Timeless challenge, but I’m only 54 ½.
“Hiraeth” is described by Reddit as “a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for lost places of your past.”
35 years ago, I became a student at Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology (CCAT). I studied for a degree in English Literature and European philosophy and literature. I remember how nervous I was when I started, not knowing anyone. The person I found myself standing next to for the start of the year group photo I am still in touch with and she became my son’s godmother.
Yesterday I went back to register to be a student again, this time on a Master’s degree course. CCAT has become Anglia Ruskin University. The site in Cambridge has changed. Shabby buildings and a covered walkway have been replaced with smart new buildings. The Mumford Theatre still exists in the middle of the site, this is where I used to go to lectures, volunteer and where my graduation ceremony was held.
Yesterday I saw vending machines and recycling bins and several cafes. 35 years ago, there was a choice of 2 places to eat: a canteen, or a smoky café called The Batman. I walked around unfamiliar buildings, then suddenly spotted a familiar view, the back or side of a building I remember from when I was 19.
“Today’s fashions are for hair that isn’t so big and curly. Some clothes have come back into fashion today, blue and white horizontally striped tops, yellow waterproof jackets, and light blue jeans.”
I still have my old student cards from the 1980s, when I was slim but thought I was fat, when my hair was still bright ginger. I permed it in the 80’s, I had a spiral perm to give myself big hair. Today’s fashions are for hair that isn’t so big and curly. Some clothes have come back into fashion today, blue and white horizontally striped tops, yellow waterproof jackets, and light blue jeans.
Technology simplifies life if you can use it, but I was struck by how much has changed. I wasn’t given a paper copy of a timetable, or a library card, everything was done electronically. I didn’t notice an obvious presence of librarians. I remembered the librarians from my student days, one was always very helpful, others liked to shush people. The library has moved location and is spread over several floors. The ground floor of the library had signs up reading “Where are all the books?” where you can talk, whilst other floors contain books and are silent. It was an odd feeling. Being somewhere that used to be so familiar and being somewhere different at the same time.
“We all talked about the past and laughed as the wine flowed and the sun shone in a cloudless sky, and for a moment we were all teenagers again.”
I met up with my friends from my student days in several reunions. The last was on my 50th birthday. I hired part of a café overlooking a lake, and we all sat out on a balcony on a hot sunny day in May. One of my friends from my student days didn’t know if she’d be able to go to the party. She was very ill. Then a few days before, she said she was going to come. Her husband drove her hundreds of miles. She was still very beautiful, slim, kind, and laughed a lot. We all talked about the past and laughed as the wine flowed and the sun shone in a cloudless sky, and for a moment we were all teenagers again. That was the last time I saw her. Why do the best, kindest, most beautiful people die young? A few weeks later I was at her funeral, with other friends from my early student days, numb and shocked but I will never forget my kind, beautiful friend and her laughter. I won’t forget out student holidays cycling to Amsterdam one year and interrailing around Europe for a month the following year.
I had bitter-sweet memories yesterday, of the happy times from my student days and of the loss of a friend. I have confidence that I didn’t have at 19, but my body is ageing. I have a house, but when I was young, I enjoyed living in a house with friends. We learned how to cook, how to manage our money, but we didn’t have to borrow to be students. It was easy to live cheaply. I had a black and white TV to reduce my license fee and used coins in the phone box nearby if I wanted to ring someone. I wasn’t tied into an expensive mobile phone contract; people didn’t have mobile phones. You had to pre-arrange to meet someone at a pre-arranged place, like under the big lion in Lion Yard and waited for them if they were late. I hand wrote my essays in my first year and bought an electric type writer in my second year, with a red and black ribbon so I could type in two colours. To look up information I had to go to the library, I couldn’t quickly look things up on a mobile phone or laptop. There is a smart bookshop on campus. 35 years ago, there wasn’t. There used to be an excellent bookshop, Browns, on Mill Road nearby but that has gone. The shop used to stock my course books. Mill Road is smart and trendy, a very popular street in Cambridge now with a collection of individual shops, cafes and restaurants. In the 80’s it was a little shabby and you could buy a terraced house for under £20,000. Today’s prices would be worth at least 40 times more.
After I got my student card yesterday I went to look at charity shops nearby. This is something I first started doing when I was a student, looking for clothes or objects that I could buy cheaply. I suddenly realised that I have been doing this for 35 years and it goes back to student days. So does my love of gardening and enjoying browsing bookshops. I still stay in Youth Hostels sometimes when I go away, and this goes back to my student days and interrailing. I went to Tai Chi classes as a 19-year-old student. I have been to several different Tai Chi classes over the years since, and hope to be able to join the classes at ARU. I only discovered Tai Chi when I was a 10-year-old student because a friend wanted to go. The classes were in an old art studio. I giggled during the first class, finding it funny. Then I started to love it, and found it very relaxing. Life is still an exciting adventure, but I have become invisible. It’s a long time since I’ve been a slim young woman with long permed ginger hair and a flat tummy. I’m middle aged, overweight and my hair is going white on the outside, but still feel the same inside. I still like adventure. I sailed across the channel in my early 50s in an old wooden fishing boat, with a crew of competent sailors and I’ve sailed to the Shaint Isles in the Hebrides on another former fishing boat.
My heart goes out to two young women I spoke to yesterday, Freshers, in the same queue as me. I remember 35 years ago being nervous, not knowing anyone, not knowing how to cook or look after money. They seemed much more self-assured than I used to be. My advice to them would be to work hard but enjoy yourself. Join clubs and societies, make friends. An adventure is waiting for you, the start of your adult life. If you are as fortunate as I was you’ll make some good friends who will be your friends for a long time and you’re about to have three excellent years.
Today I went to Fresher’s Fair, a middle-aged woman. I have started to become invisible as I am ageing. I spotted my niece, a student, with her beautiful ginger hair. She reminded me a little of how I used to look. When I was young I was always noticed, although I didn’t want to be. My long ginger hair caught people’s attention. I was pleased when the sun bleached it in the summer and it faded a little. Then the white hairs came, and people who met me for the first time mistook the white hairs for blonde. I have put on weight, shrunk and my fatness makes me look shorter. People spoke to me, I talked to people from the philosophy society about their favourite philosophers, and I felt young again. They liked Hume, Camus, Satre and a Hungarian philosopher I didn’t know but who sounded interesting. I looked at all the new things I could join as a mature student, it seemed exciting, but I felt alone. I didn’t have my young, excited friends from 35 years ago. I wasn’t about to explore my life and see how it turned out. I felt a sadness for my youth, lost years, lost friendships and a lost beautiful friend with happy smile, a kindness and gentleness, and who always liked a good party. We danced at her 50th birthday party, 80’s style, in a row, lifting up our legs to Dexy’s Midnight Runner’s “Come on Eileen”, like a half-hearted can-can. A few days earlier I was remembering my student days and went to a café for a cup of tea. There was an exhibition of children’s book illustrations on the wall, and I sat at a table in front of two pictures. Two women asked if I minded if they looked closely at the paintings on the wall. One of them called out my name and I realised she seemed familiar but different. It was a former art student I used to share a house with, with the same soft voice, but short hair, no longer long and her face looked different. She was still slim and looked an athlete. As a housemate, she was forever jogging on the spot in her room or going on a 40-mile bike ride. I’d preferred a more relaxed approach to live. She had kept her fitness but I had lost mine and was slowly becoming a hippo. She was familiar but different. We kept in touch until our mid 20’s and have not been in contact for 30 years. Our conversation was of the young women we’d shared a large house with posters by Matisse and Picasso on the walls. I can still remember what they looked like as 19-year-old girls. They are becoming old like I am but in my mind, they belong to a past, distant and perfect. Perhaps it wasn’t how I imagined it to have been.
Written by Heather Macbeth-Hornett
Illustration by Maisy Ruffles