Flat-hunting in a city I wasn’t sure I wanted to live in. It’s in need of modernisation, the estate agent said, which meant we could afford the rent. By modernisation she must have meant central heating – the kitchen like a fridge in the morning, the storage heaters shedding their warmth by the time we got back home. The oven was too narrow for the salmon we tried to cook. The lino hadn’t changed since the sixties. The buses heaving themselves up the hill rattled the windows. A one bed flat, with a view that made it feel like a mansion.
A bit grown-up, buying a place, and a house at that. We paid a man to cut down the trees too big for the front garden – I couldn’t stop apologising. The woman who’d died left a lamp shaped like a hippo, and a sticker in the bathroom reminding us to save water, when, as it turned out, there were other things we’d have been wise to pay attention to. So many choices to make: colours, tiles, floorboards, women. By the time we were done you wouldn’t have recognised the place, the same way we don’t recognise each other these days.
From home owner to house mate. I lived at the top of a flight of concrete stairs, arranged everything I cared about in one room, with varnished floorboards and a view of the school. We were across the river, but still a black dot on the Northern line. Sinking. The Victorians cared about detail. They carved flowers around the windows and lined the hallways with tiles the colour of clotted cream. I hung fairy lights above my new bed, lined up my books on new bookshelves. We baked cakes. We drank wine. I tried hard to remember who I was.
Knowing your neighbours pays off. We moved across the road. The two of us carried my mattress propped up on our heads, dipping into the space between us. It could have been identical –same doorway, same window frames – but it wasn’t, quite. This flat felt new – a clean, cream space. The kitchen was more like a corner than a kitchen. We hung curtains to keep the light from streaming in. She grew tomatoes on the terrace and I sat and drank coffee and watched them grow, along with the new building at the end of the street. Nothing felt permanent.
You are generous to a fault. It’s yours too you say, and we choose which colour to paint the living room walls. We pay a man to build a shed, which is really an office. I buy a desk, a chair, more bookshelves, more books. I blu-tack pictures to the walls. The streets smell of cooked rice and cardamom. We buy fried samosas and champagne, put tea lights in jam jars and get to know each other’s friends. We drive up to Manchester to buy a fireplace, and I learn how to lay newspaper, kindling, coal. The world settles down.
Inspired by Tania Kovat’s sculpture HABITAT. This text formed part of a walk for London Open House on 17th September.