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20 October 2021

A year in my flat – and I marked it by setting off the smoke alarm

It is also the anniversary of the beginning of my lockdown affair, and now even the weather reminds me of her.

By Nicholas Lezard

It’s now been a year since I moved into the new flat. Actually, it’s been a lot more than a year, but so many exciting things have been happening to me that I haven’t had the time to give you my reflections on this milestone.

On the day itself I was in Edinburgh and I got a call from the landlord telling me that the kitchen window had fallen out during a gale and that they needed to get someone in to board it up. I didn’t like the idea of someone coming into the flat while I wasn’t there, but they weren’t having any of it. When I got back it was to a kitchen whose light was now entirely blocked off by a sheet of MDF. As there are only three windows in the place, or 0.75 windows for each room, this was a bit of a drag; even more so because they’d somehow arranged it for the rain to get in. Both the toaster and the radio (which runs off the mains) are situated beneath the window and yet amazingly, both of them survived the deluge and more to the point, so did I when I used them unthinkingly. Meanwhile, the natural light in the Hove-l (a nickname which has never quite taken off, as “the Hovel” did, but I don’t have anything better) has been reduced by a third, and it wasn’t particularly abundant in the first place. It all just adds to the general gloom.

I always like to mark significant anniversaries with a small ceremony, and so for this occasion I decided to set the smoke alarm off at 11 o’clock while making popcorn. I have never burnt popcorn before (I make it in a pan as there is no room for a microwave, and this is not a figure of speech; the kitchen is the smallest I have ever seen – I’ve seen larger ones on boats), and I speak as someone who has been making popcorn for many years. I really don’t know how it could have happened, especially as I was supervising the process the whole time. But what with the window being boarded up, there was no ventilation, and the smoke had to go somewhere, so it went where it could cause maximum inconvenience and irritation to everyone.

[see also: In Edinburgh, I find both the perfect pub and the world’s most objectionable drunk]

I have written about the alarm before: you may recall that it is like the voice of God, and not in his still, calm mode. It is loud and shrill enough to cause actual pain, but when you set off an alarm here, it goes off in everyone’s flat, and so I had to deal with very pissed off neighbours as well as the alarm itself (actually, only one of the neighbours was pissed off; the other one is pretty mellow, so we went outside for a smoke and a chat while waiting for the alarm people to talk us through the procedure of resetting it). One day they will invent a smoke alarm that turns itself off when you shout “I’m cooking” at it, but until then we are where we are.

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The board has now been replaced with something that lets half the light in. It has been glued round the edges to keep the rain out, which is a huge improvement, but there is still no fresh air, which means that anything cooked in the kitchen pervades the rest of the flat for some time. At least not cooking so much means I use less gas: and I must admit to now being terrified at the price rises in the offing. It wasn’t as if they were easily manageable in the first place. To remind you: like many people in this country, I spend well over half my income on rent, and that is before I even start paying off the utilities and council tax. I foresee a winter of staying in bed with a jumper on for even longer than I did last year; but then I managed a vicious winter in the MacHovel in Scotland without any central heating, and if I can manage that, I can manage anything.

Another thing it is the anniversary of is the beginning of my clandestine lockdown affair, and my fortnightly trips to Durham to visit a woman who came to occupy a larger place in my heart than I thought she would. Being increasingly aware of, and susceptible to, the seasons’ nuances as I age, this means even the bloody weather is reminding me of her. What with this, and being sensitised to mentions of the north-east of England whenever it’s in the news – the selling of Newcastle United to the Saudis, for instance, was surprisingly painful; and every time Dominic Cummings gets headlines, even more of me dies inside than it would under normal circumstances – I’m looking forward to an even grimmer winter than usual. And the glazier tells me the window won’t be replaced for another four to six weeks, which means two months of cooking very gingerly, if at all.

Meanwhile, as I write, the sun shines and the view from the living room is still pleasant. My health miseries have, touch wood, disappeared, and the only problem I now have in that regard is really quite astonishing insomnia (sleep finally came to me at around 6.30 this morning). But that tends to be only on those evenings where I decide not to drink. Well, I think we all know how I’m going to deal with that one.

[see also: A confrontation with a pipsqueak leaves me feeling my age]

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This article appears in the 20 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the West