Sooner or later, when you come stumbling through your 20s if you're lucky, or your 30s or later if you're unlucky, or just not quite able enough to have got to grips with these things earlier, you have to make peace. Make peace with people, and situations, and feelings that you have; and, as I've found out this week, with places, too.
I've always had the feeling, when coming back to my home town, of a weight pressing down on me, of things having been left unfinished somehow, unsatisfactory, of there being things that needed to be tidied away. I didn't know why that was, and I'd largely tried to forget about it. I moved away when I was about 26, which was a pretty good age to do it - move away, get away, leave everything behind. For those of you who stayed around, you probably did all the dealing with things earlier, I think; moving away gives you breathing space, a chance to forget, a chance not to be reminded maybe, but everything still is there, waiting for you, whenever you return. And sometimes you don't have to return physically; sometimes you're just transported back, through memories, or dreams, to that place where you grew up, where you used to live, to that place where there are ghosts.
I only ever go back home to see my dwindling family or my friends, the people I went to school and work with, and I don't hang around for long. A pint at Christmas; the chance for someone I vaguely remember from school to insult me and try to start a fight with me for no plausible reason; the chance to dwell over all of those missed opportunities, could'vebeens and neverweres. But this week, there was the chance to make peace with one particular place, a place which has (or possibly had) a kind of gravitational pull on all the other places nearby, over all of my home town and all the people there.
It's a hospital. We all have places that have horrible things associated with them, and I'd never been back, not since... well, not since then, a particular day a few years, many years ago. I hadn't been back and I hadn't wanted to be back. But by a strange coincidence, I ended up going back. Not for me, but for someone else. And so, there I was, driving to the same hospital, seeing the same ghosts. Faces in corridors. The shining floors and clanging open spaces. The whiteness. The emptiness. And one room, one room in particular.
Of course I'd said it wouldn't bother me at all. That's just what you say when you do these things because that's how you're meant to feel, but I didn't know what I'd feel. I just hoped it wouldn't bother me. And there it was, and I was looking at it, this building, which had held such awful memories, where things had happened, where people - someone - had gone but never left... well they had left, after all. And what did I feel? Nothing. I didn't feel anything. It was just a building where I was driving someone to a job interview. It was just a big building.
But until I'd gone there, until I'd been back, I hadn't known. That place still had some kind of wariness within me, it still held a memory of grief, and pain, and everything that goes along with it. Until I'd gone back, and then I realised that those things don't always linger; the building is just a building, it's just a place, a place where these things happen, a place where people go, a place I'd now made peace with, somehow, because all the feelings I'd had there weren't attached to it any more.
Once that had happened, everywhere around it began to look different, as well. I walked around the shopping centre in my home town, the awful, drab, identikit shopping centre in my home town, looking at the faces of the people walking past, and they seemed ordinary, normal, devoid of anything that could upset me. I walked around past the empty shops and the sad faces. This was no more the place that could get to me in that way, where I used to be, a place from my past that still made me feel difficult, or awkward, or unhappy; this was just another place, a place where I was, a place I was walking around. This was just the same place, slightly different, where the people were older, and I was no-one. I didn't see anyone I knew; I didn't see anything unusual. This was just nowhere, anywhere, somewhere. "Nothing, like something, happens anywhere." That's how I felt. This was anywhere.
And I drove around to the house where I used to live, and that felt like nowhere, as well. It felt like no-one's house. It felt like it wasn't somewhere that belonged to me, where I should even be. And that was that. I was sitting in the car, with the rain falling, the windscreen wipers squeaking across the glass, the engine running, the radio on, and there was just an absence of what there had been. There was an absence of some kind of hostility that I still felt, some kind of resentment, some kind of anger. It had gone.