I went to Bath. I hadn’t been there in twenty years. Last time I visited, I was working at a language school for the summer, shepherding uninterested non-English speaking teenagers round the city. We trooped into the Roman baths – I must have said, “Don’t put your hands in the water” in a variety of octaves, intonations, and decibels at least ten thousand times, while Goncalo, Bianca, Jochen, and all the others ignored me completely, splashing their pudgy fingers through the parasite-packed hot springs. The rest of the time was spent filing in and out of the different outlets that made up Bath’s retail experience, frisking each student upon their exit to make sure they hadn’t shoplifted. Heady days.
It was quite weird, then, to go back as an old man. Am I an old man? I feel like one. Middle-aged, then, if we’re going to get specific. I walked round the place with new eyes, immediately spotting the regeneration, not to mention the degeneration. Bath is very posh, aggressively so. It is beautiful, I would say, in the same way Edinburgh and York are. A Legoland version of itself in places, maybe – again, just like Edinburgh and York. In fact, it feels like a town created in partnership between Edinburgh and York – behind closed doors, with cigars – to give southerners a reason not to clog up the LNER trains. I went back to the Roman baths. Much as I remembered. There was a school party wandering round this time too, an all boys’ school, with preposterous uniforms and Enid Blyton accents. They were rather better behaved than my charges – who I now realise will be in their thirties, how lovely – until they got into the central bath area and, predictably, shoved their hands in the water.
When I posted a picture of my boyfriend and me at the baths on Instagram, an old friend from university said she lived just fifteen minutes away and that she’d love to see me. I am not one for reunions generally as I don’t particularly want someone’s decades-long memory of me with smooth skin, bright eyes and, most importantly, brown hair to be usurped by the lasting image of… well, what I have become. But curiosity and affection overruled my vanity, and we had been such good friends at university, that I couldn’t resist.
We met in a pub near the station, two hours before my train to London was set to leave. I was a little nervous; I always feel I am terribly dull in real life and that people surely can’t get away fast enough once I start talking. But then she was there, already waiting for me, and so I walked toward her and… well, what can I tell you? The years melted away.
It is a difficult and strange thing to condense two decades of your life into comprehensible, digestible chunks for someone who knew you back when you were someone else. She is married with children now. I am gay now. “Now.” Haha. She always knew, of course, and I knew that she did, really – not that I knew anything about myself back then. We reminded each other of things that had happened, and there were very few discrepancies in our accounts; our minds must have been sharper than we realised. And yet it was a version of myself I didn’t really recognise anymore. I knew I had been that person. And I remembered how he used to feel sometimes; tiny traces of a former personality coming through but nothing concrete. Like a joke that doesn’t land, or an overheard conversation that never quite comes into earshot. To imagine actually being him, in those terrible clothes, so clueless. Well, I couldn’t relate. Until.
My friend saw someone behind me and I turned round to follow her gaze, but to attract my attention again she said my name. But it was my name from back then, when I was even more of a try-hard, still finding my own feet and trying on new existences like they were T-shirts. I have never had nicknames, really, beyond playground insults, so this was nothing fancy, just an abbreviated version of my actual name.
“Just,” she said, and I turned back to her quickly, without thinking. Only one other person still called me that, one of my closest friends, and she died this summer. I still miss her terribly and am working my through all that as best I can.
It was exhilarating to hear that name, my name, and to be pulled back not into just one old self, but two simultaneously.
“I haven’t heard that in a while,” I replied. The joy and the horror of that truth hung in the air for a beat too long.
I remembered exactly who I was then. It was comforting in a way. I saw myself as I had been. Cheekbones, and wide smiles, and freckles, and badly gelled fringes, and hope. What a luxury to have it all stretching behind you, to look back at yourself with a critical, yet kind, eye. Understanding yourself a bit more. A character you used to play, recast again and again by your own experiences. It was like downloading tonnes and tonnes of information into my brain at once. Like I could see through time. How apt for my B-grade, author-esque narcissism that my trigger word would be part of my own name. Possessed by the ghost of my former self.
We talked some more and then, sadly, it was time to go. We are going to keep in touch. It was lovely to look back, but it will be even nicer to move forward, together, in each other’s lives. To know again someone who knew that version of me, to remind me he’s still in there somewhere. Just.
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