On the night I arrived in England from Denmark, I watched the passing countryside from the backseat of the car and found even the trees alien. At fourteen, I was used to being uprooted and deposited in a new space. Plotted on a map of Copenhagen, the many houses and flats I had called home would have looked like enemy bunkers encroaching on the city centre. So when my English-born mother decided to return home, I thought I knew all about moving.
But a new set of walls is infinitely more knowable than a foreign country.
Of the many backdrops to my Danish childhood, my favourite was a black-timbered mansion with turret staircases and a disco in the dungeon. There, I was always the captive princess awaiting rescue. When my father tired of the diplomatic service, we left the great, lost spaces of the old house behind, and moved to a new bungalow that expelled my games outdoors. Teaming up with the neighbourhood children, I executed daring raids on the adventure-playground of the local kindergarden; five minutes of wild play before the teachers chased us out. Princess became tomboy.
With each move, we shed square footage like ballast from a floundering hot air balloon, and I shed the childish candour of simply being me, learning to re-shape myself to new surroundings. By the time my mother decided to leave Denmark, my parents were long divorced. I was shuttling happily enough between my mother’s city flat – perched on a bulging artery of traffic flushing in and out of Copenhagen – and my father’s country bolt-hole. My friends still lived in their spacious houses, their families intact. The comparison set me apart.
I arrived in Kent wearing a brittle kind of toughness, like hammered metal. Telling myself I knew about change and survival; that I already spoke the language.
On the first day of school, I realised my chameleon skin wasn’t going to work. There was no hiding, with my American twang and mid-term appearance. My peers had known each other since nursery. Where my International school in Denmark had been fluid and welcoming with its constant flux of overseas students, my new school was a place of deep roots and hard-packed layers of habitual friendship and enmity.
On my second day, I saw a boy caged beneath a table whilst a gang of boys and girls jabbed names at him, like spear-tips. This is what happened when you didn’t belong. And I’d caught their attention. They badgered me to speak Danish (occasionally Dutch) and made jokes about butter and bacon.
All right? they said.
I’m fine, thank you, I replied, wondering why they never waited for the answer.
I didn’t understand the language after all.
I missed the snowploughs beneath my city window on a winter’s dawn, fresh mounds of snow in their orange light. I missed my father and his country home; the preserve of morning sunshine and late-night coffee.
Not that I told anyone. Instead I cut my hair and pierced my ears. Wearing my notoriety as a shield, I befriended Katie, a tough scrap of a girl who seemed to have no place or history before I arrived. There’s something both empowering and core-lonely about being permanently stage-lit. I planned escapades – swapping playgrounds for village dances - shoring rumours about myself like the walls of a sandcastle. Katie, with her whatever shrug, went along with everything. We’d disappear into the night with illicit bottles of cider and no place to sleep, having lied about our whereabouts. Or rather I had; I don’t think Katie needed to. Both of us were lost, never acknowledging it, but bound by that thin wire of need.
Katie often came for sleepovers. Only once did she invite me to hers. I knew she lived with her mother but nothing more. Her house was much larger than mine but devoid of furniture, and unheated. The kitchen door had rotted to a foot above the floor, the wind blowing through. Dinner was a cup of tea and a Twix. Her bedroom was beneath the eaves and consisted of two thin mattresses and a box for a bedside lamp. No posters, no trinkets, no curtains. Not the tiniest of imprints - as if Katie were too light, too insubstantial to make a mark on her surroundings. In contrast, my bedroom shelves sagged beneath knick-knacks and soft toys, the treasure-hoard of childhood that had followed me to each new home. It took me a long time to fall asleep; I couldn’t stop shaking.
Katie never invited me again. Nothing changed on the surface of our friendship but from then on I understood there’s a kind of privilege - closer to a blessing - that has nothing to do with the variable space between four walls and everything to do with the people who furnish your life.
And I wasn’t so tough after all.
Lezanne Clannachan. Her debut novel, Jellybird, is due out in March