Home is where the heart is

Seven years ago, my husband, baby son and I moved house. There were a number of sensible reasons for the move. 5 York Street had suited us very well as a working couple, but add a baby and all the associated paraphernalia, and we began to run out of space. I worried about our location (there were increasing numbers of students and our family lifestyle wasn’t compatible; drug dealers lived around the corner; parking was a nightmare, and we didn’t like our neighbour). Then my Father died, and we wanted to be closer to my Mother, so we put our home on the market. The house we now live in suits us much better.

But it is not my dream home.

In my dreams, I’m often back in 5 York Street, that little slice of a house where we made so many memories. I see the brass plate on the inside of the front door, where the shine had been worn away by the constant touch of hands shutting out the world. For me, shutting out the noise of cars, of drunk students, of delivery lorries. But long before me, others were shutting out the cattle from the fields that used to be just around the corner. Every day they’d make their way to the old dairy; now ASDA, Next, Marks and Spencer. I see the silvered hook on the bathroom door, carefully positioned and secured by my Father. We left it there. I feel the familiar smoothness of the door at the foot of the stairs as I grasp it gently and pull it open; see the marks where there once was a handle, long ago removed. I hear the door groan as it opens and I see the old paint we never had time to paint over, probably full of lead, and yellowed and peeling with age. I peer round the twist in the stairs and stop, halfway up, to turn and look through the round window, the porthole that inspired the colours I chose for the little house. Aquas, sky blues, pebble whites, the palest of sea greens.

Little is understating it. It was almost Liliputian. In the street nearest the railway line, and built for the poorest railway workers in the 1860’s, York Street contains some of the smallest Victorian terraced houses in Cambridge. The estate agent used a very wide-angle lens to photograph it as he told me how sought after it would be.

There was no front garden, straight off the street into the front parlour. But the back door led to a spacious and peaceful haven that belied its city centre location. All the gardens of the long narrow street were divided by low picket fences, so although our plot was a little ribbon, the view was vast. Mature trees, planted half a century ago, nodded sagely at the succession of students, yuppy commuters and old retainers who sat gratefully in their dappled shade. The soil was wonderful, it was possible to grow anything, and I was always turning up tiny shards of Victorian pottery, sometimes vicious in their sharpness as if dropped yesterday.

Two older gentlemen, neighbours of mine, were cousins who were born in their tiny homes. One used to like to look at maps on the hottest days, protected by an elderly sun hat as he sat quietly studying countries he’d never visited. He wasn’t the neighbour we didn’t like.

I spent a lot of time in our garden over the years. Fifteen years, the longest I’ve lived anywhere. Pastel coloured roses vied for space with English lavender. Old, mossy terracotta pots were filled with tumbling pansies, daisies and deep blue lobelia. There was a perverse peach tree which dropped its fragrant fruit into our neighbour’s garden, so eventually we cut it down and planted a small flowering cherry in its place. The last time I was in York Street, it was blossoming.

The day 5 York Street went on the market, the house and the garden were perfect. If I could, I would have imprisoned it, frozen it in time. We went out for the day and 23 sets of viewings were conducted by the estate agent. We’d given him instructions. We told him we wanted someone to buy it who would live in it, who wanted a home. 5 York Street had never suffered the indignity of being a buy-to-let like so many others in the street; a rundown hovel for students, a gutted monument to upvc windows. Inside its tiny rooms, behind its aged pine doors, as old as the house, families had spent their lives. Children had been born and raised. One young man who had lived in the house had died just after the First World War, and was buried in the local cemetery. We visited him sometimes.

Two days later, and the house was sold. My perfect little home. To a young woman we’d never met who’d bid a lot higher than the asking price and who, we were told, would be living there. We needed the money, we accepted the offer. And the soul of the house died, there and then. We failed it.

We moved out, and the next day a gaggle of Spanish students moved in, a bed was crammed into every room, bikes piled up outside the front door, curtains thrown up and left permanently closed. My husband called round to collect the mail. He asked for the owner and was told it was our neighbour. A property developer who had ruined the house next to ours by gutting it and putting in an extra floor to make more money from it. He had bribed the estate agent and we were too naive to realise. Stupid, stupid …

My heart broke.

From time to time,  I really go back to 5 York Street. The door and windows haven’t been painted since we left, and the garden is almost gone. Only the flowering cherry remains, a glorious explosion of pink, frothing blossom amongst the rampant, dirty weeds. There isn’t even grass anymore.

Of course, most of my heart is where I live now, with my family. In a house with no soul and no history. A practical compromise.  Perhaps it’s better that way.

Most nights, I go back to 5 York Street in my dreams. As it was, perfect and frozen in time. I think perhaps I always will.


Away, under the sea

‘I’ve been away, under the sea,’ my father said. He’d been taken into hospital for a serious operation, a vain attempt to cure the illness that, six months later, killed him. When he came round from the anesthetic, he was confused, putting strings of words together randomly, in sentences we desperately tried, and failed, to decode. After a couple of weeks, my father emerged and, smiling wanly, told me he’d been under the sea.

The sea is a common metaphor in my family coming, as we do, from people who built ships on the Clyde. One of my grandfathers, I’m told, dreamt portentous dreams of the deep.

I’ve been away under the sea myself lately. Deep down in the dark on the seabed, bound up with bladderwrack and unable to swim to the surface.

Swimming has always been an issue for me. I’ve never been one of those people who can jump in and swim effortlessly, resiliently, through the waves. A rather inelegant doggie paddle sees me through.

But from time to time, the sea sucks possessively at me, I find myself pulled, dragged, down and for a while, the waves close over my head. As I descend, I struggle, of course I do, and sometimes people close by are wounded as I thrash about. Some kind souls (perhaps the distant descendants of lifeboatmen) try to pull me back up and sometimes they succeed. Other times, I quietly slip to the bottom, unremarked.

Eventually, the lure of the sunlight glinting on the surface is too strong and I emerge, as my father did, smiling wanly.

At this time of the year, I find myself drawn to the sea, to the edge of the land. It seems endless, far beyond the horizon. So powerful, controlling, unpredictable, unsettling and dangerously seductive. I look. And look. The sea sighs and I sigh too. Can you hear it … ?

I’ve been away, under the sea.