It was this very week in 2008 that I moved into my current house, having taken a rental agreement on the property and hastily moving up belongings from the house in Liverpool.
Of course, I say “I” now, but back then it was very much “we”, with myself, Fliss and nearly 3 year old Elisha setting up home again as a family. In the six months since I’d made the decision to take a job back in Scotland, we’d been in a state of limbo making do with living part-time in the Liverpool house or cramming into the spare room at my parents’ place.
The old naval estate house in Graham Place felt spacious – bigger than our house in Liverpool, for sure. I considered it a good placeholder at the time. Something that would do to get us all back together but not somewhere I saw myself living long term before I was back on the property ladder.
Somehow, ten years have flown by and a lot of change with it. What I couldn’t have known back then was what an emotional rollercoaster it would turn out to be.
The 1960’s prefab still occupies the same plot of land and, when pulling up outside in the car, it still looks much as it did on the day I first set foot in the door. The funny story with that is that I was working so hard the week we took out the rental agreement that I never actually saw it until after we’d taken the keys and the removals van had delivered all our stuff.
I’d lived in the Churchill estate in the 1980’s so I had a rough idea of what the house would be like from its location. Those semi-detached houses in that part of the estate have the same layout mirrored on each side, so I knew the general floorplan. What I didn’t know was the condition of the interior or that there’d be a faint smell of dog from the previous occupants having kept a seemingly poorly house-trained one.
When I got to explore the place in daylight hours it was pretty much as I expected. The decor was a bit tatty but I could turn a blind eye to that because it was only a rental. The next house I moved into would look a bit better, I promised myself, and that would happen as soon as I could sell the house in Liverpool.
Two years later the house in Liverpool still hadn’t been sold and our landlady was making noises about selling the one we were in. With a mortgage and rent to pay, and no savings, I was in no position to buy, so we looked at a couple of alternatives with the intention of jumping before we were pushed. However, despite seeing a really awesome flat, with Elisha having just started school and a baby on the way, we ultimately decided to sit tight and let things play out.
Three becomes four
When little Jason was added to the family the three bedroomed home now had four occupants. By then we’d tried various layouts of the different rooms but, aside from that, our hands felt tied by the rental contract in terms of how much we could make it our own.
The Liverpool house finally sold in early 2011 and the returns cleared a mass of debt and left a reasonable deposit in the bank. That meant we could start looking around at properties to buy – especially as the economy was slowly bouncing back from the recession and people were tentatively sticking their homes on the market.
However, the area has long been short on housing and all those home improvement shows from the naughties meant homeowners had made a good fist of decorating whilst they were captive to the frozen economy.
For example, we viewed one place nearby where the owner wanted offers in the region of £150,000 yet nothing on that street had ever sold for more than £110,00. The owner admitted that he’d only bought the house to sell it on for a profit once he’d done it up. I conceded that it was immaculate inside and out, even if the adjoining house wasn’t in especially good repair, so we made a hopeful bid in the low £130,000 range that was summarily rejected. I could have gone to £140,000 but, still reeling with anxiety from the financial burden endured whilst having two houses, I was reluctant to over-commit on a mortgage, so bowed out. The house eventually went for about £15k more than we could afford anyway.
It seemed that, in Helensburgh, we weren’t going to improve our domestic situation without spending big money and we couldn’t do that. So instead of moving, we invested in some new furniture to make the house feel more like a home and I drew upon some of the money to go on a “once in a lifetime” trip to the Indy 500.
When I returned from that the new sofa suite had arrived and, you know, it did make the place feel a little more like “our home” for some reason. I guess because the furniture it replaced had been transplanted from our house in Liverpool it had always looked out of place in the “temporary” house.
We kept an eye out for anything that came on the market in our price range but almost everything in the area was too big a leap financially with negligible benefit. It was a strange situation, being trapped yet actually having the money to move in an instant should the opportunity arise.
An offer we couldn’t refuse
Nothing came from waiting until, in early 2012, our landlady informed us she was definitely selling up in the first half of the year and offered us first refusal on the house. After having it valued it seemed like a no-brainer. It was affordable and we knew practically everything that needed doing. It took longer to sort the paperwork than anticipated, but only a month or so and with that done the temporary house was ours.
When we’d gotten the house in Liverpool there was a lot more drama around getting the mortgage and waiting until all the stars aligned before everything was legally verified so we could collect the keys. Then, when we went and opened the door for the first time, the previous owner had left a bottle of wine and a card for us – an unexpected kindness I hope to pass on someday.
This time around it was odd how life just kind of continued as it had done, except I was now on the hook for things going wrong!
Over the next couple of years, we set about doing the decoration that the house had long needed. Fliss came up with a unique paint job for the bathroom and the kids’ rooms got a lick of paint too. The main bedroom was also transformed when, in May 2014, the legendary joiner that is my Uncle James came and built fitted wardrobes/cupboards between the main and the second bedrooms.
Cracks you can’t paint over
Despite the seemingly happy homemaking, we weren’t particularly happy in our relationship by then. The years had taken their toll and we came to the conclusion that there was nothing left for us to give emotionally. So, at the end of 2015, we decided to spend one last festive period as a family under the same roof before we likely split up.
In the new year, Fliss would move into a house just two doors away so that the kids could still see both of us whenever they wanted. It felt like a smart decision, yet I was heartbroken that the family home environment I’d always dreamed of having for my children would be shattered.
We told the family and the kids in late January, then on the 13th of February 2016, Fliss moved all of her things and most of the kids’ stuff to the other house. Whilst she worked at doing that late into the evening, I attended a Burns Supper that I’d been booked to perform at some 12 months in advance.
I felt sick from a tight knot in my stomach the whole evening and my heart just wasn’t in it at all. I made my excuses to leave as soon as the programme of events was over and trudged the twenty minutes back home. I could have gotten a taxi but I wasn’t in any hurry to face what lay in wait for me. In fact, I don’t think I raised my eyes from the path ahead until I got to my street and, when I looked up as I approached the house, it seemed dark and foreboding.
So then there was one
The brass key turned reluctantly in the familiar, damaged lock (still broken from when we’d had to break in after being locked out one Sunday evening, ages before) and the door swung open to a house that didn’t just feel empty, it felt hollow.
Closing the world outside I hung my jacket and entered the living room to slump down onto the sofa – that would still be there for another month or so at this point.
As I cast my softening eyes around the room I couldn’t help but conjure up memories from the past, like ghosts filling the void. To my right, I pictured Elisha on the carpet where the sun had cast its rays through the patio door, telling me she was “lying in a sun puddle.” To my left, I pictured Jason taking his first steps, late on New Year’s Eve 2011.
There were so many memories from that very room imprinted in my mind over the past decade, that they quickly became a muddled noise in my head.
Feeling my mood sinking I blinked the images away and, for a moment, I thought I’d play a game to snap myself out of it. But as I reached for the controller my hand fell back onto my lap. There wasn’t a game I could play that could wash away the sorrow I felt at how it had all come to this point.
Midnight was approaching and with it the 14th of February. Valentine’s day and what would have been our 17th anniversary. For the first time in the same number of years, I’d be waking up alone on that date. The reality of the situation swiftly took hold and I had to breathe deeply to control the anxiety.
It had been a long time since I’d felt so alone and, with tears welling, I climbed the stairs to take off my kilt outfit and get ready for bed. When I reached the top floor I couldn’t bring myself to look at the doors of the children’s rooms. That could wait until tomorrow when I had rested enough to deal with it.
Emotionally spent, sleep came mercifully quickly.
Waking up to the possibilities
The next morning I was tugged from a light sleep by a notification from my phone. I felt well rested but was slightly confused that my phone hadn’t been on silent like it normally is between 11 pm and 7.30 am.
Reaching for it, I saw on the screen that it was actually close to 10 am and the notification was from my Fitbit, telling me I’d successfully met my sleep goal! I sleep so poorly that I never even knew I had a sleep goal set, so this was a new one on me.
Becoming fully awake I pulled over the spare pillow and sat up in bed. My brain was ready for action after such a good sleep and, in contrast to my mood when I hit the hay, I somehow felt really positive. So I set about brainstorming – quite simply – what do I do now?
Mindful that the house was now classed as “a broken home”, the first thing I explored was the option of selling up. I figured that if I worked at it over the next couple of months I could have the house on the market by late spring and hopefully make an exit early in the summer.
However, that would defeat the purpose of Fliss and the kids moving nearby. I didn’t want the scenario where the kids would have to be picked up or dropped off to come and see me or to go back to their mother’s house.
Essentially, my circumstances hadn’t changed markedly from when we were looking to move on a few years beforehand. I still couldn’t afford a worthwhile upgrade, so I reached the conclusion that moving on was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. Maybe I should just tread water to see what unfolded, instead?
And, although it now felt a bit like a hollow shell, this was still my house and I had been adamant when we discussed splitting up that I wouldn’t move out of it. So why leave it behind now?
I suddenly realised that I could transform the interior to put my own touch on it. As I warmed to the idea, I thought about how I could switch things about to create some new fond memories in a slightly altered setting.
As I nodded at the prospect I heard the kids bundling in the front door. They’d come home.
There’s no place like it
Over the year that followed I gradually got the ball rolling with changing the house to suit myself. I flipped the living room around and eventually got in new furniture to replace the suite that Fliss took.
As for the rest of it, well, Elisha’s bedroom is pretty much as it was because it wasn’t that long decorated. Jason’s bedroom has recently been moved about so I could sort him out some storage and a better arrangement for how he’d come to use the space. (He’s now playing Minecraft on a gaming monitor instead of on a maze of Lego railway tracks on the floor.)
I don’t spend a lot of time in the kitchen, but I moved all the worktop utilities around to put them in places that better reflected how I used them. Plus having the toaster under the cupboards was just silly, anyway. Actually, perhaps the recent addition of a machine that pours beer means I do visit the kitchen a bit more often now!
Casting my mind back over the last ten years has been an emotional journey for sure. I think that having been a kid with a dad in the navy, I learned not to get too attached to any house. I became further entrenched in that mindset when moving so many times after I moved to London in 2000. Each was a temporary box to live in when I wasn’t at work or out enjoying myself.
It’s maybe having kids and watching them grow up in a house that turns it into a home and makes the sentimental connection that much stronger. So, for now, despite the dodgy boiler, the draughts and the fact the front door handle came off in my hand last weekend, it is still my home.