First impressions: In baggage reclaim at Heathrow T2, on the loo, and it’s private! No gaps round these restroom doors! Second thing: local accents – albeit varied – surround us and, “ooh,” I think, “they’re British” before I come to and clock that , of course, they all are now. Third: slightly clichéd but nevertheless as it happened, it’s a little bit grey (not gray) and chilly. Then the tiredness kicks in and I snooze in and out on the last leg of our demob from Houston to Belper, the three hour car journey up the M1. Our driver is silent and we four are all silent back. I can’t speak for Mr N and the boys, but, inbetween sleeps I feel a bit numb and not chatty. As we skirt Derby – our nearest city and ten miles from home – we catch a glimpse of the new velodrome; mid-morning, the sky is now streaky blue and my image of it is spikey and modern and burnt orange (this could just be the light) and I feel a shiver of something different to the physical and emotional weariness that has so far engulfed my return to England – a spark of surprise.
Then we’re there. At our house. H is here, opening the front door (good job, neither Mr N or I could find our keys). We live at the end of a cul-de-sac at the top of a hill on what, in its lower section, is quite a narrow road, and on repatriation from Texas, seems way too thin, and made stupidly more so by the full line of parked cars from bottom to top. I breathe in as we make our way up.
Snapshot reaction: it looks very similar but not exactly home. If you have ever been friends with one identical twin without knowing the other, this is analagous. When you eventually meet them it’s unnerving because the friendship claim you feel is yours becomes a little less secure in the (literally) face of this other person that you don’t know but who is undeniably almost the same; you feel a bit antagonistic towards the unfamiliar twin, almost as though they are an imposter. It’s ridiculous (and possibly just me, anyway, who has this reaction – it’s happened to me twice) but anyway, in the instant of arrival, that is how I felt about my house. It was clearly ours and fundamentally the same, yet different too just at that moment. Plants were larger and sprawled in places they didn’t previously; a flick of the eye either side revealed a frame of newness – overhanging trees, a slightly crumbling wall to one side; a Bassett Hound up on its hind legs peering over the fence to the other. And in the middle, not-quite-yet-again-our house. Like the unknown twin, undeniably almost the same but unsettling even so.
Measured response: Now it’s been 12 days and it feels like we’ve never been away. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Dr M said to me last night at Book Club (the very same one that I started up 11 years ago and never really left even while in Houston, thank you Skype) that he thought it was a good thing. Here, now, this morning with my beautiful bedroom view back, I feel it’s true. Already I’ve lost count of the new encounters with old faces: my hairdresser; the butcher; an ex-colleague in the Co-Op; mums and dads of kids who, like ours, have trawled and still are trawling up through the local schools; the kids themselves, some barely recognisable but many much the same give or take an inch or few and hair happenings. F, R and I keep spotting Houston people, briefly – Bev and Roseanna have been particularly ubiquitous for some reason – before remembering where we are and looking more closely. That says something about not feeling out of place I suppose. And it’s funny! So we’re still laughing.
And we’re relishing the busy-ness of our little town. There’s life outside our very doorstep. People chat and kids shout and everone’s walking. The high street is milling, admittedly at the moment with quite a lot of old people and weirdos who don’t – won’t or can’t – work because school’s still not out here (this dynamic will change from tomorrow when the summer hols kick in). But still, old and weird it may be but it’s life being lived on a human scale. We have cycled, run and walked up into the hills and to the shops and down the pub and round to friends’ from our front door. The trek in the car for just a loaf of bread in Houston is once again seeming a little ludicrous, not normal, as indeed it really is. That is, so quickly, no longer what we’re used to.
How I’ve enjoyed, as well, our quick-boiling kettle, fast-browning toaster, furiously hot hair straighteners and powerful hairdryer. Oh what superior voltage! I’m not sorry to have left behind that weakly stream of American electrons. I am, though, missing my massive fridge (mainly for the ice) and top loading washing machine, vicious with the clothes and unenvironmentally friendly it may have been. The fridge, along with a whole new kitchen to surround it, will have to change. The washer and dryer situation, I fear, will not.
I suppose it’s time to get back in the habit of hanging out the washing, come rain or shine. That’s just what we do here, isn’t it? But I haven’t done so. And I don’t quite, so far, feel that I’m living my real life. The upstairs half of the house looks like it’s being inhabited by hoarders, and we’re in the middle of approximately 17 different jobs – painting, decorating, clearing out, sorting through, swapping bedrooms, putting stuff away (like the humans in this house, the objects don’t yet have a final place), gardening, kitchen planning, blah blah – all of which have been started but not finished. And we don’t have broadband at home! Still! With two days to go to the promised connection date (“C-day”), we continue to fight over access to smart phones, and pitching up with pals, laptops in tow, is our new normal.
It’s indeed disturbing to be wifi-restricted but probably what is the most unsettling is that no-one is at school or work. [Well, the noble Mr N is, of course, but that’s way away over in Oz, and the charmed H is too, but neither are currently living in this house.] There is plenty to do – as well as the 17 afore-mentioned jobs on the go there are an estimated 346 still to be started. So that’s not the issue; no, for me, it’s that statusless thing again – and now, I’m not even a proper trailing spouse. I’ve trailed, there and back. What now?