Occasionally feeling odd is something I’ve grown used to since university. It’s part of the curriculum to look and feel odd. Have you ever seen a happy student? No. An overwhelming sense of displacement is the first thing that drives a student to drink, and it’s all downhill from there.
It’s a sudden feeling that soon rises into panic, the shakes, and a feeling of not knowing where to put yourself. It usually occurs when you first arrive in a new place, in my case Sheffield Poly, or later after uni when I drove to London with a job and nowhere to live. But that was many years ago, and since then I’ve developed new fears, anxiety, sadness and paranoia, the full hand for someone who’s studied, worked in IT, and commuted.
So I’d forgotten about the original plain old feeling of moving on and missing the past. The thing about displacement is that at the moment you feel its full effect, you have no chance. It’s nearly impossible to deal with without anaesthetics.
Therefore, I was horribly surprised last year that when I moved here from Reading, and felt the full effects of displacement. Caroline had stayed on in Reading, and I was on my own. It’s Caroline’s parents’ old house. They died in 2005, and by the time I arrived we’d spent a year throwing out or giving away nearly all the old, familiar things, and redecorating.
I knew the place very well. It was like a second home. Things started off perfectly. I had a PC, a dialup connection, a terrestrial TV, and a radio. I knew the town quite well. I knew a few neighbours to say hello to. Bernard had helped fit new taps. So I wasn’t prepared for the sudden realisation that the house was empty.
There were no ghosts, no noises. I was never lonely, but one evening, just sitting watching TV, an overwhelming feeling of wanting to go into every room at once came over me. I wanted to find something. Not just looking, but desperate to find something. I was shaking. Being a writer, I was immediately inspired by yet another cruel trick the human psyche can play.
I knew from experience that opening every door, putting every light on, every radio, and turning up the TV doesn’t work. It didn’t. I sat down and battled it out with myself. I needed to know that the past was still there, call it the past spirits of people who had gone. I needed to know I wasn’t being thrown into the future void.
To achieve this, I had to find some item that we hadn’t thrown out that encapsulated the past, that allowed me to feel the ground, and belong. I set about looking. Eventually, well past midnight, in the back of the garage, I found a Delia Smith cookbook from 1976.
It was an unusual thing to be calmed by, a funny cookbook. Frugal Food. Why the front cover should take me to an imagined past is a mystery, but simply seeing that book cover brought it all back. Brought what back? Well, I guess, an era. On a simple level, Delia, a TV cook, had been ousted by a whole host of new more aggressive TV chefs, and just seeing that simple cover reminded me that a gentle era was over.
It all made sense. Caroline’s parents’ illness, hospital visiting, care homes, uncertainty, death, turmoil, neighbours from hell, and change, not just change in our circumstances, but huge changes in the nature of friends and neighbours, and the behaviour of people in the streets culminating in deep sadness, fear and anxiety at that moment. Without warning.
Knowing yourself is very important. Big emotions are powerful things to control. People cannot be messed about with. We are very dangerous animals, and sadness, fear and anxiety are very dangerous emotions that stem from great change. And that’s what’s happening here in Britain, great change. Go figure…