Consciously uncoupling from summer

I always maintain I’m not a nostalgic person. I don’t get glassy-eyed at the thought of my hands still being small enough to make a Mars bar look gargantuan, lament the days when a Freddo was 10p, or wish Martine McCutcheon was still in EastEnders. But I do think about the past quite often now. That’s the problem with ageing: there is so much of the past accruing behind you – casting a shadow like an out-of-control leylandii – that you can’t help but think about it. So many things remind you. The faces of old friends may fade and the grandparents pass away, but the thoughts and feelings never leave you. A scent, a piece of music, a joke told badly by a comedian, and you are back, back, back to who you were. It’s like muscle memory for the soul.

In summer, especially at the very fag-end of it, I think of other summers. Of course! This one in particular was the kind of long, arid stifler that urges you to compare and contrast with others gone by. Was I cooler than this in summer 2011? Did I appreciate the breezes more in 2005? Could I travel anywhere and not arrive with a film of sweat and mortification over my entire body back in 2008? Who can say?

Summers as a child were relentlessly boring. We didn’t have any money for holidays – they were more expensive back then and I never expected to go on them anyway because most people I knew didn’t either – and save for visits to my father once the divorce went through – so they were usually spent avoiding the heat inside, reading a book, or sitting sulking on a plastic chair in the garden, trying to wake up the dog so we could play.

I had a tennis ball which I would throw against the wall of the house and allow to bounce back onto the uneven patio before batting it back to the wall with my hand, composing scripts in my head that I would later act out with Lego. Only children make their own entertainment. The noise must have been so annoying for my neighbours, but given almost every single one of them was a rubber-necking nosy parker, a racist, or card-carrying misanthrope, I couldn’t care less.

Teenage summers became slightly more interesting thanks to cigarettes, but I still spent them reading or flicking through the newly acquired cable TV.

My first summer at university was the one I used to tell myself I really enjoyed. I don’t know if this is still the case, but back then it was quite usual for the contract on your student house to begin on 1 July, and for you to be charged full rent the entire summer, whether you lived there or not. My middle-class fellow students took the hit and got summer jobs in their hometown and lived off their parents, but if I stayed at home, I’d have to pay my way and I reasoned there was no better time to practise being a grown-up. I spent the two months before term began almost entirely alone. The first two weeks were quite exciting, and I watched Wimbledon on my grandma’s ancient black and white portable that used to be in her kitchen, lying on my belly eating strawberries, drinking Coke and chain-smoking Marlboro Lights. The next six weeks were a bit trickier. There were no summer jobs to be had in Southampton; all the locals who sodded off to other universities returned and took the lot. I would wander round town in the blazing sunshine – it was a hot summer much like this year’s – window shopping and smoking and barely eating, because when you’re 19 and skint, food is a distraction, not a pleasure. I’d amble the aisles of the Safeway on Portswood Road having no clue what to buy, so would pick up things I remembered seeing in my mum’s larder. Then I’d walk home again, the carrier bag slapping gently against my leg as I peeled away the wrappers on whatever chewy sweets I’d bought myself. A baby, but a man, but a baby.

Occasionally a housemate would pop back for the night and it would be exciting and I’d have a few drinks but then they would leave and the house – six bedrooms, Edwardian terrace, shower but no bath, and magnolia from toe to bonce – would inexplicably quadruple in size, become darker and creak in all kinds of strange places. I went to London to see a friend and we went to Club UK in Wandsworth and took second-rate ecstasy. I helped a friend decorate a house, but usually I flew solo.

Then in August, my Irish nana, who’d just returned from the first visit to her homeland in over three decades, became suddenly ill, and I returned home to Yorkshire to visit her in hospital. God, it was stupefying, the heat, both outside the hospital and within, as I popped my head round the doors of wards to see if I was in the right one (usually not) and traipsed the corridors, a different carrier bag slapping against my leg this time, filled with things Nana liked – chocolate limes, boiled sweets called Yorkshire Mixture, magazines, dandelion and burdock pop. She was horrified to be in hospital – she was very private and hated being ill and sharing a ward with strangers – and they didn’t know what was wrong with her. I sat on her bed (you were allowed to, then) and chatted about university and how beautiful Southampton was and my lovely house and how I was looking forward to being a second year. And she would smile and sip her tea, living vicariously, or flick through her magazines and try not to show me was scared – and that she already knew what was wrong. I look back now and am only reminded of what a baby I was back then: narrow of shoulder and bony of hip, my childhood freckles beaming through for a summer cameo across my nose and my head a huge balloon on my stringy frame. She died eighteen months later – perhaps to the day, I have never checked – and I was never again that baby. So when I look back at summer 1995, I remember only Wimbledon, the strawberries, my flat, flushed belly against the bristles of cheap carpet. It is better that way.

Summer 2003, too, was a scorcher. My very first one in London, the mercury soared to 40º and all you could hear booming from every car stuck in traffic was Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love. Shops ran out of oscillating fans – Dyson were yet to invent their phallic, exorbitant air towers – and to save you go in asking, they taped scrawled signs to their doors: “NO FANS IN STOCK UNTIL WEDNESDAY AT EARLIEST”. It was Saturday. My then-boyfriend and I walked all over north London looking for one, grumpy and exasperated but still excited because LONDON and it was so hot we had to take our shirts off in the street which I had never done before and certainly not since. We had a balcony in our rundown Highgate flat, but on the ground floor no soothing breeze could catch us – it was like stepping from the middle of a Cornish pasty into a cup of nuclear McDonald’s hot chocolate. Air conditioning was just something you heard about on American dramas, so nights out were miserable and sopping, my H&M capsule wardrobe sticking to every ripple of my skin, and my sunburned face leaking Corona from its pores, plastic glasses crunching under my feet. We were a partying community made up entirely of condensation and stories of how you survived the toilets in the Vibe bar, followed by a nervous taxi ride home worrying about the numbers on the meter.

I could go on, but neither of us have the time. But I do wonder what I’ll say in one, five, or ten years’ time, about the summer of 2018. Will I remember the scorched grass? The dust, dressing room, and steak sandwich at Latitude? Will I recall the ruching of my shirt under the arms as I sweated at my book launch, or the homophobe who threw the napkin at me in the Southwark Tavern? The humid, cloudy letdown that was August? Will the day I spent agonising over how often to make a cup of tea for the joiner fixing my window be forever emblazoned in my memory?

Or will it be a sigh, a furrowing of the brow, and “Yeah… wow. That was a really hot one, I think. We could do with another one like that.”

I think I know the answer already. Winter is coming, and I can’t wait to moan about how cold it is. Merry Christmas!

Image: Still of Beyoncé from the Feeling Myself video

1 Comment

  1. Happy Christmas! This is a wonderful read and reminds me of so many things from my past growing up in West Yorkshire, awful family holidays in youth hostels in North Wales (the only saving grace was that they normally always had a good selection of Mills ‘n’ Boon), and finally, jetting off to the mysterious land of Preston to start uni, which in my naivety thought might offer some form of excitement… Thank you.

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