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living in a nostalgic wonderland

I’ve always been a memory hoarder. The kind of person who insisted that, in the case of a burning house fire, photo albums would be the first thing I’d save.

Growing up, I found relishing in memories to be a source of comfort. A connection to my identity. An interesting comparison of then vs now. Looking back on old photo albums and diary entries (well, and Facebook statuses – I am a child of the digital age after all), never felt like I was living in nostalgia but more so just visiting for the day, indulging in a periodic coo-ing session of ‘aw, look at those chubby cheeks!’

Before the age of 19, I used to be very careful to not leave my fingerprints on photos. I would delicately pinch the edges, corner by corner, avoiding any smudges against the glossy coated print: ‘Chloe and Clifford smiling – Summer 2002’

Upon tucking the last Kodak snapshot back under the stairs, ‘Chloe’s first Sims game – Christmas 2005,’ I would simply carry on with life, immersing myself in the vanilla coca-cola flavour of high school afternoons and hormonally ripe teenage-hood. Life was happening to me and around me all the time, and I took great joy in knowing that each following moment would carve its own rightful photo album in due time, for future me to look back on one day.

Nostalgia was the candy floss stall at a fairground: sweet, but too much and it would get sickly. It was the pause at the top of the big wheel, taking time to marvel at everything below, before retreating back to the tarmac ground. It was a short stroll under neon beams and camera flares… and that’s all nostalgia ever needs to be: a quick visit, a fun day out. After all, a life stuck in the fairground is hardly much of a life.

Except that’s where I find myself – aged 22, a permanent resident of my own curated Winter Wonderland fairground, ageless in a capsule of memories between the years of 2012 to 2015. Somewhere between ‘say cheese!’ the camera roll ran dry, leaving the culmination of smiles from those 3 years the only ones left to be plastered across the walls of my mind. Sometimes when people ask how old I am there is split-second of complete mind-blank, a testimony to how much time I spend plucking at past memories like weeds from the ground.

Within this timeless fairground, I excessively run my hand across the rims of old photos – no longer sleek, but instead sticky from candy floss fingers and my messy syrup grasp. I desperately cling onto the stacks of prints, shoving my fingerprint smothered favourites into coat pockets. The euphoric rush of re-lived joys eases any sugar sickness.

Then, I line up for the big wheel. Once at the top, my capsule rests unmoved as everybody else turns clockwise. Life is all around me, but it is no longer happening to me.

When night falls and everyone leaves, skipping from the metal gates of Hyde Park back to the thunderous crowds of the tube, I continue to watch peacefully from above, motionless. The moon’s silver stare peeks in sometimes. Yawning, it tells me stories of lovers sprawled sleepily across sofas, others with bags zipped and the words ‘please don’t make me go’ stuffed inside amongst shirts and sorry’s. I tell the moon to get some rest – I don’t like the tales of goodbyes. We’re safe in here, my memories and I.

Those nights that I spend on top of the wheel, I look up at the soundless sky, remembering the piercing neon shrill of fireworks on New Year’s Eve. How you picked me up, spun me around, and ‘Happy New Year!’ rung out into the streets of Banstead. That twelve o’clock kiss felt like how fireworks sound, our tongues were popping candy in a fizzy orange exchange. I can hold onto that kiss here. Because here, I live in a world of endless New Year’s Eves, never fully bringing in the new year, eternally stuck in the one before. I never see the bleached morning sun, illuminating the scattered glitter and discarded glass left behind as New Year’s Day wakes, hungover and sore. I simply never get that far.

I try to make the most out of living here in this fairground, to take turns on the endless attractions of my own past.

The haunted house is my favourite.

Slotting my silver coin into the mouth of the ticket stand, I strap myself into the rusting electric car, staggering towards the tunnel of beckoning dark and ominous distant laughter.

I know I shouldn’t open my eyes, but I seldom do what is good for me.

Projected across the walls of the haunted house and all it’s sunless bays, I look and I see trees from Beddington Park, our legs shakily grappling with each wooden branch, twigs caught in my hair. I feel murky water grimy against my skin, buckets flung in pondside water fights across an exam-free sky in a summer that felt endless. Afterglow is playing, and I watch back the snippets from each time we heard that song. Us screaming each lyric under sandy skies, drifting into countryside motorways until Sutton was all but a dust mite. Us collapsing onto dewy September grass, after spinning round and round in your garden, the bass buried somewhere beneath our damp socks. I can smell my perfume on your coat from all the times I buried myself within it, mid-underarm solace from rainy afternoons. You tasted of strawberry chewing gum and youth.

The endless film strip loops itself around and plays out in front of me, behind me, it corners me; me and my big teeth forming even bigger grins. Haunted, I was. Why don’t I feel as alive as you? Why am I still thinking about them? About him? Why am I not as happy as you? Why am I not as happy as you? Why am I not as happy as you?

A camera flash.

The car jolts itself forward, shadows and recollections trailing behind, until we finally halt to a stop. I lift up the metal bar from my waist, and a photo shoots out from the camera and into my clammy palms: a snapshot of my reaction from within the haunted house. I am crying in each photo.

I have tried to climb the gates of this fairground before, to make the wheel move, many times. But I am in fear of what lies beyond the familiar. Of getting older. Of moving forward. I am fearful of closing a chapter on a part of my life that I hold so dearly, bidding a permanent goodbye to the people and memories that helped form the very backbone of who I am today. For I so desperately want to relive that part of my life, and to move the wheel means letting go. It means growing older and all that comes with adulthood.

It means making peace with the knowledge that these times were only meant to be lived once.

And so most of my days, especially the sadder ones, bring me back to the gates of this fairground and it’s recognisable routine: a candy floss memory binge, an unmoving spin on the recollection wheel and sensory flashbacks in haunted house rides.

Some days, I buckle down for one ‘final’ ride in the haunted house, one more glorious taste of a candy-floss memory, promising myself I’ll leave tomorrow. But tomorrow never comes. I want to be 17 forever.

I can see the bad times graphically played out within these reminiscent rides too: the times I hiccup-cried in my kitchen and hurled crimson coloured words to my mother. Screams that were flung across muffled phone calls from one edge of the country’s shores to the other. However, they don’t seem to even slightly taint the rosy cheeks still aching from merrier times. At least in the tear-stained photos I felt more alive – like life was happening to me, around me… with me.

While it would be ignorant to deny that there have been countless happy, even ecstatic times since 2015, the moments captured appear grainier, less saturated. Despite having great friends and living in my dream city, for reasons unbeknown, I choose to continue seeking solace in the haunting smiles of the past instead. I know that life is objectively better now: that I am a mentally stronger and healthier person, that I am friends with such magnificent beings, that I am free from the shackles of a toxic relationship, that countless more opportunities are within my grasp.

But logic was never my strong suit.

The years between 2012 and 2015 are continuing to stretch further and further away from me, fading into the polluted mist above the River Seine. I squint, but those years are clearly not coming back for me, nor should I want them to. After all, there are so many more lemons left to pluck from life’s tree. And what a waste it would be to let them all fall, glued instead with my hands cupped firmly around everlasting candy floss.

Yet, in a time when I am most noticeably changing and becoming a person more distant and less relatable from the one I used to be, the more I crawl through the mist and desperately cling with sugared fingers onto the stacks of old love letters, burying myself deeper amongst them, hoping that no-one will find me there.

Nostalgia is no longer a far-off fairytale land that I occasionally visit. It is no longer the casual flick of folders and archives. In fact, it is hardly even a place at all. It lives within me. I can’t leave the fairground because I have made it a part of my very own DNA. I am in a perpetual state of endless reminiscing: old tweets, old letters, old scribbled out post-it notes. I play Afterglow on repeat. I search for traces of you on forgotten Facebook albums. Do you still think about me? I don’t want you to… but do you?

I am not biased with my nostalgia. No-one from the past is left behind. So while first love may crop up the most in thought clouds, this is not to undermine my equal longing for lunch-time breaks with friends, English lessons with my favourite teacher, late-nights with my brother; time spent simply being 17 – 17 and bursting with an ice-cream-van-coming-round-the-corner type of glee – it’s just that these times are tangled up with being someone’s girlfriend too.

I miss sprinting to the canteen to get beans on toast each morning, cutting to the front of the queue, smug with sixth form privileges. Hiding from morning assemblies in toilet cubicles with legs scrunched up, shaking from tight-lip muted laughter. Post-exam hushed whispers, laced with both liberation and fear – you could almost taste the warm WKD to soon be drank on a field somewhere post-result’s day. Dancing on tables beneath low-ceilings in crumbling classrooms, our own safe haven from the hailstones above. Under-counter smirks at the mispronunciation of the word ‘organism.’ I miss all the things that adults don’t do.

The future was far away, tucked behind sky-rise office buildings and briefcases.

Perhaps it’s that which I miss the most: not you, nor them, but I miss being irresponsible and reckless. I miss me. Who I was. I miss when the future was an abstract concept, not an impending and overhead raincloud.

I don’t think I was the same again after life began to get more serious; bills gotta be paid and countless decisions to be made.

I know that one day I will have to look adulthood in the eyes and offer a firm handshake that only grown-ups can master. I will declare an oath, to stop foolishly wasting days looking at life through the lenses of my youth. I am ready… to pronounce ‘organism’ correctly.

For now, I stay nestled up in a cosy corner with my nostalgia. The present and the future may well come looking for me, but I will still be here, crying out the words to Afterglow from inside my glass capsule.

2019, I hope to catch up with you sometime soon, but I’m afraid I’ve never been good at being on time. You can blame 17 year-old me for that.

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