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Why going home isn't as easy as it sounds

A woman I know is returning to the UK for the first time in eight years for a short holiday.

She's staying with family, her children will be with her, but already she's nervous about flying, anxious about her livestock and wondering why she's going.

Suddenly, after the excitement of announcing she's off, she's seeking every possible excuse to back out.

Eventually the real reason for her jitters becomes clear. "I'm worried about seeing all the people I haven't seen in that time because I've got old, fat, wrinkly, grey and poor."

Only in her mid-40s, she's had a tough time since moving to France. A series of illnesses hit her family, a business failed and months were spent on a fruitless search for work. Although her house has been on the market for more than three years there's still no buyer in sight.

Living marks us all in heart and soul. But it's what she sees in the mirror, and what she thinks others will see, that disturbs her more.

My old, long-dead friend Kate was the same. A daughter newly returned after several years in the States sent her airline tickets for a holiday to see her grandchildren in Wales.

Kate, who'd been reduced to existing on a tiny fixed income in France, veered between great joy at seeing them all and fear of what she'd "become" in the interim.

Again there was the harsh stare in the mirror, the belated, frantic application of facial creams, and the home dye to eradicate the grey parting on the sun-bleached hair.

Clothes, always put on with an unconscious, casual elegance, were flung aside as too cheap, too French market, too tight, as she worried over what to pack.

She too looked for ways out. Excuses to find for not going: the dogs, the bald parrot, the mice galloping around in the locked-up half of the huge house that was too expensive to heat.

But it was ultimately the face in the mirror that was holding her back; that awareness of the unforgiving, quickly covered, first flinch of family and past friends meeting this old/new person.

Perhaps it's a female thing, this assessing of ourselves by face and figure, no matter what else we've done in life. On reflection it is; there's no doubt about it.

I remember a friend of mine telling me he'd been to a funeral where, for the first time in 30 years, he'd met men he'd grown up with and not seen for years.

"I didn't recognise half of them," he said, a touch too gleefully. "Paunches, balding, slumped shoulders …

"I went home, looked at myself in the mirror and said: 'Well, G, your mother was right - you've kept those boyish good looks.'"

As he mentally patted himself in self-congratulation, I looked at the thickened neck, the bagged eyes and drink-reddened cheeks, the droop to the shoulders, and the incipient spread of fat over muscle, and just nodded and smiled in agreement.

Hell, that's what friends are for, non?

How I wish we looked in the same looking glasses. We don't, and that's our tragedy, but there it is.

I think the point I'm trying to make is that it doesn't matter the measured distance apart, the sun that shrivels us in a foreign country, the disappointments that etch into our faces - it's the time apart.

We grow old with each other together. We don't notice the numerous changes, the tiny ticks that show we are ageing, the little losses of memory or ambulatory power.

We're just us, friends, and we moan and groan - together.

When we live in different countries and don't see each other for months or years, we become frighteningly horrified at our individual disintegration.

Add to that limited cash to fly back and forth to keep the old life up and the knowledge that we are all slip sliding away from each other, is it any wonder that those of us abroad don't want to visit?

In my eight years here I've returned to Scotland once for my book signing. England, because of my son, a few more times.

I make excuses to those who ask me. I make excuses, usually in truth, because of lack of funds, not feeling great, Portia (no longer valid) and … well, I have no more excuses.

And so, perhaps it is like the above two women. I look in the mirror and think I don't want the embarrassment of returning to a time before.

A time when I was vibrant, sort of stylish, knowing, working, fun, and above all, someone with a structured life.

I'm also not that woman in the picture that is now on my column. It was taken soon after Portia died. Newspapers are not sentimental. She's gone and the magazine needed a new pic. Alone.

So a visiting friend took it. I look shrunken, hugging myself, finding it hard to smile. I did - do - look like that, but not always.

Sod it. Tomorrow I'm off for a cut and colour; moisturising like hell and in a few days I'll smile for a new photo.

The old one is me - but only then, not now.

We need to ignore the mirror and just … go home.

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Travel

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