Nuala McCann: I'm shy now about coming out of my shell. The world is frightening
How strange to go to your old family home and not darken the door. How strange that there is no place for hugs
THE car is a foreign space. Dust has gathered on the dashboard, crumbs are scattered on the floors. If I turn quickly, I might catch Miss Havisham – faded lace and cobwebs – loitering on the back seat.
The car and I haven't been out in four months – but it feels like a lifetime. The car sat at the front door like a small dog playing Greyfriars Bobby. She waited patiently for her mistress to appear; cocking an ear for the creak of a squeaky gate opening and the click of a key in the ignition.
After four months separation, our car does not let me down. She turns over first time but it takes a while to get the feel of the wheel, to remember how the clutch squeaks just so when you press it.
This new normal life is a faff. Someone has spilled petrol at the station pump, I leap over scattered sand, choose the self-service pump, disposable gloves on, fresh blue mask over eyes and nose. Yes, my glasses steam up.
But it's amazing how cheap the petrol is.
O brave new world that has opened its doors to us shielders who remain unconvinced, wavering on the doorstep, safe behind the double glazing. We are taking baby steps out of our front door. Let them say that it's safe but the jury is out on that.
Still, this is the first step, I'm taking the road to my hometown and the car surely knows it.
It was in my mother's house in what feels like a long, long time ago that I first realised Big Brother had come along for the trip. As I walked out of her front door to head up the road back to Belfast, my mobile phone pinged at me.
Up flashed a new message: “35 minutes journey time to home. Conditions good, traffic light.”
And I asked myself how the phone knew where I had been and where I was going. It was George Orwell's 1984 – I'm not sure I liked it.
But this is a special, end-of-lockdown journey down the road I've taken so often before the world shrank to the limits of the garden gate.
Oh, the ecstasy of having shopping delivered and left at the doorstep. Oh, the agony of having to wipe it down. I'm shy now about coming out of my shell. The world is frightening.
The car knows its own way to my mother's house. We turn the corner of our street and the names of all the old neighbours tumble through my head... the Gibsons, the Flemings, the Fynes, the Craigs, the Bells. But that was long ago and they're gone now.
In under our cherry tree sweeps the car. It is the first year in so many that I missed the tree's moment of glory when the blossom spilled like confetti from its branches. I wasn't there.
The garden has sprung up, wild and beautiful. The roses have rambled in lockdown. My mother's hair has gone rambling too... just like my own.
And this meeting remains at a social distance. She sits in the passenger seat of her car and I take the bench outside our house. How strange to go to your old family home and not darken the door. How strange that there is no place for hugs.
She sips her tea at the car wheel and I sip mine from the flask on the bench at the door as social distancing demands. We argue about having to eat the sandwich before the lump of chocolate cake. (I lose). And we yearn for the normal to be just a bit more normal.
After an hour when I have sat in our old front garden looking at a side profile of my mother and after I have pictured the seven-year-old me in my white communion frock, veil, tiara and well-bloodied knee standing in the far corner at the hedge under what is now the eucalyptus – the official Polaroid photo – I say goodbye and get back in the car.
I'd give ma a “mwah” of an air kiss, but she's not really the “mwah” type.
Never in my wildest dreams, I tell my car. Ping goes my phone – journey time 35 minutes, conditions fair.
The weight of this year weighs heavy on our shoulders. Thirty-five minutes later, the car pulls into our driveway to the safe haven, to home.