When our marriage had entered the beginning of its end, my husband asked me this: If Bruce Springsteen came knocking at our front door one day, would you go off with him? It came out of the blue, and I hesitated.
You know how you know you just made the wrong call, but by then it’s too late? I should have told him the truth – that if Bruce Springsteen knocked at our front door I would have hidden behind the hat-stand. I couldn’t have coped with a Bruce Springsteen – or any man even approaching that rolled-sleeved, muscular gorgeousness. No matter that his singing might draw from me tears of yearning on occasions, I didn’t want to actually meet him.
I should have told my husband I loved him, only wanted love back from him. I should have told him I would rather overhear him singing Knocking on Heaven’s Door – quietly to himself, in that growly familiar voice, hunched over his second-best guitar – than be carted off by some lantern-jawed musical hunk. That was what he really wanted to know, but the penny failed to drop. The pause was seconds too long; he never gave me another chance.
I don’t know why I told you that, except sometimes, as you get older, there are things you find you need to say out loud – or just put into words.
And it was kind of leading into my real subject, which is whether I actually even have a home town any more.
Yesterday I drove through the nearest thing I’ve ever had to a home town – the place I lived from age three to twenty-one. Over the years I’ve been back there countless times, mostly to visit Mum on a Sunday; more frequently over the past couple of years as Mum got less and less predictable, more out of control with dementia, more disaster-prone. There were the evening phone calls from carers, saying she wouldn’t let them in – or in, but with Mum screeching in the background; calls from friends saying she had turned up on their doorsteps in the evening, frightened of something she couldn’t put into words; reports of her crossing busy roads on hour-long walks with the shopping trolley, looking neither left nor right.
Once upon a time ‘home town’ had been associated with a time to be a child – not necessarily a happy child but a child nonetheless – playing in the Rec, swinging on the swings, collecting leaves in sacks for Bonfire Night, walking to school on gloomy, rainy days; watching ants on the pavement; snow heaped and mud-spattered in the streets at Christmas. Now it was taken over – home town meant yet another problem, yet another thing that needed fixing that she couldn’t fix, yet another pile of junk mail and bills on the table that she wanted me to explain; noticing she’d been wearing the same blue jumper every Sunday for over a month; having her order me to leave because I queried some outrageous, illogical explanation for something quite obvious. Home town became a sinking feeling, and drowned out childhood.
And now Mum’s gone – not dead, just gone – and her house will need to be sold to pay the bills for her care home. She was the centre, by default, of the family. She was the reason we saw each other at all, most of the time, the reason we talked, emailed, consulted, arranged, reported, made plans. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold – as in the Yeats poem. Going back yesterday I felt that.
I avoided the street where, for the time being, my mother’s house still sits. Who knows how it may be transformed in six months time, with a new owner. Maybe it will have been knocked down and a row of town-houses built on the plot. Popular with commuters – no garden to bother about.
I drove straight to the shopping centre, and wandered around. Small, ugly shops; strutting pigeons, litter; well-frequented bookmakers and poorly-frequented bookshop. Too much traffic and too many human beings. I mooched round Demelza’s and found what I was looking for – a second-hand kitchen pine table; breakfast for one, mostly. On impulse I bought another thing – an eccentric shelf unit/cupboard arrangement. Fatally, I felt sorry for it.
Stray cats and old furniture, why do I pity them?
Even the man behind the desk didn’t know what to put on the delivery sheet. We laughed and settled on Wooden Thing; he put the stock number next to it in brackets. I stocked up on headache tablets in the chemists, yoghurts and porridge at the mini-market. And then I went home: which isn’t my mother’s house, or what used to be my home town. It isn’t even the house I’m living in now, since I’ll soon be moving away – back to the town where my husband once asked me about Bruce Springsteen, now I come to think about it. It will be strange, but maybe it will start being home again after a while. Same town, familiar shops and streets and places to go for walks; a different house, one street up from where we used to live; a husband long since gone; a ‘me’ replaced.
I won’t go back. Hometown’s been vaporised, and home… even home’s becoming something of a mirage.