In Unexpected Places

For May’s Something Rhymed activity, Emma Claire commissioned me to write about ‘the provinces’.

For the benefit of our international readers, some of whom may more commonly use this term in a different way, it’s worth mentioning that by ‘the provinces’ she meant those areas of the country away from the capital and other major cities.

I am, you might say, a city girl, which goes some way to explaining one of Emma Claire’s early impressions of me. Being mixed-race – I’m half-English and half-Japanese – I’ve generally felt more at home in the metropolis than the less ethnically-diverse smaller towns where, through accidents of birth and circumstance, I have actually spent the greater part of my life.

There are many things that I could say about this subject, some of which I touched on in a longer memoir, written for the Tangled Roots project last year. But since this is a relatively short blog post, and not an essay, I have taken a leaf out of Emily Dickinson’s book and interpreted Emma Claire’s assignment loosely.

Here, I have set down some thoughts about my first home, on the outskirts of York, in a part of the UK that could be regarded as firmly within the provinces.

1982-5-Emily
Emily in the garden, aged two-and-a-half

It was an ordinary semi-detached house on the Badger Hill estate.

I had never seen a badger anywhere in its vicinity. The name was merely a ghost of the wooded landscape that must have preceded the tarmac, brown brickwork, and fenced-off areas of lawn.

Our neighbours were an elderly couple, the Ks, who my little sister and I really liked. Although, as a rule, they had no time for ‘foreigners’, like most people with these sorts of prejudices, they were apt to make exceptions.

Our mother had managed to win them over early, due in part to what they believed was her miraculous ability to predict the weather. It didn’t matter that she’d told them she was simply a keen watcher of the BBC forecast, they were adamant it was all down to some mystical Asian charm.

The Ks would keep an eye out for those mornings when our mother emerged from our back door with a bagful of washing, and this would usually be followed an hour or so later by Mrs K stepping outside with a fresh load of her own. This meant, effectively, that if there was a full clothes line in our garden, there would almost always be laundry hanging outside our neighbours’ house too.

Externally, our house may have been indistinguishable from that of our neighbours, but inside there were noticeable differences between where we lived and the houses of our school friends.

In later years, after the deaths of both my parents, people who knew us back then would often recall the ‘exotic’ scents of Mum’s cooking drifting out of our kitchen, the Japanese scrolls and prints hanging on the walls, the miniature stringed koto on the windowsill with its melancholic plinking sound.

There were other differences too, like the many books in my parents’ study and the fact there was a study at all – where my parents worked at desks side-by-side – but it was the Japanese elements, so at odds with the Englishness of that building, that seem to make the biggest impression, probably because they were the least expected.

These seeming contradictions were, of course, entirely normal to me. I had grown up with them. But I’m sure I was influenced by these reactions, which included open-mouthed surprise at times.

In fact, it could have been the first spark of a fascination in me with objects or people that appear in unexpected places and the ways others react to them – a major theme, I’ve realised recently, in a lot of the writing I’ve done in the years since then.

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