The shock of separation and leaving the “family home” last September, a home we built together over a decade ago and were never meant to leave, has finally subsided just in time for Christmas. I never imagined the day would come when I’d feel at home again.
I was detached from my old life: an unsettled feeling followed me around for months. The small Victorian house I initially rented, untouched since the early 1980s, radiators not working, cracks in the floors, electricity sockets hanging dangerously from walls, was partly to blame.
When I walked through the rickety front door of the house, which I’d only seen on estate agent’s video during “lockdown one” last year, I was catapulted into panic.
I’ve gone over and over the pain and upset I felt the moment I entered that rental, and yet still I can’t get to grips with why I didn’t just hand back the keys and walk away. A house that felt so far from being a home that I couldn’t sleep at night – forget walking, I wished I’d sprinted and never looked back.
I only retell this story as it’s been almost a year since I moved for the second time, finally landing somewhere I can sleep at night: the place I now live with my children. I moved from the Victorian ramshackle rental to a new build located on a mews of seven houses; here I found the love I needed. No, I haven’t eloped with the guy next door – it’s neighbourly love that’s brought so much joy this past year.
I was so busy admiring the clean, spacious loft-style house that not for one second did I consider I’d get to know anyone. Who does that in London? I’ll tell you who, my Northern mother who talks to everyone on the Tube. She often hops off at my local station with people’s phone numbers scribbled in her diary. Mum once met a woman somewhere near Oxford Circus and hired her as my new intern.
The house at the top of the mews is where two brothers and their friend live. Aged between 22 and 28, when it comes to raising boys, they’re something to aim for, confident and polite.The first day I met them I was lying on the ground struggling with a punctured tyre on my son’s bike. They had it sorted within seconds.
The communal garden just along from their house is where we pulled our barbecues together in summer and sat at a long wooden table to share delicious lunches prepped by “M”, an Italian whose food is like being in “mama’s” kitchen in Milano.
His wife works in art and I often find myself seated at her kitchen island on a Sunday morning, both of us wearing pyjamas, hair bedraggled, coffee in hand. The house next door is home to a member of a famous band I won’t name; to my right is an Indian family from Mumbai, settled in London via Seattle. I am the lucky recipient of regular Sunday night curry deliveries.
The street is gated and secure with alarms and CCTV, so we often keep our doors unlocked so kids and dogs can run freely between the houses. Sometimes, on a Saturday afternoon, I’ll be cooking in the kitchen, only to be joined by several children plus the neighbour’s dog. Living here has provided me with a renewed sense of well-being that’s unrelated to bricks and mortar. I’ve found a community who look out for me.
Having just made an offer on a house over a mile away, I’m waiting for the survey to come back. I’m already dreading the day a removal van pulls up to take us away from mews life and back to living in a house with a closed door.
The generosity and kindness of neighbours has pulled me through this year. Their love, the source of much needed healing, has provided the kind of human connection I’ve never experienced in London before.
Last week, the neighbours to the right invited me and the rest of the mews to a delayed Diwali party. Between the Scots, French, Italians and Indians there’s a shared appreciation of a celebratory glass – regardless of religious holiday – enjoyed somewhat zealously by all nations.
We gathered for small fireworks on the cobblestones outside. Freezing in a borrowed sari, I went inside to warm up and parked myself next to one of the aforementioned delightful young men (young men? I already sound like a pervert) who live at the top of the mews. He was an extraordinarily funny raconteur, As rattled off several stories involving his father, fast cars and superyachts, my ears pricked up.
Perhaps my neighbour’s 60-year-old dad should be taking me out on a date? Three reds down, I casually pitched the idea of dating his father in a way I thought subtle enough, as in I didn’t say: “I’d love to be your step-mother.” My young neighbour smiled, then leaning towards me whispered, “Well, sorry Stace, you’re actually too old for dad. He dates women in their 30s”. I mean, wow. OK. Lolz…
Seeking out thrilling dates with thrilling yet unavailable men young or old is funny. Until it’s not. Enter “the Environmentalist” – not an actual vegan, sandal-wearing type of environmentalist; more someone who works in the business of environmentalism providing ecological advice for business – which is the moniker I shall give the person I met through an app in July.
Only eight days older than me (surely that’s a good thing?) he’s been gently circling in the background of my life causing zero difficult-to-navigate waves, nor even a single ripple. We’ve been chatting over WhatsApp for months and during each exchange, I chose to not sugar-coat the truth.
“How’s your holiday going?” he asked one day in early August. “It’s day three, and I’ve already been to A&E four times.” A father himself, he remained resolutely unperturbed, he didn’t flinch.
Over time, I realised this person is not only on a similar trajectory to me, but he can handle it. All of it. So, I caved, and we met in a pub on Hampstead Heath and lunch turned to dinner and I went on to meet him a further two times before doing what I seem to do when things are uncomplicated and easy: I decided to not see him again. Much rather see the unavailable ex who turned up at my door, right? Wrong.
When I need to seek solace, it’s the words of American writer Joan Didion I return to time and time again. In her book The Year of Magical Thinking, published in 2005 after the death of her husband (author John Gregory Dunne who died in 2003), Didion describes so beautifully the insanity one feels when stuck in the tunnel of grief.
I’ve read it countless times and over this past year of insane grief, albeit a different kind of death, it remains a permanent fixture on my bedside table.
Didion tells stories with eviscerating truth that are often hardcore and uncomfortable to read. I realised recently how uncomfortable “uncomplicated” feels sometimes for me. Why didn’t I walk away from that Breaking Bad house last year?
With that revelation, I decided to gently push the boat out towards the ripples of discomfort by way of WhatsApp to the Environmentalist. A lunch date is set. I feel eerily calm. Mind you, it’s a week away. There’s still time to jump overboard.