The run up to Christmas and I’m off again, heading north with that familiar sensation of being pulled two ways: am I approaching home, or leaving it behind? My taxi driver knows where I’m coming from. A Romanian living in Arbury, he’s happy there, but it’s not the same as Romania, he says, you know, the feeling. He holds his hand to his heart. He has no plans to travel there for Christmas though there’s still time to arrange something; or he could go somewhere else, Mexico maybe.
It’s an old preoccupation of mine, and one that’s been uppermost in my mind for a while as I’ve tried various ways to stay in my lovely Cambridge home (ah!) where I’ve been contentedly settled for more than four years. I’ve dipped my toe in the lodger pool with varying degrees of discomfort, and surprised myself by finding my last guest a pleasure to have around. The previous one brought enough luggage for an entire family; in fact, I was on first-name terms with several of his relatives by the time he left, and at moments was worried I might show up one evening to find they’d all moved in. Several times I’ve come close to giving up, trawling the Rightmove and Zoopla lists and trailing round the smart and overpriced and the downright grotty, which of course are overpriced too. I’ve even followed the advice of well-wishers and with a rather bad grace put my name down for sheltered accommodation – I can’t decide if the term ‘alms-houses’ included in their mission statement is more or less chilling – run by a local charity for Cambridge women over sixty, in straitened circumstances. If only my Cumbrian house were an earner rather than a drain on my already pretty empty purse!
I don’t know why it took me so long to think of Gumtree, which has been perfectly serviceable when it comes to beds or bikes. In the space of a week I’ve fielded enquiries from would-be chicken farmers and horse dealers, gardeners and vegetable-growers, a couple with ‘one small dog, never any trouble’; and a full page of a disjointed life story, hovering somewhere between comedy and tragedy. What they all have in common is the search for a new home. The latest, arriving this morning, comes from a man who wants permission to lay a wooden floor. My most likely prospective tenants I dismissed out of hand on account of a name so improbable I thought it was a spoof. They are driving down from the Scottish Highlands tomorrow with their deposit. If all goes according to plan, they will have moved in before Christmas.
By the time the train passes through Wigan, Cambridge’s clear skies and full sun have been replaced by dull grey cloud though no sign yet of the promised severe weather. I watch the streets recede, trying to catch some sense of my parents’ footsteps on the pavements of the town where they grew up and where I started life. For both of them, childhood was somewhere to escape from, their adult lives a sustained endeavour to create a better life for themselves and their children. Why not? The same impulse is explored in John Crowley’s recent film ‘Brooklyn’, adapted by Nick Hornby from the novel by Colm Toibín, which I saw for a second time on Monday morning. Which in itself felt like an indulgence until, just minutes in, I realised I was watching a master class in story-telling, each development delicately handled with just enough detail to engage the audience before moving on. The narrative opens with a long shot of the dark streets of Enniscorthy, where Toibín himself grew up. By the time Sunday mass is over, the stifling confines of life in the small town are palpable, the opportunity for Eilis to travel to New York for a new life, as Toibín did, a relief but also a wrench. Eilis’s journey allows us to experience the terrible dislocation of leaving home and the acute pain of homesickness. Still, it is a better life, as we are reminded in the moving sequence where Eilis volunteers at a church-run Christmas dinner. As the men file in, the priest explains: these are the men, all Irish, who built the tunnels and the bridges. But there’s nothing for them now. ‘So why don’t they go home?’ Eilis asks. Of course there’s nothing for them there either. For Eilis too, it’s a less than straightforward trade. Returning to Ireland after the sudden death of her sister, she is quickly drawn back towards the old life. But things have changed. And she has changed too, at home in both places and neither. It’s a remarkable film, too hastily dismissed by some as a sentimental love story. It reminds us how closely our identity is tied up with place. If you haven’t seen it, do.
Between Lancaster and Penrith (my early years in Carnforth inching nearer to my twenty adult years in north-east Cumbria just before relocating – horrible word! – to Cambridge) the cloud thickens in tune with my mood. Visibility shrinks. Rain flecks the windows. Swathes of standing water in the fields remind me that I’m nearing the parts of the county reeling from the effects of Storm Desmond. Earlier in the week on TV news, I see a man wiping away tears as he faces the ruin of his home by flood waters for the second time. A woman streets away wades through her downstairs rooms, refusing to leave: ‘It’s my home,’ she says. ‘This is not going to beat me.’ A message from my son’s father, living now in the Eden valley: ‘So sick of dark waters’. I remember his near-despair, echoing the distress felt by the county’s victims of foot-and-mouth in 2001, tempered only by the spirit and courage of the people amongst whom he’s made his home. I scan my bookshelves until I find Heart and Soul, the personal stories of the agonies shared then by the farming community, and reread Gord’s contribution. Then the terrible floods of 2005, more floods in 2010, and now these, one knock after another for a community already on its knees. Our son Jack, born-and-bred Cumbrian now living like his mum in Cambridge, describes the latest blow as ‘savage’. One explanation: the amount of rain – more than 30 centimetres, the equivalent of a month’s rain in a 24-hour period – was simply too much even for the new multi-million pound flood defences. There is more to it than this, though. Whilst we are beginning to take on board the devastating impact of deforestation in the Amazon, we are less keen to recognise similar forces at play here. George Monbiot suggests that government policies which keep Cumbria’s hills ‘treeless’ for grazing sheep and support river-dredging to protect farmland actively contribute to the problem.
Almost in Penrith. I pause to collect my luggage, a backpack so enormous it’s barely manageable and an even heavier bag of food, thinking of houses where groceries and clothes are swimming in filthy water, and of other journeys made in haste, driven by necessity or fear, taking nothing, or losing all you have taken on the way. In Emily Dugan’s Finding Home I read about Clive from Harare. He arrived in the UK in 2008 without passport or visa, having paid almost everything he could raise to traffickers for his voyage: South Africa first, then 14 days or so in the hold of a cargo ship to Calais, and finally in the back of a truck amongst boxes and pallets to Dover, and on to London. His application for asylum is rejected. He spends much of his time homeless. Three attempts to return to Zimbabwe fail. Now, he is still waiting, Dugan says, ‘hoping an opportunity to create a real home –in either country – will present itself’. I’m reminded of Clive and those like him whom I met in Calais as the train pulls into Carlisle. There as here, no sign of the desperate scenes so familiar from the media, without which you wouldn’t know anything was amiss.
I have half an hour to wait for the connection to Brampton. The station is shrill with starlings, lined up in their hundreds – thousands, perhaps – along the metal beams below the roof, jostling and screaming as they find a place to perch. Do they return to the same spot night after night, or fight for a new roost each evening? And what of those other migrants, cuckoos and geese and raptors, who travel thousands of miles twice a year, without luggage? By the time my heavy bag and I arrive in Hallbankgate, it’s pitch dark and pouring and somehow I have the wrong key so have to break in. For the week that I’m there the weather stays mean – gales and driving snow on the second afternoon, and everything frozen the following morning – and a leaky washing machine has created my own private flood, leaving half the kitchen floor a pulpy mess. Perhaps not surprising that my Highlanders decide they’re not so keen after all. I begin by tackling the most pressing of the jobs, and before I know it I’ve embarked on a full-scale repainting. No time to walk so no photos to speak of; a few friends squeezed into the spaces between coats; the week almost over. I despair of finding a tenant. Then, on the last day, a couple whose Carlisle house has been flooded seem relieved to find a temporary home for themselves and their Wheaten Terrier Molly. I’m hugely relieved too. I join the crowd in the bar of The Belted for carols round the pool table. The massive TV in the corner stays on, images of Cameron alternating with shots of flooded streets as we sing. Next to me, Jackie bellows out the descant. A small girl in a pink party frock, white ankle socks, white peep-toe sandals, dances. Sara and Erin play the flute; Sexy Ed the vicar on the fiddle; Stella sings a solo, the first verse of Silent Night, in German, as she does every year. It’s not smart, and it’s not Cambridge. But a part of me belongs here also: for the time being at least, I have the double security of two homes, in a world where so many have none.
As Writer in Residence, thoughts from the garden