“Home is people. Not a place. If you go back there after the people are gone, then all you can see is what is not there anymore.” – Robin Hobb
When Mummy and Daddy got divorced, Mummy asked the Council for a house, and was given a choice: we could either move into a house that had been previously lived in, or wait three months and get a brand new house at the end of the summer. She decided to wait, and we spent those three months in America with my Auntie Deborah in Maine. Auntie Deborah and Uncle Merle looked after us that summer while Mummy readied herself for a new life as a single mum in a brand new house being built for us, 3000 miles away. A house we could call home.
* * * * *
I remember the day we moved into our new house: I was four years old, just returned from a three-month trip to New England with Mummy. I stood in the back doorway eating an ice cream while Mummy lugged the boxes in, smiling down at me with an expression I hadn’t seen much of in my first four years while we were at New Close. I think it was relief.
I liked the garden: it had a wall stretching around one side, and a low fence between us and our next door neighbours. It wasn’t really a fence, just two wires strung between a few posts, no more than two feet high. The neighbours had a little girl, Kayleigh, who would become one of my first friends. In our cul-de-sac there were lots of children to play with: the three brothers across the road, Matt, Chris and Jamie at number 15; Steven at number 20, who had hair so blond it was almost white; my classmate Chloe at number 10; the ‘weird girl’ who called her mother by her first name at number 17. There was no number 13; it was deemed unlucky.
It was the first home I knew. I learned how to ride a bike on the street, where it was safe for us to play football and tag, to have water fights in the summer and snowball fights in the winter. We used to have contests to see who could bounce a rubber ball the highest – then we’d have to knock on the door of whoever owned the garden the ball had bounced into. There were some houses we knew not to bother knocking, but all in all it was a friendly place to live.
The house I spent the most time in besides my own was number 15. Wendy, mother of the three boys, was my childminder for five years, and her middle son Chris was my best friend. We once made a blood pact when we were six or seven, ceremoniously pricking our thumbs and painfully pressing them together; we built forts and dams and tree houses in the fields that lay behind the cul-de-sac; he protected me from the bullies who lived on the street that ran parallel to ours, Portland Road.
The Portland Road kids were trouble; always had been and probably always would be. There were the kind of kids you knew were going to drop out of school and end up with too many kids and not enough money by the time they were twenty. After all, it had been that way for their parents, and theirs before that. There was a brief time when I had a friend on that road. Sadie something. I used to know her last name. She broke her leg on the see-saw at the park, her parents sued the town council, and they moved away with the money they won in the lawsuit.
Of course, Chris had always been trouble too. Growing up, he was what they called a problem child: he had ADHD, and struggled with aggression. I was the only one who could calm him down or control his anger in any way. The one and only time he almost hit me – he was eleven, I was twelve – he had frozen, his hand still in the air, and after a moment, swept me up into a desperate hug, muttering apologies into my neck, over and over, almost in tears.
We loved each other more than we could have ever articulated to other people, and we looked out for each other because no-one else besides our mothers did. I was the geek that most people only wanted to push around, and he was the angry kid no-one understood. We were inseparable to the point that, when puberty hit us the summer before I moved away, we were convinced we were in love and meant to be together forever.
Forever turned out to be only two weeks. We didn’t stay in contact after I left; I never stopped to wonder why. I used to write him on his birthday and at Christmas, but I never got a reply. I just figured he was busy, but it never bothered me: I always knew I’d see him again. I was only thirteen when I moved away, Chris was only twelve. The future was only a vague concept then; we had no idea of its power to change us.
I went back to visit when I was sixteen, when Mum and I were spending a day in Street on a visit to my godparents. I retraced the old familiar route from the town centre to my old house, and my feet knew the pavement beneath them. It felt like home.
Before I know it, I find myself standing at the bottom of the hill – it’s not really a hill, but more of a gentle slope of tarmac leading up and around to the cul-de-sac – with my hands in my pockets. I feel a trickle of sweat gliding down the middle of my back, and my shoes are making my feet itch. After a deep breath, I shake my head and take a step forward. Then another, and another. Finally, I’m standing beside my old house, staring up at the gold number on the door. Number 2, Deerswood Gardens. When you’re taken away from something you love, you strive to remember even the smallest sentimentalities to help make it seem more real. Yet, as soon as you’re confronted with the reality of the thing, the most basic of details are all that’s left. An old address. A white door. A golden number.
The window above the number on the door is broken and I can see it’s been crudely patched up with cardboard and thick black tape, like a hurried bandage applied to a dirty bleeding wound. The mat on the front step is ragged and grimy, and the steps are dusty, with pieces of trash piled up in the corners. Our front garden – their front garden – is brown and patchy, a dried-out thing that I don’t recognise. We had green grass, with flowers along the boundary line between our garden and the neighbours’. All they have is hot, dead earth.
There is broken glass along the pavement, and from where I’m standing I can see other gardens, all of them overgrown and underloved, all of them full of dead flowers and discarded toys. I walk forward, to where the red brick wall of our back garden still stands. I can see the top of the fig tree Mum planted when we lived here; I am suddenly jealous of the family that gets to eat our figs. The wall isn’t quite as tall as I remember it, but it still feels the same: rough and warm and dry. I run my fingers along the sandpapery stone as I walk beside it, until my fingertips go numb like they used to when I did this as a kid. We used to grab our chalks – big, chunky pastel colours that left us covered with rainbow dust – and write welcome messages along my wall. Welcome to Deerswood Gardens, we used to scrawl, decorating the remaining bricks with stars or flowers, or simple patches of solid colour.
There is no welcome message on the wall for me. Instead, I see scars where the wall has been battered by rocks and beer bottles whose remnants lay at my feet. I see stains that I hope aren’t blood. I feel pain for the wall, for the way it stands there, after all this time, still resilient to whatever is thrown against it. I stand there for a few moments with my hand on the bricks, taking strength from the dusty red stones. I can barely breathe. This doesn’t look like the home I left behind. I’m not so sure I want to see any more changes.
Those three lost years are starting to hit me harder than I thought they would, I realise as I stand outside Chris’ house. I need to see him again, to ease this feeling in my stomach, to know that there is something here that hasn’t changed or fallen apart. As unstable as his moods had been when we were kids, his loyalty to me had never faltered. Other than Mum, he was the one person in my life I’d always been able to rely on. Now, despite the time that had passed, I find myself needing him again. I have to know that something here is still what it was three years ago.
When I knock on Chris’ door, his younger brother, Jamie, answers. He seems so much taller; I haven’t seen him since he was ten years old and barely four and a half feet, and now he’s at least five feet tall, only a couple of inches shorter than me, and starting to look like a young man instead of the grubby, snot-nosed kid that used to follow me and Chris around. He smiles, immediately recognising me, and lets me in. He tells me Chris isn’t in, as if he knows why I’d knocked at their door unannounced – and he did know why: I only ever came to their door to see Chris, whether it was to go out and play or to stay in and watch TV. The three years since I’d last knocked on their door hadn’t shaken the familiarity of the situation from us.
Jamie and I sit in the living room in the awkward quiet only felt in the company of a friend’s lesser-known sibling. The house smells exactly the same: cigarettes, air fresheners, and the litter box out in the kitchen – the kitten I remember playing with, named after football player Michael Owen, is fully grown now. I still have a small scar on my right breast where Owen once scratched me, years before I even had breasts. He paces around the living room as I stare at the pink walls and wonder why there are no pictures, only a dark Polaroid of something I can’t quite make out. I ask Jamie about school, which doesn’t get me very far; I guess he’s even more like his brother now than he was a few years ago. I ask him how their Mum is doing, and he smiles.
“Still smoking like a chimney and sleeping through the alarm clock every morning,” he says, rolling his eyes. “She should be home soon too.”
A few minutes later, we hear the front door open, and Chris steps into the house and through the doorway into the living room. I stand, surprised at how nervous I am. He’s bigger than me now, in both height and build, but he still has the same chubby cheeks and boyish hair that I remember. I walk over and hug him, holding him tight as he wraps his huge arms around me. We laugh nervously as we separate again, and we sit down.
I won’t remember what we talk about as we sit there: maybe the old days, or his brothers. Maybe we just sit in uncomfortable silence, wishing there was a way to fill the three years that had gone by.
After a little while, Wendy does come home. She shrieks when she sees me, and rushes over to hug me and ask me what the bloody hell I’m doing there. She still smells like cigarettes and her hair is crispy and smells of hairspray – it’s a smell that takes me right back to being in this house as a child.
Wendy wanders into the kitchen, hurling questions at me as she prepares drinks. After a minute, I get up and follow her so we can talk without having to shout. We pour everyone a drink of shop-brand orange juice or lemonade and return to the living room. We all sit, drinks in hand, and talk about the years I’ve missed, the growing up we’ve done, the things we’d accomplished since I left. I had become a top-grade overachiever with a scholarship to a fancy private school. Chris had become a father.
I slowly learn that he had gotten his sixteen-year-old girlfriend pregnant. He’s only fifteen, I think to myself, stunned. He’s still just a baby himself. I’m sixteen too – the same age as his girlfriend – how could that happen? As we all sit around the coffee table, catching up on the chapters of our lives we have lived without the other, I feel my eyes opening up to the life I could have lived. If I had stayed, would it have been me? Would I have been the one to fall into bed with this boy, my best friend, my blood brother, my protector?
As it turned out, the darkened Polaroid on the wall wasn’t a photograph: it was an ultrasound image of the baby. Chris didn’t say much; in fact, I don’t remember anything of what he said to me that day. Wendy did all the talking: she told me that the baby was very poorly, that there was something wrong with its heart, or liver, and maybe its brain. They weren’t even sure if it was going to be born alive. I might not remember much, but what I do remember, I remember vividly: a lonely ultrasound image pinned to the bare wall, surrounded by nothing but chips in the paint.
I still think about my house sometimes, about Number 2, and Chris at Number 15. I still miss it, sometimes. I miss the house, the kids Chris and I played with, the long hot summers we shared.
I missed them more after that visit, because I knew how much everything had changed. I missed them for the way they were when we were young, not for how they were since I’d left. For the first time in my life, I knew what it meant to feel homesick.