Travelling Home

Paul McVeigh

(Northern Ireland)

I’ve moved back to Belfast, Northern Ireland. I left the family home for good when I was 19, left my city then too and eventually Northern Ireland altogether at 25. I knew I’d never go back. 20 odd years later I’ve returned home to live. OK, so, I’ve changed my mind—it’s allowed in some countries.

I grew up during a period known as The Troubles – a rather tame name to give a war between two communities that involved armed paramilitaries and the British Army. This period saw an endless list of atrocities inflicted on both communities lasting nearly three decades. Generations of children growing up in fear. Poor communities were kept apart ghettoised, walled and barricaded in, so that they turned on themselves too. It was brutal and brutalising.

As a boy, my all-consuming desire was to leave home, as soon as possible, and get as far away as I could. I wanted to travel, to see the world, to find people who were like me—people who wanted to live in peace, letting others live how they wanted and treat them as equals. I had images of myself in foreign climes writing about my experiences.

I have travelled and lived in other countries but this is my first travel article. It’s ironic that I’m writing it back in Belfast and the subject matter is going home.

Home, for me, is as complicated a reality as it is a concept. And vaguer now than ever. I am living alone in my parent’s house. It’s a stretch to call it my family home because most of us had moved out by the time my parents had bought it (the first they owned) and it’s not where we kids grew up. The tiny, terraced house, in the ghetto I grew up in, has gone. New, bigger, smarter houses, set back from the road, have taken its place.

So if it is not the house, home surely is the people. My father died over a decade ago. My mother has gone too; though her body remains, she has left what was the home of her and someone else now lives in there. The early years of dementia allowed the occasional flashes of her to appear like she had remembered herself, like I was remembering her. Or maybe she left her home and went travelling, coming back to visit occasionally.

In the long middle years my mother left completely. With her went her words, but what remained was someone who looked like her. In these final stages of the illness her body has finally mirrored her mind and diminished unrecognisably. For years, I’ve treated this person as I would have my mother. It is only now that her body is deteriorating and she doesn’t look like my mother, that I’ve started to see this new person as a person in her own right, not the personification of an illness and my not mother. I don’t know what this will mean in the dreaded days to come.

I had got used to the new house where my parents lived. After all, they were there. I would stay here when I travelled home; siblings and their families visited. All that’s changed now.

My parents’ house is big, old, damp, with dodgy electrics, overgrown gardens back and front, with foliage in the guttering. Every time I turn the shower on fat spades of water thrust from cracked pipes and slap the chipped-tiled yard below. Water seeps from the tiny stream at the back of the garden, making the grass soggy, advancing towards the house. A few weeks in I had the heating fixed to have hot water to wash and in the hope it would erase or, at least, arrest, the damp patches climbing the living room walls like some 1950’s b-movie alien organism.

The rooms are mostly empty apart from some random pieces of furniture. Some rooms have the strange acoustics of empty spaces, as though their warped sounds are a lonely cry for attention: I am here, they say, hear that I am empty and unfulfilled.

Still, I am enjoying being here. Since returning I’ve felt freer than I have done for years. Lighter and happier. But something is stirring the silt at the bottom of the lake. Maybe something I’m using to propel myself through the water. Or maybe something that lives down there. Something dormant that has been disturbed by  my return.

The only thing that is getting to me is the weather. It is the epitome of frustration. OK, so everyone jokes, four seasons in a day—try an hour! That’s when it’s not just the default setting of Belfast summer = belligerent early winter. In the first weeks here, June mind, it rained every single day. Not constant rain, as there would be infuriatingly beautiful hours when the sun worked full-pelt, as if, trying to make up for its grumpy siblings—rain, wind and cloud—while they, exhausted, took short breaks. Then July came and was welcomed with two days when hail showers decided to pop over for a visit and came a-sprinkling on us like spiteful fairy dust.

Also, there’s the low sky. I never seen anywhere else like it. It feels like it’s pressing down on you. The weather and the elements have already begun to drive me crazy and I wonder what effect it has on the psychology of the people.

But don’t you remember it was like this? I was asked, yesterday. No, I don’t. Home is more imagined than real. It’s somewhere that is both personal and political. Wrapped up in my memories of a life lived in fear. Home was not a safe space.

Today I decide to walk to visit my mother, not a simple thing in this city. There are invisible borders that are dangerous to cross. As I walk through the colourless streets of Ardoyne I am struck by the silence. As a boy, I would have seen streets full of kids playing, especially during the summer holidays. Now, only the occasional child passes, on their way somewhere, not playing. No army patrols, Saracens and police jeeps, no riots, bin lids booming to warn IRA to hide from raids—no helicopters! Like a sleepy suburb. I suspect this also has something to do with our times: children are no longer reared on the streets and play is now a personal, rather than social, pastime.

Crossing the Ardoyne Road into the Protestant Twaddell area I saw the Union Jack flags fly. Where there are no barricades, flags will tell you when you are entering a Catholic or Protestant area. Here there has been a permanent protest – an argument about where a band can march. We heard this week this protest will finally stop after 3 years and a cost of £21 million. And today a little bit of history has been made. The Crumlin Road peace wall facing here, erected in 1969 to keep Protestants and Catholics apart, has been demolished. Belfast continues to move forward. I want to move forward too.

It is still a scary thing to do, to walk down this street. It is my first time. Though it’s only minutes from my house it was always a no-go area for me. I am frightened and do not feel safe, but I want to be able to walk through this area to get to see my mother rather than get taxis. Even my local taxis drivers are nervous to go down this road – the only route through – as their company name denotes their religion and they could be attacked.

The houses look just like ours on the other side, only the flags are different. We all have similar homes. Arriving at the nursing home safe and sound I think how strange it is that the place my mother resides is called a home. I can’t help seeing home everywhere.

Paul McVeigh

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Wandering Editor for Panorama.