Wednesday, February 3

Wherever I lay my hat...

I've been thinking about the word 'home' a lot lately. Where is Home? Can you have more than one? My sister calls Norfolk 'Home'. Mum was 'Home', now she's gone does that make me homeless? I call my flat in London 'Home' but also tell people that I am going 'Home' to Norfolk whenever I go to visit my Dad and my brother. So where is it? Have I found it yet? How will I know when I'm there?

When I was younger I'd get very anxious about leaving home, even if it was to go on holiday. My parents would have to go through the accommodation arrangements with me in significant detail in order to prepare me for the change in surroundings. I didn't attend a sleepover until I was about fifteen because I'd freak out at the thought of not returning home at the end of the day. Home was special, it was a three bedroom house in the suburbs of King's Lynn, but it was special. I lived here for thirteen years from the age of five to eighteen. When my brother was born I would press my ear to his bedroom door to listen to him breathing. It was there that I sat on the stairs late at night and heard (through the door) that my beloved Grandad had died. I sobbed there for hours and fell asleep slumped against the bannister. I dyed my hair blue here when I was fourteen. I kicked a small dent in my sister's bedroom door when she ran upstairs telling me she was 'going to eat all of the Nutella'. When I was sixteen I slashed my forearms in the bathroom, trying to emulate my hero of the time Richey Edwards (yes, I was a dick). I buried my guinea pigs in the back garden, I made foul-smelling 'perfume' from Mum's rose bushes in the summer. Then I went to uni, and never came 'Home' again.

However, I look back over all the places I have lived, and try to remember where I have felt most 'at home' in my life, and the answer always surprises me, because it is always Norwich. This house, to be precise:

This is Cardiff Road, in Norwich, part of a little student enclave in the city affectionately referred to by students and estate agents alike as the 'Golden Triangle'. All houses in the area look exactly like this one, so it's hardly distinguished by its features, but by the memories I have attached to it. This house is where I learned to cook a roast dinner from scratch for the first time. It's where I first became familiar with the term 'emergency plumber'. It's where I sat up most nights until 3 or 4 in the morning with my closest friends, smoking Marlboro Lights, drinking tea and plotting world domination (which, of course, never took place). I spent a month on the sofa in the living room here recovering from shingles by eating family sized bars of chocolate and chain-smoking. I naively said 'I love you' to a boy for the first time in my little bedroom at the back of the house. Once I drunkenly dragged a damp sandbag back here at 4am and named it 'Sammy', the effort left my arms aching for days. It's hard to believe that I lived here for just two years, but the rooms and corridors are imprinted in my memory more vividly than any place I have lived before or since. We were all of us amateurs at living independently, growing up, laughing (so much laughing) and making mistakes together. I never felt alone when I lived in this house.

I made a few mistakes; the biggest was moving in with my boyfriend of the time into a shared residence the Daily Mail would call a 'Drug Den Hell'. I had a boring job as a civil servant at the time, I'd leave for work as they all turned in for the night. They grew mushrooms in the cupboard under the stairs and smoked weed constantly. One housemate stole the laces out of my trainers while I was asleep one night, when questioned about it the next morning he replied 'Yeah, er, I needed some, so I took yours'. As you do. My room became my refuge but I was never 'at home' in this place. I was bored, depressed and isolated - my uni friends had all moved away by this point. Despite the fact that his girlfriend nearly losing her mind, my boyfriend refused to leave his mates, grow up and move in with me. So I moved out. And dumped him.

Back to Norfolk then, but by now my folks had moved out of the Home that I grew up in in King's Lynn and into a luxury (well, it has an en suite!!) detached residence in the MIDDLE OF FUCKING NOWHERE. I had a few years here while I got my head together. It was good. I went shopping at weekends with my Mum and took my Dad out for curries on a Thursday. I played video games with my brother. I made friends with local people. I saw a psychiatrist and got treatment for my depression. I learned to drive and worked in a college for a reasonable wage. It was nearly home. But my God I was bored, bored as hell. Luckily, one weekend visiting my mate in London, I met James...

When I first moved to London and lived in a tiny studio flat with James I'd pine for home - Norfolk home - every night through tears of anxiety and self-pity. I'd long for the endless fields and deafening silence of the Fens. I missed darkness, which doesn't seem to exist inside the M25. I'd drive through Tottenham on my way to work dodging children and cats, instead of rabbits and pheasants. James would take me for dinner in the West End and I'd secretly wish I was back at the carvery at the King of Hearts in my parents' village, eating ham and roast potatoes. It got easier. In time I laughed at mentals on the bus instead of being scared of them. I completed my PGCE and became a qualified teacher. We moved to a bigger, better flat, in a nicer part of Crouch End. We got a cat.

This is home now:

Well, to be specific, the top floor. It is my current London home to which I beat a hasty retreat when I am depressed or anxious. It is where I am loved. It is where I am warm. It is the place I look forward to being at the end of the day. I chose the furniture, and the contents, and the company. I love every single thing in this flat (except the tiny kitchen, which I am prepared to overlook). Sometimes I sit at the window and watch the world go by, it never gets boring. I wave to my neighbours and water their plants while they are away. I feel 'at home' here. I am on first name terms with my local grocer and newsagent. I buy my produce locally and recycle my rubbish.

But I miss the Fens. I wait for them to enclose me when I get the train up at weekends and the endless emptiness always takes my breath away. I watch the stars come out in the back garden at night and sleep soundly in my old bedroom, to the symphony of my father's snoring. Other weekends I stay in London, go up to Alexandra Palace and mooch around the farmers market where, in a nod to Norfolk patriotism, I buy produce at inflated prices that is created not half a mile away from my Dad's house. I tell my boyfriend it's because 'it comes from home'. He says 'but you are home'. I don't argue. He's not wrong. It's just that he's only half right.

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