The closest I’ve come to a string of broken relationships is house-hunting.
I married my first boyfriend 15 years ago but my earnest face, love for intimate details and restraint with gossip means that people who are breaking up, moving on or not, often ask me for advice. (I also love giving advice.)
I’ve moved residence 10 times in 9 years as an adult and at least 6 times as a child. The approximate 20 houses you must view (probably higher) before you decide on the one you rent, means I’ve evaluated at least 320 houses as potentials. Sieving out the absolute no-nos, at a low estimate of 10%, I’ve seriously considered 32 houses as permanent homes. The headboard on your bed is probably not big enough for that many notches. (Or maybe it is, you want to talk about it? You know who’ll listen.)
Stripes earned. I’ve been around the block, your block, my block, every block, only literally. So I refer to my house-hunting experience if you want advice on love.
Here’s why houses are like lovers (and not just because after you’ve decided to take the plunge, your new neighbours are a like a Pandora’s box of in-laws either.)
Some houses are just out of your league. You know this the minute you set eyes on them. You have no idea how your paths crossed, because you weren’t looking to set yourself up for disappointment. And yet you linger over the high ceilings, or glorious balconies, a room with a real view. The house stands there, not even noticing you. You know you should walk away, but you can’t help it. You walk into the kitchen, see vintage floor tiles. You look at yourself in the bathroom mirror, the setting sun lights your face up like you’re in the movies. You do the maths. You do the maths again. Then you do the maths one more time. You give up. You still think about it sometimes. What it would have been like, another time, another place. Then you shake the thought out of your head. You saved yourself from being run into the ground trying to keep up.
Some houses are out and out compromises. You’re tired, low-self-esteemy, you’ve looked and looked and begun to believe the problem is YOU, you’re too picky, your list is too specific. And so you meet the caravan in Canterbury with rooted plumbing (thank god) and think, okay. I’ll make it work. You make a list of the good stuff: easy to heat (it’s so small), Shetland pony outside, it’ll be a hilarious story one day. And it is because the pony bites, gets an erection every time a car passes and the landlady comes in and smokes all your cigarettes because the caravan is warmer than her house.
Then there are the houses you make an effort for, knowing if you change them here, smooth the rough edges there… (yes, ladies, see, this metaphor works! Want to talk about it?) And you put your all into it: a mirrorball and spotlight in the bathroom, fill the kitchen with herbs in pots, install new windows and hang windchimes where a sliver of ocean breeze comes to breathe its last. You hold your breath. It’s beautiful. And then it all starts to fall apart. You try to nurse your house back to health. But it’s true character shows through. The weak structure, the crumbly façade, the years of neglect that are now your problem. Exhausted, you walk away.
Not all houses are right for you but when you’re willing to overlook some pretty big things because ‘it just feels right’ then you know you’re taking the big leap. The kitchen is too small, the bathrooms are fiddly, but you can imagine what life would be like here. I’ll write at this window. I’ll put a bench here for when my best friend comes to tea. I can cordon this area off when the playdate-brigade arrives. Despite yourself, you find yourself making plans. And then they call you to tell you the deal is off. You’re shocked. But but… it was going so well.
You lick your wounds each time it happens. Make yourself feel better by thinking of all the things that wouldn’t have worked out in the long run. Avoid looking at the building as you drive down the street. And then they may call and say it’s on again. You don’t have a plan B. So you move in. But you know it’ll never be the same.
My mother would walk into a new place and ‘feel’ it. She said she could tell if someone had been happy in a house or not. Even if they hadn’t, if she liked the house, she would have us all move in. People could, she said, ‘put love into the walls’. Looking for a flat early in our marriage, we walked into a dark hall, a couple on the verge of divorce, whose business had failed, were pushing packing materials around in a bitter silence. As we walked into the sun dappled kitchen, we looked at each other and decided wordlessly. This is where we would live. And we did! At the end of two happy verging on hilarious years, we prepared to leave. I sat in the hall, my first baby a secret still in my belly. A gay couple walked in to view the house. “Were you happy here?” one of them asked. “Yes!” I said, smiling at him. I wanted to tell him, ‘You will be too! I guarantee it!’. After all, we’d spent two years, with friends and family, ‘putting love into the walls.”
Which is why when you find your dream house, chances are, you won’t know it until you’ve spent a few years in it. You’ll have seen it in the morning, waking up, motes dancing in the cotton-curtain-filtered dawn light. You’ve seen it bedraggled and leaky and mouldy, giving up the fight against the Bombay monsoon. You’ve decked it up for parties, washed the kids’ arts off the walls, you know how long it takes for the water to come out of the tap at ‘peak hour’, you jiggle the main lock like a secret handshake, you have a nap-map, you watch a tree grow past your window…
Over the years, the bad times and the good times are inextricably linked with the houses you lived in. Where your babies were conceived, the first big party you threw, where you slept the night your mother died…
Time passes. It needs refurbishment, it needs work but you’re willing to do what it takes because houses are not homes until you’ve put your heart into them, put love into the walls.
It’s time to leave the one I live in now. I’m preparing for a long goodbye.