This weekend I had the wonderful opportunity to fly back to Plymouth to surprise my mum for her 60th Birthday. It was a last minute arrangement, organised by her fabulous husband.
On Thursday afternoon, I bid an emotional farewell at Lisbon Airport to my own little family, to embark on a journey that would involve a brief stop at Amsterdam before finally landing at Bristol airport.
It was tough, after 6 months of intimate living, to leave Chris and the kids. We have become so accustom to being together, in close proximity, every day, that any absence from one another would be much felt – but the opportunity to see family was the ultimate reward.
It was a long and stuffy flight from Portugal, squashed between two strangers, each content to take full advantage of the arm rests. I had little else to do than flick through two gossip magazines someone had left behind.
As I skimmed through the pages of so-called celebrities and their battle with flab, rehab and unrequited love, I marvelled at the high price of fame. It seems that ‘stardom’ provides a carte blanche license for all-and-sundry to say what they want about you, publically and unashamedly; with words they would probably never say to your face if they saw you in person. Whether they are deserving of such fame or criticism is neither here nor there. What I found sad was the impact of such negativity on dreams. Many of these ‘celebrities’ did not set out to become famous, they only chose to follow their dreams, or their life’s passion. They aspired and succeeded to achieve the one thing they strived their whole life for. Adele aspired to be a singer, not a model. It seems so spiteful to muddy her talent and her achievement with cruel negativity about her looks or her private life. It must be heart-breaking to finally reach your true desire, only to suffer misery as a consequence.
At Amsterdam, I proceeded quickly to my next gate. It was late. I was hot and bothered. When I arrived the waiting area was divided into two zones; Economy Class and Priority Passengers. A red rope divided the two. As I sat in a plastic economy seat, looking over at the group of suited priority passengers – also sat on the same plastic seats – I wondered how they felt about the all-important red rope. When the call to board was announced, the economy passengers were asked to wait for the priority passengers to board first. I watched as they shuffled forward with a smug stance, avoiding eye contact with us. I was intrigued by the whole concept of class separation; which can only be determined by money. When I finally boarded the plane, I smiled to see the priority passengers sitting in the same seats as us. There is nothing quite like an ego and money to boost the profits of a commercial airline.
When we disembarked (together) at Bristol we were dismayed to learn that six planes had landed at the same time. The result was bedlam. Queues to reach border control snaked through a tunnel of corridors. By now, everyone was hot and bothered. The class difference mattered no more. We all shuffled together in the same direction.
Surrounded by men in business suits, I listened as they animatedly discussed business at 11 pm in a sweaty tunnel of impatience. Every now and again one of them would look down on me – a woman in casual wear with a beach bag on her shoulders, and our eyes would lock for a second, unable to read each other’s thoughts. Did I look like a person who truly feels like she is alive? Did I look like a person taking great risks in pursuit of her true heart’s desire? Did I look like I pitied them? Or did they just see a tired economy class passenger?
I doubt they cared. As I looked at them, I wondered about their family. I wondered why they were discussing work at 11pm at night. Whether this was their dream. Whether this was their true heart’s desire? Were they happy? Were they taking great risks or making great sacrifices? We might have travelled together in different classes, but I sensed we were worlds apart in that queue.
After my first night sleep in a king size bed in 6 months, I left my hotel in Bristol to drive the last leg of my journey to my hometown. Driving down the motorway I listened to the same radio presenters playing the same games on the station I had listened to before I left. The news reporters reported the same miserable news in the same serious voices. The road into Plymouth still had 50mph restrictions. Life seemed to have stood still.
Driving straight to my in-laws, I was swept into an almighty embrace. I carried with me, the heart of their son, and his order to reciprocate their hug. I did so, for myself and for my husband. It felt great. We spent the next few hours together reminiscing and contemplating the future. Ill health has been unkind to my father in law over recent months and it was hard to see them cope without our help. Knowing how tough it must be for them, and the fact that they still support us is a testament of their love.
Later in the afternoon, I enjoyed a cup of tea with my 90-year-old grandmother. I watched her fondly, sitting in her chair, sipping her tea with a shaking hand. I realised she has lived alone for over half of her life. Only the radio and a few precious visitors as company. Every hour of every day blending into the next. Year after year passing by. Another birthday marking the survival of another year. If we only have one life, I find it difficult to contemplate hers. The ultimate groundhog existence. Yet she appears content. She does not necessarily support or agree with our decision to travel, but I guess our lives and what we want from our one-life, differs. Or perhaps not? If life had been kinder to her – or she had been blessed with the love of a life companion, perhaps she would have aspired to reach for her own dreams too. In a different generation, I would like to think that my nan would have reached her full potential. She is an amazing, talented woman.
As I continued to travel through the streets of Plymouth, I was alarmed by the speed and the easiness by which I fell back into the life I was born to. Taking all the back streets, stopping at old jaunts – within a few hours, it felt like I had never left. I didn’t like it. The thought of our present becoming our past, or today’s experiences becoming yesterday’s faded memories triggered an instant reaction. It felt like life in Plymouth was standing still, just to tempt us back to a comfortable, easy and familiar old life. Like a warm bed waiting for us to climb back in. But rather than feeling allured, I felt nauseous.
The following morning, I was finally able to surprise my mum. I drove her new car to her house and hid behind a neighbour’s car with the keys. As they removed her blindfold I could hear her jubilation at gaining back her independence. She was thrilled with the car. It was not until she sat in the driving seat, preparing to take her new little motor for a spin, that she realised she did not have the keys. Cue my giant leap that frightened her half to death! The delayed but emotional reaction from my sister was lovely, but the hug from my mum was priceless. Family means everything. We spent a fantastic weekend together.
On Sunday, Mum and I were able to engage in our favourite pastime – car booting! It has been a hobby we have enjoyed for many years. It is not just the thrill of finding the next great antique, but our uninterrupted time together as mother and daughter. It is our time.
We meandered through the endless tables of dusty junk, enjoying the hustle and bustle of people trading, moaning, laughing and bartering. The same old characters remained. The smell of dust, bacon and smoke filled the air. It was reminiscent of so many fond crisp Sunday mornings spent bargain hunting with my mum. Nothing had changed.
It was only when we were making our way back to the car that my mum remembered she had forgotten to collect an item. As she made her way back, I waited near a number of large boxes. Without really thinking, I started to meddle through the box of books; which were stacked idly on top of each other. After picking up the fourth book nonchalantly, there in front of me lay a book that seems to keep surfacing in my life. It’s bright orange cover caught my eye and then the title ‘The Alchemist’.
The first time I heard about this book was on New Year’s Day 2016. A new friend recommended it as we walked across the beach at Tarifa. She told me that the main character, a shepherd boy, had left Tarifa to find his treasure in Egypt. She thought it would change my life. I humoured her but I did not buy the book.
Then, a few months later whilst researching literary agents I read that ‘The Alchemist’ was the greatest selling book of all time, yet it had been rejected no fewer than 120 times. I was intrigued but I did not buy the book.
Seeing it sat in the box at the car boot sale, I began to feel like there was a greater force compelling me to read it. The seller said it would change my life. I was sceptical but I handed over the 50p. I walked away feeling like I had found a little treasure in a mountain of junk.
I said my goodbyes in the early hours of Monday morning and made my way back to Bristol Airport before sunrise. On the plane to Amsterdam, I took ‘The Alchemist’ out of my bag and began to read the story of a shepherd boy who embarks on a journey to find his treasure. I was hooked.
On one hand, I cannot believe I have reached 39 years old without reading this book. On the other hand, I believe that I was meant to read it at precisely this moment in my life. I finished the book before I landed in Lisbon but not before I wrote a little message in the front for my husband. It would be the greatest souvenir I could ever give him.
Chris read the book by the end of the same evening. He too was moved and inspired by the fable. The insightful parables helped us to understand our own fears, and appreciate the people I encountered on my trip back to Plymouth. I could see within the story my grandmother and the characters of my friends and family, the priority passengers, the celebrities, the sceptics and, of course, us. But above all, The Alchemist helped us to make an important life decision…To keep moving forward.
You see, just like the shepherd boy, we also have a dream. And every step we make should be in the direction towards that dream. There will be challenges, detours and uncertainty but we must keep pressing forward, despite our fears. Because if we don’t aspire to reach our dream we will not be living the true life we desire. To go back, to retreat to our comfort zone would be so easy, but my trip back to Plymouth made me realise that we can always return. It will always be there. The life we know will wait for us. But my heart tells me to keep stepping out into the unknown. We have no idea what lays ahead. We have no idea whether we will find our own treasure, but we must listen to our hearts. Our hearts tell us, loudly and with utter certainty, to keep going.
The Author of the Alchemist opens the book by stating that love is not a disabler. It is an enabler. If someone loves you enough, they will want you to be happy. In giving us their blessing and supporting our adventure, despite their own illness, loneliness and longing, our families have demonstrated their love for us. They wish only for our happiness. We are very fortunate. Their love inspires us to keep going too.
I think it was a great time to return to my hometown. I also believe it was the perfect time to find The Alchemist. Perhaps the universe was conspiring to help us? I would like to think so.
So as of today, we are pressing forward into the unknown. We are hoping to learn all the skills and things we need to know to help us on our adventure. We hope to meet people who will aid our personal journey, and we hope to learn the universal language that will lead us to the life we were meant to live.
We are the shepherd boy riding through the desert.