London was the ultimate destination, there wasn’t really anything that came after London. From the age of about 7, London was my ambition. London meant away from the dull hell of the unwanted child and away from a post-industrial town with no community, culture or happy memories. London was where there were lights and people, London was where things happened.
My flat in Hackney was full of light and life. Ikea and Argos helped my generation escape from the stale, solid Victorian furniture which most poor 1970s households were still built around. My front room looked out over the High Street from a curved bay window. From there I could see life I’d never dreamed of: MPs, drug dealers, celebrities, petty criminals, people who ran lifestyle coaching businesses; people from Poland, Ghana, Ireland, Australia and Cyprus, people who I never thought I’d share space with. In the cemetery across the road were further glamorous strangers: doctors, composers, Victorian gentlefolk, tragic babies, forgotten heroes, the founders of the Salvation Army.
I had never eaten a herb, been abroad or met anyone who did what they wanted for a living before I was 16.
Inside, it was the home of the person I wanted to be. Books and music that said I was just too young for punk and just too old for acid house, but took an interest anyway. Things that could only have been gifts, to show that I had friends. Photos to show I’d travelled. Things that said I was the sort of person to get excited by things.
The last few months, though, were tense and sad. The crushing bad luck of chronic unemployability combined with the monstrous good fortune of having Paul and his family to help made the move to Coventry inevitable and eventually desirable. I started thinking about what sort of person this would make me. A housewife? A suburbanite? A normal person. Yes, it turns out that I am a normal person after all, the one thing I was always desperate for because I was shunned and strange, and dreaded the most because I thought I was special.
I don’t know who lived here last, we bought a blank slate from a redeveloper, all in cream and white and upvc. Neighbours have mentioned an old woman, but the surveyor found a pushchair in the loft. It doesn’t feel like a house with a story, generations have been passing since the 1930s, completing their business here and moving on, it’s not a house that has absorbed their characters.
There are thousands of houses like ours, a three-bedroomed terrace, now with a kitchen extension and open-plan ground floor (no need to huddle in tiny dark rooms now central heating is available. No need to be cut off from each other when cooking or reading or watching telly). The whole suburb would have been a vast building site throughout the 1930s, a new lifestyle for workers from the nearby mine. The mine became a landfill site for the last half of the century, and now it’s a nature reserve and we can go blackberrying on it, or stand in our back garden and watch buzzards hunt. Because that’s the sort of thing we like to do. We are people who live in a house, and we like nature and cooking and gardening.
These aren’t houses for people who live on their own, though plenty do. Mostly the bereaved, or those who’ve extricated themselves from a bad relationship. But the main occupants are families. I never played as a child, but the same shrieks and giggles I used to find so pointless and unfathomable are still audible from my back window. Now I have Paul, though, and we are a family, a small one, just us two, how we like it. I am a person who lives in a house and experiments with growing vegetables. I am a person who lives with my partner. I am a person who engages tradesmen, in as much as window cleaners turn up occasionally, and I agree to give them money. I can almost see the day when I become a person who gives a shit about the condition of my lawn. It is frightening, but I can finally stop fighting. I can see our house on Google Earth, it is there, and as I zoom out, I can see how tiny we are, but we are still part of a city, of a country, of the world.
I thought I was moving back out of the light into the shadows. Now I’m learning how to make my own light.