I don’t believe in ghosts, but I like to imagine that we leave something of ourselves in every place that’s meaningful to us. That something of us bleeds into the walls and floors of treasured spaces, invisible streaks of joy and laughter and tears soaked into brick and wood. I like to imagine our ghost-selves lingering long after our physical presence has ceased. A ghost of you, transparent and forever content in your childhood home, your university halls, at the table in the bar where you first met your greatest love. I don’t believe in ghosts but I like to imagine that our fleeting past selves never die, they just remain, preserved in air, on the exact spot they were forged.
I am leaving the flat that saved me. The flat that made me. I didn’t expect to be this sad about it – it’s a small studio that costs me well over half my monthly salary in rent. It’s freezing in winter and too hot in the summer. The quirks of this little place near Brighton’s Preston Park are many – the exuberant cold tap in the bathroom, for one, whose spray overshoots the basin itself and instead soaks the thighs of the person seeking to wash their hands or brush their teeth. The vintage loo roll holder that clatters to the floor in at least three pieces every time you have to replace the paper. And the mezzanine bed, a punchline that’s lasted all three years I’ve lived here; it did not need to be built that close to the ceiling.
I don’t know, really, where those three years have gone. I know time became a slippery thing when the pandemic set in – sometimes viscous, clinging and dragging, sometimes oily and impossible to hold on to – but even allowing for that, I’m sure it was only months ago I landed here, on a bright October Monday in 2018, fresh out of the relationship that had provided the architecture for most of my twenties.
“When I first met you, you were not OK,” said my hairdresser a few weeks ago, recalling my first appointment with her, two months after I’d moved into this flat. I was surprised when she said this, but then, it’s always surprising when you hear what other people see in you, isn’t it? At the time, I thought I was doing alright. Now, I look back and my heart twinges for the girl of autumn 2018 and I want to say to her, “darling, the changes that year were seismic, and you tried so hard to act like they weren’t.”
I fell in love with the flat the moment I saw it, and mostly because it was a furnished studio without a visible damp problem that I could afford. And loath as I am to give landlords any credit whatsoever, the place was decorated and kitted out beautifully. For a woman in her twenties who’d be living alone for the very first time, it was perfect. Naturally, there was stiff competition for it – the rental market here is, to use the technical term, an ongoing clusterfuck. I remember being told I’d got it, and being overjoyed. The right bit of luck at the right time can change the course of your life.
You should live alone at least once, if you can. A lot of bad habits and unhealthy, troublesome behaviours arise from simply not knowing yourself well enough, not understanding what drives the cogs of your mental apparatus. And when you live alone, you can’t get away from who you really are, so you have a choice: you can remain at war with yourself, or you can become your own best friend. When there’s no one else there to talk you out of a bad mood or distract you from your internal voices, you have to do it for yourself. It may sound lonely, but it is in fact the most liberating thing in the world. You learn that joy is not something other people give you, it is something you choose. And you should choose it, as often as you can. The moment you realise that your happiness does not and cannot come from other people is the moment everything gets a little bit easier. You become captain of your own ship, lady of your own manor.
There has been a huge amount of happiness in this tiny flat. The writing I’ve done – a woman does indeed require money and a room of her own if she is to write anything she can stick by. The dinners I’ve made for my dear friend B, after years of being convinced I hated hosting, hated being responsible for feeding anyone other than myself. The Sunday afternoon naps on the sofa, the dog resting his head awkwardly but lovingly on my side, or stomach, or chest – anywhere, as long as it was close. The summer afternoons when I opened the big window, perched on the sill with a beer and a book, looked up at the viaduct and imagined that one day I’d have a proper balcony. The times I returned home from braving a sea swim, skin singing from the cold, shoulders already starting to ache their delicious post-swim ache. The first time The Academic stayed and, as he descended from the ludicrous mezzanine bed in the morning, greeted the dog with the words, “Come on, Noodle, the lady of the house needs coffee.”
And of course, every single moment spent with N, one of the best women I’ll ever know, who happened to live just two streets away for two of my three years here. White wine, menthols smoked from flung-open sash windows, a soundtrack of Alanis Morissette, Fiona Apple and Dessa. I will tell my daughter about those nights and she will roll her eyes, and not care, until one day she finds her women, and it will suddenly make sense to her. N and I share a fondness for the call of the night – one more glass, one more cigarette, one more cleansing confession that plots itself somewhere between tears and laughter. The call of the night has been strong here.
My heart has been put through its paces in the time I’ve lived in this flat. I arrived here newly single having never dated casually; I’m leaving here knowing more about dating cishet men than I ever wanted to know (more of them have Hunter S. Thompson tattoos than you’d think, for one thing). A bad bassist – well, a phenomenal bassist with a jaw-droppingly selfish streak – showed up here regularly for a while, to drink my wine and whisky while I got drunk on his attention. Until he crossed a line, and I forgave him anyway.
Someone I’d spent just one night and morning with messaged me on a Tuesday evening: “if you invited me to yours now, I would come”. That night, while laughing at something I’d said, he exclaimed “I like you,” then blushed and wouldn’t repeat it. I arrived home from work the following day to find him making risotto in my kitchen. A couple of months later, I ended whatever it was that we were, because it turned out he didn’t like me enough. That was the first time I’d had to end something that was still mostly lovely, because what I needed in order to feel sane and secure was at odds with what I wanted. I’d like to say that when you’ve prioritised your needs over your wants once, it gets easier to do it again, but I haven’t yet found that to be true.
To heal from that particular heartbreak, I made a point of writing down three things I was grateful for every single day. The habit only lasted a few weeks, but I don’t even need to look back at the notebook to know that “I live in this flat by myself” appeared on my lists frequently.
The night this place really proved its worth was a strange one. I had no choice but to be in the same room as someone I had complicated, utterly unsolvable feelings for – and their partner. With a heart heavy as wet, knotted rope, I played overwrought songs at a painful volume the whole way home, and let a few tears fall unhindered, having learnt – reluctantly – that if you fight them back, they’ll fight their way out one way or another. But as I approached the flat, I felt oddly calm. Sadness was still gnawing at me like toothache but the knowledge that I would soon be in my space, among my books, with my guitar, took a little of the sting away.
I woke a few hours later to autumn rain falling straight and merciless as swords and, heart still aching, hauled myself out of bed (I can’t help but take rain as a personal insult when I’m hungover). There was coffee to make, a dog to walk – and at least his love would never be in doubt – and I was home. No matter what happened to me out there in the world – where other people’s hearts are clumsy or careless or simply jagged pieces they expect you to hold – inside, I was safe.
Long goodbyes are almost always a bad idea, and I’ve been slowly moving my things to the new place over the last two or three weeks. Watching my shelves and walls and cupboards get barer by the day is strange; the evidence that I was ever here is diminishing. By next week, all traces of the last three years will be gone.
But I – the woman who was made here, the woman who grew into herself and became who she is now – have found somewhere else that feels safe, that feels like it could be home, and it’s in the presence of an art historian and devoted Liverpool fan who likes his coffee at skull-rattling strength. We’ll fill our new place with books and wine and music and a dog, and our conversations and laughter and constant need to impress each other will find their way into the bricks and wood.
I don’t believe in ghosts, but I hope this little flat and everything it has been stays with me – because a tiny piece of my heart will stay here. It was here that the best and most honest version of me was forged; it was here I learnt how much growth and strength I’m capable of. But now, I have new rooms to fill.