Jessica Adams was the first person in her family to go to University, thrusting her into an entirely different class culture than the one she was used to. Here, Jessica discusses the contortions she forced herself through and lessons she learned before figuring out that she didn’t need to change who she was to find her place.
“You want to get out while you can pet” my Mam had told me when I first announced my university offers. I agreed. I had long dreamt of escape to Southerly cities that pulsed with an out-of-breath electricity; the stuff of books and films and poetry. Anything ever written about the North East, about home, said it was decaying, decayed, dead. Seaside towns eroded by salt and melted lemon-tops, sharp steel rivers that threaded, noose-like, round herds of people bred for work that no longer existed. Home felt like a place clinging to the edge of the world. I was scared that if I didn’t leave I would crumble into the sea.
“Aye, but don’t forget your roots” She added as an afterthought. I smiled thinly in response. I was more afraid of remembering them than forgetting.
University was all quick currents; soon I was submerged in seminars and flyers and other wide eyed young people clinging on to the nearest body. The people were different here. They were raised on dead languages and food I had never heard of; classical music and au pairs. They had parents who were doctors or actors, or retired or abroad. They talked about skiing trips and choir tours and second houses baking in Southern France. I sat quietly while they compared tans and tokens garnered on gap years. I thought about football matches and building sites and parties in church halls, and my Mam and Dad, with their hands grazed from graft. I thought about holidays to the underbelly of Tenerife, where we went to sticky sports bars instead of restaurants and shared a stinging blue pool with hoards of squabbling families and where burnt beer bellies bobbed in the blackened sea. I kept those things to myself, scared of how different they would look in the midst of Gondolas and snow-capped mountains, scared they wouldn’t seem good enough.
“Where are you from?” One asked. “Teesside” The final letters always lifted with uncertainty, a question rather than a statement. “Oh…I think I’ve read about it somewhere before.” Her eyes flickered from my head to my feet and back – I remembered an article I read that called Middlesbrough the worst place to live.
After that I started to tell people that I was from York. I quickly became good at origami; tucking and folding parts of my life, of myself, away. Starting with sounds. I folded vowels into shapes that felt unfamiliar: made them bounce and roll on my tongue instead of stick flat to the roof of my mouth and back of my throat. Every time someone parroted back a slipped out “nowt” in tones that questioned, half- mocked, I made a mental note: Must Do Better. I bit back ‘like’ from every sentence end, Mam became Mum, and my meals were now breakfast lunch and dinner.
I started going home less.
Visits were scattered sparsely through semesters and always short; why did I need to go home when here was better? Where grand old brick fought for a place on the horizon with metal and pristine glass and scaffolding spiralling skywards. Where people smelt expensive and dressed extravagantly and acted like they didn’t care, because here everybody was nobody, and therefore anything they wanted to be. Everything was moving, running, growing, fighting, changing. Days bustled by, the air thick with people and the hiss of bus doors. The ground hummed with footsteps. Nights were laced with the buzz of neon blue, seen trapped in black puddles and heard in clinking glasses. It fizzed so that everywhere, everything felt alive. I was no longer at the edge of the world, but at the centre of it. A core that scalded fingertips and moved so fast under feet you had to run so you didn’t trip. My lungs and legs were in tatters trying to keep up, but I forced myself to believe I loved it. It was better here, better than at home, where pockmarked roads stretched out silently and promised nothing but mud-soaked fields and knobbled grey trees. Where in the stillness, rain-washed curbs, bounced balls and dogs savaged and barked behind fences that spat splinters. Where corner shops and pubs, with wilted St George flags, hung by a thread, and where rusting train tracks stoically hacked the way abroad to town. Where nothing ever happened and where I wanted least to stay.
I remembered how it sounded like the soft hiss of bike wheels on wet pavement and birds far above and metal ringing against metal and ragged breathing and thumping hearts. I pretended I didn’t miss it.
Here was better. I told myself I finally had what I wanted, but something didn’t sit right.
I rang my sister to tell her about my new life. She sniggered at the names of my new friends and refused to believe me when I told her you could order MacDonald’s as a takeaway.
“You sound dead posh now like. It makes me feel homesick just listening to you.”
I was always out of breath and my head buzzed constantly. I felt like I was drowning and I was angry. I had everything I wanted and dreamt about— a city where buildings brushed the sky and lights never went out. But I felt empty. It felt fake and I felt fake. I was floundering, because in all the building of this new self, I didn’t know who I really was anymore. I sat somewhere between old and new, comfort and discomfort. I had scoured away any notions of home and place and past so roughly that it stung, and the new skin I had sewn for myself only seemed to make it worse. It didn’t fit, bursting at the seams in paces and lying slack against me in others.
I went home for the summer, worried about what I would do with all this time on my hands. How would I cope without the new people and places and the pound of life and constant buzz of motion?
I was scared that moving home would feel like giving up, and old feelings of being trapped would slip back into my conscience. The first night back I went to the pub with my friends surrounded by people that had populated my whole life. My eyes snagged on shorn sides and glints of gold chains, and slathered makeup and dagger heels. I watched cracked leather faces that split with lusty laughs at humour that stung and cut and bled.
I soaked up the sights I had forgotten, breathed them in.
These were the people that lived on the edge of the world, who were all tethered to one and other, sisters and brothers and cousins and friends and friends of friends and neighbours. Everybody was somebody. These people had grown with me. They were the cornerstones of a life that spanned a 10-mile radius. I used to find it claustrophobic, but now, it felt safe. I didn’t have to pretend with these people, or fight and claw to be heard, to be seen. I was already somebody; I could catch my breath, and it felt good.
With new eyes, sore from city sights and sleepless nights I saw more of home than I had before. Here, at the edge of the world, the sky was flung wide open, and underneath green and grey met and merged, with bones of steel beams, and veins filled with rushing rivers; a landscape alive. The pavements never hummed with heavy footfall and the nights never buzzed with blue neon, but there was beauty here, and excitement and poetry and life. I had just been too busy trying to escape to the bigger and the better to notice it. All summer I mapped out fragments of my life, of myself, in rediscovered places and people and landmarks and traditions. All the things I had forgotten, all the things that, in my hurry to escape, had slipped out of sight and mind and heart. All the things I realised I loved; hills and sea, bruised beaches that jangled with arcade music, fields and pavements, working men’s clubs with musty carpets for dance floors, castles and churches, football stadiums that heaved and throbbed, estates and rivers, metal bridges slicing the sky into fragments. They slotted and stitched together in a haphazardous patchwork that jarred and clashed and was frayed around the edges. It was beautiful and warm and perfect. It spread out like a foundation underneath me, like roots that anchored me, held me steady, safe.
By the time I returned to university I had loosened the grip on my tongue and let my words and sounds spring back into familiar shapes. I spoke keenly, proudly, about the places and people of home. They felt like a part of me, even though they were far away. I didn’t feel so empty anymore. It became easier to keep up with the relentless rhythm of the city, less exhausting now I wasn’t trying to be someone I was not. Now that somewhere between my skin and my soul I had this layer of landscape keeping me warm, giving me a better sense of who I was. Who I am.
Words: Jessica Adams
Artwork: Sophie Parsons