You can’t go home again.
As I learned the hard way when I re-visited my first childhood house, some 26 years later.
I’d driven past it many times.
“This is where Mommy grew up,“ I told the boys.
“Can we go home now?” they pleaded, as they interrupted my tales of Grifters and ackee 1-2-3.
I’d often imagined walking around the three bed semi as an adult, both out of nostalgia and curiosity.
When I saw it was for sale I had to view it. The house was calling me.
I felt a child-like excitement. And nervousness.
Would it be as I remembered?
I had a vivid picture of how the house should look, gleaned from photographs and memories.
Ok, so now it had all mod cons that we could only have dreamt of, like central heating and double glazing, but would there be any remnants from 1973-1986, like a Blue Peter style time capsule bursting with half pence pieces and Angel Delight?
Would I feel an instant connection to a warm and familiar place?
Pulling up outside that winter’s night, I felt a sense of trepidation. Not only because I wasn’t a legitimate viewer, but because of what awaited.
I had built this up to mythical proportions, to the extent where I expected my mother to answer the door in a Perdy do and bell bottoms, holding a cup of Mellow Birds.
This suburban crescent - now littered with cars - was once clear enough for Mom’s rusty Triumph Herald to go careering down one icy morning.
It was safe enough for a bereft infant to toddle along as the wind blew her favourite sun hat out of her grasp forever.
Now I was back outside number 16 in a woolly winter hat, to cover up my roots.
“Come in,” said the woman, ushering me into the bare hallway
Who are you and why are you opening my front door?
“Did the agent explain it is a bit of a project?” she joked.
No - this house was my mother’s pride and joy. It was immaculate when we left.
My heart pumped rapidly and I felt giddy as we walked upstairs.
First, my parents’ chintzy room. Once so large I would sleep alongside Mom and Dad’s Divan on a zed bed when we had guests. Now so small and unrecognisable. The fashionable built in MFI wardrobes where presents were stashed (and secretly unwrapped then re-wrapped by me) now ripped out.
I paused outside my brother’s box room, expecting to hear the sound of a Spectrum game failing to load. But inside, the Aston Villa pictures had been replaced with DJ posters and the captain’s cabin bed was now a gaming zone.
Finally, my cosy room, where I had played with Sindys and Care Bears, and listened to Nan’s bedtime stories. I looked up for a hole in the ceiling where Dad’s leg had broken through the polystyrene tiles - cartoon style - during a mission to the loft.
Maybe if I peeled back the purple EMO wallpaper there would be a trace of my Pierot décor.
But it was beyond recognition.
Ironically, the only room that seemed familiar was the bathroom, with the same pale pink suite, minus the scent of Dad’s Aramis and the Fairy Liquid that doubled up as bubble bath. Fortunately the dermatitis hasn’t lasted.
The once through lounge had reverted back to two rooms. No red velvet wallpaper with matching curtains, pelmets and tie backs, just magnolia, plasterboard and neutrals.
The three bar fire where I would huddle as my hair dried was now an exposed hearth decorated with plastic flowers. The brown TV that sent me running behind the sofa when the Dr Who music came on, was now a flat screened, HD giant.
“When we moved in 12 years ago this room was completely artexed. We had to take it off by hand,” the owner revealed, aghast.
Ha! One last remnant of my parents’ 80s interior design. Refusing to go without a fight.
I had not expected musical layouts.
Our psychedelic purple and orange kitchen - home to countless Vesta meals and Tupperware bowls - was now a stark, make shift dining room and the back door was boarded up.
The kitchen had moved into the dining area of the once through lounge. A sink sat propped up where my piano had been; unfitted units were balanced in the spot where the record player sideboard had resided and where I had spent hours singing along to my brother’s gatefold Grease album. We now stood where the dining table had lived - the heart of so many Christmas dinners and birthday parties.
Not in Kansas anymore
I felt like a stranger in my own home.
What have they done to you?
This neglected and debased shell did not look like my happy, loving childhood home.
Now it was the sad and lonely set of a family breaking up. yet I had so much love to give it.
Our break-up home came later. But once, here, we felt solid, like these four walls.
In the night garden
A lack of night vision and minus temperatures didn’t stop me dragging the vendor outside.
Dad’s luscious green lawn had been churned up for vegetable patches. His rockery and rose garden long since removed. I was pleased to hear the damson tree still flourished.
I wish it was light. And warm.
So I could picture my puppy Sacha bounding up, or feel the molten 70s sun as my cousins and I splashed endlessly in the paddling pool while our moms sunbathed doused in Crisp and Dry.
The garage, the scene of many a Halloween party - hadn’t altered.
There it was - the dark, cobwebbed mechanic’s pit that Dad had ear-marked as our fallout shelter in the event of a nuclear strike. It petrified me as a child.
The drive where Dad propelled me on a stabiliser free bike and I felt that first joy of riding - and falling off.
Back inside I had the chance to walk around on my own, looking for clues - perhaps some initials carved into a mahogany sideboard or height chart marks on the door. Nothing, not even an old copy of Look-in.
Jumpers for goalposts
As a child we knew nearly everybody in our part of the road. There was always somebody to play knock and run with or to cycle to the shops alongside for a Tip Top.
Today, I barely acknowledge my neighbours and playing out the front, let alone roaming the streets, is strictly off limits.
I recalled the net twitching Joyce and Ted, shooing my brother and me off their half of the shared front lawn. Still, they were pensioners and we were rumbustious kids.
That’s why it floored me when the vendor said:
“The neighbours are lovely. There’s Joyce…” I waited, but there was no “and” anymore.
I pulled down my hat and hoped the seemingly timeless old lady wouldn’t recognise the grown up girl, and out me as a bogus buyer.
One last look at the house and the road, once lined with tables and strewn with bunting for the Silver Jubilee. But no moustached Dad and the other male neighbours cross dressing as women today, in name of Queen and country.
Back to the future
Crestfallen, I headed back, lamenting my childhood.
What did I expect, a never evolving household frozen in time, like an episode of Tales of the Unexpected?
There was too much emotion and high hopes cemented in those bricks.
My family’s time in the house is gone, but our hearts and heads can return whenever they like.
I opened my front door to where my children were waiting.