The town I live in now is the same one in which I grew up and I think it’s fair to say we have not always seen eye to eye. We have a tense relationship, me and my hometown. We are like the worst kind of siblings. Our shared past and familial obligations force us to spend time together despite our lack of commonality and mutual distaste for each other.
Perhaps the most important fact about my town is that I have always known I was destined to leave it. That has always been the one, non-negotiable certainty in my life from a very young age. This attitude largely came from my mother, who used to let us draw chalk pictures on the pavement outside our house while the net curtains of suburbia twitched nervously around us. To put it mildly, we never did quite fit in. But nevertheless, we soldiered on with coffee mornings and Sunday school and dance classes, welcomed and included but always followed by a feint sense that we were slightly out of step. We often laughed a beat too late and sometimes missed the joke entirely.
And for this, I will forever be grateful. Growing up in a town that was never really mine taught me to be a great pretender, able to adapt and mould myself to almost any environment. It taught me that home is an emotional place, not a physical one. As long as you are with your belonging people, you are home. It’s also forced me to keep looking. There’s a perfect town out there for me somewhere and I don’t plan on settling until I find it. It’s easier to be free when you are rootless.
If you do happen to find yourself in Tonbridge (my commiserations…no I’m kidding, it’s not that bad) I do have a few recommendations for you. Firstly, go stand in the teenage section at the library, trace your finger along the book spines and feel the hum of all the untapped possibilities they hold. Stay for an entire afternoon if you have the time because there is no place safer or more comforting. If it’s not raining head down to the muddy creek where we used to fish for tadpoles. Make sure to keep really quiet because, if you believe as hard as I did at eight years old, you will see fairies there too. Afterwards pop in to the corner shop that is not, and never has been, on a corner and stand in front of the sweet shelf. Spend a long, long time here before finally purchasing something that preferably contains sherbet and costs less than 20 pence.
Go to the sports centre that doubles as a playgroup, a dance school, a cinema and a theatre. Stand in the auditorium and imagine it packed full of proud parents, craning forward in their seats to watch their daughters (usually dressed up as either woodland animals or orphans) nervously stand up and mumble their line in the town’s annual pantomime. On the way out stop at the vending machine in the foyer and buy a hot chocolate for old time’s sake (or if you’re really brave, choose the chicken flavoured soup and let me know how well that turns out for you). Oh and we also have a castle…
My hometown is a complex subject and working out how I feel about it is an ongoing progress for me. I struggle with claiming Tonbridge as my own; I feel like it does not belong to me anymore than I belong to it. It is not my turf, no matter how many times I have ridden my bike up and down its streets. Tonbridge will always hold my memories, but I hope not my future.
Photo credit: Tonbridge High Street by Nigel Chadwick