Words and pictures: Melissa Harrison
Does everyone, as an adult, dream of their childhood home? Do we all revisit in sleep the first world we ever knew, seeing again its superficial features that were once such absolutes to us, and are still charged with all childhood’s intensity? I do. I dream that I visit the house I grew up in at night, and steal through its darkened rooms. In my dreams it is familiar in deep, kinetic ways, ways that are pre-verbal; and yet, I am always an interloper there.
I write this in Dorset where I am looking after a house belonging to friends, as I do every August. This is my fifth year here, which is enough time to have established routines, to have put down temporary roots of my own – but I have felt at home here since the very first time I visited. I don’t just mean that I’ve always felt welcome, though I know I am: my friends and I go back many years, and I am godparent to their youngest child. I mean something more than that; something to do with recognition. This house and garden feel to me, in some obscure, irrational way, like my childhood home.
I grew up in a big house. It had to be, given that I’m one of six children. My parents bought it not long before I was born, in the very early 1970s, back when an accountant on an ordinary salary could buy a large family house on a single income: how times have changed. Still, with so many mouths to feed money was very tight for a very long time, with nothing left over for new clothes or home improvements; and so the house was always what could kindly be described as ‘lived in’ – although ‘shabby’ might be closer to the mark. Still, it was generous and rambling, with a staircase that went around a corner and led to a galleried landing and corridor; there was a rickety veranda at the front, books in nearly every room, and a coal hole that was full of mice. It remained, until the very last day we lived there, in a state of gentle disrepair.
The house had a garden of about a third of an acre, with three veteran cooking-apple trees, great for climbing, a huge weeping willow whose dangling branches formed a curtain behind which I established my secret camp, and at the far end an old air raid shelter, not ours, on whose roof my older sisters sometimes sunbathed. In our weedy lawn were sunk little cups into which my brother putted golf balls inexpertly, and in summer we would put up a old sagging badminton net. Full of places to play unsupervised, it was my kingdom, and when, at 11, with all my siblings bar one long gone, I overheard my mum and dad discussing moving to a smaller house, I ran to my camp, pulled the branch across that meant that the ‘door’ was ‘locked’, and sobbed.
My parents bought an ugly chalet-bungalow less than half a mile away; it is where my father still lives now. I started secondary school, where the bullying that had begun in primary school intensified; my last remaining sister left home and I lived out my lonely and troubled adolescence with mum and dad, who were both in their fifties at that point, and then their sixties. I never belonged in that house as I had in our old one; nor did I belong at school. I felt from that point – I suppose I still feel – cast out.
Until I left home at 18 to go to university I would often have to walk past my ‘real’ home, the home of my childhood, and I would glance at it sidelong and try to understand how it could be that another family lived there now. They had taken down the old wooden shutters from the windows at the front, making the house look bald to my eyes; they got rid of the veranda, and they cut down the snowball tree in the front garden that had been planted to mark my birth.
My friends’ lovely Dorset house is nothing like the house I grew up in – and neither is its huge garden, or the surrounding village. This house is much older, and stone-built; it has beams, a huge kitchen, and an attic with a bedroom, bathroom and study in it, rather than colonies of bats and rotting steamer trunks full of late-Victorian clothes. Most importantly, despite being a family home, it is comfortably elegant, not shabby; doubtless with two children rather than six that’s easier to achieve. There are similarities – a galleried landing, a coal bunker, some old apple trees, the generosity of both house and garden – but these are superficial. Wherever the sense of familiarity I have derives from (and perhaps it is to do with the way my friends live in the house, too; the balance between indoor and outdoor) my connection to it runs deeper than mere details.
I’ve written about coming here for Caught By The River before. I’ve talked about the river, Shreen Water, that meanders along at the end of the garden, and the orchard, and the kingfishers and water voles; the courgettes and eggs that every year threaten to overwhelm me, and the surrounding fields I only ever see in August: spent and tussocky, adrift with sheep shit and wool and ink-black crow feathers. Every year my stay here is comfortingly the same, yet interestingly different: there was the time the river rose and I had to rescue the chickens in the middle of the night; the time part of the conservatory roof blew off in a gale; the time when I was walking the family’s dog and saw a boy land a brown trout with just a bit of bread; the time a friend visited with her daughter, who promptly fell in the river (I hauled her out). These memories have been formed while my friends were in absentia: they may be trivial, but they are pages in the long history of this house that belong to me, and are not shared with its current owners.
This isn’t my home: I know that. And at the end of the fortnight I’ll be itching to get back to Streatham: to the flat I’ve rented for a decade and its little garden, to my husband and my dog. Nor do I want to move to Dorset; it’s beautiful, but I’m not ready to be this far from London yet. But coming here – and being alone here for a while – gives me something mysterious but fundamental, something far beyond just a bucolic writing break. It hasn’t escaped my notice that the only periods in which I never dream about my childhood home are the two weeks each August when I’m here.