Essays from Home
OPINION: QUEEN & COUNTRY
In our latest Essay from Home, our writer returns to confront his past in the North, and offers a powerful meditation on family and home which explores the unravelling and rebuilding of identity and our often fragile sense of belonging.
Home is where the heart is, or so the proverb goes. But for some of us, it's not always that simple. We've all experienced going back to the place in which we grew up, and for most, it can be a joyful event. We enjoy spending time with family and catching up with friends before returning back to the place we've since made home for ourselves as adults.
But sometimes a gay person going home to their past can give way to a whole array of mixed feelings. In our new essay, 'Ravenwood Drive', a Q&C reader offers a profound inquiry into notions around home and family, and what's required to provide us with a necessary sense of belonging.
Once night falls at my mother’s house, the silence outside is absolute. The street lamp throws a warm orange glow into the room. Unlike my London home, the peace here is disarming and strange.
The humming of the fridge reverberates innocuously on the other side of the wall, its relentless buzz is hypnotic. But it's the sound of loneliness too. I half expect the ghost of my late father to appear at the foot of my bed, but it never does. There's history on this side of the street.
I return here often, although it is a part of my past. But is a past ever past? Winterson: In the old world, anyone could be a new creation, the past was washed away.
It's upon crossing the gnarled Runcorn Bridge with its rusting grandeur and crumbling lime green arch that the tenebrous familiarity of the homeland becomes evident. The mocha-coloured mudflats of the Mersey estuary below seen from the train window flash animatedly through the bridge’s geometric criss-cross frame when passing over it.
Proceeding onwards toward Liverpool I pass row upon row of red-brick terraced houses, and Fiddler's Ferry power station beyond, another familiar motif of the landscape and from which thick grey smoke billow in plumes. It’s proof for most they've arrived in the North. The proper North. My North. Or as author Paul Morley described it: “..smoking and babbling, battling and loving, scattered and glittering, lush and brick, rickerty and plush, conspiring and crackling.... dirt and glamour.”
My 20th year anniversary living in London is approaching. I’m forever considering bolting for it. A persistent urge to return north full-time niggled away at me for years. Then my father died. There are threads that help you find your way back, and there are threads that intend to bring you back. With my mother alone, it was finally the right time. So, with husband in tow, I returned the other year to take up a year work contract in the city that in which to live, Arthur Askey once said a sense of humour was most definitely required.
Liverpool seemed to me always a city one would depart from, rather than arrive at, or return to, other than temporarily. The reaction from London friends to the news was illuminating. It was similar to what a BBC journalist faced when relocating to Salford from the capital. She wrote that as far as friends were concerned, being dispatched up the M6 was “tantamount to being sent to a Siberian gulag.”
I thought it would be challenging to unplug myself from the energy of London. Harder still to disconnect myself from the activities, people and opportunities, both professional and personal. Leaving London was like letting go of a dream - but the decision, when it came to it, was surprisingly easy.
Returning was made more seductive by the prospect of luxuries often denied me in the capital – an affordable house, detached and palatial. A flash car could sit in the expansive drive, pets would run amok in wild abandon in a long and rambling garden, more disposable income in which to travel the world. And in the North, neither my husband nor I would need be a high-calibre financier, a doctor or a celebrity to achieve it.
Being unable to fully yield to my past, we instead lived across town, by the sea, in a semi-rural hamlet near the Cheshire border. A new North. For a while our life back here was agreeable. We found a real sense of space, of solitude and sanctuary. Summer bike rides in unchartered countryside, along desolate beaches, and privy to majestic sunsets. On a whim we’d drive over to Snowdonia National Park, Anglesea, the Lake District.
But before long, ennui set in on our new life. Summer ended. The husband secured a top legal job back in the capital which he couldn’t refuse. The days got darker. The town became a lonely, wind-beaten nowhere. My provincial friends had children and their own lives. Their expectations of life seemed modest, their ambitions diminished. But while their happiness remained certain, mine wasn’t. Had going back been a mistake all along? People do go back, but they don’t survive, because two realities are claiming them at the same time. Such things are too much.
I feared becoming a somewhat overweight, slightly bored middle-ager, reminding me of a quote from author David Mitchell whose Irish friend explained why he wouldn’t return to his native country: "If only I wasn't Irish I would love to live (in Ireland). But I know it too well, I know the kitchens, the front rooms, what it smells like."
My work contract dwindled to its natural denouement. I barely cared. And so, like a magnet, succumbed once more to London, and with haste resumed familiar big city life. I was a new creation again.
Two years on and now I sporadically return to the old North as reluctant outlier and traitor. A slight wave of dread visits me each time I cross that shabby bridge that marks the borderline, for me at least, between north and south.
No matter how far I travel in the world, Liverpool never fails to be just over my shoulder. On bucolic Clieves Hill, near my mother’s, I can see it in the distance, its famous landmarks like crooked teeth in a rotten mouth. Ghosts wander those streets. My history, my heritage, beneath a damp-charged metallic sky like a veil of sorrow.
These are the mad and contemptuous thoughts provoked while back here, a place where my outsider status is set in stone. A cozy yet mirthless suburbia, notable for its distinct paucity of trees, and without which any neighbourhood, regardless of geographic allurement, lacks life. The few trees that are in existence are exotic outsiders, endangered and threatened with extinction by unsophisticated housewives who take umbrage to drinking tea on shaded patios.
The young people from here have either gotten out or given up. You can leave, but it’ll pull you back in. Unless you act quick you’re otherwise reabsorbed, drifting into unremarkable middle age.
It's hard to capture the bleakness of a location one returns to largely through duty. There is much pain here. For my mother I'd travel to the end of the world, but is returning ones ultimate undoing? The oppressiveness of forever being that person you were as a child, rather than the adult you've become is almost tangible, especially when coupled with the dispiriting realisation that everything and nothing has changed. Going back after a long time will make you mad, because the people you left behind do not like to think of you as changed, will treat you as they always did, accuse you of being indifferent, when you are only different.
Now I navigate the bifurcated byways of infinite dualities; between the middle and working class, youth and mid-life, success and failure, married and single, light and dark, city and country, north and south, past and present, memory and the burning desire to forget.
Here everyone I know presses on with the minutiae of their daily routine, expertly keeping the ache of mind and quiet agony at bay, and me bouncing to and forth as interloper, struggling to find my place somewhere that no longer defines me, that’s if it ever did, while clutching to a carefully curated existence elsewhere.
I know I can’t hack living here again. I'd rather look upon it from afar with a nostalgic and wistful warmth. I often dream of living out my days brown as an apostle in Spain, living in an Andalusian finca among orange groves on a sun-dappled mountain. I’ve already tasted that- but I’ll leave the tale for another day.
For now I’m back at the start. The cyclical nature of life is once again decreed and yet unfathomable. The darkness at Ravenwood Drive creates its own bildungsroman in my mind, and as the years vanish I mentally sift the pages, each no less bittersweet than the last. I shuffle from side to side on a single bed, in the spare room which, for now at least, is my bedroom. My home. My North. The only sound is the machinations of my own recall. The street lamp turns itself off.
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