Back in Derry to see my dad, and my old house still has that familiarly unfamiliar feeling of time passed and preserved. This year will mark the point at which I’ve lived away longer than I ever lived there, and yet I have a sense memory of this house, and the surrounding fields and paths, that feels eternally baked-in. When my son pitches headfirst through its rooms, or gallops over its garden fences, I steady and swerve his body to avoid pratfalls and outcrops on which I’ve grazed myself a thousand times. If these walls could speak they’d probably say, ‘Mind yourself, bloody hell!’
I can trace a chronology of split foreheads, carpet burns and sprained toes all the way from my old bedroom into the hall at the front, where my brother Conall and I played indoor football.
As I avert my son from colliding into the 12ft table in our kitchen, I realise I know its contours better at child-height than I do my own.
Even this doesn’t really make sense. I left Derry as an 18-year-old, but my thoughts of this house remain fixed at childhood, at the expense of the many, and more recent, years I spent here as an adolescent. More things survive here from those years than my younger days, as I discover when I find an Aphex Twin mixtape, still occupying a slot in the kitchen’s dusty CD rack.
For the last few years I lived here, I was the same height as I am now, so why am I astonished at the low hang of countertops, or that I can catch my reflection in the mirror that hangs high on the wall? Sometimes peering at that tired, but devilishly handsome, man in the mirror evokes the same, bittersweet feeling of vertigo you get from visiting your old primary school, as you stand 3ft higher than you’re supposed to, like some befuddled Lemuel Gulliver.
Very little material evidence of my actual childhood remains. My dad and my sister Caoimhe have headed up substantial refurbishments, so that few of the rooms look much like they did when we were growing up. Conall has overhauled the bedroom we shared so it now has a deluxe gaming setup and home cinema we were cruelly denied as children. Under Caoimhe’s expert eye, the other bedrooms are a lot more ‘rural chic’ and a little less ‘covered in glow-in-the-dark ghost stickers we got in a packet of Weetabix as promotional tie-ins for 1996’s supernatural family romp, Casper’.
It’s longer still since its walls contained the riot of noise that my entire, 12-person family generated. From 1992 the steady outflow of older siblings to schools and jobs and lives elsewhere began. But, when we return, we’re pleased to discover just how easily the noise of a toddler, or raucous post-dinner character assassinations, feel the same to me as ever before. It’s a good thing these walls can’t speak, because they’d never get a word in.