Last month, after a (very) long and protracted process of moving flat, I stopped by my new local, bought a drink and headed to the long table in the window. I sat on the broken chair on the end, from where you can see into the office of the estate agent we used, with the flat we bought still advertised in their window.
It’s the exact spot where, a few months ago, I had cried into a pint on the afternoon when it looked as though the whole thing was spiralling away from us down the drain.
Now – and I know this sounds melodramatic – I needed to reclaim it. Going forward, I intend to spend a huge amount of time in that pub and it could not be another place I avoided on account of a bad memory.
I have had enough of those, both in the sense that I have plenty of locations already logged on my internal Map of Major Misdeeds, and that I am over hanging on to them so tightly.
I’ve dropped pins at self-imposed no-go zones all over London: the restaurant where a relationship ended and I ate one tiny lump of focaccia while I sobbed but refused to touch anything else (a rookie error – it’s a really nice restaurant); the vegan café that’s the last place I saw a friend before we finally drifted apart; the M&S I cried outside when I found out the family cat had been hit by a car; and the wanky bar where I got drunk, kissed a friend I really shouldn’t have and set in motion a series of increasingly bad life calls.
I’ve never returned to any of them.
At a Sunday pub roast with my family recently, we were ordering extra gravy and too much red wine as usual, when my uncle pointed out the corner table where I had abruptly announced that I was quitting my job. I remembered telling them but not the specifics; for me, it had been a relief. But he was choked up, telling us that it was then, sitting at that table, that he had realised how unhappy he was in his own job.
Expunging my bad memory and replacing it with a new one though, was as simple as going back in, sitting in the same chair and ordering the same drink – only with a totally different state of mind
Because when something, or someone, is so intrinsically associated with a place, being physically back there can be dizzyingly intense. It feels like stepping into the moment itself, directly into the old set of footprints you left there.
The places that make me instinctively hunch my shoulders up under my ears and look for the exit are not necessarily places where truly terrible things happened – no real trauma to relive or serious safety concerns. But they are still places where I might conjure a worryingly realistic Game Of Thrones Septa Unella chanting, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” in my direction, or spots where I am still convinced I will see the person I last saw there, even though they no longer live in this city or even this country.
Mostly, it’s because those places do not simply remind me of an event I’d rather forget, but also exactly what I was thinking, how I was feeling and what was going on at a specific time in my life.
It’s no coincidence that my particular walking tour that takes in the break-up in the Italian restaurant, the vegan café friendship-ending, the cat getting killed and the ill-advised drunken make-out session all happened over a single year. They didn’t happen in isolation; my whole self was unravelling and they were just the punctuation marks of crappy clarity.
When I blubbed into my beer after the call from the mortgage broker, it was the speed with which the mood pendulum swung that broke me. On my first sip, I excitedly thought I’d made a big life decision and finally settled on a new neighbourhood to make my home; halfway through, the phone rang to deliver bad news and, before I even realised it, I was apologising to my boyfriend that I earn less money than him, that I “contributed nothing” to our relationship and that it was specifically my poor life decisions (going freelance) that had scuppered our plans.
The crying was about much more than just one setback, but the intensity of everything in my head right then and there started to soak through into the fibres of the environment around me, fusing all my doubts and concerns and anxieties (quite unfairly) with a charming local pub that has live jazz on Sundays and a lovely beer garden.
Expunging my bad memory and replacing it with a new one, though, was as simple as going back in, sitting in the same chair and ordering the same drink – only with a totally different state of mind.
It feels like I’m protecting myself by steering clear of places that give me the shame shivers when, in reality, I’m restricting myself on the flimsiest of premises. I owe it to myself to retrace my steps, to go back to that Italian restaurant and eat more than a feeble bit of focaccia. I need to go there and have a ragu.