Does anything or anybody match the kind of open-armed welcome your home gives you when you walk through the door after a holiday? Approaching the threshold, the notes of celebration in your whistling and your chatter are almost Christmassy.
You turn the key and there’s an ambush of familiarity. It can be overwhelming. Your grin aches. It’s an unstable moment, as all meaningful reunions are, full of hope and vulnerability. Eyebrows are raised on both sides.
Lugging the suitcases up the front steps I am always conscious that my provisional holiday personality — the quieter slower, dumbed-down version of myself who knows how to do small talk and beat around the bush — must make way for the sharper, crueller person that cities require. Can I pick up where I left off? What if I’ve forgotten how? I sometimes turn detective for a bit, piecing myself back together in plenty of time for the autumn rush. All the clues are there, but the transition takes some negotiating.
I feel a little like a bear-with-me-it’s-my-first-day contestant on Through the Keyhole. What would this apple-green shallow-pile stair carpet, which took seven years to choose, say about a person? What is revealed by that pile of sweetie wrappers under a mustard-coloured book of Keats’s Odes? Who heard a decorator say every room must contain something hideous, and plumped for that cast-iron oyster-shaped coal scuttle? Search me. Theatrical contracts? A box of chocolates! I had forgotten all about them. Can we celebrate again?
Sometimes you wish for magic. You always make New Year’s resolutions in August, but will your home have done anything to improve itself in your absence? You half-hope the bright ugly fabric on the new chair will have lost some of its intensity after a week in the sunlight. You half-hope the miserable-looking man in the portrait in the sitting room will have cheered up just an inch. He never does, although sometimes, when the sun is very low, a halo appears over one side of his head. Which is nice.
I come from a family that takes staying at home very seriously. We have been known to look a little scathingly at merry holiday makers. We go miles out of our way to avoid travelling. We can be dismissive, astonished even, by those who undertake it willingly. “What is it they are running away from?” we whisper mischievously. We know, deep down, it must be pretty psychological.
When friends embark on their longed-for trips we bite our tongues so as not to say, “Poor you, but I know you will be brave and the time will fly by and you’ll be home before you know it.” A pal told me off recently for being negative about her holiday, and I wanted to say, “It’s not negativity, its just the kind of pity I would feel for you if you booked in for surgery.” I meant to wish her bon voyage but it came out much more “rather you than me”.
Travelling can be an awful waste of free time. Apart from anything else, it uses it all up. Even a weekend spent away is a weekend you can never, ever get back.
My home must know this is how I think, so the opportunities for irony and ruefulness when I return from trips are almost limitless. Even the letter box can look sardonic. So what is it that my home gives to me that I value so highly? It’s certainly not unconditional love. It can be quite stern, flaunting in my face all the mistakes that I have made with a severe, “When will you ever learn?”
There are parts of home where I have tried too hard and parts I have given up. There are bits I cannot bear to look at, so we agree to disagree and I avoid its gaze. There are bits where I’ve chosen nothing over choosing the wrong thing, so as to keep the sense of the potential. There are other parts where I have forgiven myself for not doing this. How could a person not identify?
In a wonderful poem called ‘I Know the Place’ Hugo Williams wanders into a back bedroom in which he used to write, gathering clues, as I do, experiencing startled fellow feeling for the place. The red leather on the desktop, so scuffed it resembles a map, has seen better days. Who hasn’t?
He writes, “Dear Room, don’t tell me you’re tired too?/ You look terrible!”
Standing in the hall, one arm longer than the other from carrying luggage, a heat rash on my wrists, dot-to-dot mosquito bites on my legs, a bad taste in my mouth from something disgraceful I ate on the train, what I really want to shout up the stairs to my home is, “Where the hell have you been?”
— Financial Times