The Scottish Book Trust are doing that thing they do, and asked for people’s stories of home. I took it as a prompt, as good as any other, to write something. This is what I’m thinking of submitting.
Home is a really tricky issue, for me. I was raised in several different countries, spanning different climates and politics, sandy shores and muddy fields, ramshackle verandahs and snow tires, calloused feet and polished, tight, black shoes. Each one, when you’re there, when I was there, was home. You learn not to be attached to the bricks and mortar, to the surroundings, to the trodden path, to the familiar. The homes change, the people change, all that stays the same is the family, and the objects. Every few years, when we moved, I’d say goodbye to some possessions, but not many; I look back now and I’m amazed at my parent’s generosity. Whole trunks, huge and unwieldy, filled with painted cardboard and stuffed material, so replaceable and so beloved. I think, perhaps, this is actually why I found it so hard to let go of my childhood things – they were one of my few constants. Last year, I sold or gave away or recycled the vast majority of all my belongings, reducing them to a few boxes and a couple of suitcases, that represent me from the ages of 18 to 36. I know there are more than twice that number in a garage, behind my Dad’s house, in which the contents of my childhood slowly settle and rot, unseen and unloved, and yet needed – like you need the light on now now now now now when there’s something under your bed at night.
So each place was home in its turn, and although I still wouldn’t change this aspect of my childhood for anything, having so many has left me with an ever present, background feeling… that I’m not home. Because home is associated with so many different things, so it’s constantly out of reach, it’s constantly the next, the last, the other. I can be walking down a street in Northern Ireland, where I lived for 7 years, long enough to qualify for the title ‘home’, by any reasonable standard, and I’ll hear the call of a dove, and suddenly my heart is breaking to be in the lush garden of a bungalow in Antigua, with night falling, and the heat subsiding, light spilling out of the patio doors, ice clinking into a glass and ants being absent-mindedly brushed off a leg, home, home, home. The connections run in both directions, the wires cross over and over, until your perception is caught in its own maze of mirrors – “That’s the real home! No, that one! No, over here! Here! Here, here!” – until you give up, exhausted, and settle for wherever you happen to be at the time. “It’ll do” you think “Anyway, surely what all this has taught you, more than anything, is that home isn’t a physical place, but a feeling. You can make home wherever you want it to be.”
But there’s still a little twist in your heart every time someone asks where you’re ‘from’, and you take the deep breath, to begin the short, medium, or long explanation, depending on how patient you’re feeling that day. It used to be quite fun, it made me feel special, exotic, and oh, if I wasn’t a boon to any small-talk situation. Lately, though, it just started to feel a little sad – the familiarity of *that* conversation now becoming something distasteful, a well-trodden path you wish you could up and leave behind, like before, and before, and before. It’s a reminder – I still don’t have one of those. I don’t have a home. Not even one of my own making.
And then, I set off travelling, a few weeks ago. After 14 years of living in the same city. And people began asking me where I’m from, all the time, on an almost daily basis, and the first time they did so, I felt the twist, but I dutifully opened my mouth to answer the word “Edinburgh” fell out. No-one was more surprised than I. Ed-in-burgh, Scot-land, encased in my cut-glass English vowels – despite never having lived in the country, a lasting gift from ex-pat upbringing. I smile when I say it. It feels great, to answer this question now. Because although it leads to some confused looks, and tentative – and some not-so-tentative – questions about how I don’t, well, you know, *sound* like I’m from Scotland – it feels right. Correct. I’ve spent twice as many years of my life in Edinburgh as I have in any other country in the world, and about three times longer than my average sojourn in any of those. It feels a little presumptuous, a little arrogant, to say it – what if Edinburgh doesn’t want me? – but this is quickly over ridden by the joy the very words bring. “I’m from Edinburgh” (if I could pull of the ‘fae’, I would, but honestly, I’d be rubbish at it). And every time I say it, I hear rain, dripping on persistent cobbles, the hiss of a Lothian bus door whacking open; smell a hundred sausages cooking in the Meadows at the height of sticky summer, the particular odour of South bridge after a Saturday night; see the ever present Acropolis and feel the wind slice through me as I reach the top of Arthur’s Seat, on Hogmanay.
It took leaving to realise. But turns out, Edinburgh is my home. And this thought causes me no pangs, doesn’t leave me feeling adrift, constantly turning for something I can just about see out of the corner of my eye. Because, for the first time in my life, I can go back. I can go there. I can go home.