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19 August 2020

I tried not to tempt the gods, but they have made me homeless again

I resisted the salt and pepper grinders and the proper chef's knife. But surely, I thought, a dustpan and brush won't jinx things?

By Nicholas Lezard

I knew it would happen as soon as I did it. You buy one useful and durable household object and, bam, that’s it, you’re out on your arse. I resisted the salt and pepper grinders. I resisted the proper kitchen/chef’s knife. I resisted the ladle, and the big pot with a proper lid. You can manage without these things if you have to. But surely, I thought, a dustpan and brush and another box of Persil aren’t going to jinx things?

Let me explain. One of the things about living out of a suitcase is that, after a while, you begin to both crave permanence, and also to be wary of it. To buy something for the home is to claim permanence, and to do that is to tempt fate. It wasn’t long after my children got me my first proper kitchen knife that I got thrown out of the Hovel. It took me years to hang a picture there; years to get a pepper mill, because the instant I got them the gods would declare an act of hubris – Ha! He thinks he’s going to be there long enough to get some mileage out of them? Let’s show him.

So there I go. A message, late one evening, from my landperson: “About the place…” “Tell me tomorrow,” I reply, desiring not to sleep on bad news, but I didn’t really need to be told. I have been through enough to be able to extrapolate the future from past and current events with a high degree of accuracy. My only doubt is whether she’s going to sell the place, or rent it to a distressed sibling. My decision not to be told that night is a foolish one, for it allows room for wild speculation, and my subconscious gifts me, in the form of a vivid dream, a scenario in which my landperson comes round tomorrow to kick me out, and I find myself in an open-top car with all my belongings disappearing on to the road behind me from a suitcase I am unable to close.

As it turns out, I have until the first of October to find a new gaff. Interestingly, or perhaps tellingly, this place in Brighton has never found itself a nickname, in the way the Hovel did. It’s not the kind of place I ever felt like putting my stamp on. The only way I have done so is by putting books into it. It is not a place I have, so to speak, invested in. From the Latin investire, to clothe: and indeed when the time comes to move it will not take me long to pack my two useable pairs of trousers, my five wearable shirts and seven pairs of undercrackers.

Now is the time to do the whole almost-as-traumatic-as-bereavement thing again: to move house. Travelling light reduces the trauma, but it’s still trauma. My rent is fairly steep but it does include council tax, water, gas, electricity and internet; I suspect these are things I will have to stump up for myself in future, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to afford it. That is, of course, if I choose to stay in Brighton. But why not Brighton? I have friends here both old and new, and the idea of relocating to another town altogether is not a pleasant one.

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I have a fantasy of moving to a nice cottage in the countryside one day; there would be a working fireplace; I could smoke indoors; I would have all my books with me again and I would have a cat; there would be a field next to my cottage, with a horse in it; and – this is the important bit – the horse and the cat would be friends. But this is all too much to ask, right now.

So begins the online search of places to live in; or, offline, the pause at the estate agent’s window. I can’t share a house any more, I’m too old and messy for that (although pretty much the day after I learned I was going to have to go, my friend N— rang me saying that should I need it, there will be a room at her place in Morden, which is generosity of a high order).

Funnily enough, I have never officially rented. I’ve either bought places or rented informally, off friends. (I am one of the few people, incidentally, who has managed to lose money on property in London; this thanks to Nigel Lawson’s spectacular bungling of the economy back in the late 1980s. When I see him pretending to be a climate expert, I like to remind people that he doesn’t even understand the economy, which is what he was actually paid to do.)

All this comes at a moment when I have been given another illusion of domesticity: my lovely next-door neighbours have gone on holiday and they have entrusted me with the task of watering the plants in their garden. This means that every day for the past week or so I have been able to sit outside in the evening sun and pretend I am a man of property again. I write these words at the end of the heatwave, waiting for the rain. It’s murky out there now. So foul a sky clears not without a storm.