16 July, 2006

Year's end

Back when summers didn't used to just be about battling to work in 30 degree heat and trying to find ways to keep cool during dementedly balmy nights and dreaming of a chance to find a way out of it all, these months used to symbolise limitless potential in the form of the great big school holiday.

So ingrained in my system is the idea of everything winding down and packing up in June, then re-starting anew and afresh all over again in late August, that I still behave as if these particular weeks are down time: dead days, days of transition, days when you should be nursing wounds and resting up and if necessary remaking yourself before plunging back into the fray of an autumn term.

In fact, every year of my life up till I was 21 was lived out this way. Calendar years meant nothing; academic years were everything, and after such a long apprenticeship it's impossible to shake-off the practices and patterns of the past just like that.

So July remains, and perhaps always will be, the twilight time.

It carries with it the hallmarks, not to say the scars, of periods spend totally alone and away from all familiar faces and landmarks. Of cocoon-like spells in contemplation and study. Of family holidays to the same strangely reassuring seaside hideaways year after year. Of endless days spent wondering whether to wait for friends to call you rather than you dare to call them first.

Of growing up and not noticing it. Of growing apart from others and not knowing it. Of chance sightings of school allies and foes around town and deciding whether to keep your distance or wait until everyone was back on safe territory - the playground - before attempting an approach. Of wondering whether anybody else in the whole world was thinking of you.

Then came the run-up to returning to normality as the end of August approached. This was always a period of nervous anticipation and double-edged apprehension.

It would be exciting to know you'd soon be back in your old haunts with the same people showing up, like you, day after day, for the familiar rituals, the comforting routines. But it would be terrifying to think of what might have changed, not just in people's appearances, but their attitudes.

A hell of a lot of ageing could take place during a summer holiday. More than once I would begin a new academic year (both at school and university) to find new relationships had suddenly formed between previously unallied acquaintances. More than once this left me hurt and confused. All the familiar points of reference would have shifted while my back was turned, and I was left having to fathom a new map to chart my way through the ensuing months.

But the process could work in reverse. People who seemed reasonably mature and level-headed before summer would return gripped with some manic desire to run amok and ruin everything that had gone before. Equally those who you could rely on to fall in with when it came to, well, needing someone to fall in with would now treat you with disdain and lofty arrogance. At times it was almost a case of anything goes.

They were tumultous times. The quirks and quakes resonated within me relentlessly. And later I would do my best to shed the burden of those days whenever and however I could, even if it meant, ultimately, cutting ties with a lot of those faces and places I once longed for so desperately.

Yet even though the memories of a hundred summers spent waiting for the autumn or looking wistfully backwards to spring are, with criminal predictability, growing ever harder to recall, their ripples are still washing over me, even now, all these years later.


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