My parents do not come up to London anymore, though it is less than 90 minutes from where they live. They used to have a vibrant life here. My mother would always be there on the first day of the Chelsea Flower Show with her big hat on, and went to museums, galleries and operas. We had a big party at the Serpentine Gallery for my children’s christenings. We did so much here, once upon a time. Now, my parents rarely venture out of the sleepy little Hampshire town that they call home. I think the bustle and the fast-paced city life became too much for them.
I couldn’t lure them up to London, I had to go home.
Home is Portsmouth, where I spent some of the happiest years of my life. I have such a huge emotional investment in this town, yet most my life is in London. There always seem to be 101 things I had to do that are London-based, such as buy a hat, go to the Passport office, meet up with a friend, medical check-up, family business. It does seem like a chore, an obligation, to make the trek home.
It shouldn’t be. It should never be.
When the train pulled into Portsmouth Harbour, my parents were standing there on the platform. They stood there side by side, married for 52 years against the odds, radiant smiles on their faces. It hit me with a sudden pang that they have aged in the last few years: my father still carries his proud bearing but his ramrod-straight back is now stooped and my mother is visibly slower on her feet. But it didn’t seem that long ago that my mother was taking my many children to the town square, indulging them, running after them energetically.
And it didn’t seem all that long ago, too, that she drove all the way to Chichester to fetch my younger brother and I home at some ungodly hour of the morning, after we had too much to drink. That night, as we hovered on the cusp of alcoholic poisoning, my mother sat up with us, patiently urging us to drink water all night long, holding our heads up when we vomited into the washing up bowl that she unflinchingly held. Oh Mummy, how you proved your love that night!
And again in 2001, when I received the shock diagnosis that I had 2nd/3rd stage cervical cancer. My first impulse, which I followed, was to run straight home. I left my children’s father and took my children home to this sleepy little town that I couldn’t wait to leave when I was a restless teen. My children and I moved into a house 100 metres from my parents’ home. Here, my family nursed me back to health, and paradoxically, it was some of the most precious times for us, despite my illness. During that time, my mother nurtured me once more with her imitable devotion. My father and I found time to have deep philosophical discussions, which were the missing pieces in my early life. My brother looked in on me every evening after work. My nephew and niece became my own children, and they rallied round my children. My new best friends were Mrs. Tomlinson and Mrs. Foster, both in their eighties then, who provided the warm, gentle company I so badly needed then. I opted out of ‘real’ life in London to come back here, only for me to question myself, what is real life? A glittering existence in the exciting capital, peopled by folks who make the news, paying exorbitant prices for a pint of milk, or this sweet and unchanging life in this hamlet, my hometown, where my parents still live? Where will I choose to be, as the years close in on me? Would I wish to spend my final years at dinner parties with friends, or would I go for long walks along the seafront, remembering the days when I was still young, when my parents were still here?
I think of the sunny kitchen in my mum’s house, where I used to sit at the table doing my homework whilst she cooked with a big smile always on her face. How much she loved us, and food was her way of showing her love. I know she would have been cooking all morning, anticipating my return.
As my train slowly trundled past the stations on the way home, I felt a strong sense of homecoming. All my early life, my roots, came back to me, most notably, taking the train to school everyday with my younger brother.
“Darling,” my father said formally, but there is such a wealth of love in that one word.
“Oh, look at you!” My mum enthused, enveloping me into her arms, the only place I have ever felt truly safe in. “You don’t look a day older than when you were a schoolgirl!”