Just got back from a little walk around Dorking, my hometown. I haven’t lived here for twenty years.
I think this sort of thing is supposed to be emotional. Poignant. Bittersweet. It’s the chapter towards the end of the book where the protagonist realises what’s really important in life. Suddenly, priorities shift. Follow your dream! Go get the girl!
It wasn’t quite like that.
I walked southwest from my Dad’s house, and each step took me back in time. That’s the way to my secondary school. The home I grew up in. My primary school. Throbbing knots in the thread of my life so far.
Along the way, I looked around at the shops as much as I could without bumping into people. The buildings – the shells – remain the same. Occasionally, perhaps even frequently, the creature within dies or moves out to find a better shell, and something else scuttles in. Life goes on.
Well, not always. Sometimes a whole row of shells gets demolished for an enormous Waitrose, as it turns out. Still, even with this dramatic alteration to the landscape, I was unperturbed. I bought some chocolate and moved on.
I know that plenty of my schoolfriends never left. Got jobs here, raised families. I have no idea if I would recognise a single one of them should I pass them in the street, or they I, but I scan faces regardless. Subtly. I hope.
It’s more than that, though. I was here when I was… 17, 18. In some part of my head that is resistant to logic, this is a place in which people are that age. So even when I pass a teenager, I scan. Are you…? Do you…? No. Of course not. They weren’t born when I moved out of here, but still, I scan.
I decide to go to my old secondary school first. It was called Sondes Place when I was there, but now it’s The Priory. I guess it’s even more overtly religious there than ever.
I’m looking for the entrance to a steep uphill path with a railing, which we called The Struggle. As I walk over the knobbly paving stones that helpfully indicate pedestrian crossings to the blind, I get a flashback. I remember seeing the workmen lay these slabs about a quarter of a century ago.
I was walking to school, a nervous teenager, and realised what they were doing a fraction too late. In a split second I realised that my stride would place one foot directly onto the slab, freshly resting in a bed of wet cement, so I improvised. I did a big hopping step, barely tapping the slab with one foot as I sailed over with the other, cringing apologetically in the workman’s direction.
It was intended to be an exaggerated, full-body apology. “Look, I hardly touched it! I’m being considerate!” Unambiguous.
“Look at ‘im! ‘Ooligan of the future.” Spat the workman in disgust.
I remember it so clearly.
After The Struggle, it’s only a few minutes to Sondes/The Priory. The first thing I see is a tall fence – just behind it, an enormous red brick building I’ve never seen before. This is no longer the school I remember, that’s for sure.
As I keep on walking, I see a sign warning that CCTV is watching. That’s new too.
As my sightline rounds the corner of the brick building, I realise two things. Firstly, there are about three more just like it queuing up behind. Secondly, the main body of the school is right there in front of me, unchanged. It’s an utterly unremarkable square building, stuffed to bursting point with memories of misery, triumph, uncertainty, pain, sadness, boredom, loneliness, and frustration.
It’s unsatisfying. I’m at arm’s length. I need to be in there, sitting in my old chair in the English classroom. (Did I have a chair I always used? I’m not sure. It’s so easy to romanticise the memory.) I need to be in the gym, remembering the fencing lessons. I need to smell the varnish, feel the pencil in my hand, chew on a blade of grass lying on the football pitch.
I walked past a family of five to get here, and they catch up to me as I loiter behind the fence with my beard and my hoodie, looking suspicious. Self-conscious, I double-back and head home.
Well, not home. But the only building I have ever really considered to be my home.
I am now re-tracing the steps that I took every day for years and years as a boy. School to home. So often that the path was indelibly marked into my memory.
Here we go. Home. I don’t have a plan. I walk outside and look in. The windows all seem dark, but then I see a lamp on in the front room. I can’t see evidence of human habitation, but once again I feel self-conscious. I wish someone would just ask me what I’m doing. I want to explain it to someone, make it real. “I lived here. Twenty years ago, now. My bedroom was the one on the right at the top of the stairs. I’m sorry? Oh no, I couldn’t. I have to – really? Well. If you’re sure. I mean, I don’t want to be a bother. Thank you so much, it’s… Oh, wow. It’s changed so much in here!”
Instead I turn and head back the way I came, after barely a few seconds.
The next right is a steep-ish hill, leading to my primary school. I wish it was autumn, then I could collect a chestnut from the big tree on the way. Dad used to help me pickle them in vinegar, bake them in the oven, whatever the latest rumour was for ensuring battle preparation. I need a totem. Something I can hold in my hand. This is all too ephemeral, so far.
A lady is parked outside the primary school, reading. I look around, once again at arm’s length. The same mix of the intensely familiar and rudely new. I can’t go into the cloakroom, and try to find my favourite coat hook. I can’t go into the boy’s loos and marvel at the miniature sinks where we slaked our thirst after a rowdy football match on the playground.
So. I go back to Dad’s house.
I don’t feel happy, or sad. I don’t feel much of a connection to the town, or even my younger self. After moving out of Dorking I lived in Canterbury, Bath, north London, Guildford, Woking, Cambridge, south London, and Cambridge again. Another name will be added to that list soon enough.
Those schools look an awful lot like the ones I attended, but they aren’t mine. Not any more.
The people I knew back then don’t exist any more either. I wouldn’t know what to say to them even if I saw them. The Tom from back then winked out of existence years ago, so I can’t even ask him for conversational tips.
Dorking was home, once. I haven’t felt at home since, but I don’t feel at home here any more either.
It would be nice to make a home for myself one day, but it won’t be here. I’ll keep looking.