She’s been here for years, and it’s not often she feels lost anymore. Not many times, now, that she takes out the old maps that she learned by heart before she even arrived; or opens the old shoebox of mementoes and sighs, her thumb smoothing the crumpled tickets and the photos clipped from magazines when she first began to hope.
She remembers the small, dull, jolt of recognition each time she first saw the landmarks for real. Always just the same as the photographs, and yet, nothing like. The light glared or was dim; the figures round the frame of the picture not cropped out but jostling and crowding and jarring. In those early days, feeling as though a layer of skin was missing all over, it was hard to realise that she was there at last.
It’s no small thing, to emigrate. She wasn’t running from, but to; had dreamed of it for years, her pulse quickening when she saw a headline or heard a passing mention of over there. Watching, furtively, the programmes about those moving their lives to the other side of the world, torn between envy and incredulity. It took a long time for her to realise that she could do it too; could overcome the invisible, almost insurmountable, hurdle of making such a change.
Not that she could go straightaway. There were conversations about practicalities and finance. There were hours of research and planning. She narrowed it down to a city, a suburb; shortlisted estate agents and recruitment consultants and hooked up on internet forums with other new arrivals. She knew it wouldn’t all be about lying on the beach, but the beach would still be there behind it all: warm, golden, waiting at the end of the working day or at the weekend.
The house was sold. The furniture, mostly, handed on. A few cases of books and belongings sealed up ready to ship and store. The tickets, finally, bought; not cheap, but an investment. She wasn’t emigrating for the chance to fly but flying was the only way she’d get there, though she’d never liked the thought of long-haul.
The journey took the best part of a day and two seasons. She ate tasteless food, slept fitfully, stared unseeing at a TV screen with the colours all wrong. Sleepless, confused, spaced out, she stepped out of the plane into a summer evening having stepped into it in winter. She’d thought about what to wear, but her clothes were wrong, creased and sweaty, her eyes gritty and blinking behind the glasses she’d bought for this new self. Her throat and nose already swollen and scratchy from the germs in the recycled air onboard, the suitcase she’d packed to see her through the first weeks not there on the carousel in the terminal.
She lay ill, alone, for days in the hotel she’d booked in advance still wearing the clothes from the plane; the beach, when she found the strength to make it from bed to bathroom, a faint, unreal, smudge on the horizon between the roofs and walls around. The money she’d saved to enjoy a honeymoon all of her own before settling into a brand new everyday went on the extra nights and the room service and the endless calls dealing with the insurance company and the airport.
Even the worst case of flu doesn’t last forever. Two weeks later she’d signed up for a lease on a flat, smaller and meaner than she’d wanted, but practical, and near the shop job she’d found to tide her over. The sun was shining and her colleagues talked about going to the beach but she didn’t like to ask if she could join them, and the people she’d met online had already splintered and shut into groups. She knew she was lucky to be there; she updated her Facebook with pictures of the blue sky and little screenshots from Google maps showing how close she was to the shore, but sat in her flat with the shades down trying to keep the heat out, she hated herself that she didn’t feel it and knew it was something she could never admit to. Within walking distance of the famous bay, under blazing sun, having reached her destination at last, how could she admit to how wrong it – she – felt?
She goes to the beach each morning, now; walks the short stretch to the sand with her dog before work. At weekends, in the evening, it’s second nature to go with the children: the well-rehearsed routine of sunsuits and hats and games a small, secret, part of the glee that she can. Only rarely does she stop to remember the days when the joy of it was further away than it ever was when she lived on the other side of the world.