This is part two of the story of ‘Why I Came Home’. Part One here.
8th September, 2011.
Birmingham. I can hardly believe I’m here. Still at the airport, I order a coffee and get my laptop out. After the thimble-sized cups of strong powdery Turkish gloop I’m used to, the soya latte I’ve ordered seems like the biggest coffee imaginable.
I can’t go to Dad yet. Gill has to clean the house first and apparently this will take three weeks. Dad says she is very house-proud. I don’t know what to say to this, so I swallow the news and make a list of things to be getting on with in the meantime.
Mum is stunned to receive a phone-call from me at 8am on a Thursday morning. I ask casually where she is right now and look at the map on my laptop. “That’s only a few kilometres from here – did you have breakfast yet? Wait for me – I’ll be there in half an hour…”
I wait for a bus. The hunger pangs cut deeper now I know breakfast is imminent. I’m still regretting not eating the egg roll they offered me on the plane. The dark clouds sway open and sunlight hits the pavement. Oh my god, I’m in England.
Half an hour later I’m there in front of her. She had no idea I was coming back and I had no idea she would be, on this very morning, in a small village close to Birmingham airport. She introduces me to
her friends with watery eyes: the staff of the inn she stays at while her partner is working in the area. She persuades them to give me all the vegan items in the fried breakfast for free, with orange juice and a coffee each while we catch up. There’s only one problem: Dad doesn’t want her to know he’s sick. What am I supposed to tell her?
I make an excuse about visa issues. It’s partially true. Now I’m back in the UK I can apply for a Pakistan Visa, meaning a straight run to India when I next get on my way. I spend a night at the Swan Inn, my room generously paid for by Mum. When I close the door to the room, I find myself alone in an enclosed space for the first time in days. Relief floods through me as I stretch out on the bed and gaze at the ceiling. Tomorrow I will hitch-hike to Brighton – the only place I’ve called ‘home’ for the whole of my adult life.
It’s a sunny start to autumn in the South-East, gold leaves glinting in the sun. Mushrooms swelling under hedgerows tell a different story about late summer, before I came home. My last lift drops me on Ditchling Road, where a familiar face greets me within seconds – “Jo! What are you doing back here? I thought you were halfway around the world!”
Beyond the colour and bustle of the Lanes, seagulls squawk and dive above the waves on Brighton Beach. Sunlight glints off white Edwardian houses, despite the sting of salty cold air. Everything is the same and different when you return home from a long journey. It’s hard to know which is the more astonishing.
The days pass. I reacquaint myself with England, seeing it almost through foreigner’s eyes. I’m astonished to discover that I quite like London. It’s the most diverse and multi-cultural city I’m sure I’ve ever been to, yet somehow I never noticed before now. Has it changed? Have I changed?
Finally, I’m thumbing up to Scotland and on the ferry to Bute – on my way to see Dad and his family. The boat’s blue and white flag flaps and flutters as the island draws closer: a hilly place, rising up from the Firth of Clyde. The sky reminds me of Scandinavia: silver-grey clouds and mist. White birds with black wing-tips glide and soar among delinquent seagulls. No wing-flapping required – just lift and glide.
A text message from Dad: ‘Gill will meet you from the boat’. I disembark and look around as people slowly scatter. A horn honk-honks over the car park. There are two children outside a car and a big round face inside waving and grinning. I walk over slowly, still hesitant. The little girl is waving and smiling, full of beans. I hug her. Sister, I think. The word seems impossible.
There he is at the house: a mammoth of a man, ginger hair now barely visible amongst the grey. He’s aged a lot since I last saw him. “Hello”, he grins with his big bushy beard. I grin back and give him a bear-sized hug. He has a good look at me – “Is this what they’re wearing in Turkey? You’re looking very ‘ethnic.'” I shrug. “It’s what I wear in Turkey.”
Gill is positive and upbeat, chattering endlessly about all of the things I can do to keep busy while I’m there. I nod and smile. I have plenty of writing to get on with and I’ve come to spend time with Dad – weeding the garden with Gill is not on my to-do list. I set up my laptop in Dad’s office in the second house, which joins onto the main one. They call this house “the other side”. I perch on a stool at the smaller desk with my little netbook while Dad zooms about the room on his black office chair, accessing four screens at once.
Gill bursts into the computer room, disrupting our sanctuary. “I’m not going to beat around the bush. This is a big step for me! I’ve had a lot to cope with in a very short space of time…” I listen in restrained silence with what I hope is a poker face, grateful for each and every meditation class I have taken.
Conversations over dinner: “Your father could fart for England!” I know, I want to tell her, I lived with him fourteen years before you met him. “We’re a very dysfunctional family”, she chortles. I know, I tell her silently, I’m part of it.
In the computer room, dad is singing. He sings old leftist folk songs of working class struggle and epic ballads that rumble on for twenty-four verses. I used to hate Dad’s singing. Now, I could watch him for hours. “I can never sing this one without crying”, he tells me. I watch tears well and drop down his cheeks, wishing I had thought to film it.
Gill is going away for a whole day and night, leaving Dad and I alone. I am quietly overjoyed. Dad is under strict instructions not to drive, but she might as well cut off his legs. He vrooms down the drive at speed with me belted firmly into the front seat. We’re going to the supermarket.
“Put whatever you want in the trolley – I mean it – anything you want!” I wander the aisles, picking out humous and peanut butter, coffee and soya milk. When I get back to the trolley, Dad is piling in mountains of chocolate: multi-packs of Mars Bars, tiramasu, keylime pies, four types of hot chocolate, chocolate spread… “Dad, do you not worry about your diet?” “What do you mean? I’ve got main meals too.” He indicates a stack of ‘haggis and neeps’ microwave meals at the back of the trolley.
Tomorrow I’m going back to the mainland. I tell Dad I’ve amended my plans – only as far as India, then back to see him again. “In the spring”, I say. “I reckon I can hang on til then”, he grins. He’s anxious I don’t ‘derail my plans’ for him.
Gill is snoring in front of the telly, sewing on her lap. Dad is asleep on the other sofa, tea in one hand; Baileys liqueur cream in the other, resting on his belly. His legs extend in front of him: bloated jellyfish with craggy toenails, resting on pouffe. My brother – “half-brother”, he corrects me – recites the script of Aliens along with the flickering TV. The card game never happened. I want nothing more but to curl up next to Dad and rest my head in his lap like when I was small. Instead I stare at the flickering TV, wondering what I’m afraid of.
In the morning I squeeze my sister, give Dad a hug and get in the car with Gill, who is also heading to the mainland. The half-brother mumbles goodbye from his room. We drive to Rothesay and sit on the plastic yellow chairs, waiting for the boat.
“Thanks for telling me”, I tell her, “Thanks for telling me about the cancer. Thanks for letting me come.”
“You need to prepare yourself.” She looks at me hard. “When they did the x-ray, I asked to see it. I needed to. There’s three of ’em.” She holds up three fingers, counts them off: “One the size of a hazelnut, one like a walnut, and the other’s a fucking golf ball.”
I hug her before she trundles off the train with her strawberry red shopping trolley – tears visible, but just held back. She agrees to text an update every Saturday, whatever happens. Her last words: “You’re welcome any time”. It’s the first time we’ve hugged since I was fifteen.