Our home slumbers in pieces, in boxes, in brown paper wrap. Room after room of brown paper wrap. Ridiculously oversized parcels block the corridors and doorways in the shape of sofas, free-standing multi-purpose bookcase units. Then there are the boxes. Towering, teetering stacks of brown boxes, their contents pared down to single words on the side. Bedroom; bathroom; kitchen; lounge. Check.
We are moving house again, for the fourth time in six years. Moving country for the second time. For the next two months the three of us will live out of a single bag each, subsisting on crumpled clothes and miniaturized shampoo bottles. Tucked into a corner of my bag are two books and a literary magazine, my only luxuries as we clamber on board our raft. In their place I might have brought another pair of shoes, or an extra sweater. Already I’m regretting their indulgence.
We are adrift, unanchored. We are in transit.
* * *
My wife grew up in Hong Kong, part of an extensive British expat community. Its roots are still visible today in the cricket clubs, the English clothing stores. She reminisces fondly of the friends she made there. None of them were Chinese. They ate roast lamb, supped G&Ts at the club. Even now Hong Kong feels like a border crossing, the schizophrenic Interzone of East-meets-West. Back then it might have been more West than East, at least for the families who relocated from under Britain’s gloomy skies. The Empire took decades to draw its last breath.
I sometimes wonder how it must have been for her parents. Were they conscious of their outsider status? Did they embrace it? Stories have trickled down of parties, beaches, vacations on the back of a Sri Lankan elephant. But their daily grind must by its very nature have been more mundane. Did they spend their days under incessant scrutiny, these tall, blonde aliens who had landed on the hill? Could they ever truly say they felt at home?
The photos that survive are mostly yellowed Polaroids, dry and cracking beneath our fingers. Sooner or later the past always reverts to shades of sepia. They show sunshine and smiles, bike rides and picnics, family gatherings by the pool. None show their home, or their places of work. These are the pictures of a family on vacation. Their daily existence remains unimaginable, the otherness of expatriate life in a world without the Internet, without email, without text messages, without mobile roaming. They were cast adrift for seven years in a country as different from their own as it was possible to be. It’s little wonder that they huddled together around the remnants of home, the tea parties and wicker picnic baskets of an English summer.
In all the photos they are smiling.
* * *
I don’t remember the first time we moved house. Those early homes remain unfamiliar and cold.
But I am a child of South London. We never moved far. Today you can walk from my father’s house to the house we grew up in, the family home that I remember fondly from my school years. Walk the same distance in the opposite direction and you’ll reach the smaller, characterless house we left behind. Within a radius of a few miles you’ll find my junior school, my high school, the street corner where my nose was broken, never to fully mend. For a period of over fifteen years this was my world, the territory I had marked out as surely as any urban fox. I ate here, I breathed here.
Then, at the age of eighteen, I moved far, far away. I haven’t stopped moving since.
* * *
The journey to St. Andrews, Scotland, has faded from memory, the drive blending seamlessly with every other road traveled. I recall the chaos. The duvet bundled into a black plastic sack, the shopping bags filled with last minute provisions, the holdalls testing the tensile strength of their zippers. It filled the trunk of my father’s car for many hours. Then, after several trips up and down flights of stairs, it filled my tiny, squalid room, tucked squarely into the upper corner of an architectural monster that should never have survived the Seventies. It took me less than an hour to unpack, my belongings failing to fill a three-drawer cabinet and built-in wardrobe. Like all new homes, it began with a hollowness.
Fortunately I was not alone. There were hundreds of us, displaced and aimless, heady with teenage enthusiasms. Once our belongings were unpacked we kept moving further away. Our journeys did not end with our destination. Our homes were wherever we chose them to be, whichever bars we propped up, whichever beds we slept in. Couch cushions became mattresses. Our boots became a pillow. At first we called our parents every few days, then once a week. Then monthly, if they were lucky.
When we returned at the end of each semester, our old homes had grown strange and unfamiliar. Slowly we learned to spread our own shallow roots.
* * *
I remember I was the one who opposed it from the start. It was my wife’s idea, the subject of many late-night arguments: twelve months out of the country, traveling to Australia and New Zealand via shorter stops in Asia. We quit our jobs in 2004, stowed our lives in friends’ attics. I worried endlessly about visas. The prospect of a year without income.
I was wrong to worry. There’s something uniquely freeing about shedding our responsibilities, about shrugging off the financial shackles of polite society. We had some money stowed away, but not much. Enough for six months at best. If we wanted to keep traveling then it would have to stretch. We would have to make do.
Our belongings were folded, creased and cajoled into two large backpacks; universal adaptors wrapped inside socks balled inside hiking boots. I could just about walk with my pack on, the straps creaking beneath its weight. When we needed smaller bags these were slung across our fronts. Sandwiched in this way we became walking homes, our roofs wide-brimmed sunhats, our windows fingerprint-smeared sunglasses. Our foundations were only ever shallow.
That year represented all my worst fears. There were moments of crisis, squalor, hardship. We barely scraped by eating tuna straight from the can and scooping avocado from the skin. Even a voluntary homelessness makes you yearn for nothing more than home. But along the way we saw whales and wallabies, sunsets at Uluru and rainstorms over glaciers, eagles picking snakes from the desert sands with their bare claws. We ate alligator on a beach at sunset, rappelled into a cave alive with prehistoric insects. We returned sunburned and aching, but happy.
After twelve months it was a luxury to lie in our own bed again. Our home had waited patiently, undisturbed.
* * *
When we relocated to America we took our home with us. What we couldn’t sell or give away was packed into a crate, locked and loaded onto a ship bound for Pacific shores. Once again we were reduced to two bags. But the rest followed not far behind. What should have been comforting proved to be the opposite, our dislocation complete and irrevocable, our home drifting somewhere in the middle of the ocean, untethered. There is a comfort in knowing that you have a home to come back to. Our home had been dismantled and boxed, hauled onto an unnamed vessel, in the care of faceless men. Without it we were adrift.
The Pacific Northwest proved to be a welcoming host. We tarried five and half years on her shores, enjoying the company, the long summers, the bottomless wells of salmon. We became used to the hoppy IPAs, the rash of tattoos across half the populace. This became a home, of sorts. We were comfortable. We were in love. Eventually, we were loved in return. But in every comment on our accents, in every missed sporting reference, we knew that we did not belong. They were still unknown shores, no matter how beautiful. We were aliens in someone else’s home.
It was the birth of our son that turned our eyes back towards home. Our American son who reminded us of what it meant to be English. The urge to raise him in our own image proved too strong to resist. We began to plan again, to pack and to dismantle, to dislocate and relocate. To cast ourselves back out to sea.
* * *
238 parcels, packages, boxes and items of furniture. Four men. Two trucks. One home.
When our container arrives at the new house – seven weeks after we left America – it dominates the street. Neighbours are trapped in their driveways, children come to stare and point. We’re local celebrities in the worst way possible. I can’t imagine that anyone is glad to witness our chaotic arrival. I keep my head down, let the removals team soak up the attention. All I want is a quiet place to sit.
Our new neighbourhood is as close to home as I know. Familiarity surprises me hourly. The tiny bookshop where I bought Doctor Who novelizations is still there, as is the toy store that soaked up my weekly allowance. The fish and chip restaurant next door still wears the same signage two decades on. While buying a cup of coffee I spy a certificate thanking the cafe staff for their participation in the St. Matthew’s school fete. That same fete occupies some of my earliest memories. It was there that I won my first 7″ single, Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel’s ‘White Lines (Don’t Do It)’, and an Echo & the Bunnymen badge hidden inside a bubble gum wrapper. Excitement and obsession resonate through the years.
At the same time, this home has changed. Familiarity has become unfamiliar to me. There must be a German word for this feeling: the odd junction of the familiar and the strange, the discomfort felt when exposed to more home comforts than one is used to. There are new names and faces. Eastern Europe has come to England, filling the streets with Polish grocery stores and conversations in Bulgarian. The earlier immigrants — Indian, Pakistani, West Indian, Sri Lankan — now feel like old friends. The wild parkland where we once caught sticklebacks in jam jars has been tamed, its copses and ponds trimmed and prettified, circumnavigated by gravel paths. Fallen trees are now ornately carved benches. The wilds have been pushed back.
For twenty years I have defined myself as an outsider, someone who belongs somewhere else; now, I belong nowhere more than where I am. As I walk London’s streets, crossing the many bridges across the Thames, I’m conscious of the sweat and blood my ancestors have shed here, the dust of generations cemented in the foundations. I feel myself retracing the steps of my father, and my grandfathers, and my great-grandfathers. I breathe in London’s impure air, and – more than the grit and dust of the Australian desert, more than the crisp mornings of Edinburgh, more than the sea breezes that waft over Seattle – it feels right.
I am of here. I am home.