Futile – the winds – to a heart in port
It is almost time to leave Canterbury for Christmas. Every morning I wake up to frost-smoke whisping up from the rooftops in the early sun, and shadow patterns playing on my carpet in front of the window.
Back home I return to work at the clothes shop. My friends have come home too, and we meet for our annual Oxfam Christmas busk in the city centre on a cold, wet Saturday afternoon. Despite the weather this is one of my favourite days of the year. We raise almost £200 singing carols in three-part harmony to shoppers in the post-Christmas weekend rush. Despite the recession people drop £5 notes into our basket. A burly guy in a fluorescent jacket and a hardhat pauses on his way past, and then gives us a tenner. One old man stands a little way behind us during a chorus of ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, singing quietly to himself. “That song reminds me of my wife,” he tells me, and wipes his eye with a handkerchief as he walks away.
The day after, I ride along in the passenger seat of a small car with Springsteen as a soundtrack and watch the morning fog rise over Norfolk fields. Hours earlier, before the sun had risen, I’d been reading my favourite book again.
‘How dangerously intoxicating is one small sign that we are chosen. How much we all want to be special, singled out, preferred, by someone we wish would love us.’
Films, coffee, lunch in small cafés, home cooking, and time spent looking at photography books happen before my friends come over to celebrate the New Year. We watch West Side Story because it is my favourite, and sing along to ‘I Feel Pretty’. I hardly sleep. The next morning I pack my camera equipment and meet a stranger on a bus who asks if I’m engaged. Jonny and I catch a train to the edge of this island.
The beach is deserted, it’s so cold. I shoot a little, and then we try to fly a kite but there’s no wind yet. When it starts to rain we watch the waves from under an umbrella. I think about my favourite book again, and we don’t speak for a while.
‘Love, being in love, isn’t a constant thing. It doesn’t always flow at the same strength. It’s not always like a river in a flood. It’s more like the sea. It has tides, it ebbs and flows. The thing is, when love is real, whether it’s ebbing or flowing, it’s always there, it never goes away. And that’s the only proof you can have that it is real, and not just an infatuation or a crush or a passing fancy.’
It’s past lunchtime. We wander the little town which holds so many memories and steal a table in a busy café filled with families. I forget what I eat. We talk and talk. The tide is coming in.
At quarter-past two we go down to the pier. We stand at the very end and look out at the blue wilderness for a long time. How strange, to be suspended somewhere between the land and the sea and the sky. A surreal place, a not-quite-real place. The sort of place things can be said which can’t be said anywhere else.
‘Funny how, when you’re about to be given something precious, something you’ve wanted for a long time, you suddenly feel nervous about taking it.’
I shoot the sea as I see it, re-align my vision, and then we walk back to the shore hand in hand.
A week and a little passes, and while things happen I choose not to take photographs. (Jonny calls this living “two feet in”.) There’s a birthday and a night of dancing and, after I quit my job a week early, a train ride and a narrowboat to call home. A butterfly time. Scarce sleep. Too much to say to one another. Homemade curry in the early hours when the night gets on top of us. Learning to navigate locks in the dark. Hand holding.
I move back to Canterbury for the start of the spring term. Heavy snow frosts the streets like thick icing sugar, and I catch it on my tongue as I walk to meet a train on Friday night.
We spend most of the weekend in the windowseat of a small café above a cobbled street. I have reading to do and he has letters to write, and the snow continues to settle on the rooftops outside. My city is beautiful for sharing.
The snow stays even after his train has left. I spend the week counting down the hours, scramble through my seminar prep, and finish my application to the University of California in time to arrive at the station again. (I’m a little feverish; everyone in my house has come down with a nasty chest infection.) London is crisp and busy. Camelot is warm and snug. I shoot expansions from her roof in the late afternoon light.
(Jonny slips out while I snooze on Saturday morning. This is the view from our window.)
We walk along the canal to town. We have to leave the river and walk along a busy A-road at the end, and we stand on the bridge for a minute thinking about the two worlds which run adjacent to one another there; the boats passing underneath the cars, the cars over the boats. We have artisan coffee in front of wide windows while people on the high street hurry by. The rest of the world seems very distant. When a man comments on my film camera – “You don’t often see those these days” – it feels like some kind of intrusion into our special, separate sphere.
(this is my favourite.)
We move to Costa to work, but my fever returns and we return to the boat where I sleep for a while, watch a Studio Ghibli film and watch him cook. In the night the cabin fills with smoke, but in the morning the light is clear and there is fruit for breakfast: pomegranate seeds to keep me returning.
Before I leave we stop by Waterstones, as Jonny has book vouchers to spend. I find a wonderful book to keep me engrossed while he browses the London travel section and picks out poetry. I should save my money for Arden editions of the Shakespeares I’m studying, but it ends up in my bag anyway.
Earlier, while we were working in Costa, I got myself in a strop over the final part of my academic statement for Cal. Next year I’ll be able to take modules in photography, and if I get into Berkeley I’ll even be able to focus my studies on documentary and news photography. I’m more excited about those modules than anything else. But as an English major, in an application like this, admitting that would be something akin to blasphemy. Since sixth form I have tried to navigate the turbulent road that lies between my life as a Lit student and my ambition to become a photojournalist; it’s one which involves tongue-biting and word-swallowing, embarrassed laughter put on for the benefit of others, and disapproving sneers from both sides. For most academics, my two intellectual spheres are mutually incompatible. But they’re not, I told Jonny as we sat in Costa, How can they not see how closely they intertwine? Why can’t they understand that wanting to be a photojournalist doesn’t negate my worth as an English student, doesn’t detract from my ability to study literature? It gives me a whole new perspective.
So he told me, Write what you would tell me. Don’t think about Californian academics. Just talk to me.
So I wrote a paragraph which finished, Studying literature helps me to explore the ways in which we construct the world we live in, while photojournalism gives me a place to create and re-create the world for myself, and a practical outlet for solidifying my moral, intellectual, and political space in society.
It isn’t in my final draft for Cal, of course. But it helped me work out what it was I could tell them, and how. It is hard to look at yourself from the outside, to strip away your complexities and view the shell of yourself others see before they know you. Trying to explain yourself to another person is difficult when you still don’t fully know yourself yet, either. There are some people, though, who help you hold the mirror up to yourself and see you for who you are. It’s a picture worth capturing.