I discharged myself from hospital in a state of blind panic. My stay there had done nothing to counter-act my long standing phobia. They tried to stop me, said they had still not worked out what caused my mysterious, painful skin condition and that it could be to do with my kidneys, and that they needed to take some more tests and that I had not finished the course of antibiotics. They tried to persuade me, and in retrospect I feel sorry for one particular nurse, who was very kind, but I was having none of it. All that would have stopped me would have been if they had the right to physically restrain me – and my panic heightened as I wondered if that were the case – which they didn’t. So I signed the necessary forms, and still clad in a hospital robe (my clothes had been cut off and put in a bag, but I prefer not to think about that) called a cab and asked them to drop me in town. It was early December, and a thin, drizzly snow was falling. I had been in an overheated hospital ward and was shivering. I went onto autopilot, thinking that come what may, I mustn’t risk getting hypothermia and ending up being carted back to hospital, so I asked the driver to drop me by an ATM that, as chance would have it, was next door to a charity shop, drew out some money, went into the charity shop (where they gave me some very odd looks that soon rearranged themselves into surface smiles when they realised what a good customer I was) and equipped myself with a winter outfit; picking up a few paperback books and a holdall while I was at it. There was an M & S next door, and though I didn’t cough up for their clothing (although I did get some replacement underwear) I did get a packet of sandwiches, a chocolate bar, and a bottle of fizzy water.
By now (I was pretty sure I had never been as ill as they made out, though I could see why my neighbours panicked when they saw me lying on the drive, and it was probably just some allergic reaction, but I did tire easily after lying in bed for 2 weeks) I was flagging a little, and the initial nervous energy was ebbing away. As I was now fully clad nobody was looking askance at me any longer, and the lady on the till thought it quite a sensible, if maybe slightly unusual question, when I asked if she could recommend a local hotel. “Just down the road, past the main Post Office,” she said, “You can almost see it from here.”
So I booked into the New England. It was over-priced and a tad pretentious, but at that moment I wasn’t bothered about either of those. It was a stopgap. I realised that I had forgotten about toiletries, but told myself there were sure to be some in my room. There were. I was still at the stage of rather liking the miniatures they provided.
I’ll stay here, or more likely in another hotel for a couple of nights, I thought, just to make sure I am strong enough and won’t end up back in hospital, then I’ll go back home and get things sorted. I didn’t look forward to that. I won’t go into details, but when you’ve not been well for a while, your house gets into a bit of a state. The electricity had failed too, I didn’t know why – at that point I didn’t have any unpaid bills!
I couldn’t have stayed at the New England if I’d wanted to – they were booked up as of the next day for a local beer festival, and the lady at reception told me frankly she doubted I’d find accommodation anywhere in town.
That could have been the spur for me to come to my senses and go home, but it wasn’t. There was a coastal resort town only twenty miles up the road, and unless there was a beer festival overspill, accommodation there in December wouldn’t be hard to find. I also discovered there was a fairly regular bus service. Yes, that’s how it began, on a service bus!
Luckily (how I saw it at the time) my hunch had been right, and I found accommodation easily enough. I booked in at the Lilacs for three nights – just to make sure.
After stocking up on supplies I spent most of that first day resting – I could have wished my room wasn’t on the 2nd floor, but it did have a lovely view over the sea.
I don’t know if I flattered myself that the owner was a bit curious but didn’t believe in prying. He might well have just thought I was a bit of unexpected money at a quiet time of year.
I ended up staying at the Lilacs until the New Year, but by then I was getting restless. January wasn’t the best time to go home when there wouldn’t be any heating, so I’d leave it for a couple more weeks. It was only sensible. Though I had enjoyed the bus trip, I decided to hire a car. I was a bit worried in case I didn’t have the necessary ID with me, but they were fine with just my driving license, especially as I paid upfront. Freedom, I thought. Yes, I’m one of those hypocrites who wholly believes in public transport but still likes to have my own!
I may as well make a bit of a holiday out of this, I thought, though at first I only headed down the coast a little, where I spent most of February. Though I stayed, for a while, in the same area, I still moved on after a week or so at most. The weather was getting warmer now, and I’d go home and sort things out. But I’d always meant to get to know the cathedral city about 50 miles away a bit better, so this was as good a time as any. Especially in the earliest days of spring.
Prices in historic cities tend to be higher than on the coast, but that wasn’t a problem yet. For a few weeks I imagined I would rather like to make my permanent home in the little apartment I rented with a view of the cathedral spire. It was a bit like being a character in a historical novel looking at it every morning.
But the truth is, it was already becoming too familiar. I wanted to look at a different cathedral, or look out to the sea again, or to the hills, or to a market square. I would leave going home until after Easter. It was early that year, and I knew work needed doing, and you couldn’t get tradesmen in over a bank holiday. It crossed my mind, and I saw no point to letting it lodge there, that I would have been hard-pressed to describe where things were in the rooms at home, or what colour the paint was everywhere. But I’d been ill when I left, so of course things were a bit blurry.
I thought about buying a second hand car, but the rental firm were giving me good terms by now, and it was probably less hassle and worked out cheaper, too.
A couple of things happened in early and late summer. In early summer I was in a little chalet park on the Norfolk Broads, and mulling over, whilst not really wanting to, the fact that my savings weren’t infinite. And although I’d bought a laptop to travel with me, I’d been neglecting the freelance writing I did to help eke them out, as I had since the adult education centre where I’d been teaching closed down. But it was as much to prove to myself that I still could as with any immediate or urgent thoughts of earning money that I wrote a couple of articles on the “joys ”of resort towns in winter – affectionate and not condescending (after all I had been grateful to the Lilacs) but with a comic twist. Well, it was one of the quickest acceptances I’d ever had in my life – the email came within a couple of days! I had long since stopped being paid by cheque and my fees went directly in to my bank account, which was much handier. The amount wasn’t massive, but I had kept my foot in the door, and it would certainly cover a week or so’s accommodation without further dents into my savings until I did get round to going home.
The second thing, the late summer thing, was less pleasurable, and borderline embarrassing, but irritating as much as anything else. I had apparently, at “home” (I now had started to put inverted commas round it in my mind) been registered by a couple of well-meaning folk as a “missing person”, and by some means I never did fathom and would possibly prefer not to, I had been traced to the hotel where I was staying in Kent, and the police paid a call. At first, and understandably enough, the owner, Peggy, looked somewhat perturbed when she knocked at my door, and I said I would prefer to see them in the lounge. Well, it was sorted out soon enough. I assured them I was fine, but yes, I probably should have let people know. They apologised for bothering me, and I apologised for their time being wasted, and when I explained to Peggy what had happened, we were in agreement that people meant well but you could wish they minded their own business at times. All the same, I moved on a little earlier than I had planned. This was when I started using a false name. Well, I kept my own first name, which was Margaret, but it’s one of those names you can play with, and I decided to be Maggie instead of Meg, and took the surname of a favourite author, but not one that was unusual enough to attract attention. I wasn’t scared about using my own name, and used my debit card if I had to (though I preferred paying cash and a lot of the hotel and self-catering owners preferred it to!) but this suited me better. Meg Harrison had run away and let her house go to rack and ruin. Maggie Chamberlain was on the road and her own boss, and loving it.
I made sure my accommodation for the Christmas period was booked well in advance. I had one of my “long drives” for it, taking me back up to the midlands, and a recently renovated hotel near the railway station. They celebrated Christmas, but didn’t go OTT, and I decided I might try and imitate the blue and silver lighting on the tree in the foyer. When I went “home”. If I went “home”. I’m not going to lie. I missed silly little things like a row of cards on the mantelpiece, and wondered if anyone had still sent me some at “home”, and if they had got sodden because of the porch letting in water. But it was best not to think of such things.
Did I make New Year resolutions about “home”? I may have done, but New Year Resolutions are always broken, aren’t they?
At times my savings did dwindle rather alarmingly, but as Mr Micawber might have said, something always seemed to turn up – usually, an article being accepted, or an odd story, though I wasn’t averse to the odd cash in hand job – I did bits and pieces of tutoring, or, more than once, volunteered to take over the reception desk when there was a “domestic emergency” in the place where I was staying.
When I heard people being derogatory about “travellers” I felt my heckles rise, and I’d love to say it was my liberal conscience, but it wasn’t just that. After all, I was a traveller myself, and if my “trappings” weren’t quite the same, I had become used to moving on, to being on the road.
I changed the car after a couple of years, but stuck with the same firm. I wondered about that, as I preferred not to be too “permanent” anywhere, but by now my discount was pretty large, and just as I had been at the charity shop that first evening, I was a very good customer – paid upfront, never any damage to the car – so though they may have had their thoughts and their in-office conversations, they were perfectly happy to respect my privacy.
I was on my third car, the most upmarket one so far and almost new, too, and wondering about a trip to Wales (I was currently in Chester) where I had family roots, though I wasn’t in contact with any of them, when I had my first real scare. It was something very silly, really. I tripped on the stairs and realised at once I’d hurt my ankle – a great twinge went through me when I tried to put any weight on it.
One immediate thought sent me into panic more than any of the pain – HOSPITAL! I was scared enough of it in its own right, and also knew it would meant questions being asked, and real names (probably) being given.
Well, I got away with it. It was painful but only a sprain. The owner was determined I ought to have it “checked out” and I was equally determined it wasn’t necessary. We almost had words with each other, but in the end, with a sigh, and when I virtually swore on my life that I wouldn’t dream of putting any blame on the hotel, it was my own clumsiness, she blinked first. I rested up for a few days, and my ankle recovered of its own volition. Crisis averted.
I was about to say it was a wake-up call, but it depends what you mean by wake-up call. It certainly didn’t make me want to abandon my nomadic lifestyle – if anything just the opposite – it had made me realise just how much I – yes – feared that. But it also made me realise that things entirely out of my hands could make precisely that happen. There was an element of illusion to my freedom. If I could go back a few years, I thought, yes, I probably would have gone back “home” (I now couldn’t even remember the outside with any clarity) after that first Christmas. But it was too late for that, now.
Today it came to an end. Today, after ten years, or as good as, it came to an end. I suppose it was odd that I had NOT run into anyone from “home” during my odyssey, rather than the other way round, but it didn’t seem that way. I have grown so used to my new identity that at first I didn’t think it was meant for me when I heard a voice cry “Meg!” across the reception area of the hotel in Devon where we were both booking in. But there was something familiar about it. I turned, and recognised my old work colleague, Nina. We both said we hadn’t changed a bit, and both knew it wasn’t true, but we would still have recognised each other, even with the grey hairs and the slightly thicker waistlines and the encroaching laughter lines that had nothing to do with anything being funny.
We didn’t exactly air-kiss, but lips brushed cheeks only briefly and as a matter of form. We had got on well and worked together well without ever really becoming close. “We wondered where you’d got to, when we met up, for ages,” she said, of course implying that it had stopped long since, which was fair enough. I could have lived without that meeting though. Not that it actively bothered me, at least not until ….”It was such a shame about your house, Meg” Maggie I wanted to tell her, but didn’t. I presumed she meant because it had either gone to rack and ruin or been bought by someone who had completely changed its character “That fire – I can see why you didn’t want to come back to the area.” Her voice seemed to fade into the general chatter in the reception area and yet to be the only one in it, as she chuntered on (to be fair, thinking I already knew) about how it had been burnt to the ground, and nobody knew what caused it, and thank Goodness I wasn’t in it at the time, nor anybody else.”There was an acrid smell in the air for weeks,” she said, involuntarily wrinkling her nose as she recalled it.
Well, there it is. Home became “home” and now it’s just someone’s half recollected acrid smell in the air.
I was wrong. It didn’t come to an end today. Today I realised it would never come to an end.
The trouble with hotel rooms is that screams and sobs always have to be muffled and pillow-smothered. I don’t want to risk drawing attention to myself. Not when I’m not in my own home.