I’ve just been to France for 3 days, back to the village we left at the very start of this year after having lived there for 14 years. When we left, we had no home to go to. But we packed up and went because unless we were in the UK we simply couldn’t organise the new house, jobs and schools that we needed to. It was a leap of faith, and indeed it took weeks and months to get everything in place here. Meanwhile, despite having leapt, I was still tied to France, with a company still registered there, my house not sold, taxes, bills etc all still needing to be dealt with. When you’re an adult, it seems, burning bridges is a long, slow, time-consuming smoulder.
This week, right before Christmas, the time came to sign the final papers for the sale of the house. I could have gone alone, but it would have felt strange and lonely, and besides, the whole family wanted to see people we left behind there, so we went as a family. Our journey over started on a foggy Sunday morning in Bristol, and ended that evening, driving in the dark up winding French lanes that echoed with years of our footsteps, and those of the dogs that the girls knew their whole lives but are no longer with us. All of it so familiar and yet stripped, somehow, of its homeliness. The girls talk fondly of France, and have had time enough here for it to have already become an idyllic place in the past, and yet the closer we got, the stranger it felt.
When we finally got to the house and unlocked the door, the two girls ran upstairs, keen to go and see their old bedrooms, which they emptied and swept almost a year ago. When they got there they were puzzled. “That’s really weird,” they said. “It’s smaller than I remember it.” And “It doesn’t feel like my room anymore, it feels like a dream.”
I think they were learning, for the first time, that a house is not a home. Places are smaller than we remember them because we fill them with our lives, with all the memories tied up in our daily rituals and our personal affairs. If you take all of that away the walls shrink back to house-shape again, until someone new comes to make them into a new home.
But there was just one place in the house where we all felt a small pang of loss, where we had left something of ourselves that we couldn’t take with us. And so in one last little ceremony we did this, adding two last marks on the wall where we’d tracked the girls’ heights since they were old enough to stand up:
And then we locked up. Signed some papers. Handed over the keys and turned the page.
Driving back from Bristol last night, up through the fog, the turning point of the winter solstice seemed perfectly apposite. It’s so good to come home.*
*This Christmas in Britain alone, 120,000 children will have no home to come back to. To help them, please visit the Shelter website and donate.