Everything Orange

I remember Reno sporting a chill in the air as early as mid-September. An otherwise unheard of rain would make it over the Sierras and dump itself into the valley, and it would happen again and again, on and off for about a month and a half until the first snow arrived in late October. And when I was sixteen years old, my high school girlfriend lived on the other side of town. We started going out in the spring, but as the summer fizzled out, my trips to her house took twice as long. I’d opt for the bus that left a good half-hour walk between us, just to be able to span the length of West Seventh Street on foot. I’d start as far back as Washington, dipping underneath the Vine Street overpass and strolling up past Keystone, past CVS, past Raley’s with clumps of sodden orange leaves stuck to the underside of my overpriced Tom’s. Trees sprouted up in front of the bungalows on West Seventh, now golden, now bare, and it was the nicest I’d ever seen the city. When I’d eventually arrive at her house, I’d bake ghost cookies with her roommates in her 1970s kitchen and we carved pumpkins on the dining room table. The rain continued to fall. I would leave long after sundown wrapped in my winter parka, and I’d wait for the lights of the inbound Number 4 to illuminate the wet tarmac as it rolled over from the western suburbs. For a time, everything I knew was orange.

But outside the short-lived phenomenon that is autumn, Reno was always made up of three colours: brown for the desert, white for the blinding snow in winter, and the deepest indigo blue for the sky that almost never clouded. In sharp contrast, northern England is made up of only two: green for the undulating hills in the countryside and various shades of gray for the post-industrial mill towns that sit within in, and for the sky that almost never shows itself. Only in autumn is everything the same. The weather turned a little later than expected this year, but today, everything I know is orange.

Everyone knows that the deepest hue of all – central and symbolic to the entire season – is that of the pumpkin. For the last three years, I’ve been gifted a pumpkin pie by my good friend’s mother, and they all began life as seeds buried in the family allotment. I have friends the world over who laud the ultimate supremacy of Hocus Pocus as soon as the clock strikes midnight on October 1st, but modern-day Halloween as we know it is a decidedly American tradition, and pumpkin pie just isn’t a thing here. And although British supermarkets will provide tiny pumpkins for the sole purpose of cashing in on the dreams of little kids who just want to dress up and eat pillowcase candy, and of broke-ass travelers who lust after peak foliage in New England, they’re just not suitable for much of anything other than carving up and sticking a tealight in. I know this because I’ve tried, always in vain. So when word came in the other day that my pie was almost ready to go, I fell back – as I have done every year for the last three – onto rain-soaked West Seventh, back to ghost-shaped cookies in the old kitchen with once-white laminated flooring, back to the pumpkin patch and corn maze.

It was ready today and I went over after lunch to pick it up. I’ve been to Lucy’s house countless times, but never once in the fall, and she took me out into her conservatory where several huge pumpkins sat on a table, the largest of them all cut open and partially de-seeded. There was almost too much to take in here, because behind them, lining the entire length of the conservatory itself, the long stalks of various plants grew high against the frosted windows. Freshly harvested carrots, still coated in dirt, sat in a tray behind me. Out back, the yard was scattered with tools and the woodpile grew high. The wind was cold through my knitted jumper and I fell in love with everything I saw. I ate two and a half-slices of fresh pumpkin bread over a cup of tea, and I considered that while pumpkin pie is decidedly American, allotments and the continued (or is it rekindled?) commitment to low-scale harvesting is decidedly British. And how beautiful. And how much I love this duality. And what a glorious time of year this is everywhere I go.

I’ve just eaten a full quarter of the pie. Nobody else in my family likes it, and neither do my friends that have tried it at my insistence, so it’s up to me to enjoy the other three. The leaves are falling at a steady rate now, and it’ll soon be winter, but not yet.

 

Smoke that spreads out and covers everything

This story begins in the bookstore of Gothenburg’s Hasselblad Center. Sweden is surprisingly sweltering in the summer, but buckets of rain still fall from the sky and Katie and I race there on clunky city-scheme cycle hire bikes, pounding the pedals towards the ground in a near-vain attempt to get them to move forward through the sheets of water that are falling from the sky. We arrive drenched and spend the afternoon wandering from exhibition to exhibition until at long last, weirdly comfortable in our now-damp clothes, we come to the main attraction: the books.

I’ve long had a thing for Japanese photography and I immediately spy a tiny Daido Moriyama publication from afar. I make a beeline for it and crack it open. I land not on a photograph, but on two black pages – one blank, and one with the following written in white sans serif type:

For people like me, who don’t have a ‘home town’ to return to, who run after their dream of a ‘home town’, behaving like a spoiled child in spite of being old enough to know better, the idea of a ‘home town’ is a swollen utopia of countless childhood memory fragments. It’s something like the ‘original landscape’. I have to say that I was helplessly obsessed with Tono being the embodiment of my ‘home town’ dream – a place that existed only in my imagination.

Daido Moriyama, Tales of Tono

I blink and I read it over again and again. I don’t look at any of the photographs, and to this day I don’t know what Tono looks like. I reshelve the book and browse other titles. I go outside and the rain has stopped. I get back on the bike and Katie and I eventually continue southward to Lund, to Malmö, to Copenhagen. I come back to northern England, I get a job, I take a breather and get back to the grind, but the idea of the ever-allusive original landscape has burned itself into my soul and my psyche and I can’t let it go. I think about it every single day, but this is nothing new.

Rewind back to Chicago O’Hare in 2011. The immensity of my situation has hit me for the first time. I sit at my gate and stare at my one-way plane ticket to Manchester and begin to cry. Our departure is delayed, but I cry all the way through take-off with my coat pulled up around my face because it’s embarrassing to admit that my decisions are painful. This is the first time that I set out for this so-called original landscape, abandoning the place that I grew up for the place that I was born. As it happens, the original landscape isn’t where I thought it was. It fucks me up for years.

Rewind back to Reno-Tahoe International in 1999. My pops carries my dozing figure past gate-side slot machines and out through the baggage claim. I’m six years-old. My parents are excited and I’m malleable. I pick up a West Coast accent. I go to school in the suburbs. I grow older. I spend every other summer in England. I become increasingly aware of my cultural duality but I lack the words and the life experience required to adequately express myself. Unlike the Latin-American families around me, I am the only English person I know in Reno. I feel cheated out of familyhood and belonging. I am an adolescent and everything sucks, so I leave.

Fast-forward to the present day. It’s been three months since I was in Gothenburg, five years since I moved back to England, and seventeen years since I moved to the United States. As I write this, I’m sitting on a train rolling through the Central Belt of Scotland. I am moving here imminently. I came to discuss the feasibility of such a thing with the manager at the coffee shop that has been highlighted as a potential transfer location. It went well and, beyond high street shopping chains and shit weather, there is nothing here but everything unfamiliar to me. This is all I crave right now.

I’m conscious of sounding irreverently down on life, but do believe me when I say that I am no longer adrift in a sea of discontent. I’ve accepted my decisions and their consequences and I’ve learned to love my landscape, even if I hate it. I got myself a degree. I formed new friendships and made sure that I tended to them more carefully. I allowed myself to be dragged along on various exploits and my love and faith in the idea of moving around and experiencing the world was rekindled. I was able to recontextualise my upbringing; and I acknowledged that, coming from a working class background in the desolate and economically deprived north of England, it was an incredibly privileged thing for me to have ever even experienced. So, with those things in mind, I’m staring out into a misty field just outside of Edinburgh and setting myself in motion to move up to a place that, until yesterday, I’d never been; where I know nobody; and where I have absolutely nothing to rely on but my wage and whatever lessons have been imparted on me by life thus far. My inner compass drags me ever north and I have to believe that the original landscape – or the closest possible thing – lies in this general direction. So, here we are.

It could very well turn out to be another disaster, but here’s to that.