I had been away for years.
I hadn’t missed my home town much since I’d moved thousands of miles to another country. For my own reasons I’d only been back a couple of times over the years. There were some years that I didn’t manage to get back at all. It never really worried me that I was losing touch with my home town; the familiarity with which I used to approach the place was fading in my memory along with the clarity of the visions of my childhood. During the years away, I tried to make an effort to spend a week or two during the summer visiting my parents, but the place itself didn’t keep my interest.
I had been away almost ten years.
A number of people asked me why I chose to live so far from “home.” I replied with responses varying in political tone. “I am a true patriot and I cannot stand to watch the idiots in charge ruin a country I love,” I would say with some authority, stunting any questions about my personal reasons for leaving. “I never really got on well with the place,” I would say if I was feeling like fielding any follow-up questions. “Couldn’t stand the accents,” would leave my lips as soaked in irony as my own accent butchered the words. It had been so long with my obfuscating answers that I’d begun to forget why I’d left in the first place. With each answer, I never felt any sense of longing for the place. The answers were a reflection of the meaninglessness of my own country in my heart.
My grandmother had sent me a Christmas card every year since I left. The Christmas card that she sent a couple of years ago was particularly significant. I’m not sure that she thought it was anything special, just a pretty painting of the place she’d come to call home on a reasonably priced greeting card. It was a landscape-style card with a scene of the park in the centre of my home town shrouded in snow, fairy lights dancing in the trees against the night sky. There weren’t any people in the image. The park was allowed to stand for itself, its own beauty unperturbed by human occupation. I was suddenly reminded of all those things that I had experienced when I lived there that shaped me into the man I grew to be. For me, it was the first time that my experience of the town had been idealised, the first time that I saw beauty in what I had left behind. Consequently, it was the first time in the years since I’d left that I actually felt the pangs of homesickness.
I was left thinking of the people I used to know and the mischief in which we delighted. Wintry scenes of sledging filled my mind; friends gathering up darkened hills at night armed with torches and a selection of sledges, racing at what seemed like breakneck speeds down a long, icy gully along some mountainous hill. My memory drifted to the snowball fights outside the school and to those evenings at my friend’s house, wood in the stove burning away, mugs of hot chocolate, wasting away the evening playing video games against each other, and then cycling home precariously over the icy roads. The memories that remained in my mind were devoid of the torments of being a teenager and filled with the joy of being a child. Why was I so eager to run away from all the good memories for the sake of a few difficult ones?
Surrounded by this flood of memories, I started wondering how these old friends were getting on. I was sure that I’d heard about some getting married, some having children, and some having died. I contemplated if these old friends of mine would even recognise me should I reappear in their lives like some mythological creature occasionally sighted by the village drunk.
“That couldn’t possibly be him! Didn’t he die or something?”
I felt isolated and lonely for the first time since my younger, arrogant and naïve self left its home town all those years ago. I don’t know that anyone around me really noticed as I tried to shrug it off and carry on with my life. Significant as that moment had been, the life around me carried on regardless. It later occurred to me that none of the friends I had made in my time away from home had seen me express sentiments about the place.
During the summer that followed, I visited my parents for two weeks. After struggling with the idea for a while, I found the courage to call up an old friend for a cup of tea.