Up the hill, after the center of Widcombe and the train station and the canal crossing, is the house that will outlive me and all my old friends. There was no canonical order to the history of careless nights spent in the cheapest public houses of old Bath. As we dug into the now-extinct culture of ourselves, a much older medieval past, and beneath that a Roman one, seeped up from the street layout. I walked with friends across Southern England that summer in ill-fitting shoes which gave me an inch-wide blister on the bottom of my heel. And so it was, that I found myself sterilizing a pocket knife with a disposable lighter that I found in a VHS box filled with a former student’s drugs in our living room. I ran the water as hot as I could stand in the shared bathroom and brought the fluid to the surface.
We were characters in my memory. The man who I shared my room with used to sing off-key opera music for laughs in the shower. In the early morning before class his voice could be heard from the street below. At night a wayward cat would wander from the garden into the kitchen . A girl who came from Virginia took it upon herself to care for it and named it Charlie. There were six of us in total. We were as mismatched as the contents of the household, which had been sourced from decades of car boot sales and donations. Between the assortment of salvaged wardrobes several hundred wire hangers rusted in the humid air of the English summer. I found an old typewriter stashed away in the bottom of a hallway closet, maybe left by the same student who had hidden the lighter in the VHS box.
The washing machine under the kitchen sink broke after a week, and we were never able to fix it. I carried my laundry down the hill to the launderette on Claverton street. On a rainy afternoon I met the owner, a woman who, upon hearing that I used to live in the Irish capital, told me that the people of Ireland never washed their clothes at all.
The haze of a late summer night in Cornwall stands out to me, when I got drunk with the school staff while watching a football match in the one pub in Coverack. That night I quietly vomited the contents of my chest in the bathroom of a bed-and-breakfast by the sea. During the day I toured an ancient castle ruin which the locals had decided was the birthplace of King Arthur. Several towns containing ruined fortifications have said the exact same thing, though it seems there is enough tourism revenue to go around. Out to sea past the empty fishing harbor, British navy frigates lay in wait for migrant boats from the mainland or from further distant lands.
I wrote letters to a girl while sitting in a café owned by a British man and his Czech wife. I had been with her three years, and there was still six months left on our ticking timepiece like Second-World-War munitions buried in the sands of the Thames Estuary, soon to blow out all the windows of my world.
One morning at the cafe I waited in a cue and listened to the radio resignation of the English prime minister. The owner told me it was the only time he had ever felt unwelcome in his own country. On an envelope addressed to America, the airmail etiquette read “Par Avion” next to a portrait of the Queen on a stamp.
On one of my last nights in the city, we toured the old Roman baths with my history professor as our guide. Someone had dug up an old video of him on the internet in which he chastised an American tourist who took a dive into the murky green water bubbling up from the ground. He explained to us that the water was contaminated with a very specific strain of Meningitis, and that someone had died in the 1980’s from it. I watched tourists dip their hands into the water and disregard the signs placed all about. From the past some poison was in the mineral water that many still believed had healing properties. At the end of the tour I was given the option to taste a filtered glass of the fluid. It was bitter and tasted strongly like metal.
After a few short weeks we all went back to our respective corners of America. I unceremoniously said goodbye to my friends on a dusty afternoon in August and caught the last train to London. The strange summer spent with our families’ money and subsidized tuition has since grown distant. Our own eras, now several years older, are buried under one another as a new design takes shape. For the first and then the last time, we were unhindered and ourselves. Nothing yet had been taken from any one of us. Nothing could have been taken. It was inconceivable. But the signs and symbols were graffiti carved into ruined abbeys and repeated on radio broadcasts. The era of Prior Park subsides into gathering clay, and I’m waking up at down somewhere on the southern coast, watching the lazy drifting lights of sleeping frigates.
A letter of resignation cast over the airwaves by radio stations that are switched off one by one. I am in the bottom of a hallway closet. I am in the running hot water of the shared bathroom. I’m seeping out into language and memory taking shape in photographs and old air-mail letters. I washed the metallic taste away with distillations for adolescents uncomfortable with their own skin. I’m here now trying to say something that’s well and truly lost in the past, after the train station and the stray cat and the garden. In the morning, some days I think I can hear the voice of a friend in a clumsy song still repeating the dream of beginning.