It is odd how much smaller a room looks once it is empty. When all that is left of the furniture is dents in the carpet and only a few nails remain in the walls to suggest where pictures once hung, there is nothing to provide a sense of scale except the odd ball of dust. Previous flats looked good naked – all ceiling roses and sash windows – but this modern box is soulless left to its own devices: white and somehow flimsy. I see flaws I’d never noticed before – the paint flecks on the wooden floors, the streaks on the balcony windows, and, damn, was that chip in the worktop my doing?
The first time I moved house was shortly after my parents’ divorce. I was 17, and it happened while I was on holiday over the summer: I packed up my bedroom before I left and returned “home” to somewhere that wasn’t home at all. I spent only a few short years in the house into which we moved, but they were formative ones: driving tests and exam results and break-ups and dinner parties hosted while my mother hid in her bedroom upstairs. I moved out twice – once to go to university (three different flats, but each time the same boxes consisting mostly of the complete works of Shakespeare and a trolley’s worth of Ikea), and again into my first adult home in London. Four flats followed, in which I won jobs and was made redundant, found love and lost it, drank a lot and laughed a lot, held and was held. In which I stayed up all night for US elections and referendum results and the Oscars. I found leaving each of them both anxiety- and nostalgia-inducing.
But this most recent move was different. I closed the front door for the last time without pausing to remember, without one last, wistful look around. My life was already elsewhere. This cold detachment is partially, I am sure, self-protection: when you move every year (or every couple, if you’re lucky), it is too exhausting to imbue each upheaval with great emotion. Moving is simply a sequence of steps that must be followed, and I know this dance well by now. I no longer need to write notes to self about meter readings or Polyfilla.
I am in touch with the new tenants of my former home, and I spend a long time with them on FaceTime, trying to explain how the hot-water tank works. Seeing them pass between the rooms I once inhabited is not unsettling or disorientating, but strangely neutral. They have no idea – and I realise that this is verging on Daily Mail-article-about-the-setting-of-some-long-ago-grisly-murder-being-listed-on-Zoopla territory – what those walls have seen, and their blissful ignorance is enviable.
My first stop is house-sitting for some friends who are travelling around Australia and New Zealand for a couple of months. I expected living in someone else’s home, among their family photographs and holiday souvenirs, to feel unreal, even uncomfortable, but I find it suits me rather well.
My bedroom is in the attic, up three flights of stairs, and I sweat out the hangover from my best friend’s wedding hoisting boxes up to it. I am not used to having multiple floors over which to roam (the novelty, after years of living in flats, of internal stairs!) and my only complaint is that I now spend what feels like hours of each day climbing between them to fetch things I have forgotten. I throw myself into hosting to make the most of the abundance of space, and so every weekend I have a succession of different visitors for first breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, luncheon…
I feel, in a way, like a different person in this house: something has lifted, eased. It pleases me to think that A– no longer knows where I am, as though this means he no longer knows who I am. It puts me even further out of his reach. I am no longer surrounded by reminders of him that flood my mind with tiny, barely registered details I did not know I had retained. Before I moved, I sold the sofa on which we ended things. Its new owners – a pair of Italian brothers I meet via Gumtree – send me a picture of it in its new home and I forward it to my mother: “Bye, break-up sofa.”
At the time of that first move when I was a teenager, I was furious with her for making us leave my childhood home, the last piece of our former family life, the only thing that proved, it felt, that any of it had been real. Of course, the memories that made that house so precious to my brother and I were exactly what made remaining there so painful for her.
On one of the two occasions I saw A– again after that night, he told me that he will never forget the noise I made after he closed the front door behind him, as the grief poured out of me. I have no recollection of making it, but I often remembered his words in the year that followed, as I shut that same door. I understand, now, my mother’s act of self-preservation; her leap for freedom.
This article appears in the 28 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Truss Delusion