When I tell the truth, they don’t believe me.
I was brought to Norwich by a sheet of paper, a pen, and a china mug.
It was winter 2013, and I was at odds with my life. There appeared to be an ongoing breakdown in communication, since my life seemed deaf to all my needs, and I was most definitely deaf to its guidance. I had been living in London for nineteen years, although struggling to keep afloat would be a more accurate description of my existence. I had been a theatre telephone box office clerk, a telephone market researcher, a theatre press agent, a reflexologist, a theatre producer, an English as a Foreign Language teacher, and an actors’ agent. So, the previous autumn, I had finally reached the stage where, tired of swimming, I didn’t even care where or how far the next shore was. I had no job, no home, no money, and only a moderate amount of will to live. I was drained, shattered, off the grid. I would fantasise about a friend – any friend – inviting me ’round for a bowl of hearty soup, a rich chocolate pudding, a glass of whiskey, then handing me a large box of tissues and being gently sympathetic while I cried my eyes out and wallowed in a bath of self-pity and self-hatred. But friends, no matter how close, tend not to invite ’round folks who create black holes the size of asteroid craters in their living-room floors. And that’s fair enough.
“I want to leave London,” I told a few people.
“But where would you go?”
I didn’t know.
“You must never run away from your problems. You’ll only be taking them with you.”
Shame there’s no copyright on platitudes. The Authors Licensing and Collecting Society would need to hire extra staff.
But where would I go?
My brain, of which I had up to then been inordinately proud, had not – I had to admit – served me all that well over the past four or so decades, so I figured I had nothing to lose by resorting to my instinct. That was the point. I had nothing to lose. I was alone. My misery was also my asset.
I took a sheet of paper, a pen, and a china mug. I cut the paper into seven sections, and on each, wrote the name of a city at most two hours’ train journey from London. Oh, yes, and it had to be an old, beautiful city. I like to stroll amid buildings with stories to tell. I folded each piece of paper, and put them all into my favourite china mug. One with a black and white cat sitting on the windowsill of a house with gables, a roaring fire and comfortable furniture inside. I placed my hand over the mug, shook it up and down, closed my eyes, and pulled out Norwich.
Norwich. The country’s first UNESCO City of Literature. The first city in the country where a female writer was published – Julian of Norwich. The city with the ugly, sugar-cube castle over a slightly eerie shopping centre. But a city blessed with temperamental, expressive, East Anglian skies. I’d been there once, for a weekend, several years earlier, but could not remember anything much, except for the Castle and the Cathedral Close. I didn’t know anybody there, and that was a point in its favour. If you need a real, total change, no point in going to a place where familiar faces expect you to enact familiar patterns.
I told very few people about my plan. I didn’t think many would notice my absence, anyway. When I mentioned it to my dear friend P., he said it so happened his wife’s cousin lived in Norwich, and rented a room in her house. I booked it. I now had a home – albeit a temporary one. Things were looking up.
A book I had been hoping to translate, and the rights to which the British publisher had been negotiating for months, was finally secured. The day before my departure, the publisher rang to say my contract was ready to sign. My first real translation contract. Things were definitely looking up.
And so, one freezing February afternoon, as I dragged a suitcase crammed with dictionaries from Norwich Station, I discovered that Norfolk, despite what Noël Coward wrote, is not flat. I also discovered that – as Northwickians are proud to point out – the winds here blow straight from the Urals. Yes, that means they can be very, very cold.
I arrived in Norwich on Shrove Tuesday, and left again shortly after Easter. Two months I would not trade for the world. Sometimes, when you’re drowning in problems, it’s useful to run from them just far enough uphill to get a full, panoramic view of them. If you see how they’re laid out, you can plan your way out of them. In a new place, where everything you react to is new and unfamiliar, you’re less tempted to react – and consequently, act – according to old patterns.
When he saw me off at Liverpool Street, my friend B. had said, “I wonder if, now you’re leaving London, things will unexpectedly unblock for you here.”
I remembered his words when I went back to London for the Easter weekend and, unexpectedly, was offered a wonderful, affordable room in Wimbledon. A room with an old, wise oak tree outside the window. A room where I knew I would be very, very happy. A week later, I moved back to London. Two days later, I was offered two well-paid teaching jobs, working for nice, appreciative employers.
Among my friends, Norwich became synonym of a gamble that pays off. A re-set button. A place to find yourself.
Two years ago, when H. and I were living in Brussels, and wondering where we could move since we couldn’t afford the obscene London rents, I joked, “There’s always Norwich.”
H. looked at me very seriously. So seriously that, eighteen months ago, we moved here. The friends I’d made here nearly three years ago welcomed me back. The contacts I’d made and the knowledge I’d acquired here served me well. Although I still miss London, I’m gradually learning to love Norwich more day by day. One would think someone sent me here, three years ago, to lay the foundations of the home we’re making here now.
Perhaps that’s what life said to me, on that grim December night, as I was pulling a piece of paper out of a mug. Perhaps I wasn’t completely deaf to its guidance, after all.
* If you would like to read about my 2013 Norwich adventure, please read from this blog post.