Homecoming is the meeting between place and memory of place; it is the point at which past and present conjoin. And though the memory may be only weeks, days, or even hours old, there is always a distance to be crossed in the first moments of return. There is always a space between what is remembered and what is newly experienced.
When I stepped off the bus, just outside the front gate, it was lunchtime and the day was surprisingly mild. I was tired after travelling from Aberdeen on the boat overnight, and I was still a little shaky. It seemed the motion of the sea – which early in the morning had been throwing my belongings impetuously around the cabin – had been imprinted into my own muscles. It was a deep, shivering reflex that wore off only after several hours on dry, unmoving land.
I walked slowly down towards the house, carrying my suitcase high so as not to drag it through the chicken shit that speckled the path. I’ve been away from home only three weeks. That’s not enough to leave me surprised by what has altered in my absence, but enough to be aware that it has altered.
I looked around, trying to note the changes individually, but it was not easy to do. Defining the space between what is seen and what is remembered is hardest in those things most familiar to us. Like staring in the mirror after days without seeing your own face: what was seems to dissolve instantly into what is.
The garden contained within it an accumulation of movement and growth which, together, amounted to a kind of swelling. The shadow of vulnerability that had clung to the place through the winter had lessened – released its grip a notch, or maybe two. Certain greens now seemed richer and less hesitant. Certain bushes now seemed less deceased.
Right down low, the first bulbs have become flowers. Tiny snowdrops hang their heads forlornly here and there among the borders, like monks or mourners at a funeral. Alone in their display, the snowdrops are reluctant pioneers. They gaze always at the ground, as though ruing the genetic clock that brings them out of the soil so early in the year. On a day such a this, when a rumour of warmth softens the air, it is tempting to see these little flowers as brave heralds of the season to come, quietly sharing their song of spring with the garden. But the message is misleading. Unless this year is unlike all others I have known in Shetland, there is plenty of winter yet to come. The snowdrops are liars, but still they are easily forgiven. Their song is dishonest, but it is sung sweetly.
Out on the side lawn, close to the trees, were two rabbits. It is unusual to see them here, so near to the house. When we first moved they were treating the garden as their own. At least one burrow, and possibly several more, lay in the back park. And every day we would watch them munching happily on the grass and among the beds.
But their boldness could not last, for the cat very quickly made it known that such behaviour was unacceptable. From now on, while they were welcome to hang around, the consequences of doing so were not going to be ideal for the rabbits. One or two began to appear, headless, on our doorstep, and very soon the garden was a bunny free zone.
As winter drags on though, they must be straying further. The pickings will be getting slim in the safest places, and so they become a little braver, a little more desperate. Either that or the cat has got lazy since I went away.
Stepping into the porch, I turned and closed the door behind me, then put my bag down and went to sit in the living room. I was not thinking of anything in particular, just waiting, as though to catch up with myself. I felt deflated, exhausted, and inexplicably nervous. I lay back on the sofa and closed my eyes, readying myself to get home.