91. Stand Down, Soldier

She’s still sat in the same position as she was when I let myself in three hours ago, but at least she’s drunk her tea. I know she only tried to eat that sandwich so she could take her tablet. Gently moving the ornaments closer together, I make room on the mantelpiece for the cards that arrived today. She’s been stroking his sweater all day, trying to remember when she knew the people whose thoughts she’s in. I put the picture of him in uniform holding his son, onto the coffee table.

“Joan?” I pause, whilst the word registers. She slowly turns her head to look up at me, and smiles weakly with recognition. Reaching for my hand, her grip is feeble and grateful. Tomorrow, she won’t let me go.

“I wrote down everything I did whilst I was here. I’ll come back tomorrow at 8 o’clock to dry your hair and make you some breakfast. Ring me if you want me and I’ll come straight round. I’ve got a key.”

I kiss the top of her head and manage to hold in the tears until I’m out of earshot half way down the street.

Buried deep within the walls, air in the pipes make them shudder, and they give out a desperate, low shriek, as I hold my fingers under the slowly warming water. I inhale through a hot wrung-out flannel pressed over my nose and mouth, count in for four and silently scream out for seven. I wonder if he still cries in the shower.

This mirror has seen so much.

Too busy living his own life to visit, never travelling the thousands of miles to say goodbye to his own father. She’s lived off scarce letters for years. He smiles in photographs with people we don’t know, on beaches we will never see. It’s unjust and I’m not ashamed to feel bitter that he is the one who will get the sympathy tomorrow, but this isn’t my battle to fight. I have to disengage. Become detached. No-one dare say it, but we all know why he’s come back. She won’t be living round here much longer.

I just hope time has rubbed his raw edges smooth.

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41. Moving On

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I’ve moved house more than a dozen times so I should be used to it by now. Sometimes I’m ready and raring to go.  Bored of the same old bus route and tired of my job. Pensive but excited, to walk down streets unknown and explore new places. Meet people with strange voices and reinvent myself. Other times I dread it.

I love this little house we live in now. It’s the best place we’ve ever lived. I’ve got my own bathroom and a room of my own to potter around in. The light streams into the bedroom in the morning and creeps around the house so we have to shut the curtains for afternoon tv. Hedges and farmland mean happy, jumping little birds and lowing cattle. Foxes wake me. I pretend the road noise is the sea and imagine that beyond the hedge is a sandy path down to our own beach cove.

But the landlord wants to sell, before interest rates go up, so we have to go. By the time this story is posted, we will be gone. We will have a new house, closer to town, with wooden floors overlooking the school playing fields. Last year he told us we could stay as long as we wanted to and when we didn’t want to live here any more he would sell it. A month after Christmas, I got the call that he wants to sell, so we have to be out in two months. I’m trying not to hate him. I don’t even know him. I’m imagining the drunken conversation he had over the festive period where he was talked into it. “What, you’re making £500 profit every month when you could sell up and get £100,000 profit in one go? You’re a fool.” There’s nothing I can do. It’s business. It’s not my fault.

Some people have lots of boyfriends; I have lots of houses. The similarities are comparable. It’s always new and exciting, never perfect, I live with the flaws until I forget, or they always irritate. I stay until it’s over or get asked to leave, and then life is never the same again. Someone else gets the old house and I find another one. Hopefully, the last person has loved and cared for it and I feel safe there. This new house is not like the old one. That house was the love of my life. This is 55-65% compatible. But we have to be out soon and it’s the best I could find right here, right now.

I know what my family and friends will say when they visit. “Oh Norm, it’s lovely. Much bigger than the last house.”

So now I’m spending money on things I can’t see. For checks to see if I’m a worthy tenant, when I’ve been renting for over 20 years already. They get to hold on to half a months wages in case I spill something.

I’ll lose my built-in wardrobe so have to decide whether to buy a cheap Ikea flat-pack now, or live with a portable rail until I’ve saved up enough to spend six times the cost to get a solid wood one. I could just add to my Ikea Kallax collection and store everything in ‘Really Useful Storage’ boxes for the foreseeable future.

By the time you read this I will have already moved in. I’ve been writing it for weeks, as I felt the changing emotions. One thing I never thought about was just how old I feel now. I cannot lift and carry as much as I used to. My lack of strength and stamina shocked me.

I’ve definitely had ‘renter’s regret’ and this has cost me more than my entire holiday fund for this year. So no trip abroad for us for the foreseeable future.

The sense of loss is worse that a break-up. I know this is the best house in the area for our budget at the time we were looking. It’s just not even close to perfect. I need to accept this and make it my home, and stop looking on RightMove at better houses that weren’t even available at the time we were looking.

I do know now that wooden floors are cold and noisy.

17. Good riddance to the time of your life

No-one tells you about the reality of living in a converted, industrial building in the regenerated, hipster part of town, down near the docks. The trendy idea of the cool, urban, party loft was very different experience for me day-to-day. What was once a dusty, 18th century, grain warehouse, straight out of the film, ‘The Conversation’, was now shiny, high-spec, open-plan apartments. Exposed brickwork, wooden beams, huge red cast iron pillars, oversized light fittings. It had history. It was portrayed as an aspirational lifestyle choice for the young professional. These flats were swanky alright, but the glossy brochures didn’t quite tell the whole story.

For example, those luxury apartments were not soundproofed. At night, in bed, you could hear every fart and snore from the neighbours above. Every argument. You knew what they watched on tv in their bedroom. You knew the regularity and routine of their fast and furious sex life including the preferred settings of their toys, that she’s loud, he’s not, and he pees first afterwards. That they don’t flush their en-suite at night. But,  if we could hear them, that meant the people underneath could also hear us.

The harsh, incessant, cawing seagulls and her upstairs stomping around with her hob nailed clogs on the solid oak floor were all you needed for an alarm clock in this flat. There were no curtains at the windows; we were too high up for anyone to see in though these tiny windows, so we woke with the sunrise, or if sunrise was after 6.45, we would wake to their alarm clock.

Every Friday night, without fail, on the dot of 9.30pm, the sounds of “I’ve had the time of my life, and I never felt like this before…” drifted in, and slowly got louder and louder, as the party boat cruise brought back its latest shipment of merry, cackling hen party revellers. Another unwanted annoyance that also wafted in uninvited when the Julienne balcony doors were open, was the unmistakeable herby smell of weed from downstairs. Whenever they smoked out of the window, which was every night, and most of the weekends, it just blew back right into our flat.

The living ‘space’ was just one big L-shaped room. No effort was spared, (literally, no thought given) to thinking of how the configuration of the rooms in our apartment would work next to other rooms in adjoining flats. The main living area was basically a kitchen, dining room and lounge with no walls between them. It became clear that it was not possible for one person to watch tv whilst someone else busied themselves in the kitchen because of the noise of the extractor fan. So it was, that the dishwasher and terribly inconvenient unreliable washer/dryer combo were only switched on if we were retiring to bed or going to work.

To comply with fire regulations, there were heavy self-closing doors in every room. To save energy, all of the communal lights in the stairwells and corridors were motion sensitive and came on automatically. That meant a stalker/burglar could watch you enter the building and see which lights came on so they knew which floor you lived on. A friend showed me how to open our front door by putting his hand through the letterbox and turning the handle from the inside!

It wasn’t one of those horrendous segregated ‘communities’ with a separate ‘poor door’ for social housing residents. No, we all used the same keypad-controlled entrance. However, pressing any four numbers opened the door. I suppose not knowing this glaring flaw gave those residents who were ignorant of this fact, some comfort of the illusion of security. I never ever felt quite safe there.

Every Saturday night we soon learned to put our phones on silent and keep the tv on low. Some of our (dickhead) friends thought we were a convenient free bed and breakfast for when they missed the last bus home. The fun of the pop-in soon wore off, especially when I was the one cleaning up vomit that had almost managed to go in the toilet bowl, but not quite. Finding a condom wrapper and some underwear in the spare bed was the final straw. Our cut-off for phone calls went down from 10pm to about 8pm, and our keenness for hospitality wore thin. Once I even pretended that we were babysitting, and I had just “got her down” so I couldn’t let my unexpected visitors in because it would be too noisy.

We didn’t stay there long. I don’t think many people did. 18th century listed buildings don’t usually come with parking, and with it being in a tourist destination, the long walk from the multi-story was very inconvenient with bags of food shopping. So that was another enforced lifestyle change. Little and often for food shopping.  If residents were moving house that day, they would hog the lift for hours on end, which began to get annoying very quickly. The vibe I was sold and happily bought into wore off quickly. As is the case with so many things in life, the fantasy was better than the truth.

Meters weren’t read, because the electricity people couldn’t get into the building. Parcels frequently went missing. Pizzas never got delivered. New people quickly moved in, and apparently unconcerned about other residents, had loud parties which seemed to include: shouting in the corridors, throwing bags of rubbish down the stairs, setting off the fire alarms, smoking in the stairwells, leaving it reeking of piss, vomit, beer and garbage. It was worse than Freshers Week at a university halls of residence. Eviction notices served, they were gone. It would be quiet for a few weeks then, the cycle of parties would begin again. I suppose with rents being so high, landlords had to risk it, and take who they could get at short notice to cover the mortgage payments.

Maybe if we had been younger or had had friends in the building, it might have been different. I didn’t love loft living. It wasn’t for us, but it would still have been nice to have known some of this before we moved in though. This was a lesson learned. In time.