Lately, I have been thinking a fair amount about home. Sitting on the tube – homewards, homebound – I hold the word on my tongue, roll its four letters over and over until its edges are smoothed, like a pebble, its gradients familiar and known. I’ve been thinking about the notion of it, the way the word represents both an abstract concept and a wholly tangible and concrete preoccupation – something easily translated into feelings and objects we can see and touch and use.
When I think of home, I think of the white banister curling its way up the stairs. I think of my mother’s coffee cakes washed down with steaming mugs of tea, aubergine auflauf baking in the oven, the cream-coloured roses that overrun the pagoda in summertime. I think of the way it feels to lie in the garden, face down in the grass, sealed off from the outside world – the only reminder, the buzz of the lawnmower from a neighbouring garden and the low rumble of tube trains clattering down tracks a few streets away. I think of the details one might only know from having grown up here: the exact spot the brown-eyed susans bloom in the autumn and the way the fall sunlight teases them, flickering through the latticework of apple trees like the gentle flash of an outdated camera. I think of the way the key to the garden shed is placed on top of the kitchen cupboard and the way our elderly cat, who grew up here too – alongside me – lies with her paws outstretched on the kitchen floor, canny enough to make use of the central heating humming beneath the tiles. The way the armchair by the bookshelf melts into my body and an inky stain of electric blue nail polish, an artefact from adolescence, decorates the faded carpet in the bedroom. The way the sunlight spreads across the floor.
I do not know where my next home will be, nor where I will decide to settle should my wanderlust begin to fade. It’s verging on a year since I returned here, no longer a transitory layover between university or travels – a place to return to for a homemade meal and a warm bath after months of the leaking shower in my student house. No longer a navigational waypoint, a pause along the route, somewhere to break up the journey before moving on, upwards, away.
I remember a day last spring when I boarded a train from Flensburg, on the Danish border, with my university classmates. It was the start of a long journey back to Bristol. We crossed canals and rivers as glimpses of the grey North Sea flickered past the window like shadows in a dark room. In Hamburg Flughafen we waited for hours on a bench overlooking the main hall, rising from our camping ground every hour or so to fetch fruit and sandwiches, then ice cream as the late afternoon sun fluttered down to rest on our backs. Eventually we boarded the Airbus bound for London. I grasped his hand as the plane lumbered down the runway and shuddered airborne, every slight quiver making my eyebrows and heart rate shoot skywards.
My mother was waiting at Heathrow. She kindly drove us back to my family home in the suburbs, where we collapsed into chairs at the dinner table weary with the kind of exhaustion only long bouts of travelling can bring. After a home-cooked supper, my father drove us to Paddington. We were returning to our then-home, then-adopted city, me and my then-boyfriend. Returning for one final semester at university. The journey, blighted by delays, took a little over two hours but when we arrived at our destination, a friend was waiting with the engine idling. We were home. Germany’s northernmost tip to Britain’s western corner in a day, we were home.
I suppose the point of this anecdote is that, just a year ago, my childhood home acted as a stopgap – a place to pass through, a layover before I travelled homewards. Home was my lilac attic room which, in spite of its leaking roof and sash window that jammed often, felt like some vague notion of the thing. In Bristol, I had forged for myself a small family of friends. I loved sharing the top-floor postage stamp of a flat with two best girlfriends, our friends dotted around the surrounding streets and neighbourhoods like drawing pins affixed to a world map. When I left, it did not feel so much like the end of an era nor a goodbye to a home. Many college friends had returned to London, too, and as I stowed cardboard boxes of books atop my wardrobe and hung dresses in the cupboard, the whole affair seemed temporary. Again, the idea of this London home as a waypoint, a metaphorical motel on the side of the road. Graduation was still to come and it stood out on the horizon as a smoke signal of sorts, rising upwards into the blank space of the calendar. I had very little idea of what the next months would hold.
As it happened, I returned to my student job at the library, merely reinforcing the idea that I was ‘home’ for a vacation – a momentary pause on the long road to my forever home. I liked it, unequivocally so, but it did not seem permanent. Then, unexpectedly, I accepted a full-time job in London – a position I had wanted with all of my being as soon as I set foot in the building – and it began to seem, well, not so temporary after all. Yet despite my commuter’s travelcard and tube journey downtown each day, the book boxes sat quietly untouched. Their spines sat pressed tightly against each other, expectant. Then, quite suddenly, my university beau and I parted ways. Soon after, I unpacked the books. It seemed I would be staying after all.
It will not be forever. Yet, since the summer, since that night last spring when my home was unequivocally elsewhere, this childhood London home no longer feels like a place only to pass through. I am happy to be here. Its quirks and creaks have become familiar to me again. The grape hyacinths in the yard are rioting in mauve while, as ever, the decrepit old pear tree is yet to bloom. The cat still sleeps on my pillow. The shed key remains in its rightful place. And now when I think of home, I think of here: my sea green walls, my mother pottering in the kitchen, the beat of the rain on the windows, the untuned piano gazing out on the garden and my frantic dash out of the front door, green, every morning. Rounding the corner each dusk, I am always calmed to see the hunched figure of my father – a silhouette in the upstairs window – as my feet carry me the last few steps to the door.
I am home.
I wonder, what does home mean to you?