I’ve got a serious addiction and it’s not cheap to service. I’m not addicted to shoes, handbags, or expensive make-up (well not much), botox or surgery (don’t believe in that stuff), designer clothes or holidays (not really). I’m addicted to houses.
I’m not some slum landlord, or mega-rich property mogul, nor do I own any of these objects of my desire. My love affair with grand houses – always way, way, way out of my price-range, started very young, and now – in my early 50s – it’s as insane-inducing as ever.
I blame Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, and Thornfield Hall, a main ‘house’ character in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and Manderley, the house so prominent in Daphne du Maurier’s gothic thriller, Rebecca.
How painful it is to have to accept – like some lovelorn groupie – that I’ll never own a Manderley or a Wuthering Heights or a Villa San Antonio on the Italian Lakes or a mansion a la My House in Umbria or a Portofino castle a la Enchanted April or a mini-Downton Abbey or a Bamburgh and Alnwick Castle. I will never be able to swoon around a Scottish turreted estate a la Monarch of the Glen, and run my hands over the thousand-year-old thick brick walls and breathe in the scent of yesterday and know that I possess all that, that it is all mine.
I just love the romantic notion of grand houses, their structural cheekbones, their scent, the silken curtains moving in the breeze against beautiful bay windows open to stormy skies, the heavy wood furniture that speaks of solidity, security and self.
I’m nuts for online house perving. I stand outside estate agents windows in my city and stare at those photos – you know the ones – where the sky is always azure-blue, and the sea never far away.
I am one of those weirdos who loiters on pavements beaming with pleasure, saying over and over – god, that’s beautiful, look at that, that’s just stunning, look at that turret, that tower, those windows, I wonder who owns that, it’s huge, god I love it.
Edinburgh, my city, is the perfect place for house-lust, for perving at physical brick-flesh. In my neighbourhood the streets are lined with these thick brick historic structures, and so the high – my addiction high – occurs daily.
Ironically though, I know I could never do the country thing. The country and I do not get on, never have and probably never will. I tried it once and it didn’t pan out well.
I couldn’t deal with the panic I felt at the distance between myself and the nearest Italian cafe and a strong cappuccino, the anxiety at the void of fashionable people, men in stylish suits, with designer beards, women with leather laptop bags and bright red lipstick, the emptiness of a country town’s high street after dark, the fact that there were no hidden restaurants down secret alleyways, where dangerous liaisons could potentially start and end. There was also the scramble to get a decent phone signal and the long, long drive to the train station.
So I returned to the inner city and small flats in search of good Italian coffee and a strong phone signal, forever secretly addicted to bricks and mortar, echoing corridors and big skies with indigo horizons above chimney pots.
And as I grow older I have to face facts square on, that my addiction is ridiculous, because I have to view it as that, a nonsensical flirtation with a past fantasy that in practical terms would be downright dangerous to the health of one’s mind and bank account if it were ever to come true.
Back in the real world I’m a dab hand at dealing with tiny spaces, mini bathrooms and kitchens in cupboards. This state of smallness or drabness comes to me as a challenge, to be reinvented with richly-coloured velvet throws and dashes of Indian exoticism, and gleaming neon white walls that magnifies space, decorated with my favourite artwork.
Think positive, I tell myself everyday. Flat life is not all bad. It provides endless comic material for my writing.
There’s Godzilla, the stomper who lives in the flat above me, Mr Peabody, the mathematician at the university, who lives opposite, who slams his front door – never closes it gently; there’s Miss Thames Estuary, the woman on the ground floor, so named, because she never smiles – not ever and has features the colour of damp mud, so grey and unfriendly that this was the only thing to call her.
Here comes the world’s most boring man, I say to myself when I leave my building, seeing the stooping greying creature I’ve nicknamed W.M.B.M. Those letters slip off the tongue and whenever I see him I groan inwardly and invent some meeting I have to attend.
W.M.B.M loves to tell me about his collection of train timetable almanacs, his wife’s shingles and the newsletter he’s writing for his club – Train Timetable Almanac’s Weekly (I made that up, not sure if one exists).
Maybe W.M.B.M was once an interesting handsome young man, but he left that persona in the waiting room at Carlisle Station.
Would I ever have met any of these characters if I had been separated from life by acres and acres of grounds, and high walls and fields and countryside. No.
There’s also a sense of security in an inner-city block of flats, that no real harm will eventuate, that high off the ground you’re away from possible burglars or criminals, and that in a city you’re never far from possible burglars or criminals, and that in a city you’re never far from someone to talk to, a hospital if you need one, a late night cafe or bar or a helping hand.
But I’ve had to teach myself to love flat-life, and generally I’m a terrible student. There are big sacrifices you have to swallow on a daily basis. Forget a garden – I have weaned myself off ever being a gardener; forget spacious rooms and multiple bedrooms and outhouses and porches. I try (unsuccessfully) to meditate myself out of wanting any of those on an almost daily basis.
My sweet little flat with its tiny bathroom, mini cupboard kitchen and strange neighbours, how I love you, I try to tell myself. You protect me, but who am I kidding, you’ll never be enough.