The churchyard may not be the best place for it, but Amelie and I jump up and down and hug each other anyway, right in the midst of the funereal crowd. I’ve just filed past an open coffin for the very first time in my small, sheltered life, and emerged from the church to a message from the letting agent. The paperwork’s all gone through. They’ve accepted my unconventional financial status, and they want me to sign the lease as soon as I’m able. Even Joe, whose birth father’s final farewell we’ve been attending, joins the celebration of my first step to freedom. Later he’ll write in the house warming card from all my colleagues. Home is where the heart is, and your heart’s been here for some time. I’m coming home to the city I love at last.
A week on, and I don’t feel quite so confident. I push the key into the lock of the peeling brown front door and turn it. Nothing happens.
It’s the wrong key! This isn’t my house at all.
Have you tried turning it the other way?
It hasn’t even entered my head. I’ve lived more than twenty-six years in the same house. Is there more than one way to turn a front door key? Apparently there is. Moments later my prosaic daughter and I are standing in the middle of the narrow lounge. It smells of stale curry. It looks naked, and about as vulnerable as I feel right now. We unpack the brand new kettle from its Tesco bag, fill it and make tea.
I’ve always been good at making tea. It’s a Pavlovian response. Give me an existential crisis and the first thing I’ll do is put on the kettle. In my twenty-six-year former home, it was a full-blown ritual involving a proper pot and exactly the right amount of tea. You can’t beat a ritual for creating order when everything’s falling apart round your ears. These days I’m happy with mugs and teabags. On a good day, I might even stretch to coffee.
I admire the black, Edwardian fireplace. It was almost completely concealed by a huge sofa when I came to view the house, but this and the pine stairs were the things that sold the place to me. It’s probably as well I don’t know now quite how much tea I’m going to be making over the next few years. The mugs we’re drinking from are the cheapest Tesco had to offer. I have two green camping chairs and I feel like a princess. I’m starting from scratch in the heart of the city, which is no mean feat for a fifty-two-year-old woman who’s lived most of her life in semi-rural Wiltshire. Soon my husband’s going to start bombarding me with letters – up to four a day, until he meets someone else. Then, while he’s still in full flood, I’m going to happen across Charlie who’ll blow my fragile security to kingdom come. All that’s brooding on the horizon for now. At this very moment I’m more bothered by the fact that I don’t own a decent potato peeler. A few weeks down the line and I’ll be called ‘shallow’ for just this, by the man who never peeled a potato in the thirty-two years we lived together.
The first night in the city. I got married when I was nineteen, and I’ve never lived alone in my life. The cacophony of sirens and the passing express trains that rattle the cooker are no substitutes for the dog dreaming of rabbits, children waking from nightmares or a teenager stumbling in at one in the morning to tell you they’ve won a telly in the works’ Christmas raffle. My twenty-six-year home always teemed with life – cats, dogs, neighbours, children, friends – as well as the family, of course. I’m not used to my own company, and I’m not sure I like it. It would be so easy to go back, if it wasn’t midnight. If I could put all the grief behind me. If I hadn’t burned my boats. In the clear light of morning it’ll look different of course, but right now I’d give my eye teeth for the smallest familiar sound or smell.
I close the front door behind the man from Telewest and switch on the telly my daughter and son-in-law have given me. Ah, Telewest, you were so much better than Virgin Media. For the first time ever, the remote is under my control, but before I’ve flipped the channel I realise my son-in-law’s actually on the screen. He’s washing Roman pottery behind Tony Robinson on Time Team. You couldn’t write life. It’s my first glimpse of the synchronicity in all this. Life’s way to tell me whatever the future, there’s no going back to the past. It’s broken and buried, and unlike the pots, it’s best left where it is.
The first few months in my little house pass in a bubble. It’s as if nothing can touch me. I grow potatoes in the rock-hard soil of the tiny back yard. I watch rubbish on telly and find myself looking forward to long evenings in my own company. I borrow the neighbours’ cat and she sleeps on my bed when they’re out. I eat poached eggs every night and lose two stone. Is that a new diet book, still waiting to be written? Thus I start to believe it must’ve been entirely his fault the marriage didn’t work.
What I can’t yet know is I’m about to lose the job that brought me here, or that the loss will start the chain that leads to Charlie. I’ll think I’m doing fine by then. A man the one thing lacking in my life. The missing piece to make my world complete. How immature and selfish will I be to place that expectation on another? He’ll not be mature enough, no more will I. Nor will either be sufficiently unselfish to avoid dependence on the other. It’s a meeting that will half destroy the both of us. An unmitigated co-dependent nightmare. But this too will one day be a step on in the story, and time will come I’ll learn how to be glad.