I’ve been spending a lot of time in other people’s houses. It’s fake time, borrowed time – time they’re lending me on the understanding that I might take their house off their hands. I’m not seeing the house as they live in it, but as how they’d like me to see myself live in it. Uncluttered surfaces, and shower drains free from hair. Fridges that smell of soap, and gardens empty of a single living thing. There are no spiders in this garden. There are no ants. The birds don’t shit here. Isn’t it strange?
The realtors never know how to work the keys. They have so many keys in their dark blue pockets. I think that if I were a realtor, I’d do a practice run on the door, turning the keys swiftly in the lock, easily opening into the potential new home. You don’t want to make it look difficult. You don’t want to make anything look difficult, otherwise you picture yourself standing on the door mat, clutching groceries and gym kit and a laptop bag, trying to jiggle it open, calling through the keyhole into strange empty rooms while your bladder strains and the bags cut red grooves into the skin of your fingers.
The second bedroom is always a joke. “Buy two bedrooms”, they say, “the resale value is higher”, they say, but the resale doesn’t make much difference if you can’t buy it in the first place, or if you buy a place with a mortgage you can’t afford, or if you can’t let your second bedroom because it’s not really a bedroom, it’s a cupboard, a study at best. You can’t fool someone into moving into your cupboard just because it has a big window and a radiator and nice wallpaper. It’s still a cupboard.
People have a lot of stuff. I’ve been inside 10, 12, 15 houses belonging to strangers in the last 4 weeks, and what I can tell you is that people have become really good at stacking. Cards on top of books on top of framed pictures balanced on shelves. Wine bottles, empty and full, lined up and stood shoulder-to-shoulder in fireplaces that don’t work anymore, because there are whole families living where the chimney used to be. People have boxes standing in the space under tables where legs belong. Stuffed-full suitcases lined up on the top of wardrobes. Knick-knacks at the edges of staircases, every cupboard packed full to bursting. I just want to know what the storage space is like, not what your winter coats feel like, toppling down upon my head. The fake fur one is nice, though. I like that one. But you don’t need 8 half-full bottles of perfume. Or maybe you do. Maybe each scent means a different moment. It’s your house. Or maybe it’s mine.
These people are selling their houses to move their stuff into bigger places, for more stuff. I get how it works. I think about our small bedroom, about my dozens of dusty bottles and my books still packed away in boxes. I think about how our bed opens up to reveal space packed full of coats and boots and cables and cricket bats. We might need some of it. We might need none of it.
I always look at the photos in the house. Some people have boards rammed with pins, haphazard snaps of snow, and streetscapes and people snogging in hats; others have perfectly framed wedding photos, airbrushed and sepia-toned and beautiful. They all look a bit like me and my boyfriend, young-ish, at their best angles, doing interesting things. We all have the same smiling faces on. So it makes sense that we’re trading houses, one for another, adding £30K, £50K, £80K onto the price each time, pushing one another up the property ladder so we can follow slowly behind, with the weight of debt and damp on our shoulders.
They’re never there. I wonder where they are. I’ve never owned a house, so I don’t know what it must be like, putting it on the market, giving up a piece of it right then. Then tidying it up, washing down all the surfaces, so it looks a little bit less like something yours, and more like something that could belong to someone else. And then absenting yourself, putting the keys into the hands of a stranger in a cheap suit with red-rimmed eyes from last night’s drinking; going for a walk, or a roast, or to sit on a friend’s couch while strangers walk through your space, looking closely at your toilet and and your bath and your bed and the position of your plugs.
I get weirdly attached to things. I haven’t thrown out my old laptop because I’ve written too much on it, even though all that writing is elsewhere now. In New York, the handle on my suitcase broke, and I felt it like a real breakage, because I bought it when I moved to Japan and changed my life, and it’s been so many places with me. I still have underwear I bought ten years ago. I’m not sure I’d survive the selling of a house. You can’t pack up your old house and store it in your old house, like my old broken suitcase now lives inside my new, intact one.
I never leave my shoes on in my own house, and I never take them off for flat viewings. Maybe that’s how I’ll know when I find the right one – that compulsion to take off my shoes to keep things clean. Home is where your heart is, and home is where your shoes aren’t on. I have too many pairs of shoes. But – and now I know for certain – so does everyone else.