I’ve been away. Again. To a place that will always be special for me. Despite the forty-three years that have passed since I left Britain, it will never feel like any of the other countries I visit.

I have to admit that things have changed over that time. Now, if you sit in a pub, all the conversations around you contain that B word. Various associated terms float towards you in that noisy but cosy place. Terms like “no deal”, “remain” and “leave”. But pubs themselves remain the same: the bar where you order, the drinks, the food, the pleasant, friendly atmosphere.

And then there was Whaley Bridge. Despite its name, it’s a small town. If you live in Britain, you’ll no doubt have heard of it. We hadn’t. We just followed a hiking route that happened to end up in that town, which was convenient for us because we could catch a train back from there to Buxton, where we were staying.

The first sign we saw of something unusual was when we walked close to Toddbrook Reservoir.

“That’s strange,” said David.

“What?” I asked.

“The reservoir is empty.”

I looked across the field and, sure enough, there was no water in the reservoir.

Money Tree

The money tree we discovered on a different walk. Who said money doesn’t grow on trees!

The second sign was that our footpath was closed, with a notice saying it was closed for three months. We retraced our steps to the edge of the town, where a helpful resident told us which way to go to walk to the town centre.

Then we met two men, who told us a better way to walk (through a park) and said the authorities didn’t really know how long the work would take, but it would definitely be longer than three months. The conversation then diverted to the purpose of the reservoir and the history of a long-abandoned railway line. It was very interesting, but I won’t go into it here.

We followed their advice, reached the town centre via the park, and ordered and consumed cream teas before taking the train back.

Strange happenings always come in threes, or at least this series did. My friend Gill, who lives in that area, asked me, on Scrabble, what we’d done that day.

“We walked to Whaley Bridge,” I replied.

“Lucky it’s still there,” she commented.

Huh? What was that about? I googled “Whaley Bridge” and discovered the worrying events that took place just last month. The whole saga made it to the national news, despite the preoccupation with the B word. That’s why those we spoke to didn’t think to tell us what happened. It’s probably a result of sounding British, even though we’re not, any more… almost but not quite.

If you don’t know what happened at Whaley Bridge, you can google it, too.

 

Choice. Do we have it? Do we want it?

This morning, D had to leave home early and I chose not to get up early, too, and join him for breakfast. For my lone breakfast, I chose not to have my usual toast and coffee, and just to have muesli. Later, feeling cold as I sat at my computer, I chose to go outside and sit in the warm sun. I could have chosen to put on more clothes to get warm, but I didn’t. Even when the sun hid behind a cloud and I felt cold again, I chose to wait for it to come out again and warm me up.

Confused

Life is a series of choices, some harder to make than others. I often find it harder to make choices than I ought to because, subconsciously, I start to wonder what’s expected of me, or what a normal choice might be, or what someone else would like me to choose, rather than simply what I want. I couldn’t have said at the time, for instance, why I hesitated so much when someone said, “Breakfast will be later; do you want a cup of coffee now?” Later, I worked out why. It was because I was thinking: No, I don’t want coffee but am I expected to want coffee? Would it be the normal thing to want coffee before breakfast?

I was just pondering this thing called choice today when I read David Rory O’Neill’s current blog post, in which he asks, “Why do people choose to live here?” He’s talking about New York, a place that’s fascinating to visit but wouldn’t be my first choice of a home town either. In fact, I remember wondering the same thing decades ago when I visited New York in the middle of winter at -19°C. Fortunately, we’re not all the same and a lot of people choose to live in New York – otherwise it wouldn’t be there to visit.

Choosing where to live is usually a big decision. I made that choice long ago and am very pleased with what I decided. I also chose whom to marry and, as we’ve been together for donkey’s years and still get on well, that was definitely a good choice.

I’ve made bad choices, too, including one that I believe led to me getting social anxiety. But I want to stress that I didn’t know one would lead to the other. In fact, as I’ve said before and will say again:

No one chooses to have social anxiety.

Today I also discovered the lyrics of a song I’ve probably never heard: Freedom Of Choice by Devo. The song ends:

Freedom of choice
Is what you got
Freedom from choice
Is what you want

Do you want freedom from choice? Do I? Do we? I wonder.

This is the twelfth and last in a series of posts describing my recent trip to England, Ireland, the Netherlands and Wales, from writing course to school reunion and more.

During the whole trip, which lasted just over a month, the only serious rain I saw was in Swansea, where I stayed with J, a friend from school. In fact, the rain began falling as we crossed the border into Wales and lasted to the next day. But even there in Wales, in my experience the land of constant rain, it cleared up and got quite hot.

Swansea Marina

Swansea Marina

But as we wheeled our cases to her abode, the downpour got heavier. Perhaps we should have taken a taxi in the end.

The next day, after visiting the busy market, I had my first ever experience of a gym. J let me choose the class, and I decided on something with music. I had no idea what I’d let myself in for.

Steps. It’s amazing what you can do with a little bench. Up, down, step, jump, left, right. However exhausted you are, you have to keep going, because everyone else is. Of course, they were all used to it, and they were all younger than us. I think we both managed very well.

Two things I noticed, both connected to my folk dancing experience. One was that, on the few occasions I glanced at J, I saw she was having more trouble following the steps than I was. It shows I’ve learnt something in my 15 years of folk dancing.

On the other hand, the instructor mostly performed the exercises with his back to us. But sometimes he turned round to face us, and when he did that he performed the exercises the other way round, stepping onto his left leg when we had to use the right, and so on. It was supposed to make it easier for us, because that way we used the leg that was on the same side as his.

But I’m used to dancing in a circle, where this isn’t possible. I’ve got used to translating: when the instructor is opposite me, I use the leg that’s on the other side from his. I think I’m making this sound more complicated than it is, but the outcome was that I got confused trying to follow him when he was facing us, and preferred to follow the girl in front of me.

We also had tea at the top of the Meridian Tower, and I went shopping for a few things to take back.

Swansea Marina: View from Meridian Tower

Swansea Marina
View from Meridian Tower

Alone on the train back to London, I again had an opportunity to be a writer, this time using my ears. The first speaker, into a mobile phone, had a gorgeous, lilting Welsh accent. I think it’s the best English accent (i.e. accent of the English language) there is.

“All right?”
“Is that all right?”
“So I’ll see you then.”
“Bye bye.”
“Tara.”

Later on, back in England, there were three girls behind me. I observed them as I returned from buying refreshments. They were all slim, all holding smart phones. One of them had nail varnish out on her little table. Later, while I was sitting, one of them stretched her legs out. I saw black suede shoes with very high heels. I’ve never understood how women can wear such monstrosities.

I wrote down random things they said – the ones I was able to understand.

“I just got another email.”

“He’s nice isn’t he?”

“Would you want to do two 18-hour shifts?”

“I’m just doing my other hand.”

“Haha, oh my god.”

“Yeah, we would just go to another cocktail bar.”

“It just bothered me? And I couldn’t even work out why it bothered me? So much?”

Then there was the race across London trying to catch a train to Luton Airport that I missed, but it didn’t matter because I had enough time, and even bought and ate a final egg mayonnaise sandwich before boarding the plane that took me…

As the plane taxied to its stopping place, El Al played the song that goes: “So good you came home,” and I smiled, knowing I was finally…

HOME

…to say that I’m having a wonderful time in the old country and will try to tell you about it without boring you – starting in about two weeks.

Hang in there!