Life

Nuala McCann: Yes, I got lost in France but, more and more, there's no place like home

Swish out of a changing room in the local shop wearing a fancy new coat and somebody will sure as hell tell you if it does nothing for you

Slemish – looking up from the muddle of German and English and the dreaded Physics is Fun, I’d rest my eyes on my holy mountain

TIME moves at a slower rhythm in the place where I was born. It's true. It's been 40 years since I left, but driving down the Antrim line, my heart lifts a little at the Seven Towers sign.

On the last bit of motorway, take a sideways glance to see Slemish, a soft smudge of a hill on the horizon.

In the girls' back bedroom at home, looking up from the muddle of German and the English essay and the dreaded book called Physics is Fun, I'd rest my eyes on my holy mountain that was really only a hill.

I'd dream of distant lands and adventures; I'd sing Bonnie Tyler's Lost in France on the hairbrush.

Now, I swing the car up around the corner and into the driveway and ghosts linger on street corners.

Charlie from “up-the-builders” who taught us all kerbsie; big games of kick-the-tin on summer evenings; my father standing with the hedge clippers backlit by the setting sun; the time he pulled into the driveway in the brand new Volkswagen – my mother's face when she clocked that it was psychedelic orange. Pass the sunglasses, quick.

Sean the teenager down the street revved his motorbike dead hard and the little girl from up the street raced around our back when she heard it backfire and dived for cover under the forsythia bush.

At 18, I was busting to break free of small town life where everyone knew everyone and half the town was related to the other half.

We had our stories. They still talk about the night Liam Neeson took Robert de Niro for a drink in the Slemish bar.

But at 18, my friends and I were leaving. No Saturday night social in the Toll Bar could hold us down – no meringues and coffee after school, no small town life.

We were going far from the convent school and the skirt an inch below the knee, far from walking up the corridor in twos.

So I left... and 40 years later, home is where my heart roves. Now, I drive the car around the corner and smile at the thought of my father, emerging, proud as punch, from the bright orange Volkswagen. Ma grew to love it in time.

Now, I sweep into the driveway and the memories of long ago come flooding back.

The ghost of my father on the doorstep of a summer's evening calling us in, by our names, for tea.

The cherry tree that my mother planted has been pruned to bits; but it still spills pink petals on the driveway every spring.

The small rose she dug in was called Smile – and smiled up at you like a happy toddler.

We lugged seaweed and dried cow dung from the beaches of Donegal to make ma's garden grow.

On summer days, I'd drive home, get my small son out of the car and we'd go find granny, on her knees in the garden, in her old straw hat, hands deep in the soil. She made her own patch of paradise out the back – grew strawberries and bridal gladiola.

But time lurks in dark corners and robs us of what we had.

I love my old home more than ever now. All the small town things seem big to me. It's not so very small. There are two shopping centres and a new town hall and we even have an arts centre.

The rooms where I trundled for years for my elocution lessons are home to a hi-tech orthodontist. Plus ca change.

But folk still have time. The woman in the local cafe stops for a chat. Mum gets the armchair and the latte with chocolate and the woman tells us about her holidays in Kerry. Strangers tell us just what cake to try in the cafe.

Swish out of a changing room in the local shop wearing a fancy new coat and somebody will sure as hell tell you if it does nothing for you.

It's home because you can say to the shopkeeper “What's your best price for cash?” and you'll always get a little off.

It's home because the traffic warden is friendly.

Yes, I got lost in France, sauntered Unter den Linden and saw sunrise over a turquoise sea from a Greek Island.

But somewhere up beyond Crebilly is more beautiful still... and memories are golden and dappled as winter sunlight between the trees.

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Life