I was nervous about coming to Charlottesville. About humidity, possums and reading Proust. And then the day before I arrived here a young woman was murdered. White supremacists marched through the university with flaming torches and suddenly all my friends back home have heard of this town.
I am staying in a hotel, waiting for my apartment to be ready. My clock is still on British time and I am wide-eyed about things that 'seem so American' - waffle irons in the Breakfast room. People are so friendly and there's more sugar in everything. A woman who just got in from Cleveland says she's here to minister, to spread love. Something about her pragmatism reminds me a firefighter I interviewed a few months ago. Someone who calmly moves toward disasters. She gives me a hug.
On my seven hour train from New York I thought about statues. The Rhodes Statue in Oxford and the eerie Memento Park I visited on a trip to Budapest; a graveyard for all the communist statues that were removed from the city's streets. I listened to a podcast about contested symbols of confederate America. We rolled through fields and cities I know from TV and arrived in Charlottesville. It's pretty, everything bright under the blue sky; quiet and hot.
That night I find myself downtown. It's adorable. Bookshops and ice-cream parlours and a glittering old fashioned movie theatre. But the air is thick with sadness. I know I'm near the spot where Heather Heyer was killed because it's suddenly very quiet. I turn a corner and see the flickering candles and flowers. As I stand silently a reporter asks for a quote. No no, I say, I'm sorry. I just moved here today. A man sits on the pavement and sobs. I should learn to call the pavement the sidewalk. I watch for a minute then ask can I sit next to you? You just look so sad. He can't speak but nods. I am distantly aware of a photographer, taking our picture over and over again.
As I walk back, listening to the cicadas (or what I think are cicadas) I think about Heather Heyer's last words, If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention.
And I think about my red radio. My secret. In London I had a little red radio in my kitchen but about two months ago it broke. I stopped listening to the news. Then I stopped reading it. For a short, blissful spell, I only had the vaguest sense of what was going on in the world. Something to do with Trump and nuclear war sounded troubling but it was easier not to look into it. It was easy to nod along with conversations about current events. I faked knowing and I faked caring.
But here, I realise it is a luxury to be disengaged. I am white, presumed straight, presumed non-disabled. I was chilled by images of flaming torches in the place I am about to live but I wasn't afraid for my own safety. On the train here my parents at home sent messages of luck and love, but how would they have felt if our family were black? Or Muslim?
In the dark my heart hammer's for a second as I see a long tail and a body to big for a rat moving along the verge beside me. A possum. On my first day.
As Trump condemns violence on both sides , saying both sides twice in case we have not heard him, I realise that to turn off the news is to sign off on my privilege, to rest comfortably into it. And it is the same not to protest.