Season 3, 007: Use a room in your current house or a former home to tell us a story of your values, your habits: where you've lived, what you've lived for...
It took me six months to acclimatise to the dark. As my circadian rhythm performed its nightly imbalance I’d blink, trying to break through the pitch.
Waking up in the night started long before we moved here, when I was pregnant. ‘It will take you a year’ had actually only taken one half-hearted attempt. Surprise turned surprisingly quickly to dread.
The generous time estimate had been my buffer. One year to cement my fledgling career enough to come back to it. One year to make sure Tom was father material. One year to grow up.
My breasts swelled and insomnia became the third figure in our London bed. A silent and cumbersome guest as the city barged past the window. Otherwise paralysed, my eyes would track the car headlights that blanched the ceiling, intermittently breaking up the street lamps until it all faded into the dawn.
In my fifth month, during a rare unconscious moment, I dreamt that I was trying to win a horse race astride a dachshund. The tiny dog, sweating and exhausted, couldn't reach the finish line. I woke up to an unsettling sticky warmth between my legs.
A scan confirmed the miscarriage. In the amber nights that followed, resentment and doubt morphed into a turgid wrestle between relief and guilt. It took several months to deal with everything, and then we limped northwards towards the reassuring embrace of wild air, peace. A Fresh Start.
Like a dog with a rag, insomnia held my scent and followed us up the road.
In the seventh month Tom bought a clock radio. Then the neon glow of the numbers cast a ghostly sheen through the water glass, etching an outline of the duvet.
A yew tree grew in the garden of the house where I was born. Needled, bitter green, studded acid red with berries tempting as fruit. Some remnant of Victorian planting, incongruous in our moss green northern valley of Beech and Oak.
I’d climb, high into its wide embrace, of sun dapple, skin shadow, branch, twig and scented bark. Beneath the tree, slippery flagstones, slimed with fallen berries and the leaf matter of years.
The tree loomed high above valley slopes so precipitous I felt, if I only ran fast enough, I could leap from our side to the other, high over the river, the stony fields, and weaving walls, to where sheep grazed on ridges grooved horizontally into the sloping earth.
I knew my way down to the river pool; the damp home smell of lime plaster, and scorched tang of the electric fire. Knew, when the sheep began to bleat incessantly in summer, that their babies had been taken. I wondered, when they stopped, whether they had forgotten.
I was eight when we left. To brick cul de sacs, borrowed army furniture. Straight privet hedges and neat flat lawns. The smell of hot tarmac made soft by a southern sun.
I returned only once. Walking down the steep track from the Shap Road, where my parents once cleaved a path through deep snowdrift, my new sister in a carrycot on my father’s shoulders. Down the ridged valley, past the river pool, where in summer we swam naked in clear water, emerging, dripping, at dusk.
The Yew tree was gone, leaving only a raw wound of naked wood, ringed with stone. The house had the vulnerable, naked look of a newly shorn sheep without the dark old tree centring it, and the flagstones were dry and clean.
A room in the house where once I lived
Pretty blue wallpaper. How I loved it. And the clean white paintwork. I moved from a tiny room to the large room with views over the park. Lots of floor space, and my desk. Being quite studious it eventually took centre stage in the middle of the room, and I sat with my back to the window, which meant I was less easily distracted from my studies. I enjoyed my senior school years, and my favourite subject was biology. I can still see those drawings and diagrams of the different animal and plant species that formed the syllabus, and the natural world continues to be a great passion.
My ‘new’ bedroom had an open fireplace with black shiny ‘leadwork,’ and in the winter I would have a coal fire, topped up by my mum and dad. How they must have treasured me, an only child, whose younger sister died within twenty-four hours of birth. Only when my mum was spiralling downhill with dementia did I find out about my sister, and I went with mum to her GP to allow me to know the basic details of my sister’s way too short life.
Life wasn’t always wonderful but thinking about that room surfaces happy memories. Listening to the wind soughing in the Willow trees just beyond the fence. Pinning back the net curtains to allow the views of the park full rein. Completing homework and studying and the sense of satisfaction that brought me.
And then, leaving that room behind on a Saturday morning, walking out of the door with my about to be husband, and heading to the registry office and the start of a new life, the one that I am happily living now. Such clear, happy memories.
This theme resonates well. I have spent the past eight months living in 5 different homes as I wander and wonder in the Centralian Desert. And I have come to know this: no matter the physicality of a place, no matter the condition, location, size, or grandeur of a home, I make it my own. This typically involves all things sensory – a bedroom with light, living plants, fresh inviting bed linen; a kitchen with enough things to create and nourish my body and soul; an altar – light from a window, candles, incense, flowers, stones, feathers and other found objects that have significance; all is swept, dusted, and cleaned with photos of my own ones on the walls. Oh, and my stove top coffee pot and cup accompany me unfailingly, everywhere.
I have a recent history of moving about. I have lived in apartments and villas in Italy, a pokey flat in Scotland, a caravan in Switzerland, a camper van in Australia, a tent in Ireland, other folks’ homes, my own house. I have lived alone and also shared space – with a lover, with strangers. And in every one of those abodes, I have felt at home. My home is where I am - and my most comfortable place is within me. That is the room that will tell you of my habits, my values, my reasons for living, my why. From there I describe the scenes and routines that give meaning to my every-day.
Every morning has a ritual – independent of place: tea first, journal writing, a series of stretches to meaningful music, breakfast, and coffee. I take note of the birdsong, thank them. My soul needs this to set the rhythm for the day, to wind up my energy and move outward towards the things that I live for. I live for adventure, connecting with people in moments to be remembered and cherished. Without people in my home, in my room, there is no value, no context, no relativity, nothing from which to reflect.
The photograph of me in bed, reading my Garfield book, just my face & hands peeping out of the deliberately arranged Marks and Spencer rosebud covers. My father must have tucked me up and taken the photograph, when he was visiting one weekend, when there was still tenderness.
Arranging the bedding just so, so nothing that wasn’t rosebuds could be seen in the photo. The whole room in fact, decorated to within an inch of its life in that rosebud theme – printed wallpaper, pillowcases, counterpane – even a clock, a jug, a china bunny with a hole for cotton balls to be its continuously available tail. I tried so hard to make it look like the adverts, what it should be.
The house suited the antiques favoured by my mother and stepfather. Amongst the relentless rosebuds of my bedroom was mahogany freestanding furniture and my bed. When mess threatened to overwhelm, I’d blitz it back to precise tidiness. I’d often move my furniture around to see if, finally, could this configuration be the one in which I could maintain order?
I moved my room around so frequently that eventually a leg broke from my bed. I removed the other three to create a mutated bed that wasn’t like anything my friends had. But this time, from the shame yet again of my bed, my room, my life not being what it should be, I started to try on how it might feel to actively choose something different.
I loved that weird bed so much.
My first bedroom was a tiny box room at the front of a suburban new build semi- detached house with a yellow door. The 80’s dream. It overlooked a manicured world of flowers and neatness, bookended by a newly built garden wall. Pink flowery walls with matching curtains and duvet. John Lewis don’t you know. Handmade by my mother in between the nightly arguments. Unsettled, sleepless evenings listening to endless circular, repetitive rows in my tiny room, I loved that it was mine. Safe, cocooned. It didn’t last.
When we had to move out, leaving my Dad broken into pieces on the green sofa, it was into a soulless rented flat with cream wood chip walls and shared bunk beds with my sister. No room of mine. No pink. Weekends back and for between my parents, my childhood room was no longer safe. Empty, one parent, sad and broken.
I moved back with my Dad for a while for school. He re-decorated the box room with thick pink candy stripes and it was mine again, but only in the week. Not forever. Back and forth, pillar to post, sharing bunk beds with step- siblings we barely knew, to my mothers in an adjacent town.
I lost my virginity in the pink candy box room one fumbling afternoon when my Dad was at work. Doing things with my boyfriend too young in my tiny childhood room, I searched for a home in him.
My Dad remarried and I was shunted to another pink box room in another suburban semi with my mother and stepfather. Smoking in that pink room with the lead windows open in defiance, playing angry protest songs, it was never mine.
I still often choose pink for my bedroom, for duvets and curtains. Still searching for a home that never was.
Attic of Dissociation
On the 3rd floor of my childhood home, a walk-in attic with a wooden door opened to the cedar-lined room with slanted ceilings. The scent of cedar was grounding and soothing as it wafted from the rafters. It was a hidden room I would return to at least once a week for over 20 years.
The attic was like an old pressure cooker with over-done things. It was filled with treasures: my father’s sailor suit, my mother’s bridal gown, and honeymoon negligees. Cummerbunds, bowties, and overcoats. Lacy veils and crowns. Leopard skins from my father’s Bass drum, highland kilts, and argyle jackets. Remnants of childhood memories: costumes, leather ballet slippers, pink tutus, tap shoes, communion dresses, ice skates, wool sweaters, and mittens. Handmade blankets, crocheted tablecloths, and linens. Stacks of books, old magazines, and photos lingered.
It was a magical place of reverie, a quiet, secluded space where I could hide. I had complete privacy to contemplate whatever idea was percolating in my head. I cherished this solitude with all my heart.
What drew me to this room was my father’s United States Navy Medical Manual of Injuries and Diseases of War. My father was a Field Medic in the Navy. I would climb three flights of stairs to look at this manual of horrific war wounds and amputations, peeking with one eye, to scare myself by viewing these gruesome pictures. I would return to this room, sitting on the floor for hours, leafing through the pages of this book.
In this attic of dissociation, I witnessed horrendous physical injuries that provided comfort as a distraction from family tension. My mother was intrusive and physically abusive. The adrenaline charge of this repetitive behavior was stored in the trauma of bodily memories held in this room.
This is a tale of two kitchens. The first, from my childhood, is vast, like the nave of a church, and airy. It has enormous sash windows, impossibly high ceilings, thick stone walls. It has, everyone agrees, huge potential. They say this instead of saying that it is dank, filthy and cold.
My father spends hours explaining to the few audiences he can muster all the difficulties involved with renovating the kitchen. The difficulties are many, so we must make do. Mildew on the walls, mouse droppings in the butter, the oven door propped shut with an angled pole. Cupboards hold long-expired packets with long-hardened contents. Only one hob ring works. My father buys the cheapest bread and calculates its cost per slice. He does not need to do this.
This is the room where, once, my father flung open a window and hurled the Sunday joint across the garden, its arcing bascule in stark contrast to our frozen horror within. It is the room where he taught me to waltz, my girlish feet balanced carefully upon his slippered ones. It is the room where, one winter’s night, my mother, cooking in coat, hat and gloves, finally decided that enough was enough.
My kitchen today is bright with rows of small round lights. We have five hob plates of varying sizes, two ovens, a multitude of tools and contraptions, nearly all of which we use. Oils and vinegars and herbs crowd onto surfaces. The fridge is full of colour. Even the floor is heated. Am I compensating, I wonder? Probably, I decide. And? Here we host, talk, laugh and argue (though neither of us has ever thrown a roast). Here I define myself by what I no longer am. Here I define myself by love.
On Valentine’s Day, they went to the Italian deli in Mount Storm to buy salami and cheese, baguettes, olives, and red wine. They bought cheesecake slices or a French tart with caramelized pears. They laid all of this out on their coffee table, a few feet from the TV, and sat on the floor, their legs extended under the table. They poured wine into each other’s thick, stumpy water glasses, and watched a movie they’d rented from the library. His long, black, wavy hair was pulled back in a pony tail. Her hair was pixie short and brown. She looked younger than 26. She had put on weight in the past few years, often saying, “Love makes me fat.” She did love him, but she needed to leave.
She knew this for years, but the orange lamp kept drawing her back. Who would keep it? He had bought it for her last Christmas, a wrought-iron base with an orange lampshade. It balanced perfectly in a little scene on the north side of their living room. Next to it was his favourite antique chair, with crimson velvet upholstery on the seat, tattered at the corners, and thick, sturdy arms and legs. There was an oak end table and a framed abstract print of a cyclist in France, in shades of peach, blue and black. The whole scene was perfect. It calmed her to look at it on an anxious day. Who would keep the lamp?
She wrote this all down in the noisy, dim lunch room at work. Outside it was snowing. Giving up their life felt like too much to bear during those cold winter months. They should be buried together in their house under feet of snow. They should be cuddling, huddling under their goose-down duvet.
My brother left home and my parents took his bedroom for its panoramic view over the city to the sea. I got their room. Huge and luxurious with a white carpet, an electric wall fire and gigantic windows that opened quietly onto the garden.
It was the early seventies. I was twelve but aspirational and they indulged me. Mandarin coloured ceiling, white space-age-eyeball spotlights (with dimmer switch!) and a built-in, Formica desk. With my brother’s bed repurposed as a settee, and mum’s dressing table turned into a music centre, my new space was less bedroom, more bedsitter. I absolutely adored it. Which was fortunate because then I caught glandular fever and was forced to isolate for three months.
The view of the garden sustained me through the difficult and debilitating illness. Two giant trees and a trapeze waited patiently. The doves cooed sympathetically.
The picture I pinned above the wall-fire was less bucolic. Not Donny Osmond or David Cassidy but a caveman clutching a spanner atop a pile of burning ruins. I wanted to stare at the apocalypse and listen to dissonant music. Again and again.
For me, what you look at in a room and what you observe outside must constantly change. Traffic, birds, trees, people are always on the move therefore ornaments, books, pictures should shift and mutate too. As a small child I would spend a Saturday rearranging toys, and still, when sad, I like to do a rehang or curate shelves.
We’re living in limbo in an Air BNB at the moment, waiting to start a new life in a bungalow with a view. I cannot change anything in this tiny holiday let, although I would like to. My space is restricted. My imagination isn’t.
My son's room is bright yellow. The shade 'Tibetan Gold' - actually he dreamed of a golden room but that felt like an impossibility. Yellow walls and yellow floor, in the morning, the sunshine streams across the floor creating welcoming joyful patterns.
The lights are yellow too. The dedication and desperation for sleep means we go to bed always in a glow of yellow, orange and red. No blue light allowed except of course the glare of the fought over phone. Single bed covered in cuddly toys, a weighted blanket, books, Lego. All the trappings of a cosy, homely room for a joyous boy. But a bed and a room shunned and unslept in.
Seven years of this boy sleeping by my side. Refusing to budge despite the chosen yellow room. Seven years of feet kicking into me, teeth grinding next to me, continuously fighting off sleep. Of tears and exhaustion, of closeness and of love. I wonder how it would be to sleep languorously every night in my own bed? A grown up once more, master of my own domain, the possibility of new love. How it would be to have a child who slept alone?
When will the time come that we are both able to put the tumult and terror of your arrival finally to bed? That we are both safe and secure enough and no hidden fear lingers in the darkness to tease us, just gentle all-embracing night and peace.
I crave the space, the time for me, the possibility of a life opened up once more and yet your closeness in the night gives me comfort. To know that you are alive and well, my anchor through the storm. Who knew that mothering would be such paradox, would be like this? Certainly not I.
Thank you again so much Tanya for another truly thought-provoking prompt. Having moved around so many times in my life, this invitation to write is one that I will keep exploring and considering how all those places have informed what I live for now... Thank you again so much for providing this space to write.
The moon lights up the sky above me, illuminating the slate tiles that form an exoskeleton around our house. Oh how this hidden home that is nestled in the folds of the Cornish countryside finds glory under the cover of darkness.
I am wide awake while the rest of the house sleeps. The clock has not yet passed five and I’m standing on the doorstep clutching a cup of tea. My eyes are drawn to the stars above me, awe finds form in the wispy dragon’s breath that escapes my mouth.
Returning to the county of my childhood was not something I ever envisaged, let alone returning there to bring up our children. Yet under the watchful gaze of the night sky, I find my shoulders dropping and a pocket of contentment sneaks its way in. This house at the end of the lane that is so often overlooked has provided the biggest lesson for me in terms of noticing all that is right in front of me, in taking the time to just observe and relish one quiet fleeting moment.
As the cold begins to nip at my hands, I return to the kitchen—a room that has shapeshifted many times during the history of this house. It’s a place where we congregate over cups of tea that go cold as the white noise of family living reverberates through the house.
That’s the joy of living here, you never know how each room was used before or what intestinal hum will sing out from the walls. The thought that over the years many families have expanded into this space, finding their own fit and form, provides me with yet another lesson, this time in gratitude and wonder at the brevity yet breathtaking beauty of all the lives lived before us.
The stunning cacophony of all the reds ever imagined, freed from the plastic bag, rinsed in a bright orange colander and dropped into a well worn stainless steel pot. Unadorned reds before they are sparked with ginger and cinnamon and the juice of a freshly squeezed orange. Before the splash of water and the dash of sugar to ease the puckering tartness. Before the heat makes them pop with one last story.
This pot of berries tells the story of how sand and peat and gravel left behind from receding glaciers rests on a thick impervious layer of clay. The story of vines entwined, of tiny white flowers tickled by bees and transformed into berries, of the green before the red. The story of buoyancy, of glistening in a bog, of warm sun and splattering rain, of thunder rolling across the surface, shaking life up a bit.
These berries plump with my story too. Stories of the brazen red lipsticks and nail polishes from my twenties. The trading of red for the practical neutrals of motherhood in my thirties. The red of the high heeled patent leather open toed pumps I bought when I turned forty. The shoes about which Jeff said, “If they make you happy,” and I felt that he thought they were a waste of money. The story of how new they looked when I tossed them in the red Salvation Army bin.
But these reds, these cranberry reds, how they simmer and steam. I stir and sample. Add more ginger, more cinnamon. I scoop these berries into a hand thrown bowl, a bowl also born from clay and painted with bees and place them on my red kitchen table and my family says, “thank you.”
I wake to find ice on the inside of the windscreen. My breath is visible in the air. It’s a cold that both comforts and scares me and I can’t help thinking “How am I still alive?”. I’m wrapped in my bright orange, Ralph Lauren Polo Ski Jacket, curled up in the front passenger seat of my car. It’s how many of my days started in 2012.
My Blue Convertible Mini-One had been my home for about 18 months. The vehicle was constructed by BMW and had all the perks of that marque, but it was never designed for the use I was now putting it to.
It’s the second winter that I’d been using my car as my bedroom and as ever, I’d promised myself that if the temperature dropped below minus two degrees I’d get inside.
I could either sofa-surf, a term the homeless charity industry decided to use to describe sleeping on a friend's floor or sofa. You’d think it’s a cool play on words, that makes the experience sound exciting and fun - but it’s not.
Or get into a budget room. I’d built an excellent relationship with the manager of the Tune Hotel in Waterloo. As it was a Malaysian company, they were still old school, so I could negotiate a room rate at reception and I was allowed to pay in cash and without ID.
Even the YMCA would no longer let me stay without a passport & credit card - How mad is that?
That temperature selection by the way was utterly arbitrary. It just came to me. Under two degrees Paul, get inside. But zero is freezing, so why not zero? Four degrees above you can easily die of hypothermia, so why that figure? I’ll never know; but it clearly worked, because I’m still fighting.
In the whitewashed room, so cold you didn’t need a fridge to keep the milk from turning.
The mattress on the floor, a fortress of furs. As if in the efforts of romanticism I would be enveloped from the cold truth. The bruised skin and bone underneath, buried underground.
Without leaving the bed we mixed White Russians and dropped needles onto records. Scratching around in the dark. Living in fantasy to conceal reality. The image of decadence, abundance, creative freedom in a room so empty, it was a lie. Watching the little black blooms on the stark fresh canvas. The mouldy reality creeping back in. This was my lowest. I had tried to leave him many times, but I couldn’t escape him, like the stink of rot in the walls. I was so lost I’d given up. Letting life happen to me, too weak to punch back. The things I said were turned against me. The power of my voice reflected, weaponised in a counter attack. So I slipped out, when no one was looking, and began a second life, in the dark, underground- far away from myself.
Once I had the There are/There is the piece flowed very easily and quickly. Thanks for the Adrienne Rich poem, not aware of that particular poem of hers.