Sunday, 15 February 2015

Where Has the Time Gone?! Rip Van Winkle Strikes Again

Rip Van Winkle, courtesy of

I don’t mind telling you that one of the novel ideas that keeps nagging at me is a time-slip story. My protagonist, like Henry in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife, will jump around in time. She will journey repeatedly from a mysterious present into different eras of her life, falling in and out of each, not in the peaceful way we access memories, but with a traumatic disorientation. For her, one reality will melt away unresolved and a new one will break in with its own urgent demands.

There are moments in all our lives when the passage of time confronts us in this stark and staggering way, and I am so fascinated by this that if Washington Irving had not written Rip Van Winkle in 1918, I would have to write it myself. In the story, Rip goes up into the mountains, falls asleep for twenty years and returns to his village, not realising that time has passed and everything has changed.

When I returned to Tunbridge Wells from Hong Kong with a husband, toddler and baby on the way, I had not lived here since I was a teenager. As I walked around with a pushchair, I searched the faces of seventeen-year-olds, looking for my friends. I constantly had to remind myself that I was now thirty-one. The teenagers I gazed at were strangers. My local friends had probably moved away and in any case were unlikely to be hanging out in the precinct; they were probably pushing prams somewhere themselves.

I have experienced a couple of moments that felt like actual time travel. In conversation with a counsellor once, I described a feeling of anguish and helplessness I had had in a recent encounter. ‘Do you remember feeling like this in this person’s presence before?’ she asked. Suddenly I was in the grip of a childhood memory of raw intensity. It was a memory I knew was there, but hadn’t thought of for years, and I had recalled it with its emotional sound turned down, as if watching a cine-film of someone else’s life. Now I experienced it at full power, as real and present as if the intervening years had fallen away. Afterwards, I found my way to the car and sat wondering how a traumatised three-year-old was going to manage to drive home.

A much more pleasant time-travel experience was a trip back to my beloved primary school for its fortieth anniversary. I had been one of the first pupils and was welcomed like a historical relic, to talk to the children about the olden days of 1969 when I started. I met old teachers and pupils and stood in the cloakroom where I had hung my plimsoll bag and coat as a five-year-old, just staring and feeling the years lift way. I drove back to work, my mind in a time decades past, and nipped into the loo, still spellbound by memories. When I opened the door, strange figures were passing by in the corridor outside. They were my colleagues. This was the twenty-first century. I might have been stepping out of a time machine.

It was yesterday that brought on all this time-slip rumination. Jon and I met up with friends from our time in Hong Kong: a drinking mate from my first carefree days there and his then girlfriend, now wife and mother of his daughters. We lived those, wild, heady expat years together and then met up for several reunions after our return to the UK with our settled new lives and little children. 
A previous reunion with Hong Kong friends. 

And another!

We met yesterday after a gap of almost ten years. Our little children have gone their separate ways into student life; theirs will soon be gone too. Our Hong Kong life was an intense but even more distant memory. It was lovely to see them, but as we ate dim sum and sipped jasmine tea (driving, and middle-aged health issues making a drunken gathering unwise) I for one felt the ghosts of our former selves at our elbows: young, carefree and full of a joy we can only hanker after now. Where has the time gone? I fell off the edge of it and found myself here and now. I don’t know how this happened. 

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