Yesterday evening I went to hear Ian McEwan speak at the Newcastle University, just over the river from where we live in Gateshead. He was amazing - so clever, articulate and erudite. Well, what would you expect from Ian McEwan?
I left here at 6.30pm. Rog had just walked in the door while I attempted to make a pretty sharp exit. And I left - the kids to their bed-time routine and the house to its mess.
Later, after the event I walked on my own back to the car across the beautiful old campus, underneath the ivy-covered arches and I felt acutely transported back to another time in my life 20 years before.
You see, I did my undergraduate degree at this university, far away from what was my home then in the south of England and when I worked it out it really was 20 years ago - more - when I started.
Walking across the flagstones past the building in which I had studied, all those years ago, I passed a group of students - kids they looked to me - with arms linked, all chatting and laughing. I felt as if I was passing myself coming the other way. Would I recognise my 41 year-old self, filled with different pre-occupations, hurrying back in the other direction to my three children? Would I have expected my life to have been as it has?
Cutting through onto the road I'd parked my car, the hospital loomed dark against the night sky. And there too were so many memories. In that hospital was where I'd had my three babies, and also where I'd had all my cancer treatment. The actual ward three storeys up where I'd endured my chemotherapy and my bone marrow transplant had been due for demolition not long after my treatment finished. The building was shaped like a thin arm and for a long time the partial demolition cut open the end so one could see inside the three storeys at once like a tube with the end severed. Into that maw I could see the space where the beds had been, hanging open to the elements. Because there were people who were so very sick in that ward, fresh air was not allowed. Instead there was some kind of system which kept the air purified and hideously stuffy - it was one of the many discomforts about staying there. I would drive past and feel glad that there was air in there at last.
Now, however that part of the hospital has been entirely demolished, and the cancer centre rebuilt elsewhere in the city with flash new facilities and all mod-cons - that's where I have my appointments now. And back at the old hospital the space where I had all my treatment just doesn't exist anymore. It's thin air. And that makes me feel very very strange. It's almost like a dream - or a nightmare. It's almost like it didn't happen. But that ward, those rooms, that space where my worst nightmare did come true are etched in my mind and in my memory. I dream about them and they don't exist anymore. I cannot successfully convey how uneasy their absence makes me feel.
Driving home over the beautiful Tyne Bridge, the river lit up by lights on the Millenium Bridge and the Sage, I realised what a connection I have with the city of Newcastle. It's my home now - my adopted home. Twenty-two years ago I came here to study English at the university. I had a fabulous time and made friends and memories which last until today. Then I left for a few years - did my teacher training in the south and worked for a while down there. But the place lured me back and for the past 14 years I've lived in Northumberland and then the city. I've married here, had my children here, nearly died here and hopefully will grow old here.
I miss where I grew up and those country lanes along whch I walked and rode are part of my fabric but this city is a shape superimposed on top, blending and blurring until I almost can't tell which came first. My southern accent will forever mark me out as a newcomer, my children are already skilfuly mixing the Geordie and the South in their speech. And they truly belong to the city, born in the centre. This is their home.
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