Here are some of my favourite books with memorable descriptions of houses and living spaces.
“All Life is forwards, you will see.”
The Beigeness by Kate Tempest
All Sofie wanted was to get out of this lay-by of a town as soon as she could. It was stifling, a predictable, cookie-cutter, Edward Scissorhands estate where everyone was a clone or a drone. They all bragged about how much their house was worth but how little they spent on food from the local European mega-hypermarket. Their disposable, mass-produced, bland uniforms bought from the giant dazzling, car park shrine to Arcadia.
The only thing her mother said after child body parts were found in oversized plant pots in the dentist’s house round the corner, was “you never know what goes on behind closed doors”. Neighbours tutted about how it “affected the resale value” and that they could hardly believe it was true because “he was such a lovely man,” but they never once said anything about the girl. Yeah, middle-class people were such proper aspirational role-models. They didn’t drink or abuse their own kids did they? Some dinner parties were code for swingers. More pills and coke than a rock band’s dressing room. They’d still elbow their own mothers out of the way for a place at the local Catholic high school.
When her sister Jade, came back from a gap year of backpacking round Asia, she was in a black trouser suit almost before her nose-ring had been taken out. A few net curtains twitched as she walked up the drive in her billowing patchwork pantaloon trousers. Never fear, they went straight into in the dustbin. Dreadlocks off to reveal a cute pixie crop. It was as if everyone was allowed a year away from ‘normality’ and was then neutralised back to generic acceptability. Don’t even think about putting your bins out whilst still in your pyjamas.
Their parents tried the same trick again with Sofie but she wasn’t having any of it. “After you’ve done your Masters, we’ll pay for you to go travelling or buy you a car. Your choice.” The only caveat was that she had to live at home and go to one of the local Universities. Sofie thought the point of higher education was to the chance to live independently and experience life with people from all different backgrounds, not as the primary way to get a higher income as fast as possible.
One family said nothing about their offspring’s University aspirations then nonchalantly dropped the bombshell of “Oh, our son is at Yale.” You could sense the seething resentment bubbling at that dinner party like a thumb over a hosepipe.
Why couldn’t here be like it was in Denmark? People didn’t actually all need their own tiny square of green. If the gardens were all joined together, kids could actually play outside again. People would sit and chat. Be neighbourly. Look out for each other. Grow veg. Have barbeques. Form a cross-generational community. Obesity and loneliness obliterated. Sort of like the intent of London gated gardens in Kensington. They might share the same cleaners but they were well-paid enough to be loyal, crucially remaining tight-lipped about the contents of other people’s knicker drawers. If someone gossips to you, the chances are that they are also talking about your life to someone else behind your back.
No matter how big the driveways were, some people would always park on the road, usually at the exact spot where children wanted to naturally cross it. Pedestrians and cyclists seemed to be an afterthought in this plan. There was no point even trying to discuss it. People’s entitlement extended to the public road immediately in front their front gates. It was an unforgiveable sin to park your car outside someone else’s house. Don’t even get me started on the pitfalls of driving a works van.
A neighbour, Stan, with a blue-eyed, Siberian Husky named Rula, was pressured into muzzling his dog whenever he took it for a walk, just to placate the neighbours. When he discovered sympathetic Polish graffiti on the side of his garage. Nie wywołuj wilka z lasu (translates as ‘do not call the wolf out of the woods’ or ‘let sleeping dogs lie’) he left it, and it would still be there today if some unknown person had not painted over it when he was on holiday.
Heaven help anyone who wanted to tinker with a motorbike outside their OWN property on a sunny afternoon, with the radio on low, or who didn’t water or cut their front lawn often enough. Failing to deadhead flowers or having the wrong kind of patio chair was punishable by being ostracised from the PTA. You might find an influx of dead snails on your path, all with smashed shells, that had been tossed over the fence during the night in frustration, because your lack of local pride was showing up their impeccable, efforts. Having an argument within earshot of the neighbours rendered you invisible and people always claimed they “never heard anything”. They wanted to know why an ambulance with flashing blue lights was outside your house at 2am, but they would never actually be the one to call the police about a ‘domestic’. They’re not getting involved.
Some of the best one-upmanship efforts ever displayed were at Christmas. Most people wouldn’t be stupid enough to display the packaging from their gifts of electronic gadgets and children’s toys for fear of opportunist burglars, but here, it seemed to be mandatory. How on earth could everyone possibly keep up with the competition but still stay in their own lane?
The final straw was when some neighbours won the lottery. They didn’t want to move. They would build an extension. If that wasn’t enough, one of their teenagers bought a drum kit and VW camper van. Clearly obvious deliberate provocation designed only to put ideas into the heads of the other kids on the estate.
Sofie decided that the invitation to spend the summer in Cornwall with her childhood friend was a brilliant way to get out of Dodge. She could practice her guitar and get a job as a waitress, whilst he surfed, and maybe, their band would get good enough to even play some gigs.
A rumour is like a tissue in a washing machine.
The description on the flyer included phrases like, “challenging preconceptions of intimacy… exploring the gaze of perpetual surveillance… sexual fluidity and modern companionship.”
How did twelve photos, taken on different nights, of my friend James and I asleep in his bed, end up in a major photography exhibition?
Simple, really. I spent a lot of time at Karen’s house and was often too wasted to go home. Someone else may have been kipping on the sofa, or I didn’t want to wake up wheezing with the cat sat on me. Karen’s bedroom was so small, her bed was pushed up against the wall. It required a limber bed mate, which I am most certainly not. When I get out of bed, I walk like I rode a horse the day before. Her housemate, James had a big bed and he never came home that first night I stayed over. I knew he would be ok with it. “Anytime. Mi casa es tu casa.”
Another night, he did come home, very late or early, depending on whose point of view you take. He was drunk enough to knock things over, but still funny enough to say “Who’s been sleeping in my bed?” Slurring, he instructed me to “Move over” then flopped down onto the bed, one arm in, one arm out of his coat. A few hours of snoring later, I took off his boots and left a pint glass of water on the bedside table.
We just carried on. It was easy and felt comfortable. Neither of us was going out with anyone, so there were no jealous lovers to worry about. We didn’t fancy each other and were mature enough to not ruin our friendship by doing something regrettable.
The contented bliss of platonic sleeping in our clothes, drunk or stoned. Cosy, trusting, familial. Synchronised breathing. I was usually the little spoon. When he snored, I’d whisper for him to “turn over”, then place my hand on his back and his breathing would quieten. He was too polite to tell me if I ever snored.
Over home-made lasagne, garlic bread pizza, untouched salad and two bottles of montepulciano d’abruzzo, Karen admitted that she’d taken photographs of us two sleeping over the last six months. They were beautiful. So pure. I cried. It never occurred to James or me that taking our pictures whilst we slept was an invasion of our privacy, so we happily signed the consent forms she provided.
We weren’t expecting so many people to be as insistent as they were in telling us their opinion about our non-sexual relationship. Our friendship was scrutinised. We were asked how long we’d been a couple. Baffled, we said we weren’t, so it was assumed we were friends with benefits or one of us was gay or asexual. He lies in bed took on different meanings. My nonchalant, blasé denial obviously meant I was clearly trying to hide something. People hinted that I had friend-zoned James and must have been leading him on all this time. They felt sorry for him as he must have been so frustrated. Others insinuated that he was a potential predator, concluding that I had been both stupid and very lucky. How could we not know we were being photographed until afterwards? That the photos were clearly staged because men and women could obviously never be friends. Did we not realise it was bad luck for our souls to take book of the dead photos? These innocent snapshot observations became everyone’s business.
I stopped sleeping over after the exhibition. That phase had passed. It no longer felt right. I didn’t like being propelled into the spotlight for the wrong reasons and people didn’t believe me when I said this was something natural. I was there. I should know. But, the truth became just one of many opinions.