England is cold and rainy and damp. I'd remembered the cold and the rain, but the damp is a surprise, a cruel curveball I'd managed to block out since the last time I was here in winter. It's a bitter damp, unrelenting, and it seeps insidiously under your careful layers and into your bones, and you find yourself pressing up against radiators—ineffectually, mind you—and then suddenly there you are, fourteen again, sitting in the history classroom before the lesson starts, legs stretched out in front of you in pilled navy tights, your back against the radiator, just trying to get warm.
This is how I remember things about England. In layers, like I'm peeling an onion. Pull back the skin, there's another one. Keep peeling. There are more.
We arrive at Heathrow just before four, and the sky is already growing dark. By the time we leave the terminal, it's night-black outside and the clock in the rental car shows a little after five. It's rush hour on the M25, long strands of stilted brake lights glowing like rubies, far prettier than they actually are. We miss the exit we're supposed to take, and I navigate us back haltingly, operating purely on muscle memory. There's the cathedral, keep it on your left. A right here, I think, oh there's that pub that never asked us for IDs. This is a one-way street, so you're going to want to go straight on. Hey, that fish and chip shop is a Starbucks now. Turn here, I think. Yes, I remember, turn here.
We walk into the flat and it smells like the past. "It smells like my A-levels in here," I say to Sean, which means nothing to him because he didn't sit there with me at that rickety old desk, conjugating être in the subjunctive and memorizing Chaucer until my eyes crossed, until I started dreaming in French, waiting for my friend Caroline to pick me up in her Hawaiian blue Beetle with the hole in the floor and drive us to school to face the firing squad. Girls, five minutes left. Girls, put down your pens. In the garage, boxes of my old essays are stacked against boxes of my old textbooks. Files and folders, reams of notes. All that knowledge just sitting there, forgotten. Oh god, all that work.
It's raining and we're nearby, so we take a detour past my old school. PLEASE TAKE OFF MUDDY BOOTS BEFORE ENTERING THE DINING ROOM, the signs say. PLEASE DO NOT DRIVE THROUGH THE ARCHES. NO WALKING ON THE GRASS. Everywhere you look, they're petitioning you not to do something, or at least not to do it the way you want to do it. I'm free of all that! I think, gleefully—have been free of it, in fact, for fifteen years—and I have a sudden urge to drive through the arches and walk on the grass. The dining room is locked, the school closed for the winter. Maybe I'd have walked in wearing my muddy boots.
Driving back in the drizzle, I point things out to Sean. To me, these are fascinating things, imbued with memory and meaning—there's the phone booth where I used to call my parents; oh, we got caught in that pub once in the middle of the day; look, there's the house where that boy Caroline was in love with lived and we used to drive past it really slowly in case he came out—but I am aware, as I'm sharing them, that these are my landmarks, not his.
"You have made the mistake," the writer Anne Lammott was once told by an editor, "of thinking that everything that has happened to you is interesting." Sean nods politely—ah, great phone booth, really top notch—but this, all of this, belongs to my life without him, and while there's less of that now than there is of my life with him, it's still a way-off part of a dusty past, and it is momentous only to me.
The drizzle turns to rain as we inch through the traffic lights, and the damp seeps in. "There's the cathedral, keep it on your left," I say. Memory by memory, I get us home.