I went home again this weekend — here’s what it taught me
It’s been four years since I was last really home. Although I regularly visit my parents and enjoy the trips, the house I lived in while growing up hasn’t belonged to the family for three years, and was sold years ago.
So it’s with a sense of uncertain nostalgia that I step off the train in Loughborough, driven by a summer case of itchy feet to catch up with the haunts of my childhood. I meet and talk for a couple of hours with my childhood best friend, who still lives in our home village of Kegworth, and he gives me a lift back there.
I instinctively feel uneasy. There’s something uniquely unsettling about seeing a familiar environment, subtly changed. I wasn’t sure if it was the bypass being built up by the fields where I used to walk alone on summer mornings, which has closed a road where I used to deliver papers as a teenager.
I wondered if it might be the familiar faces — parents of children I went to school with, now approaching retirement, still in the same place. I pass two as I walk into the village centre. They seem not to recognise me now. One of them opens a gate next to his house, and eight border collies run out; I realise where I know him from. His son, a childhood classmate of mine, with whom I went to a filming of Junior Mastermind aged 10, died in a motorbike crash a few months ago.
I slip through the alleyway where I first, haltingly, learned to ride a bike in 2001. It seemed so long and imposing then — now, it’s a functional 50 yard stretch between two low walls, over which I can easily see. As I emerge onto the street, I see my old house, a mid-sized semi-detached with a garage and a rocky front garden. Outside is some temporary fencing, and two large transit vans.
A man in a motocross outfit and a beard comes out, carrying two large sacks. He sees me examining the house and gives me a suspicious look.
“Sorry” I explain. “It’s just I grew up here, and I haven’t seen it in a while”. I’m not sure what I expect in return. The sort of casual bonhomie that might go with a shared connection to a structure. ‘You may be a motocross fan, and I might be a city-dwelling designer, but this sanctuary from the storm, we have in common’; that’s how the script is supposed to go, I think.
“How did you grow up here? It’s horrendous” he says, with a look of genuine horror. “Oh, right” is all I can say in response. He proceeds with a litany of complaints, from the bathroom to the garden to the living room — all using his one adjective, as though it’s my fault. “Well, thanks” is my parting riposte. I’m sure it wounded him. As I stalk off, I see a motocross helmet and cheap plastic trophy, sitting on my bedroom windowsill. I used to keep Pokemon figures there.
I know, with the rational part of my brain, that it’s only a building. It was scruffy. It was a bit old fashioned. It had oddly limited water pressure and, let’s give him some credit, hadn’t been lived in for two years by the time he bought it. And yet, despite my own claim to be rational and unemotional about my home, it still deeply annoyed me that he could be so ungracious. Would it have been so hard to find something nice to say, or at very least to talk about his renovation plans in a positive way?
As I pass the primary school, and old memories, from hearing about 9/11 to becoming obsessed with Pokémon Ruby, flash by, I hit upon how I’m feeling about the experience. The incident with the new homeowner affected me because it summed up what I found so unwelcoming about Kegworth on my most recent visit. It’s all still there, as it was — the paving slab where I landed hands-first after careering down a hill on my scooter, aged 10. There’s the old circular route I used to walk in that last summer, in 2013, before I left for university, and the big city. There’s the pub where we used to go and see the other families in our little network, down the road from the restaurant where I had my first job as a dishwasher. But for all the similarity, I am very conscious that it is no longer my village.
I become acutely aware that with its quiet, conservative prosperity, and pockets of deprivation, into neither of which I particularly fit, I never really was part of it. Our house was never “horrendous” — but it wasn’t, I realise, a fit for the middle class area in which it sat. At the other end of the village, we might have been thought of as rich.
I realise that it isn’t a tragedy for someone from a basically okay background in a basically okay place to suddenly feel unwelcome there, but it was a strange emotion I hadn’t felt before. Not quite sadness — if I was sad to leave, I wouldn’t have left it so late to go back. Not really anger — people there are free to live their lives however they want, and far be it from me to suggest that my essentially studenty lifestyle of frequent flat moves and pasta is any better.
It was a kind of vulnerability. I realised that the reason I was accepted there earlier in my life wasn’t that I wasn’t strange then, and am now. It was because then I was a child, and strangeness was first expected, and then tolerated. I can’t hide behind that any more — I’m a 23 year old adult, and having bolted five years ago, the stable doors have closed.
For the last two years, I haven’t been able to identify with the people at university saying they’re going home for the weekend. For me, home is whichever suspiciously cheap flat I’m doing battle with (my current struggle — the alarming noise the oven fan makes).
As I trudge out of the village on the three mile walk to East Midlands Parkway station (no buses go that way, and the pavement stops halfway) I look back, and wonder if it will be the last time I see Kegworth in the flesh. Perhaps not. I’ll go back and see my friend again, I’m sure. But it won’t ever be the place I grew up in again. And in a way, having seen it in the flesh, I can accept that more readily now than I could before.