Writing this, listening to a combination of Texas and Janet Jackson. The former reminding me of when I was in college, running football patterns on the beach pretending I was Jay Novacek, the latter someone I’ve only recently gotten into, influenced by something I read recently. You know subliminal advertising? I suffer from it to, only it often comes in literary form rather than sandwiched between terrestrial television in the form of commercial breaks.
I’ve always had a soft spot for immigrant tales. The stories of those people travelling thousands of miles from where they were born to somewhere else in the hope of having a better life for themselves and their children. The family they leave behind, the longing for the simple things their new homes don’t have; everything from special foods to sweets to the simple smells when the rains arrive. The latter isn’t a foreign thing to me either. The city where I live smells lovely in the rain. Loamy, sweet and providing the wind isn’t trying to take your breath away it’s often fat, pregnant rain drumming the place like a thousand loose stair-rods. It’s different in the other places. New York has hot summer rain that makes the sidewalks smoke. The coastal towns of England get everything flecked with salt, the briny metallic taste of the ocean. I’m British. We talk about the weather. You get two strangers together in the UK and it’s a forgone conclusion that the first real topic of conversation after initial greetings will be the weather. We make a national pastime of it.
But here’s the point of all of this. What do you take with you? And what do you leave behind? And most importantly of all, what do you pick up along the way?
This is one of the most important things I have. Primarily because of the story behind it, how it came to be mine, and the thoughts of its previous owner when it was under construction. Probably over a cup of coffee with friends, or maybe they were waiting for someone to arrive, their other half or someone they wished was but could never be or just simply to pass the time before a class.
This is the first time I’ve revealed this picture. I’ve never blogged about it either. It was back when I was waiting tables in a café on campus. Not the best job in the world, it was exactly that, and it allowed me to take MA courses at the same time, making new friends and finding out how to work a coffee machine. We also ate our meals for free. And if there were any leftovers at the end of the night the staff got them. It made me appreciate what I had, how little it was at the time, though I think it’s given me a weariness for lasagne that I’ll never truly kick. It was the most popular dish at the time and the chef had his special that was always filling, but almost every meal for 10 months it became a bit much.
I found the paper when I was cleaning one afternoon. The café was set behind huge glass windows that caught the western sun, so in the summer the temperature soared for those stuck inside. The circular tables dotted about, many lined up against the glass and the windowsills that lay between the two. I often noticed things there when cleaning. Mobile phones weren’t as prevalent then but you often found them there forgotten along with purses, wallets, files, portfolios and at one point a matching pair of shoes, I mean how could you forget your shoes? Didn’t you notice they were missing when you left?? All we’d do is stick the items behind the counter and wait for the poor unfortunate to come hurrying back, the look of panicked horror on their face, daring not to hope as they asked us if we’d seen something so important as their phone. Their relief was intoxicating, and it often a mix of satisfaction and teasing humour as we returned their cherished items. Once, when addressing a girl who’d left her phone behind three times inside a week, our chef said if she did it one more time he’d sell the thing on eBay. We think he was kidding, from her expression the girl herself wasn’t so sure.
But the paper was stuck on the windowsill, hidden between two plant pots. At the time I didn’t know who Tracy Emin was, and naively assumed it was the artist signing her own work. To look at it it’s a fascinating collection. Obviously someone was practicing faces, from profile to portrait, contrastingly different hairstyles, but they all have similar eyes and the lips are the signature feature. I had a look at the paper in more detail during my break, sitting on the employee steps in the sunshine,, next to the communal bins, determined to get my nicotine habit going again. I didn’t know anything about my college outside the English department so if they did have an art school it didn’t register. The local community has a thriving artisan vein so it might have been someone from the local villages stopping by for coffee, but it seemed more precise than that, the name at the bottom the obvious indication.
To this day I don’t know why I kept it. I guess it lived on my pegboard for the next four years because I was fascinated with the idea. The pop bubble-gum cartoonesque depicting of women; demure, ethnic (the big hair on two of the faces, the lips, very Janet), naively innocent within the world, the seven faces could be all of this and more, or rather none at all. I don’t think the depictions were intentionally derogatory. They’re definitely exaggerated, but not to a grotesque level, again this might give an indication of the tag, Emin, a London artist is notorious for presenting her audience with things they might not necessarily want to see yet still exist under the name of art.
The next four years was hard, nurse training is labour intensive no matter the country it takes place in. And existing on a meagre grant, without money for anything but the basic necessities left little leftover for things like getting my nails done or other extravagancies. Factor the shapeless baggy scrubs I had to wear into the equation and it made sense that I hung onto a snippet of my old job. If for nothing else than the fact that I missed it. I missed the café, the people I worked with, food and the sun and the ice cold winter when it got dark at four. This scrap of paper reminds me of that time. If I had a memory box it would be a shoe-in. but I don’t. I just have an old plastic snapshot packet, that holds all the ticket stubs and canteen cards and id badges I had to show to be allowed inside my halls of residence. This paper resides with all of that. Something not posted on facebook, except now indirectly it seems, but something precious to me, and even now I don’t know exactly why.
So that’s why when we travel we take things with us, little pieces of “the old country”; both in an effort to recreate our homes from back in the days when we lived there but also in reverence. For better or worse I left. I needed a change, going from a seaside town to the capital with all its smoke and chaos and detonating subway trains. The choice was the right one, I have no regrets, but I’m happy that I took that drawing from the windowsill. Who knows maybe the owner came back and asked at the till if it had been handed in? Does that make me a thief? I don’t know. To them it was just a series of bored doodles on a scrap of paper, something to stuff behind two plant pots. But it’s more than that to me. It is a memory of a time when I was still trying to figure things out in my head; I was only twenty three at the time, wet-eared and unsure. Not much has changed now funnily enough, except the crows-feet. And the technology.
The café was ripped up and relocated across the building six years after I left. It’s still there but the faces are long gone, my snapshots of the old layout now the only evidence of its original existence. I don’t know the reasoning behind the move. I’ve been back to the café a few times in the years since, but like Tom Wilkinson in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, he goes looking for what he remembers only to find a razed building site, and it turns something loved and cherished into something bittersweet, the awareness that everything is mortal, even that which is not alive. Time changes everything and everybody. The snippets we snatch at and manage to hold onto along the way are precious because they hark to both a decision made and one that was discarded in its favour. Both possibilities are there. To stay or to go? To love or to deny? To forget or to remember?
Maybe this scrape of paper is all of those things? Or maybe it’s just something that was meant for the bin, which takes meaning from its owner, who at the time was having serious doubts about her own life and used it as support when she needed to? Like I said at the start, comparing both Texas to Janet Jackson, you can imagine two scenarios occurring at the same time like bracketed camera film. Ghost shots made real, only in another medium. An interesting perspective on a life so dedicated.