The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are
and not be questioned.
The box room where I was staying was dark, always dark. The window let in only a sliver of light and the lamp cast a weak pool of yellow over dark-painted wood. The room was so small that the bed had been specially built, and the only storage space was narrow shelving which lined the walls. These shelves were already full of someone else’s things and the darkness and clutter enveloped me.
I stood in the darkness, my phone lit up for a torch, searching the shelves for my bottle of moisturiser. Such a simple thing, just a bottle of moisturiser. But I couldn’t find it among the other bottles and books and ornaments and toys and make-up and bowls of jewellery. Tears of frustration welled up inside me. I just wanted to put cream on my face and go to bed, that was all.
My mind reached out for something familiar, something safe, but it found nothing. It didn’t matter that this was my sister’s house, that this room was my niece’s bedroom. I’d known this house for over twenty-five years, but still I felt lost, disconnected. In the past three weeks I’d sold my family home, my ex-husband had remarried, and I’d had a sudden break-up with my boyfriend. I wasn’t even supposed to be here. And now, standing in the dark like a lost child, all I wanted was somewhere to belong.
* * *
I could have made life easier for myself. I could have found a rental that was ready as soon as I’d sold my house. But no, I’d spotted an old house that was available a month later, and I couldn’t resist having a look around. It was a double-fronted cottage in a small village, and me and my son, Joe, instantly fell in love with its thick crumbling walls, the vast stone fireplace in the living room, and the precarious twisting staircase that led up to the attic bedroom. It was built in 1877 and stood mid-terrace in a small village a few miles away from the town where we’d lived for over ten years. For us, it was a house worth waiting for.
At that point I was still with my boyfriend, Simon, and he encouraged me to take it, saying I’d easily find somewhere to stay in the meantime. We’d been together for eighteen months, so I mistakenly thought he meant I could stay with him, but he quickly became evasive once the plan became a reality. Evasion was something I was familiar with, an empty space in the conversation whenever I suggested we see each other more than once or twice a week for romantic dinners, or the occasional holiday together. If we could just hang out together at weekends, I thought, we could relax the formality of our time together, and perhaps I could relax enough to be my true self with him. But instead of facing that empty space again, I kept myself busy with selling the house and finding places to stay.
While I was packing boxes, I realised that my old life didn’t really fit into my new life. The house I was leaving behind was a four-bedroomed detached on a modern estate, and I’d lived there for a good portion of my married life. I’d raised my children there; I’d seen more than ten Christmases and birthdays there. Every year I watched the snowdrops push up through the earth, the cherry blossom forming pink and abundant on the tree outside my bedroom window. But now I had been divorced for several years, my children were grown up and my daughter had left home, and I was a different person. My new (old) house was so very different, and while I knew I wanted to be there, I also knew that my old life, my belongings, would be out of place there, all too modern but also old, from a past that no longer felt like me.
So I spent months either getting rid of stuff or giving it away on the local freecycle website. One woman came to collect the freezer, the lawn mower and the dishwasher, all in good working order. She couldn’t believe her luck, and I couldn’t believe how much satisfaction it gave me to pass them on for free.
I know people who find it impossible to throw anything away. That broken coat hanger or collection of rusty nails might come in useful one day. I know people who will buy things in a sale just because they can’t pass up a bargain. I also know people who obsessively throw things out, whose houses are streamlined and clean, who only keep things considered essential to living.
I think I fall between those two camps, finding it relatively easy to give away practical but unnecessary things, while holding on to the things that mean something to me. Even so, after sorting through twenty years of family life, I still had to rent a good-sized space at the local storage facility, and on the day we moved out it was gradually filled, floor to ceiling, with boxes stacked on top of furniture. The last things to go in were the garden table and chairs, folded up and wedged against the office chair and desk, and in the corner, half a bag of barbeque briquettes. I think that bag of briquettes represented the limit of my decision-making capabilities. It was easier to take it with me that to find another home for it.
Once all our things were safely locked away, I drove Joe to his dad’s where he’d be staying for the month, trying to stay out of the way while wedding plans were coming to fruition. I was on good terms with my ex and he’d invited me to the wedding, but Simon had booked us an Italian holiday in the same week. He’d never been entirely comfortable with our friendly relationship, but still I gave him the benefit of the doubt that this was merely a coincidence.
After I said goodbye to Joe, I drove away with a strange feeling of being adrift. I had made plans of where I would stay that first week, but had nowhere to be and was separated from the things and routines that made up my daily life. The essentials were in my car and over my nomadic month, this became a kind of wardrobe on wheels. It’s surprising how many pairs of shoes you can fit into a footwell.
That first week I stayed with a friend in Bristol. This was someone I regularly stayed with for nights out, so moving into her spare room didn’t feel particularly out of the ordinary: more an extended stay with more opportunities for cocktails. There was also the opportunity to inch into my new life, browsing the charity shops on Gloucester Road to find the things that belonged in a nineteenth-century cottage and the person who might live there. We ventured out to find candle sticks and trinket boxes, a wooden table lamp here, a rustic jug there. Looking back now, I imagine this need was strong because I was in a state of suspension, a state of not belonging. I bought things I would never have bought before, things that I didn’t even know I liked, and this gathering of things felt essential to creating this new home for me and Joe.
By the end of my stay, I had a box of carefully wrapped new/old things to take back to the storage depot, depositing it next to the bag of briquettes and feeling a swell of hope for this new beginning as I slid the door shut and locked it again. Already I had a growing affection for this place, with its grey metal walls and glaring red banner declaring its vast and flexible storage capabilities, and still now when I drive past I smile with nostalgia.
While my boyfriend had been unwilling to offer me space at his home, his neighbours, who I’d become good friends with, were more than happy to open their house to me. They were away in Corsica for a few weeks, so once I’d said goodbye to my friend, I drove to their house in a small village over an hour away. I had to walk past Simon’s house to get to theirs, and I did a good job of ignoring his firmly closed front door. I rationalised it with the fact that we were going on holiday the following week, so perhaps he wanted to save our time together for the romance of Tuscany.
By now I knew that preparing my space was part of feeling at home, so I spent time putting food in the fridge, mint tea by the kettle, toiletries in the bathroom, book, earplugs and eye mask by the bed. I was sleeping in a teenage boy’s bedroom on the first floor that had a Breaking Bad poster on the wall and a cello in the corner. He was a talented musician and spent a lot of time away on scholarship at a prestigious music school. His room didn’t feel like a teenager’s bedroom. It was neat and clean and adult, although there was a good possibility his parents had enforced cleaning and tidying on him before they left for their holiday. The rest of the house was shambolic and thoroughly lived in, the kind of place where you can fully relax and feel at home.
At home. It’s strange how you can momentarily feel you belong somewhere that you really don’t, particularly if you’re alone. I spent my days writing at the kitchen table, reading on the sofa with my legs up on the footstool, cooking meals for one, washing my clothes and hanging them in the garden, picking the plums that were succulent and heavy on the tree before the wasps got at them. I lived as though this place was mine and I belonged to it. In that time Simon invited me over for dinner once or twice, but even though we were next door to each other I barely saw him.
The day we were due to catch our flight to Italy, we arranged to meet in his kitchen for coffee before we set off. But that morning, he was suddenly all business and bustle and insisted we didn’t have time for coffee, we had to set off straight away. This began a week of insidious small actions that constantly kept me feeling off balance and uneasy. Simon was a writer, and his agent had invited us to stay for a few days with his wife in a villa that was perched on the side of a Tuscan hill. I had met his agent once before and he was affable and friendly, and I hit it off with his wife immediately, which diffused the tension between Simon and me. Those days were hot and dry, and we ventured out to go swimming in the river or walk beneath the shady trees, having long dinners in the evening on the terrace, drinking red wine, talking and laughing. I loved the heat and the crumbling villa, and I loved these new friends who were open and generous, what felt at the time to be the opposite of Simon.
At the end of the week, they flew home but we moved down to the beautiful walled town of Lucca, where Simon’s silent disapproval of everything I did became so encompassing I often found myself confused and close to tears, berating myself for being so inept and inadequate. Something of my true self did remain though. By the time we returned to the UK and I was back in the neighbour’s house, surrounded by the generosity of their space, I knew that this was the truth of friendship and love, not the cold and distant man next door. I lay in bed that night knowing with unequivocal surety that our relationship was over. The following morning, I was cleaning the kitchen counter tops ready to leave, and found myself crying, not because of my impending break-up, but a fear that I would never be able to see these people again, that I would lose them as friends. I went out into their garden and picked a couple of wildflowers, leaving them in a small vase on their dining room table along with a note of thanks.
The break-up itself, a few days later, was messy but quick. I’d already decamped to my sister’s house a few miles away, a place I always go when I need comfort and love. She has a three-bedroom house and four children, but they’re all grown up and had girlfriends and boyfriends, often staying overnight elsewhere. This meant there was always a free bed, but not necessarily the same bed, so I was moving bedrooms throughout my week-long stay. The dark box room was the place I felt at my loneliest, the most disconnected from the routines of life that I’d taken for granted. Its darkness, its cramped claustrophobia, my essentials for living overwhelmed by someone else’s life. But when I did finally turn out the lamp, I would gaze at the ceiling which had been studded with day-glow stars, their sprinkled light instantly changing my mood to snug comfort.
What I realised during that final nomadic week was the importance not just of basic human needs, but also how they anchor us to our lives. The food we eat, the way we bathe or shower, the ritual of getting up in the morning and retiring at night: they not only give shape to our days, but unconsciously give us the comfort of routine, the comfort of knowing we are safe in our homes, that we belong there, and that everything will be there the next day, and the next, and the day after that.
Being surrounded by women helped in that week, watching trashy romcoms with my sister and nieces, drinking white wine and eating chocolate. I was living a break-up cliché, but I didn’t care because that’s what I needed at the time. I could let go a little, and just be.
Then, on a bright August morning, I collected Joe and we drove to the storage facility where the removal men transferred my floor-to-ceiling stuff to their floor-to-ceiling van, and then followed us to the new/old cottage less than a mile away Through the whole moving process only one drinking glass was broken, and there was something hugely satisfying about finding the right spot for the furniture, unpacking boxes, hanging clothes. But my favourite moment was opening the box of things from the charity shops and finding a place for them. The earthenware pots on the mantlepiece, the royal blue 1970s teapot in the kitchen alcove, the vase with its feathery decoration on the bookcase beside the family photographs.
This finding a place for things wasn’t about the things themselves. It wasn’t about acquiring stuff, about materialism or stylish taste; it was about changing my life, making a new beginning and finding a way to reflect this in the rooms I would be living in. Looking back, it feels inevitable that my relationship had to end before this new life could begin. My ex-husband was also moving on, both of us making new homes, finding new places to belong. My bottle of moisturiser now lived beside my jewellery box on the chest of drawers in my bedroom. It was there after I washed in the morning, and it was there when I went to bed at night.
The ache for home is intrinsic to being alive in the world. The spider in the web, the rabbit in the burrow, the blackbird in the nest. The need for safety and settlement is something more than the practicality of food and shelter – it’s also the release we feel when we’re there, a release that enables us to become our true selves. The starting point, perhaps, of becoming our true selves when we are out in the world too.
Sally Gander is a writer and Creative Writing teacher. Her work has previously appeared in Porridge, Hinterland, Litro and The Lincoln Review, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.She has taught on the prestigious Creative Writing program at Bath Spa University, and currently teaches at the Open University and Advanced Studies in England. You can read her blog and more of her published work at https://sallymgander.blog/.