The door in the wall

Tomorrow I’m going to Russia. Saint Petersburg. The Arctic Circle, a frosted cake of a city, a dream risen out of a swamp. The last time I went I was going the other way, traipsing back the long way from a year in China. Saint Petersburg was my last stop before I entered Europe, and went back to my old self and old life and old dreams, folded stale into drawers.

I was 23. My hair was long and uncut, I wore cheap dresses, and my only shoes were made from tires and turned the soles of my feet black. I went there with my then-boyfriend, who’d grown a beard and carried a guitar across two continents. He’s married now. Got a kid. We email, sometimes.

I can only remember the city in scraps, torn off the end of a long roll of memories. Buildings painted pink and blue and yellow, a diluted quality to the light, every street crossed with water, and jewelled palaces waiting for people who’ll never come back, and going to some awful nightclub that throbbed with sweat and where no one smiled. We were broke, so we ate kebabs and slept in a dorm with ten other people and fifteen thousand mosquitoes. It rained one day and I sat in a park reading Dostoevsky (that’s the kind of pretentious 23 year old I was). That’s all I remember. The rest is all washed away.

I’ve been places since, of course, new and wonderful places filled with unfamiliar light and the smell of spice and rot, but I’m excited about this trip in a different way. It’s the first time I’ve been back to anywhere I went that year, and I feel the past is somehow very close. Like it’s in the next room, and I can hear it breathing through the walls. If I could only find the door maybe I could glimpse myself, very young and more than a little lost, flip-flopping down a side street. Sometimes I re-read the things I wrote that year, and I’m back there. That’s what writing does for you. Writing is the door in the wall.

I’m 30 now, and in seven years life has changed a lot. It’s filled with people I hadn’t imagined, and spent on a job I wouldn’t have dreamed I could do as I sat awake on swaying night-trains, scribbling in cheap notebooks with a torch gripped under my chain. A job I’d already given up on having, before I’d even tried. Tomorrow, I hope, I’ll go through that door. I wonder if the city will have changed, or if only I will.

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