Is this where I belong, in a village under the shadow of a mountain?
Lately, my whole existence has been in shadow. It feels as if life is passing me by, unable or unwilling to reach me on this side of the mountain.
Sightseers would say that my village is picturesque, and yes, I’d agree. With its patchwork of fields dotted with grazing sheep, rolling hills, streams, and woodland thickets, who wouldn’t want to live here?
Tourists come by the coach-load to have their summer vacation, putting their tents up in our meadows, dropping their litter, and leaving charred patches of earth from their campfires. By the time the summer passes, they’ve returned to their urban living, and their nine-to-five jobs. The truth is, there’s nothing to keep them here, nothing to keep me here, either. It’s my prison, my picturesque prison. Staying here, I’m barred from any chance of making a living.
It never used to be this way; my family has lived in this same street in our village for three generations. We’ve survived two world wars, and also mining strikes. Then came the latest economic downturn, and our community has been felled like a stack of carefully balanced cards. Shops are boarded up, family businesses that have been around for generations, are now gone forever.
You can see homeless people sleeping in doorways; the brighter ones have turned the vacated shops into squats. They’ve even had to set up a soup kitchen. It’s surprising whom you’ll find queuing there on a Friday morning. Yet no one will ever admit to using it, they have their pride.
Unable to find a job, I moved back in with Mum. The house feels cramped, even smaller than I remember it being as a child. But at least I do have a roof over my head.
Three generations of my family have lived here. Three generations ago, they obviously had different ideas of privacy, for the walls are paper-thin. I can hear muffled conversations, and the neighbours doing their vacuuming. At night I can hear the elderly man next door rheumatically coughing. It’s not his fault I know. That’s what years of working down the pit have done to his lungs. Still, I cuss him every time he wakes me up at three in the morning.
Three generations, and here I am, with my travel case packed, and my train ticket in hand about to set off for pastures new.
“I still say you haven’t given it long enough. Give it a few more months, you’ll get a job here, just you see.” Mum picks up the morning paper, and starts flicking through the jobs section. She’s in denial. I take another sip of my tea, freshly brewed.
“Mum, I’ve been looking for six months since I graduated. Six months! There’s nothing. If I miss this opportunity, God knows when the next one will come along. Besides that, the state will stop my payments if I don’t take it, then we really will be up the creek.”
“You just have to tell them it’s not suitable. All your money will go on rent and bills. What if they decide not to keep you on?”
“That’s just a risk I’ll have to take.” I sigh heavily, Mum sighs too.
“You’ll keep an eye out for something here though, won’t you, poppet?”
“Of course,” I say, making a promise I know I can’t keep. Then I add: “But well-paid jobs only become available when someone’s retired, or died. There are a hundred people chasing every one of them.”
“You belong here.”
I grit my teeth. How I hate to hear those words. I belong to no one but myself.
Then she adds: “Maybe you’ll find a nice man, settle down, start a family. I can help you raise your babies, my grandchildren. I could look after them during the day, if you still have to work. Just think, four generations of this family, all raised in this same street.”
I put my mug of tea down, trying not to spill it. This is what Mum means by belonging here. She means I belong to her. She has my whole future mapped out for me.
“I don’t even know if I want children.” I say, in way of retaliation.
My comment seems to have hit the mark, because Mum is now standing there, gawping at me, her arms folded firmly across her freshly ironed pinny. Then she turns away. “You’ll change your mind, when you’re older.”
She starts dusting the ornaments on top of our old Victorian cast iron mantle piece. It’s cluttered with sepia-toned pictures of our family. She hides her face from me, but I can see from the reflection in the mirror that her eyes are rimmed red, and she’s fighting back tears.
“Mum, I’m sorry, maybe you’re right.” I concede, with all the conviction I can put into those words. This is one argument I can’t win.
I look at the clock just as it chimes ten. I have to leave now, in order to reach the station in time.
“I have to go.” I murmur, apologetically.
I reach out to touch her arm, and we embrace. I take her perfume, a mixture of roses, and lily of the valley. The essence of a cottage garden, it’s heavenly, and takes me back to my earliest childhood memories. Life was so much easier, then. Maybe it will be again. I have to find my own luck in life. I wish I could make Mum understand that.
I lift my suitcase, and we both head for the door. Outside, it’s raining, huge drops like bullets, and the sky is a grey as the slates on our roof. I pull the hood of my coat up to stop my hair from getting frizzy, and step down onto our cobbled street.
Mum hovers in the doorway. She smiles, but her eyes are moist.
“Have you got everything now. You haven’t forgotten anything, have you?”
“Only one thing.” I lean forwards, and give Mum a kiss on the cheek.
“I’ll give you a call as soon as I arrive, let you know I’m safe.”
“Goodbye my sweet.” She remains in the doorway, watching misty-eyed as I turn away from her.
The rain continues to beat down. I drag my suitcase along the cobbles, past the row of pebble-dashed cottages, with their all-too-often twitching net curtains. Our road is quiet, devoid of traffic. Turning down a side alley, I’m finally away from prying eyes.
Mum’s perfume floats along with me, like the ghost of summers past. I feel a sob erupt from within me, and then another, and another. I wish having a future didn’t mean leaving my past life behind me. What if this really is where I belong?