Even in halcyon pre-Covid days, coming home after an Oxford term was not always an easy ride. After a few days of much needed kip, the eerie quiet becomes all-consuming; Netflix can only fill so many hours. Despite the comfort of food that is not pasta-pesto, free alcohol and a house that feels like The Ritz compared to the mouse-infested cess-pit I’ve been living in this term, it hasn’t taken long for home’s mundanity to settle like an itchy blanket. Back in my childhood bedroom, I am stuck in an unpleasant time-warp, sixteen again and agonizing over awful boys, listening to utterly miserable Smiths songs. It’s the deja-vu experience no one wants.
Usually I would escape to the pub with home friends, beer-fuelled jollity would soon erase these traces of unease and then home wouldn’t feel quite so bleak afterall. I’d realise, looking out over a rainy stretch of English Channel with my best friend’s arm wrapped around my neck in a drunken burst of love, just how much I’d missed it. Yet this year, my little seaside town is covid-riddled, and Tier 3 does not leave much room for merrymaking, so I’ve found myself stuck at home with two slightly irritating albeit well-meaning middle-aged companions.
By most people’s standards, I am actually pretty close with my parents; after emerging from a two-year period in the dark tunnel of adolescence, wherein shouting matches were a dinner-time sport and door-slamming a rhythmic soundtrack, I realised that they were, in fact, quite fantastic, as parents go. My mum is a patient listener to the minutiae of my trivial social dilemmas, and my dad is the long standing receiver of manic essay-crisis phone calls. I know now that I’m hugely lucky to have this kind of unwavering support.
It is perhaps because of this very closeness, however, that I notice the changes between us so vividly each time I return home from university, now more than ever as I have no choice but to spend evening upon evening with them, adhering staunchly to entrenched routine: a couple of glasses of white, followed by a couple of glasses of red, then a crime drama, the 10 o’ clock headlines, and finally, the pièce de résistance, the much anticipated weather forecast. This immovability seems relatively new; habits seem to have become religious, views intransigent. Perhaps this is symptomatic of lockdown, or perhaps it’s a natural process of age. Dad has begun compulsively cling-filming random scraps of food, despite my repeatedly telling him that cling-film, as it turns out, isn’t great for the planet; if anything my limply environmentalist comments (I’m no Greta but I’m trying) have only sped up the cling film craze. The same pattern applies for mobile banking, which will on no account be downloaded despite its convenience because it resembles another sad facet of “the whole world being moved online”, as well as for bluetooth speakers which are firmly shunned in favour of a very tinny-sounding CD-player. Politics can no longer be broached at the dinner table, not so much because our views are wildly different, but more because the inflexibility on their part to rethink opinions invariably leads to discussions spiralling into heated discussions. Moreover, I’ve found recently that often their voices have merged into one; I hear Dad’s inexorable cynicism being recycled through Mum and vice versa. To elicit some kind of change in thought or action is to fight a two headed monster with a marmalade addiction.
The result is that supper-time chat remains largely within the realms of food- a safe space wherein nothing too profound can be disagreed upon; instead, the duration of the asparagus season and the shortcomings of Nigella’s minestrone recipe are discussed. Dynamic as these topics are, after a few nights of culinary chat I find myself yearning for more. I think the sad truth is that a lot of the things we value most have changed; emerging from lockdown over the summer and then returning to university, I have relished the excitement of new experiences and conversations, different faces and places, and in the meantime, it seems they have sunk blissfully into all the comforts of home- which of course is totally normal and to be expected on both of our parts. Yet often, as I’m waving to them at the train station’s entrance, I can’t escape the feeling that I’m leaving them behind, trapped in this slightly decaying little corner of south-east England, where nothing seems to have changed since the 70s. I worry that they too have been sucked into that unpleasant time warp effect, destined to live out a repeating cycle of wine and weather forecasts.
What I try to remind myself, is that they like that life. There is immense comfort to be found in wine and weather forecasts; there is security in the repetition of habits. Perhaps we all reach an age at which we cease to change as rapidly, and our sphere of interests shrinks somewhat. Whilst this might seem mildly depressing now, maybe it won’t be when I’m 50, curled up on a sofa in front of ‘Gardeners’ World’ (God forbid), chilled G&T in hand. Meanwhile, I can find my own comfort in the slow pace of my parents’ routines and the continuity of home, like an old tune played on our tinny-sounding CD player- grating at times but cheery nonetheless.