Come You Back, You Norfolk Soldier

by Sophie Brown – an autobiographical piece

It started as a rumour on the walkway, which turned into an email and finally a student’s nightmare. All face-to-face teaching just suspended, like a misplaced apostrophe, hanging in mid-air. Life cut off mid-sentence. No chance to cross the t’s and dot the i’s; a full stop so heavy it bleeds through to the next page. A shitty cliff-hanger in an airport novel. Everyone made the wordless decision to go home.

The boy I thought I loved had walked out of my life and onto a one-way bus to London. Standing in the middle of campus, alone, in the silence and darkness, I allowed the rain to mask my tears. It was bitterly cold, as it always is on campus. And so grey. Just grey clouds, no sun, no expanse of blue and of course no stars at night. The Norfolk wind I know, and love, blows through you; it cleanses the soul. It makes you feel so alive. I felt fucking alive then.

Little did I know it was this feeling I would need the most in the coming months. I knew this was the end. A tidal wave was heading straight for us, ready to sweep us away to the places we had run from, no escape route, except taking a deep breath and praying to God.

Students had escaped their homes to start their adventure. Now it was from the adventure we had to escape. I was scared. I wanted to scream. I was angry. I cried. I laughed at the irony of it all. Most of all I was exhausted.

My phone buzzed in my hand. My best friend inviting me to something, to just be with people, to say goodbye, to drown alongside. So, I headed to a flat I did not call my own with people who I knew from nights out. Looking back, we were soldiers, all gathered and so aware of the hell we were heading towards but not sure of our fates. There was a certain comradery between us, as if this were the last hurrah before the last battle. I do not remember the details, or maybe I do, and some things should be left unsaid. Nine faces cramped together, smiling, laughing for just a moment, forgetting the reality of it all. Those nine faces had no idea what to do apart from what students do best: have fun with others who have no clue what to do, in the hope someone might produce some plan. We may have laughed that night, thinking all will be well soon, we will be back, despite hearing the cannon and shotgun fire in the distance.

I did many things that night. But the two most important were finishing the last of my ice cream supply and applying for a job. A job I would eventually go on to get.

We clung to our naivety like a safety blanket, most of us only eighteen and pushed out into the weird world of adulthood. But A Levels and GCSEs and part time jobs could never have prepared us for this. So, we ran home.

Admittedly, I didn’t have far to run. It was the same county I called home, from a town to a city and back again. Worlds apart in many ways. In others, not so much.

You know those neighbourhoods they talk of which are all white and try to be something it is not? That is home. There are two types of people in my hometown: the ones who will do anything in their power to leave, usually through university and education, and the others who stay because they are content with what life has given them, so instead they learn a trade and make money, in an honest day’s work. I envy the latter. Norfolk will always be my home and I hope to return one day, in my old age. My parents live there, and I adore them beyond belief, but they instilled in me the fact that there is so much more beyond the boundaries of white picket fences and teenage pregnancies.

It is not all doom and gloom there. My hometown has no right to be as beautiful as it is, with its river walks and large expanses of fields all around. Sandwiched between a nature reserve and the North Norfolk coast, to the untrained eye it would be paradise. It is only because I know what lies beneath the peeling paint that I judge it so.

After about a week or so of being home and trying online classes, I had my induction at one of my local supermarkets. I was going to be on the home delivery team with my best friend from sixth form. At least I would have a routine, get out of the house, and see people. The hours were gruelling with a 4am wake up call, and at times shifts would overrun due to the considerable amounts of orders. But I was thankful, I still am so thankful. It kept me sane. I saved for university, for the future and I treated myself a little. I was one of the lucky ones.

Walking up and down aisle after aisle for hours on end makes you think. It gives you time to wrap your head around things you would not have been able to. Like thoughts of the boy on the bus and whether he will return, whether you want him to. Whether you want something else, someone else, whether you want yourself again. Instead of bending to the will of someone who will never accept you for you, who will spit venom and hold your whole self against you. I cried, I laughed, and I resigned myself to nothingness.

My parents worked throughout the pandemic in local primary schools; for them, life went on. My dad and his friend painted the two primary schools together, listening to cricket and drinking lukewarm tea. My mum was held up in the office reading the mounds of essays sent day on day by the government about updated guidelines, with me helping to organise files and folders on my days off. Everyone I knew poured themselves into their work; it was something to occupy their minds.

We savoured our days off. The weather was so beautiful, we spend afternoons in our blossoming garden with snacks and drinks, from gin to ciders and ginger 43’s and my mum’s famous, jacked- up sangria, with cocktails from cans and old bottles of wine hidden at the back of the garage. We sun bathed and read and watched as all our plans got re-arranged and re-scheduled for years in the future.

And the walks on empty tracks and beaches that would have made tourists envious – if they had been there. Expanses of golden sands, so tropical you could be abroad. Crystal blue skies, jet trails and the sound of the icy sea all to ourselves. The rustling of pine trees behind you, infinity in front. A private space so precious you wish you could share it with every single one of those nine faceless students who are inevitably locked up somewhere else. To share the real Norfolk, not the concrete slabs glued together by debt and dimming dreams. To be able to scream into the wind, or natter about inconsequential nonsense as if it were just another day at the beach. These bright days do not last long.

The grey skies come rolling back in again, as they usually do as the weather gets colder. I used to like saying “There’s a storm brewing” as I looked out of the window in an ominous tone. I liked the thought that something was about to happen, something unbelievable, magical almost. Except this time, things happened, but there was nothing remotely amazing about it.

 These bright Norfolk days only last so long. You can think there is city life and provincial life, but it is all the same, really. There are only so many days you can sit out in the sun, before you must return inside, to the cell you have made. You try to talk inconsequential nonsense. But not even plans and talks of the future excite you.

The boy on the bus returns only to leave again. But this time it is fine, everything will be okay, I knew it was coming, maybe not the blows he brought with him, but I fought my corner none the less. I showed myself there is still a fire within, that no one and nothing, not even a pandemic can take away. I may forget it or forget to fan the embers. But it is still burning. There is a joy in finding myself again, bouncing back despite it all.

But still, as I stand in my bedroom, the grey walls echoing the grey skies outside, I still feel out of place. Like the tidal wave is still surging forward, and there is still nothing I can do about it. It’s getting darker and I am falling deeper and there’s no end in sight. I don’t know what to do. It is all guess work now. Still forever marching on in a battle with no purpose. No leader and no rhyme or reason. The comradery has gone now. Even now, with the mud underneath my boots as I walk a path many have walked before, a small voice spurs me on. We must just try to swim to the surface, break through, take a deep breath and survive.

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