They say home is the place where, if you go there, they have to take you in. Home for me is a small village in Northern Ireland where the most exciting thing that ever happens is a herd of cows get loose on the road and cause a traffic jam. There’s three churches, two takeaways, and eight pubs. When I was eighteen I packed up all my cuddly toys, Spice Girls cassette tapes, and travel kettle, and moved to England for university. Having somewhat unexpectedly secured a place at Oxford, I felt I had to take it up, so I trooped off, aged eighteen, tears in my eyes and Tayto crisps in my suitcase.
After university I spent several years living round the world – France, China, travelling – before settling in London. And although I visited often, I felt a distance from home – that water between us, however narrow, made itself known. My life started to go a different way from everyone I’d been to school with, as they all stayed in Ireland.
After a few years, when I started writing seriously, I found myself setting a series of books in Northern Ireland, in a town that’s not dissimilar to the one I grew up near. And since then I’ve been spending a lot more time at home, as I’m freelance and often do book events in Ireland, where people have been hugely supportive of my writing.
I’ve now been away from home almost as long as I lived there. When you spend this long away, you get used to never quite feeling at home. So going back is a kind of reverse shock. As I get off the plane I can almost feel my brain re-calibrating into the language and speech patterns, everything is a ‘wee’ this and a ‘wee’ that, people are ‘dead on’ things are ‘grand’ not good. If I’ve spent a while at home, when I come back to England, I find people can’t understand me right away, as if I suddenly regressed fourteen years.
A lot of things are different to London. First there’s the silence. The kind of silence you get in a valley, nothing but the sheep above you, the only sounds birds and rain, and when you hear a shot fired it’s either farmers killing rats, or possibly a random terrorist incident. It’s also not just OK but polite to say hello to people you meet out and about, and perfectly reasonable to go round and knock on your neighbour’s door – pretty much a capital offence in London. This also means everyone knows your business – my dad, now retired, goes into town to the bank and post office just so he can catch up with the events of the village.
I’m lucky that my flexible work schedule (and portable laptop) means I can spend a lot of time with my family. Of course, there are down sides. I fall back into teenage hobbies like: sleeping. Sulking. Reading Jilly Cooper for the twentieth time. When you go home you age backwards. You end up in a row about the time you broke the water cooler when you were seven. Long suppressed trauma rears its head, like the reason your parents never bought you that Barbie Dream Home you asked for at Christmas 1988. You find yourself, an adult who pays taxes, running from the room shouting, ‘I never asked to be BORN!’
On the whole though it’s great to catch up with them, and see my brother, and go out with old school friends. It also helps me get into the right voice and setting for writing my series, which is all about the horrors and surprising joys of returning to your home town. My main character, Paula Maguire, has come home to Ireland after many years abroad, and finds herself unsure if she wants to leave again.
By going home I can see a different version of my life, one where I never moved to England or travelled the world. One where I followed the life my family had lived for generations, close to the soil, settling within miles of home, marrying someone from the village. Instead my life has been wide, and confusing, at times chaotic, and altogether different than I could have imagined. Sometimes, it’s nice to slow it down and go back to where they have to take me in.