Place and Time

stained glass window with bird

Sometimes when I can’t sleep at night, I lie in bed and try to remember the exact layout of houses that I’ve lived in. I’ll imagine myself walking around them, picking out as many small details as I can.

There are four that I can remember with real clarity; the house on Harris where I spent all of my early childhood, my Grandpa’s house in Staffordshire, where I used to spend lots of holidays, the farmhouse in the Borders where I spent most of my teenage years, and the house in Edinburgh that I lived in until a year ago.

There are other places that I can remember a few details of. There was a white cottage on Lewis where I lived with my Mum for a year, and then a townhouse in the Borders where I also spent about year. And of course, there were several flats in Edinburgh where I lived as a student. But the memories of those places are a bit fuzzier.

In the Lewis house, I can remember crawling under my bed and hiding sweets between the wooden slats of my bed. I can remember accidentally starting a small fire in the garden with a bottle of meths and having to stamp it out with my wellies. I can remember watching my stepbrother doing backflips all the way across our garden.

In the Borders I remember that my bedroom was dark blue, and it’s where we lived when I had chicken pox. I remember that I had a My Little Pony that smelled of cherries, and we had a collection of frog ornaments that were lined up along the stairs. I remember very clearly hearing the word homosexual on the radio one morning and asking my Mum what it meant. I have absolutely no recollection what her answer was.

In my first student flat I slept in a high cabin bed, and covered my walls with pictures that I’d cut from The Face and Sky magazine. In my second one the boiler cupboard was right at the head of my bed and it woke me early every morning when my harder working flatmates got up to shower. And in the third one I had a resident mouse in my bedroom.

So I can remember wee bits and pieces, but the layouts and the minute details of every room are not imprinted on my brain with any permanence. I don’t remember the postcodes (or even the street names), and I’ve forgotten the wallpapers and the colours of the front door.

The four houses that I can remember clearly are not just the ones that I’ve spent most time in. They are the ones where the most memories have been created.

My Grandpa died when I was twelve, so I haven’t even been near his old house for more than fifteen years, but I could still draw you a pretty accurate floor plan. I could tell you which cupboard used to house those blue glass Milk of Magnesia bottles, and which shelf of the bookcase his Scots Magazines lived on. I could find all the light switches in the dark, tell you how many steps there are in the pantry, and show you which pane of glass he cracked with a cricket ball as a young boy. (My Grandpa is the only person I know who spent his entire life living in the same house.)

Similarly, it has been more than ten years since I’ve been in our Borders farmhouse. But now, as I lie awake in bed and imagine myself walking round, I can remember it all; which creaky floorboards to avoid when you creep for a wee in the middle of the night, which railing of the banister is a bit shoogly, which drawer the crisps for my breaktime snack at school were kept in.

I have no wish to go back and visit any of those houses. They would undoubtedly be different, and I’m not sure how that would make me feel; perhaps a bit like being in one of those uncomfortable, disorientating dreams where things are familiar and yet not.

The one house that I do go back and visit is my childhood home on Harris, because my Dad still lives there, and the thing that strikes me every time is how the scale has changed. The house and garden that seemed huge to me as a child now seem quite dinky. I remember living beside a huge, foaming churning river… but it’s actually quite a gentle wee stream. My head is now level with the ‘high’ branches where my brother’s tree house used to be. The cupboard under the stairs is just that – a cupboard – and not a big, dark, spooky abyss. The staircase only requires small steps, not giant strides.

It is a good lesson in not romanticising my past, and not to become too attached or misty eyed about something which is really just a memory. Houses are a place to live, and then to move on from, taking the best associated feelings with you, but leaving the bricks and mortar behind.

I’ve just finished reading I Saw Ramallah by Mourid Barghouti, and there is a line in that which has stuck with me, because it sums it up so well.

My relationship with place is in truth a relationship with time.

I would do well, next time I can’t sleep, to remember that.

21 responses

    • Haha, I think you might be right! Despite the cabin bed, it was definitely my fave of my uni flats 🙂 Although perhaps that was just because it came directly after a year in Pollock…

  1. How many homes? I have only really the family home, which is still in the family and a few house where we lived before now. I am not really a mover. I will try this thing about floor plans when I can not sleep again tonight – I have insomnia

    • I don’t often have it, but 2 or 3 days a month I just have to accept I’m not going to sleep until the wee small hours. Very perceptive question about homes rather than houses. I’d say Harris and the Borders were home. And then Edinburgh was the hardest to leave by far because it was the first home I’d worked to build myself, with Y and then with wee T.

  2. That was such a lovely, lovely post Ruth – so evocative – and I enjoyed the bits, and pieces , the important details that stood out for you – and that quote was gorgeous – really poignant – can I be any more gushing? :o). X.

  3. I too had a my little pony that smelled of cherries!! In my memories of childhood it was always pouring with rain or scorching sun. I was the only little girl in my class with permanent scabs on my knees. Maybe that’s why I can remember gardens far more clearly than houses! x

    • Thank you 🙂 it definitely helps more than anything else I’ve found. Structured enough to keep stop your mind from wandering, but not so fascinating that it keeps you awake longer than necessary.

  4. I agree with Corinne’s comment above, what a lovely way to pass the time when unable to sleep (much better than making “to do” lists which I what I do!). We only ever had one family home, which after moving away when I was 17, is now, later down the line, the home I live in once again, but this time round I’m the Mummy of the family and not the child. A lovely thought that you have had lots of adventures in all kinds of different settings to look back on and remember. 🙂

  5. I really enjoyed reading this post in a rare quiet moment on the bus earlier and my mind has been wandering through various homes I have known all day. I remember visiting my great grandma just once, probably when I can’t have been more than 4 or 5. I can picture the layout of her sitting room very clearly, including the exact cupboard in the sideboard that she pulled out a triple pack of Mars bars! I find it fascinating (and a little scary) is how selective childhood memories can be – I wonder what random things will be etched forever in my daughters minds!

  6. Ah, this made me think of the places I’ve lived in. Funnily enough My Little Ponies memories feature in 2 of them. I remember moving house and then going back to my old Brownie pack for a trip and my Dad stopping and buying me my first 2 ponies. Thank you…you’ve bought some great memories back 🙂 x

  7. Pingback: Memories and Homes | Tots 100

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