It’s a common experience that as you become older, time speeds up. The days pass in a blur and even the years tick past so fast that when you hear that an event in the news happened 3 years ago, subjectively it feels as if it is was only last week.
Less well known is the fact that not only does time shrink, but so does space. A few years ago, I visited my old home town. I hadn’t been there for some time, in fact since I was a child. I expected to spend the day exploring it and to have to return on several occasions to see everything.
I started by walking from the station to the street where I used to live. In those days, we would have taken the bus so in my mind it was a long journey. But the city seemed to have shrunk: I was soon in my old street, standing in front of my old front door. I then walked to all the various schools I had attended and even talked to some of the teachers. When I looked at my watch, it was still only lunchtime.
I set off on foot for the seafront, which was a distant sparkle over the tops of the roofs. I remember so well catching the bus to go to the beach when I was a kid. Yet I walked all the way on this occasion and it seemed to take no time at all. I stopped off on the way to visit the little railway station from which we sometimes travelled to Eastbourne to visit my aunt. It was still there and functioning as a station. Whenever I thought of a place, my feet seemed magically to take me there even though my brain was uncertain as to their exact location.
Having walked along the seafront, I turned inland to the museum. I loved the museum when I was a child, especially the animals. The animals, of course, were stuffed, pinned to boards or preserved in bottles. Or perhaps they were present merely as horned or tusked heads on the wall. This profligate waste of life would disgust me today but in the innocence of childhood I enjoyed the exhibits almost as if they were living creatures. I also remembered the aquariums full of tropical fish and the grand coach standing in a gallery. The coach was still there but the fish and the preserved animals were long gone.
The museum is still a wonderful place, too big to explore thoroughly on a single visit. I saw as much as I could and then had tea in the museum cafe. I wondered what to do next, as I had done everything, been everywhere. It must be late, I thought, as I had packed so much in but according to my watch, it was still only 4 pm.
Before catching the train home, I thought I would go and see the war memorial. I remembered it as a rather splendid structure in white marble with a rectangular basin filled with water. I remembered looking up at it against the slanting evening sun. When I went there, however, I was taken aback. The memorial was much smaller than I remembered, so much so that for a moment I seriously wondered whether they had removed it for refurbishment and replaced it with a model! No, it was the genuine article and my memory had enlarged it well beyond its natural size.
I have been back to my old home town many times since that visit and the town of today jostles the town of yesteryear in my mind, like two photos superimposed. Sometimes I feel like a ghost wandering about in an alien future landscape but more often like an historian affectionately rifling through relics of the past and reconstructing lives that were real but are now gone for ever. The big town of childhood and the small town of today fit awkwardly together but there is a strange appeal to the resultant mixture.
I sometimes think that time and space are illusions, mere conventions to organize our experiences which would otherwise form a haphazard jumble in our minds. Depending on our mood, they stretch or shrink or disappear altogether yet they give shape and meaning to our world and form the insubstantial web in which we lead our lives.