lesson: if in doubt, go on a guided walking tour. There was a part of me that really didn’t want to look like a tourist – despite absolutely, definitely, completely-and-utterly being a tourist – but the walking tour was one of the best things I did. Not only did I learn a lot about Dublin, I also met another solo traveller and we spent the afternoon charity shopping, chatting, and photographing our way around the city. I went on this tour and can highly recommend it if you’re ever in Dublin.
Fourth lesson: I don’t like Guinness. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t, but I just wanted to make sure. (I did finish the whole pint though.)
Fifth lesson: things are expensive in Dublin. A teeny tiny hot chocolate will set you back over €3; a packet of Cadbury mini eggs is €1.99 *throws hands into the air in disgusted disbelief*; or you can buy two creme eggs for the bargain price of €1.70. (All the important things, obviously.) I suffered severe Dairy Milk withdrawal symptoms over the three days I was there.
Sixth lesson: the middle of a superking bed is the bestest, cosiest, snug-as-a-bug-in-a-ruggliest place ever to read a book. It’s just a shame I ended up hating the book I read (The Queen of Bloody Everything by Joanna Nadin. I was more than happy to leave it behind at the hotel).
Seventh lesson: keeping track of key cards/passports/tickets/money is stressful. I can’t even count the number of times I thought I’d lost my bus pass and all the mini heart attacks that followed that thought.
Eighth lesson: when you’re travelling alone, there’s no-one to judge your questionable dietary choices. My breakfast on Thursday was a hazelnut praline doughnut and my breakfast on Friday was a massive chocolate muffin, just because I could. You can judge me all you want, but I’ve eaten them now. So there. *sticks out tongue*
Ninth lesson: (seeing as we’re on the subject of unhealthy food) ice cream in February is totally a good idea. A friend recommended a visit to Murphys Ice Cream, so I stopped off there on Friday afternoon, even though my core body temperature was roughly -40°C. The ice cream was amazing and all the staff were so lovely (see lesson number two).
Tenth and most important lesson: 99.99% of people are inherently kind and awesome. My flight home got cancelled because of Storm Erik. After having a little cry at the Flybe desk and trying to figure out where the hell Southend was in relation to Dorset (I used to think I was good at geography, but I officially take that thought back), I joined a painfully long and completely stationary queue to rearrange my flight and ended up chatting to a few of my fellow flight cancellees. It turned out that one of them – an amazing lady/guardian angel called Sue – lived near my home town, and after figuring out we could catch a flight to Exeter, she offered me a lift home with her. I know the general consensus is that you should never get in a car with strangers, but not only was I 100% sure Sue wouldn’t kidnap me, I’d reached a point of tiredness where I was 100% willing to be kidnapped so long as I was vaguely near my house. Sue didn’t kidnap me, and I will always be grateful to her for keeping me calm and looking after me (and the non-kidnapping). Thank you, Sue!
I can’t wait to go back and explore more of the city, and more of Ireland too.
Just maybe when there’s less stormy flying weather.
So, Halloween last year was an interesting one for me and my family.
It wasn’t spooky and it wasn’t ghostly, but it was scary.
This post explains why.
I started it as a submission idea for a magazine and decided I didn’t want to let it go. So here it is in all its messy glory. It’s basically a stream-of-consciousness letter to my Mum, right from the bottom of my topsy-turvy heart and brain. It may also shine a bit more light on my Moomin Medicine post from November.
And I’m happy to report that, although there are ups and downs, she is very much on the mend.
It’s not right. You. Here.
I sit on the bed and stare at my purple-blue feet that are too cold and too hot all at the same time.
I want to look at you, but you scare me with your smallness and your illness. I want to look at you, but I don’t want you to know that I’m afraid. You know my face too well for it to lie to you. It’s half your face, after all.
I lean back on the hard mattress and scrunch the thin blue sheets between my fingers. In my head a nurse comes over – a Miss Trunchbull style nurse – all stern and angry. The imaginary nurse tells me to get off the bed, tells me to leave the hospital, tells me never to come back.
But outside my head, nothing happens. No-one tells me off, no-one asks me to leave.
I stay on the bed that’s yours but not yours.
The side of the not-yours bed cuts deep into the backs of my thighs and it cuts deep into my heart. I shuffle, wriggle, squirm from both pains.
I talk about work and how it’s been busy. I look at Dad. I talk about the kittens, how they miss you. I look at Dad. I talk about the chickens, about breakfasts and dinners, about the Great British Bake Off and how Rahul has won, about the weather and how it’s cold today. I look at Dad.
I do steal glances at you with my half-yours eyes. I try to make them lie to you, but the look on your face lets me know I’ve failed. You’re not fooled – never have been – by my lying, half-yours eyes.
Dad talks. He’s so much better at this than I am. He knows what to say, knows how to be. I drum my fingers against the sparkly white edge of your bed and I stare at the clipboard hanging from the end of it. Note after note after note.
I wish I had my notebook.
You know the one – it’s the one filled with all the inane and absurd worries that my brain spits out and clings to so desperately, so hopelessly. The one my therapist has told me to keep. The one I chitter-chattered to you about for weeks and weeks, joking – hurting – about all the ridiculous and horrible scenarios my mind invents, all the while not knowing the ridiculous, horrible scenario real life had invented for you. I could fill all the pages of that notebook now. But where do I even start, Mum?
I’m worried about everything.
Why did your surgery take so much longer than expected? What happened? I’m worried that the surgeons might have left something in you – a scalpel, a glove, a piece of cotton wool. It happens sometimes, so why not this time? And I’m worried – so, so worried – about what they might not have taken out. What happens if they didn’t get some of the cancer? What if they couldn’t reach it all? Or, worse, what if they just forgot a bit? I haven’t read about that happening, but I’m sure it’s something that could happen – and if it can happen maybe it has happened.
I’m worried about germs hiding everywhere and I’m worried about all the germs on me. I’m worried that I kissed you on the cheek with all my germs; that I’m sitting on your bed with all my germs; that I should never have come here with all my germs.
Most of all – and this one eats me up alive – I’m worried that I won’t be able to look after you, that I won’t be able to repay all your years of looking after me. How can I be strong like you? How can I cope like you would when it feels like all my insides are going to bubble up and burn out of my chest?
The list goes on and on and on.
Dad’s still talking but now he’s talking to me, looking at me. I come around.
It’s time to leave.
Mum, why don’t you to come with us too? You shouldn’t be here and none of this should be happening, so why don’t we just pretend that it’s not? That will work, won’t it? That will make it go away.
I stand. I lie badly with my eyes. I kiss you with my germs. I’m desperate to go and I’m desperate to stay. This not-yours bed has stolen all of earth’s gravity and I don’t want to go back to falling through the empty space of home without you.
Time. To. Leave.
Dad and I walk away. A thousand gravity-cords stretch and pop and snap at my all-yours heart, ready to pull me back, ready to stop my hot-cold feet in their tracks. But away we carry on walking.
The sun is burning hot and the sea shimmers a thousand beautiful blues.
We pick our way down a washed-away jumble of steps and baked mud, beyond a sign that says not to go further. The beach is toasty under my soles and tingly around my toes.
We set up camp half way round the bay and I strip quickly down to my bikini, head straight to the water because if I don’t get in now I never will.
The water is sharp and cold, a shock, a relief, icy as it slicks across my goose-bumpled skin. It cloaks me, hides me. I float, I swim, paddle, sit, stand, wriggle till I’m soaked through to my blood, salty down to my bones.
And I stay longer and longer, a fear bubbling under my skin until the cold forces me to ignore the fear.
Getting out is the worst part because my head hates my body, even though my body doesn’t really deserve to be hated.
Somewhere lost – very lost – inside me, I know that. I know it but still I don’t believe it.
The short walk back to our spot makes me, ridiculously, want to cry.
The towel is my saviour, a shroud, a thin paisley-strewn defence against eyes that will surely hate my body too if they glimpse it.
A book is my saviour too, releases me from my self.
Butterflies dance over pebbles, brush across my knees. They save me as well.
And the skylarks, they save me. They sing and sing, cheep and cheep, and they lull me away from the thoughts that circle round like vultures desperate to pick apart, literally, my flesh.
As we head back, back up those jumbly stairs, back up a very hilly hill, I try to love my legs, love every sinew, every muscle, every bit of cellulite – the real bits and the (apparently) imagined bits – as every one of them helps me back to the car, but I struggle to undo over half-a-life’s worth of muddled thinking. Of being and knowing and believing.
Unrosy. That’s the only word that seems to fit the last few months.
I’ve had plenty of sparkly happy shiny moments with my friends and family – so so many, and I couldn’t count them if I tried. Moments I have loved and will never forget. But I’ve also had plenty of moments with myself that have scared me. Moments where I’ve felt my whole life slipping away and been unsure if I can even catch it, unsure if I even want it. I’ve had panic attacks in public toilets, in my car, sat at the kitchen table, whilst folding the washing – the list could go on and on and on. I’ve had whole evenings of crying for no reason, just sat stupidly, pathetically, snottily trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with me and why I can’t pull myself together. I’ve felt my whole body turn to lead, like it’s been switched off at the mains and my mind with it. I(‘ve) hate(d) myself through and through – more than I can find a way to say – then hate(d) myself for hating myself because isn’t that just the most stupid thing to do? Isn’t it illogical and embarrassingly self-centred? Isn’t it a ridiculous, pointless waste of time to obsess about how ugly and disgusting and hideous (I believe) I am? Only an idiot would waste that much time. *facepalm*
It’s basically felt like being run over by a ginormous and really rather emotional lorry. And now I’m at the side of the road, a little (lottle) bit dazed and confused, trying to keep myself in a vaguely normalesque shape, with some pieces of me feeling a little (lottle) bit mushier than before.
I know the pieces will get less mushy. I know things will feel more rosy. Quickly would be nice, but I have a feeling it’s going to be a little more complicated than that because this has all been a long time in the making.
Friends and family are the answer; reading and writing and creating are the answer. Talking sometimes, listening sometimes, silence sometimes – all of them are the answer.
And even, sometimes, just taking a blurry photo of roses is the answer.