call the coastguard, I suppose

Recently, I made a trip back in time. I returned to a place that I have some very mixed feelings about. I braced myself to encounter the version of myself that existed there and to realise once more that she is not me and also still me. In other words: I visited the place where I went to university.

Everyone has a place like this, I think. Somewhere that they lived through formative years and now can’t bear to think too hard about. I made mine more fraught by writing about it in a book, so that when I go back there I’m not only in company with my 18 year old self having those experiences for the first time, but also the 30 year old self who painstakingly moulded them into prose for strangers to read.

The intensity of the time travel was compounded this time because of why I was there. Oxford is, it turns out, a convenient geographic mid point for various members of my immediate family — it’s about three hours’ drive from home for all of us. And so, when my parents set a date for their departure on a months-long sailing voyage, this was where we met to bid them farewell.

It was a delightful occasion. We ate, we laughed, we walked around the meadow making fun of my dog who kept jumping in the river and alarming the punters. I enjoyed myself enormously. I also couldn’t turn off the part of my brain that kept looking for differences in the way familiar gates opened or how bus routes worked. I kept seeing shadows at the edge of my vision: this is where I once jumped in the river; this is where a friend fell in while punting and lost his glasses to the muddy bottom; I think I once cried in this bathroom. It was unnerving, to be so happy in the present while past sadnesses brushed past me.

The purpose of the gathering had this same tug of pleasure-pain about it. My parents are very competent sailors — the aforementioned book will fill in more details about this if you are curious — but the idea of them crossing the Atlantic in a small sailing boat at their age does still make me anxious.

With the post-lunch coffee, my father proudly explained to my sister and I that he had invested in fancy new personal emergency beacons that, if they end up in the water, will automatically call our mobile numbers to let us know. His excitement at the cleverness of this technology temporarily obscured my understanding that in this scenario, the beacon would be attached to a parent who would be in the water as well, thousands of miles out to sea. That revelation trickled in much later when I was trying to sleep. Quite what I am supposed to do upon receiving this phone call eludes me. Call the coastguard, I suppose.

My first book is dedicated to my parents. Their lifelong habit of slipping over the horizon under sail at every chance they get is in part the reason that I write the way I do: by setting out to cover new territory that I am afraid of but try to traverse anyway.

I recently completed a grant application for the new book that I’m currently working on and it required a statement about the potential pitfalls of the project. The biggest one I could come up with was that I have no published track record in the subject matter, and thus no built-in audience for the book. It’s a risk, a much greater one than writing about something I am already known for would be. This didn’t occur to me while pitching the idea. It seemed like the obvious and only thing to do, just as my father has always been politely baffled that more people don’t sail alone across oceans for recreation.

I remembered this as I watched him demonstrate with his hands how the beacon comes to life upon contact with the water and I thought: of course I will write about this.

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