Where I Live

Rachel Irving

Where I Live
When I was a child the radios in our house were set to BBC Radio 4. I remember lying on my parents’ bed one day, I was home from school, sick and bored; the shipping forecast, coming from the radio only aggravated me. In those days they seemed to play the shipping forecast over and over again, every hour, as if they were brainwashing the nation with their severe gale nine and squally wintery showers, all the wind speeds and the names of places I’d never go. "There are warnings of gales in Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey, and Fair Isle". There were fishing boats out there, oil tankers, ferries and yachts. It didn’t matter who was reading, a nameless voice sometimes male other times female, always with that perfectly crisp BBC pronunciation; to me, miles inland, and warm in bed their words were meaningless. I knew enough to know that Thames, Dover and Wight named regions closest to where I lived, but generally by the time the announcer was speaking them my mind had drifted away.

I don’t live anywhere near there anymore. When you move away from where you grew up people assume you must have hated it, it’s not always that way. That wasn’t how it was for me.

Another memory; at about 16 years old I was belly down on a lawn, in the garden of a farm where my friend grew up. Imagine summertime, relaxed and idyllic, the scent of fresh mown grass and lambswool sweaters. I suppose we were pretending to do our homework. She asked me what I wanted to do when I left school. I didn’t answer at first and while I was ruminating over her desire to do special effects make up for “Doctor Who”, I realised that all I wanted “to do” was be somewhere else. Perhaps it is coded into teenagers that they can soak up all the lavender and roses charm of a walled garden, and yet simultaneously know that the time has almost come to get as far away as possible.

Every week, sometimes twice a week, I phone my grandmother, my Mamgu. She lives near the Mumbles Head, on the Gower Coast in Wales. The shipping forecast used to have reports from the coastguards station there, maybe it still does. The Mumbles is a fixed image in my mind. Things do change but the rocks stay they same, the lighthouse keeps flashing, the lifeboat house still juts into the bay. Mamgu has lived there all my life. Hers was the first phone number I memorised. Over the years it has grown longer. Digits have been added as the exchange has needed to ascribe more numbers, then as I’ve moved further away it’s needed an international code. Like so many of her generation Mamgu hoards things, and distributes them to loved ones, but her phone number is something I treasure more than the embroidered tablecloths, or tray cloths she sends me. Its reassuring familiarity keeps me linked to her, and to that almost unchanging place.

power station
In my twenties, after a period of a year au pairing in Geneva, and another doing a Junior Year Abroad in New Jersey, I was in love with a man. He had explained to me the rationale behind the poetry of the shipping forecast’s Beaufort scale, though that wasn't his only attraction. I was unable to hold proper sleep patterns and often heard both the broadcast that came before Radio 4 “nightly closedown”, and the one that preceded “farming today”. I’d mentally check in with my grandparents as I heard the report from that coastguard station on the Mumbles head.

We lived on Lavender Hill in South London, giant trucks groaned past through the night bringing produce from the dockyards of the South coast up to New Covent Garden Market. One night, in the sodium orange of the streetlights oozing through the window I painted the view of Battersea Power station as it sat flaking next to the Thames.

Years later we were living in San Francisco and a Californian friend gave me the map of Europe she’d had on her wall when she was growing up in Fresno. She had been a teenage mod, complete with snappy dress style and a pretty, little, Vespa scooter. Of course she’d day-dreamed of life in London and Brighton, the places I’d lived and daily taken for granted.

I’ve grown from being the teenager who wanted to be anywhere else, to a woman who has learned to be a constant foreigner. It feels good. Now I live in Toronto, Ontario. Further from any ocean than I have ever lived, but close enough to the beach that I feel compelled to walk there on the coldest winter days; just to see if I can. Our house was built in the thirties and our neighbours tell me about the woman who lived here back then, raised her family, and grew old here.

One day I jabbed a wire coathanger into a pile of dust, in an impossible to clean twist of the banisters. The layers had compressed into a thick felted slab of grot. Halfway through was an empty matchbook with a sixties font and at the bottom there was an ancient, terrycloth, baby’s bib. I felt like an archeologist imagining that other woman's home. She was probably responsible for the cherry tree in the front yard too. Every spring its blossoms fill the house with pink light.

Does an address tell the whole story? It is simple to say I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. An address doesn’t explain the path that brought someone to where they live, or made them never leave. An address doesn’t begin to suggest the networks of global connections inside each of us. For what it’s worth my address is fine, Toronto is everything it should be, flawed but full of promise. We fully intend to stick it out here for a while. I feel lucky.

The first time I heard “O Canada” sung it was by a visiting Welsh male voice choir on sparsely populated Gabriola Island, in British Columbia. We were there by chance and we met people there who knew my mother’s friend from Swansea art school. Wherever you are your past finds you, like all the oceans connect. No address can convey the fixed points, the decisions, choices, moments and places, that get imprinted on the way. The Mumbles Head, the garden at Lee Farm, a tornado of starlings over the West Pier, cedar trees on Sunset Boulevard, a courtyard with a swallows’ nest, rain clouds over Mount Benson; these places from my past are like a mantra. Inside my mind there is something like a personal shipping forecast. The list of the places that stay with me whatever my address.