(… wicked? Am I wicked?)
My friends were talking about their love of travelling and the places they’d like to go to if they had the time or the money or both. I couldn’t join in. I hate travelling; the idea fills me with dread. And yet, I can’t stay in one place. I cannot settle. If I’m here, I want to be there; if I’m there, I want to be here; if I’m where I want to be, there’s someone I want to see who’s three hundred or seven hundred or a thousand kilometres away. ‘You’re so lucky,’ people say, ‘having homes in two countries, and friends all over the world.’ But I’m not, or at least, it doesn’t feel that way. It feels more like a curse. I crave peace.
There are people who’ve never left the small town in which they grew up. They might have a couple of weeks on the Costa Blanca or in Ayia Napa every year, which they regard as a Great Adventure, but in general, they’re happy with their narrow horizons and limited choices. And I envy them so much. I mentioned this to someone recently, and I think initially he thought I was joking or at least that I had my tongue wedged firmly in my cheek. Not so. They’re the lucky ones, not me. They don’t have confusing choices to make and decisions to take. They aren’t constantly plagued with feeling that wherever they are and whatever they’re doing, they really should be somewhere else, doing something else. They have peace.
Years and years ago, I was standing in a queue at the supermarket. The check-out operator and the customer in front of me were clearly friends, or at least acquaintances. ‘Got any plans for the weekend?’ asked the former. The customer explained that she was a bit strapped for cash so wouldn’t be going out on Friday but intended, on Saturday evening, to go to a local night club where she had previously snogged a young man. She hoped he would be there again and that they’d spend the night together. She did not know his name or anything about him other than that he was a good kisser. Her plans for Sunday were vague, depending on whether said young man wanted to spend the day with her or kicked her out straight after breakfast (or morning sex, as her friend pointed out), assuming he was at the night club at all on Saturday night. The check-out operator opined, with what was I believe absolute sincerity, that it sounded like a fun weekend. The customer agreed that it had potential so to be. They both grinned in anticipation, real and vicarious, of the promised shenanigans. Then, her purchases scanned and bagged, the customer went on her way and it was my turn. In answer to the apparently standard ‘Got any plans for the weekend?’ all I could muster was a ‘No, not really, nothing special,’ and the rest of the transaction was performed in silence.
In the decade and a half since then, I’ve often wondered if the customer did hook up with the young man and if anything came of it, or whether she found him locking lips with another girl and went home in floods of tears; or maybe she just found another love interest for the weekend. The impression I got from my eavesdropping (though they were hardly whispering, and short of putting my fingers in my ears and singing ‘la, la, la, not listening,’ I doubt there was much I could have done to avoid overhearing) was that neither longevity nor competition were things that had even been considered. It was the thrill of sighting the prey, of the chase, of the conquest, that mattered. And, whilst feeling saddened that that was all she wanted from life and that her ambitions soared no higher than a one-night stand with a bloke whose name she didn’t even know and probably wouldn’t bother to ask, I absolutely envied that girl her simple, and achievable, ambition.
Because, you see, for some bizarre reason, people have always expected me to aim high, to be ambitious, to reach for the stars. But I have no interest in any of that kind of thing. My aspirations are – or should have been if left to my own devices – unexceptional. I’d quite like to be rich, or at least richer than I am, but money’s never been a primary consideration for me. I have no wish to be famous and have paparazzi following me to Asda. Nor do I wish to be the boss of a large company (though Emperor of the Universe would be fairly pleasant). So long as I have enough disposable income to do what I want to do in a modest way, I’m not going to bust a gut to earn more. I’m lazy. And, well, clever. My intelligence confuses the issue; it makes me seem more ambitious than I am. I have a PhD. I speak seven or eight languages. I appear to be an artist now. I have no idea how any of that happened. It just did. Possibly because it was less effort and less doomed to disappointment than getting tarted up and going out on the pull of a Saturday night.
Like everything else that’s wrong in this world, of course, it’s all my mother’s fault. (Yes, everything — that includes your marital problems, or your son’s drug addiction, or Brexit, or the existence of Donald Trump — she’s definitely to blame for it all.) When I was four years old, my mother decided to leave my father for a few years and go to Spain. There was no question of my being left in his care. There was no question of her not going. Now, it must be said, my mother had already inadvertently ruined her own life by deciding to better herself and going to college and generally being brilliant. This led to her being appointed the youngest headmistress in Britain (well, at the time – I have no idea if the record still stands), being visited by Prince Philip, and living in random places around the UK, something considered quite intrepid for the time.
She thought she was simply having fun and being adventurous and the world was her oyster. And it was. Until she tried to settle down and play the role of wife and mother. It just didn’t work. She’d already succumbed to the curse: if she was here, she wanted to be there; if she was there, she wanted to be here. ‘You’re so lucky,’ people used to say to her, too, in later years, ‘having travelled so widely.’ But she wasn’t, or at least, I don’t think it felt like that to her. So when I was four years old, she decided to leave my dad (she probably gave him the option of going too, but after being dragged around enough, he opted out – he wasn’t going to let the curse (or my mother) ruin his life, too) and take me off to Spain.
And that’s when it began. That’s where the evil seed was planted. My early years were spent travelling as I followed my mother around (and yes, it was fun – she was quirky and exciting and adventurous and taught me more than I could ever learn in any school); my young adult years were spent travelling as I escaped from her (because by now her eccentricity had changed to insanity and keeping on the move was the simplest way of dealing – i.e. not dealing — with that). So now I’m in my fifties, I’d love to settle down. But I have homes in two countries and am fated to want to be in both places at the same time. Maybe I should finally decide what I want to be when I grow up and stick to it. Maybe then I’d find peace.
Hah! As if!