‘HOME’ MAY BE WHERE THE HEART IS, but where does that leave ‘home home?’
I live in Belfast, but I am not from Belfast. I moved here at eighteen, just shy of thirty years ago, to attend Queens. I grew up in Carnlough – Glencloy, Glen of the Hedges – on the Antrim Coast. Or ‘sleepy coastal resort Carnlough,’ to give it the full title it invariably attracts on those rarest of occasions when it briefly breaches the national consciousness. In Carnlough, as in all small villages, stories are currency – family anecdotes, local lore, legendary figures from its long history, and of course idle gossip.
When I moved to Belfast in autumn 1985, it was only the third time I had ever been to the city. I had never seen a British soldier in the flesh, although freakishly I had watched a man bleed to death yards from my house in Carnlough, the victim of a result of political assassination, and the solitary occasion on which The Troubles impinged on our sleepy coastal resort.
Belfast in 1985 was like a parallel universe. There was the security situation, obviously – the gated city centre, random and frequent bag and car searches, heavily armed soldiers and policemen cheek by jowl with citizens going about their daily business. But the most unsettling aspect of my new city life was one I had not anticipated: it was that the people didn’t seem to talk to one another. Certainly not in any sort of shared space, where provenance was uncertain and the avoidance of unwitting disclosure paramount. “They don’t talk to one another” I thought. “What do they do with all their stories?”
A few months into my new Belfast life I was on a bus to a friend’s house when I tuned into a conversation behind me, a discussion between two women. It is perhaps simplest if I reproduce it here, as best I can, given the vagaries of memory and my storyteller’s instinct to edit, hone and polish:
– Jeez, I haven’t seen you in ages, M. How are you? How’s the family? And John – how’s your John?
– Sure he left me, so he did.
– He did not. I didn’t hear that.
– Aye, he took up with some woman he met when he was in drying out. An English woman. He left me and went over there to live with her.
– Oh God, M, I’m sorry love. I didn’t know. He was never that good to you really though, was he? God forgive me. It’s probably for the best. In the long run.
– I swear, T, I couldn’t cope when he left, for all that. I cried and I cried. I thought I was never going to stop. I cried myself sore for weeks and weeks and weeks. I just couldn’t stop.
– I’m sure you did, M, I’m sure you did.
– But then I won £80 on the bingo, so…
– Ah well then, eighty pound sure.
– Aye, eighty pound.
And so that was the price of the faithless, feckless husband: eighty pounds. As odd as it seemed, I knew in that moment that Belfast would do just fine as my new home. It would never be ‘home home,’ to use that peculiar tautological distinction – that would always be Carnlough – but Belfast would at least be ‘home.’
And so now I live in Belfast, where we may not tell our stories straight away. But be patient, because when we do, they’re usually worth hearing.