About a decade ago, I absentmindedly wandered into the Museum of Modern Art Oxford on a stroll. On that day, the gallery walls were hung with photographs of harshly backlit furniture. A Formica chest of drawers against a pink wall. A turquoise wardrobe against yellowing wallpaper. Odd, but not the strangest exhibition I’d seen there. Mainly out of a desire to postpone my inevitable return to the library, I mooched over to view the artist’s portrait and read the blurb explaining these stark images. The artist, it turned out, was from West Africa and was trying to communicate how it felt for him to return home after a long stretch of time abroad. He returned to discover that in the house once so familiar to him, he suddenly felt alienated. Ten years later, I can’t remember the artist’s name, his country or what he looked like but I think about that faceless man every time I return to my mother’s house, the place I still call home.
After four years as an expat, home has become complicated. Thousands of miles away, an island in the Maldives is where I spend the majority of the year. 500 metres squared, isolated and unlike any postcard of the Maldives you’ve ever seen, it’s a challenging place. England, home, is easy to idealise. Yet each time I return, it takes longer to be at home again.
Those first few moments last a long time, standing in the living room as mum puts the kettle on. The paintings on the walls are the same ones I overlooked as a teenager. Yet, now they draw my attention and remind me vaguely of a T.S Eliot line describing roses that have the demeanour of being looked at. Newly acquired furniture sits oddly amongst familiar pieces. An unknown telephone table protrudes in the room. As do I. I pause as a guest might in front of ancient photographs, arms folded. My suitcase unsettles the landscape. I no longer know where to hang my coat.
Nonetheless, home seeps in slowly. Putting the heating on, riffling through boxes in the garage, hearing the gruesome things that have been happening on Eastenders and proper cups of PG Tips with fresh milk. It takes a while, but home creeps into you like sleep. Those spotlights on the furniture begin to fade and the paintings recede into the walls once more. My faceless man retreats to the back of my mind for another year.
Home is no longer made up of tables and doors. Instead I’m reminded that home is attempting to refuse extra servings, answering the same question three times, assuring everyone that no, I’m definitely not cold.
Home is my mother, after all.
An edited version of this story appears in issue 23 of Oh Comely Magazine.