It was a sunny June day in 1990 when the silver Audi 100 (VYR 21S, the number plate still etched on my memory) pulled up next to the bus station on Pencester Road. The three of us got out, but a few lingering moments later, just two of us got back in. 

That was the first time I left home. I wore an ‘All About Eve’ band tee shirt, and all my worldly belongings, needed for the months ahead, were loaded into the luggage compartment of a waiting National Express coach. The A-level results weren’t even published yet, but I had already chosen to embark on a new life 300 miles from home. 

It seemed rather easy at the time, but looking back I don’t know how I got through that morning without great wailing sobs and renting of clothes. I guess you might call it youth; an arrogant teenage desire for independence. The night before, I had allowed myself a secret sentimental solo snivel on the damp shingle of Dover beach, where I contemplated the vastness of my future, and said a fond farewell to each and every pebble and gull. The next morning, however, I was eager to strike out on a new life with my beau, to live in the toppermost room of a tall Victorian townhouse in Harrogate, the basement of which was the kindergarten where I would work for his mum. All very convenient.

Unbeknownst to me, there remained one long fraying thread holding the apron strings intact.

Scouring the ads in the back of The Lady, between infrequent revision sessions, I had found, and been offered a nannying job with a posh family in Exeter. I often wonder how life might have been had I thrown caution to the wind and followed the more adventurous path, but instead I went safe, and spent that fretful stopgap between childhood and University, clinging to the tousled young man I intended to marry.

One year later I returned, same tousled young man in tow, en route to the continent in his rickety green Golf (registration number long since forgotten). Following that epic and slightly misguided 1700 mile round trip, which took us all the way to Genoa on the Ligurian coast, we settled back in Dover for a long hot summer of concerted money-earning, he as a lifeguard/barman and me as a visitor host at The White Cliffs Experience/barmaid. My parents were, as ever, amazingly accommodating, allowing us to impose for three months. The apron strings were temporarily tacked back together.

A colleague at the White Cliffs Experience found me a post as a ‘ladies companion’, to a wealthy French ex-pat in Abidjan, on the Ivory Coast. Looking for any excuse to put off University for another year, I actually contemplated it, seriously, even going to meet the lady and stammering my way through an excruciating chat ‘en français’. But again, I bottled it, choosing instead to head back Up North and begin my degree studies in York.

I left home, for the second time.

The day was less memorable. Now a ‘woman of the world’ I was no longer their baby girl, and, climbing into the old green Golf, I waved goodbye to my mother and father and casually flitted my way on to the next life chapter. They didn’t even get to settle me into student halls like the other parents did, but their frequent hand-written letters on crisp laid Conqueror paper continued to arrive, like precious treasure, as I navigated a new world of Yorkshire beer, break-ups, lectures, and new people.

Over the coming years I yo-yoed between Yorkshire and Kent where my childhood bedroom was perpetually available for long or short-term rent-free stays. Despite the obstinate dog-eared posters and the museum shelves of storybooks and bibelots, the apron string thread was wearing gossamer thin and it really was time to re-decorate. 

In the spring of 1997 I moved into my first, and only, single-occupancy (joy of joys) flat, and left home again. This time, I was moving on to a proper grown-up life with a ‘career job’, I was engaged to be married (to a different tousled young man) and my parents helped to load up my remaining goods and chattels into the old silver Audi once more, for the drive to Fulbourn in Cambridgeshire where my future in-laws met us with the bulkier items from my last digs in York.

The day of my wedding in 2000 marked the final ‘severing’. Hats and corsages adjusted to perfection, the wedding party departed for Lympne Castle, leaving my Dad and I alone for one last golden moment in my childhood home. We knocked back a simultaneous warming shot of Vodka as the chauffeur knocked at the door, and a Mercedes limousine carried us away from my home, and my childhood, forever. The apron string was finally snipped loose as I said my vows and became someone else’s responsibility/liability.

Mercifully, fate stepped in to scupper our half-baked newlywed plans to emigrate to Darwin, Australia where my husband had secured a job. Instead, crocodile-free Yorkshire beckoned, where permanent roots began to take hold, and babies began to arrive, but I was still 300 miles from the two people who had nurtured, bolstered, inspired, supported, chivvied and loved me my whole life.

Now, twenty years on, at the end of every visit to my old home in Dover, I re-live that heavy sensation of leaving home. With each farewell the ache in my gut deepens. The fact is, the apron strings may have been severed, but they were quickly replaced with a new connection, one that binds us ever closer with each passing year. I know I am more fortunate than most to enjoy a brilliant relationship with my parents. I am lucky that they are still married, to each other, and still have all of their marbles. My childhood bedroom endures, a different colour, but one dogged 1980’s poster from a magazine still blu-tacked inside a wardrobe door, and the same two beds, one for me, and one for my sister, should we ever have need of it. I count my lucky stars, (or is it thank my blessings?) every summer when I use it as a convenient base for an all-inclusive seaside holiday.

Your parents never stop worrying about you; their helpless babe, however good your impression of being a grownup might be, but they let you go, release you like a little bird, and pray that a sparrowhawk isn’t waiting in the hedge. Then, in one indiscernible moment the tides turn, and as you drive away, their frail waving reflections in the rear view mirror receding to nothing, you realize that you are worrying about them. You leave bossy instructions for them to look after each other, and to not over-do things, your head whirls with recollections of their painful arthritic progress up that great flight of stairs. You drive on, struggling to stifle vivid imaginings of myriad scenarios of a clattering fall, a broken hip, a catastrophic episode that up-ends your lives. And you cry your eyes out for ever having abandoned them in the first place. 

This lasts for approximately half the journey home. Having wrung every sentimental image from memory and sniffled through at least two maudlin playlists on the car stereo, I pass a kind of invisible half-way marker, a tipping point between past and future, somewhere near Oakham, and I begin to look forward to getting back to my ‘new’ home. The one I have built for my own children.

Now my offspring are starting to think about their futures, wriggling with life like silkworm pupae on the cusp of hatching into marvelous flying creatures. At least one of them has their sights set on building a life and career Stateside. That’s a lot more than 300 miles away, and I try to be brave about it. But at various times in their short lives so far, they have both declared resolutely that they will never leave home. In truth this prospect actually fills me with panicky dread: Am I really expected to cook, clean and launder for them in perpetuity? Will I still be scrubbing their toothpaste off the washbasin in another twenty years?

If my own experience is anything to go by, however, I know that come what may, they will never completely leave home, and I am glad. If this makes me sound like Cathy Bates in Misery, I don’t care. As my old school motto says: Optima tenete.

The first time I left home. Dad’s hand on my shoulder.

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