by Nadia Henderson
I’m lying in bed with my sister, our father wedged in between us. He’s just uttered the words I’d somehow known were inevitable, but which still render me speechless: “You’re going back to school here.”
You find me through the eyes of my favourite cuddly companion, Charlie the Clown. You’re somewhere in his beaded eyes and cross-stitched smile, telling me that this new phase of my life in our adopted home on the Valencian coast might just be okay. I trace my fingers over the soft fabric of Charlie’s multi-coloured dungarees; already, I am mourning long afternoons spent cycling along the promenade with my sister, and expeditions to nearby beaches to collect abandoned sea urchin shells, both of us entirely oblivious to the strain of the relocation. Tears sting at the back of my throat; I am seven years old and not yet at an age where I long to be any older.
Family lore tells that, later, I will stand behind my father’s leg in the school hallway before adjusting my glasses and heading into the classroom; my new teacher and fellow pupils waiting, our only common language being that they must have entered this world for the first time at some point, too.
The prospect of a trip away with friends is exciting at first. Alcoholic concoctions in shades as garish as their names, sold by the pitcher for a pittance; falling out of beachside clubs in the early hours, the words of every late-2000s pop song blurted out in drunken bravado – isn’t that the formative experience every 20-year-old pines for?
But old wounds soon begin to reopen, and I am powerless to heal them. Filled with intense trepidation, I somehow move through the paces of my daily commitments, until the answer – to simply not go – presents itself to me, just hours before I’m due at the airport.
You find me as I meet my friend, let her know we need to talk. She stares at the ground as I say I can’t go with her, tells me she thought I was stronger. I won’t find the words to articulate the anxiety that has been eating me up from the inside until much later but, for now, there’s strength in accepting I can’t overcome it.
“I won’t find the words to articulate the anxiety that has been eating me up from the inside until much later but, for now, there’s strength in accepting I can’t overcome it.”
On any other day, it would have been a charming morning: late-Spring light nudging gently at the sides of the curtains, breakfast – though I can barely touch it – brought to me in bed. But today, we’re flying to Spain to the aid of my father, who’s suddenly become ill during a trip to the Costa Blanca.
There’s no time to employ my usual coping mechanisms; there’s hardly time for me to paint my toenails, but I somehow make space for it (we’re going to the Mediterranean, after all). I am in my mid-twenties but the prospect of having to fly somewhere unexpectedly has destabilised me in a manner even more unforgiving than my father’s mystery sickness. I’m a child once again; resisting the world that keeps turning, the scary things that happen in it. But, when it’s time to board the plane – there you are. You find me in the taxi from the airport, as we drive through a place I used to know; and later, when the long and upsetting words of doctors coax my once-fluent Spanish tongue out of hiding.
Days later, when things are okay, I wander through the paved streets of Alicante’s old town. An installation of giant mushroom sculptures, decorated in magical colours and patterns, is a physical representation of the surreality of the ordeal. There’s solace in the swirls of vibrant paint and clashing motifs, and your reassuring whisper: you did it.
We’re going to Hong Kong.
It’s going to be amazing. I’ll be with the people most dear to me, in a place that I’ve always wanted to visit; a place woven into the story of my life and put into words by my parents, who met there not long before I was born. There’ll be so much to see and, most importantly, it’s where mine and my sister’s paths will cross again as she finishes up her months-long travels.
But there’s the eleven-hour flight there, and the eleven-hour flight back. There’s the debilitating horror of simply doing something so big, so out of step with my usual rhythm. There’s the deep-rooted instinct telling me to run from joy as if from an axe-wielding spectre. There’s, slightly absurdly, the voice of the great Samwise Gamgee saying it’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.
That’s where you find me.
You find me in the treatment I administer to myself. Weekly therapy sessions I’m lucky enough to afford; podcasts that, where they fall short of the promise to “slay” my anxiety entirely, offer a soothing voice and a host of alternative remedies, inspiring equal parts cynicism and intrigue. You find me in the hours spent doodling and journalling, the YouTube videos I distract myself with; the daily yoga practice which gives me precious space away from the fear that has fixed itself around me.
You find me when I step onto the plane, and when I step off it.
You’re there every day of the trip as anxiety and darkness loom at a comfortable distance, kept at bay by my resistance. You’re there when I dare to drink in every sensual delight I encounter: fresh dumplings at no-frills restaurants with Michelin Guides pinned to their windows, neon lights that jostle for room on the sides of buildings we can’t see the tops of, the thick smell of incense in the rain-heavy air as we stand solemnly outside an ancient temple. You’re there when I amaze myself at not wanting to leave, and now when I yearn to go back.
You’ve been there for me, you have. You’ve found me in the comforting stroke of a loved one’s fingertips against my inner arm, and the jagged edges of the amethyst I wear around my neck to grip onto during turbulent times. You’ve found me on the days I’ve said yes, and on the days I’ve said no. You’ve found me in sympathetic silences, particularly relatable horoscopes, well-timed conversations with beloved friends. You’ve turned up so that I, too, may turn up. Oh courage, may you never lose your way.
Nadia is a London-based writer, happily living up to the coffee-sipping, cat-stroking stereotype. She can usually be found on the sofa, or brunching with her fabulous women writers’ collective.