My wife is a goal-oriented person. When she learns, it is deliberate. For her, lockdown presented an opportunity, so she began learning Danish. I didn’t. I am deeply lazy: as I sit here writing, I am staring at an empty packet of Wotsits that has been sitting by my laptop for three hours; the bin is 6ft away. The notion of actively learning something seemed a bit needless. Why waste all that time when I could be doing nothing?
I did learn something, though. I learned that I love my home, which came as a surprise. I guess there is nothing quite like being trapped outside your house, as we were, to make you appreciate it rather more.
Last autumn, we decided to empty our savings and finally turn our ramshackle, mid-Victorian terrace into a modern home. We hired architects, put out contracts to tender, rented a flat around the corner (at huge expense) to move into, and waited for our house to be transformed into one we could live in for the rest of our lives, one to which our kids could return after university, if they needed to. A house that four adults, a cat and an awful lot of books, records and junk could share without undue tension.
We moved out at the start of November 2019 and the builders moved in. Every so often, on the way home from the pub, I would pop in and look at the empty, cold, rubble-strewn site. Still, not long to go. Then, in February, came the first fears, as Covid-19 swept northern Italy. Our kitchen was coming from a company in northern Italy. And suddenly it wasn’t. Not any time soon.
Then came March and those strange, febrile weeks when we wondered what would happen in Britain. Finally, lockdown arrived and work on our house ground to a virtual standstill. The builders were still willing to turn up, but their supply chain had broken down: no steel, no glass, no kitchen, no wood cladding for our bathroom extension, no roof covering for it.
I was already antsy in our rented flat. It didn’t feel like home – all my records and books in boxes; the fittings that didn’t work; the mysterious stench from the bathroom sink. I had never thought of myself as a homebody, but I was beginning to crave my own sofa, with my own TV in that particular place, and my own bed, and my own books back on my own shelves.
Despite lockdown, the builders kept telling us it would be “just another week”. But it never was just another week. Our house was still not ready when the lease on the rented flat expired and – having gambled on readiness – we had nowhere to live. Days before we had to move out, we were desperately casting around. With immense kindness, my best friend stepped in.
He has a tiny, spare, one-bedroom flat opposite our house, in which family members stay when they come to London (yes, I know, a spare flat. But all I can do is thank goodness he has it). At this point, obviously, his family weren’t coming to London, so he offered it to us. But just think about it: two middle-aged adults; two grown children. One bed and a futon in the living room. The maths don’t stack up.
It wasn’t the tragic Donner party – we weren’t stranded in the American Sierra Nevada in winter with no sustenance. We didn’t eat each other (the kitchen wasn’t big enough to cook the body parts). I understand completely that it was not suffering in any meaningful sense: being without your own home isn’t the same as being homeless, or starving, and few people are lucky enough to know someone with a spare flat.
There was always a bed for each of us, somewhere. But it was torturous to look out of the window of the flat’s tiny living room and see our own house, so close, but still uninhabitable. Even visiting it after hours to check on its progress could be disastrous – such as when I discovered the builders had left a bottle of milk on top of a box of records, but hadn’t secured the lid. This was a box containing my oldest vinyl, the stuff from my teens. Now the records were stained and stank of sour milk. I went through the Discogs website calculating their worth. There was a 12in single from 1987 that had been in near mint condition – an unblemished cover, barely played. It had been worth £120. It wasn’t now.
The kids – 20 and 16 – couldn’t tolerate how cramped it was; once lockdown loosened even a little, they went to sleep in any house that would let them in. If they were both in the flat, my wife and I would cross the road last thing at night and go to our building site and sleep in our bed, amid the debris and dust. Then we would get up as the sun rose, so we could be out before the builders arrived. We would return to the flat and sit in the living room, waiting for our son to stir so we could try to do some work. Anyone who has a teenage son, or been a teenage son, can imagine how long that wait could be.
By the time we got back into our – still unfinished – house, I was at the brink of despair. The night before, we had gone over for a look and found it still not ready. I began banging my head against the wall and started to cry. Without telling me, my wife called the builders and pleaded for an intervention on my behalf. Even if they couldn’t finish, could they make it habitable? They were there the next morning at dawn cleaning everything, so we could at least start living in our own house.
It is now more than a year since our four-month job began. The builders returned this morning to get on with the final little tasks. I am not tense about it any longer, because I love where I am: my little, unremarkable terraced house. Before lockdown, it was just bricks and mortar. Now it is a place I can scarcely bear to leave.