A room of one's own
Actors Audrey Hepburn (1929 - 1993) and George Peppard (1928 - 1994) star as Holly Golightly and Paul Varjak in the film 'Breakfast at Tiffany's', 1961. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Discussing property is like talking about the sleeping habits of newborns, or the bug that’s going round at the moment: it’s not a conversation so much as a collaborative recycling of stock phrases (‘‘It gets better after the six week mark’’, ‘‘I felt like I had been run over by a bus’’, etc)
But it seems to me the hidden tragedy of the property affordability crisis is that there might be a whole generation of women who never know the joy of living alone, of setting up in their first flat.
Living alone is important because every woman must know how to build a life from the ground up. My first solo flat was in Elizabeth Bay. It was in a 70s-era building with cube-shaped rooms and frightfully ugly, but the architect had gotten one thing right: one wall of each of the cube-rooms consisted entirely of window.
The result was a lot of sunlight, and as I was a few floors up, I got the bonus of an almost-aspect: my windows were level with the branches of an enormous fig tree, where bats lived and gobbled fruit and screeched loudly on midsummer evenings when they flew over from the Botanical Gardens. I grew to love bats in only the way a Sydney-sider can love bats. And that’s before I even started to get to know the eccentric old ladies of the building, grand Eastern suburbs dames who were regularly drunk by 11am, but always put on a hat to go to the shops.
At first I felt alien in the space and walked lightly through the rooms, as though I was a squatter and someone might hear me and turf me out. Then I found a deli, a cafe, a video store and a supermarket. I bought my first ever piece of furniture - a second-hand ‘60s Parker coffee table I still treasure. I had hummus on toast for dinner because I could. I walked around unclothed.
Occasionally I had a cigarette out the window, late at night, blowing smoke on the sleeping bats. I learned how to stop the toilet cistern constantly flowing, I got comfortable with the oven, and comfortable enough with myself to happily stay in on Saturday nights if I fancied, because I wasn’t alone. It felt like my flat was a person or a presence, an idea of home that somehow hovered over the square metrage that I rented. It was an idea that adhered to me, and would go with me even if I moved.
I stayed for about a year before I moved to London for love. The fig-shaded flat went to a friend. The move felt like the right idea at the time. Actually, that's a lie. It felt anything but the right idea. I was terrified I was making a really bad decision, but according to the popular folklore of these things, one is supposed to risk it all for love. Or as my Dad told me when I sat biting my nails over coffee the day before I jetted to Heathrow: ‘‘No guts, no glory, Jac’’.
We lasted a while in north London, in a place where I had no room of my own. That forced me to make do with a desk and a Dickensian rooftop-view, which I learned was very nearly as good. But before very long I found myself once again homeless and looking for a room of my own.
This time I couldn’t afford to be picky about the view. I needed to move quickly, by which I mean immediately, and so I rang the gruff East London landlord who had leased me and my now ex-boyfriend a short-term studio apartment when we had needed one a few years previously.
I packed my belongings into a giant Tuff-Stuff garbage bag (there are certain moments in life when your humiliation is so complete it seems right to just go with it) and took a black cab to Islington. My Cockney slum landlord showed me my new digs - it was the last studio he had left, and a good one too, he said proudly. It was just off the communal courtyard in the middle of the block, which was adorned with an inexplicable wagon-wheel fountain and pond, in which guppies swam despondently.
It was the exact same studio my ex and I had rented all those years ago, when our relationship was fresh and we loved each other so much we could handle anything, even living with frosted windows.
The former love den, so thick with memories, was now a post-breakup dog-box.
When I walked in with my Tuff-Stuff bag, it felt like the universe had kicked my ass, left me twitching on the pavement and stalked off, only to pause like a movie villain, and turn back to issue one more face-slap. It was also funny in a dark kind of way.
There was nothing for it. I unpacked and spent the next few months there, licking my wounds.
At times the room of my own felt like a prison. I remember one long Sunday where I watched back-to-back episodes of the Maury show, which, for the uninitiated is a poor-man’s Jerry Springer starring a Lithuanian-Jewish-American host with gleaming teeth. Maury’s bread and butter is surprise paternity test results but he also does a fine line in shaming teen mothers and winkling out intra-family affairs (‘‘Wait a minute, you’re telling me your mom is shtupping your boyfriend?’’) You know the kind of thing.
That Sunday I remember consciously thinking that if it was possible to die of loneliness then I should probably be writing a will to divide up the contents of the Tuff-Stuff bag. I didn’t die. After some more Maury and all six seasons of The Sopranos, I felt much better. The studio ended up helping - that floating idea of home followed me there and helped it to become mine. I lived on Lean Cuisine and beer, and although I would not say I was happy, life felt very free all of a sudden.