Sunday, October 19, 2014

I Capture the Castle

It’s now five months since I moved to my new flat, on the first floor of a modest block about eight minutes drive from the beach – and I can finally declare the experiment a success.

The whole thing was so rushed that for many weeks it felt as if I was living on faith in the future alone. I can now report that the future is starting to come through.

For the first time in years, I chose a place using my gut feeling. I chose a place that felt right even though I could have found a million reasons to turn my back on it and continue my search.

At 51, the moving process was so wrenching that there were countless times when I convinced myself I’d made the wrong decision. And times when, if I’m frank, I lost the plot completely. As the flat revealed its myriad small faults, it seemed like I’d jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. But I was wrong.

The other day I met the owner of the flat opposite, doing some basic renovation before selling it. She lived in her flat before my time and seems to have partnered since. The family who were renting that flat when I moved in had moved downstairs to the flat below it a few months ago; since then she’s been unable to get tenants and has decided to sell (I couldn’t help wondering how much rent she was asking).

She invited me in to take a quick sticky beak inside her place to see the differences and similarities and for the first time I was able to talk to someone about how great this area is. We both gushed about its many hidden delights, and how astonishing it is that the masses haven’t yet discovered it. For her this now translates into worrying that she won’t get a good enough price for her place; for me it’s affirmation I made the right decision to move here.

‘I used to walk to the beach’, she told me. ‘And to the Elsternwick shopping centre.’ She used to study in a tiny postage stamp sized park which is around the corner, a sweet little triangle of land that features a summer house.

There’s also another park just over the main road, in the neighbouring suburb of Brighton. I’ve only just visited it during the day in the last week, although I’d walked past it on an evening stroll. She used to go there too, she said.

Being able to escape to the beach, even though it’s a bayside beach with industrial elements in the distance, is magical. In the last decade or so the various councils have put money into their foreshores and there are some lovely native grass plantings and inviting timber benches along the walkways. Sometimes I just drive to the shore, get out of the car and stare at the sea for five minutes. Other times I go for walks along it that surprise me with their length – the sea air seems to give me energy. The beach has become my sanity, my touch point.

After our chat I appreciated my place even more. My living room looks out onto two huge trees in the yard of the tenants below me. It’s a lovely view on sunny afternoons when the sun makes patterns on the opposite wall; later as the sun sets I’ll be able to see its orange aura sinking in the west. There’s so much light in this place and it is several degrees warmer than the old place so that I am saving a fortune in heating bills.

I’m so unused to feeling lucky in my life. My constant mantra is a sense of being hard done by – a classic victim mentality. It is unusual for me to feel the emotions of triumph and mastery. Perhaps I perceive these emotions as dangerous, even politically incorrect. When I ‘win’ and something good happens, there is a fear that someone else ‘loses’. It’s creepy to think that one of the hidden self-destructive ideas that I may have taken from my Catholic childhood is that it is fairer on everybody else if I take the dregs of life and don’t strive too hard to gain an advantage. Of course, things can go too far the other way – there is a balance to be struck when it comes to self-interest and perhaps I’m finding it for the first time.

Soon after I moved in to this place, one of the flats downstairs got sold to a brash thirty-something man who, without bothering to inform anyone, started to renovate the bejesus out it (this is the flat my upstairs family of neighbours would later move into, probably for the small yard). One morning suddenly the place was alive with buzz saws, crashes and bangs, and labourers chucking out fixtures and throwing them onto the skip out the front.

In the coming weeks our shared lobby would see an endless stream of noise and activity. But the owner never put drop sheets down. Workmen traipsed back and forth across the carpet and the square terracotta tiles. The tiled area starts inside the lobby, then continues outside, forming a walkway to the front entrance of the block.

The tiles and carpet would never be the same again. I surmised that all the flats in the block must be owned by investors – none of the owners seemed to know or care about the damage to the common property. At one stage the owner had a contraption set up on the patch of grass outside the security door, where the new kitchen and bathroom tiles he was installing would be dipped in cement and then taken into the flat. Drip, drip, drip on the terracotta tiles, not to mention that patch of grass turning into mud although moss and grass have since grown back.

The terracotta tiles now have cement stains and skid marks. The ones on the walkway from the street have new cracks and chips.

But the whole thing did get cleaned up. One day the daggy coronet carpet no longer had plaster flecks all over it. Same with the tiles, although to this day they’ve never been mopped. Inside the flat, though I never got a proper look, I glimpsed a beautifully renovated place with meticulously chosen fittings.

And since that day my mind has turned  the damaged terracotta and the neat but faded patch of carpet outside the front door of the renovated flat – carpet that now has a pale layer of ground-in dirt – into a metaphor.

That transformation mirrors my experience of moving house. The lack of method, the speed of it, the sense of being thrown out of one place and into another. I paid a high price for that speediness, but the end result was good.

For the first weeks there was psychic and physical exhaustion. With all the packing and lifting of boxes I’d damaged tendons in both arms, and for the first two or three months lived in terror I would lose the ability to do basic things. The damage was then worsened by RSI. Both arms are a lot better now. But even while I was most worried about them I thought of them as war injuries sustained in the process of my hero’s journey.

The roughness of things, their natural decay. I will damage this house, I accept that now. My kitchen and bathroom both have white ceramic tiles on the floor. There were already cracks on them and I dutifully photographed these when I first moved in. But I have noticed small chips since then and wondered if I did them and if so how. Why worry? Life is wear and tear. 

Things get damaged. My tendons got strained, and I escaped my dungeon.

In my twelve-step peer support group we are urged to ‘accept disorder in lesser things’ while recovering from mental illness. For many weeks I accepted a surface disorder while I was improving the underlying order of my life.

I certainly don’t want to discount the shortcomings of this place. The main one that I haven’t solved yet is sleep. There are two things interfering with this: the excessive light in my bedroom that the venetians don’t cut out and the fact that the soundproofing is absolutely non-existent – Victorian soundproofing standards became incredibly lax in the seventies, when these flats were built.

It’s not just the degree of noise I fear but its unpredictability. The neighbours are mostly quiet daring the week but every and now then it sounds as if someone’s clomping around the bedroom below mine on stilts. I was letting myself get very unsettled by this and it got to a point of crisis.

Then I realised I had to start changing my thinking about it. I had to stop telling myself how terrible it was and accept that sleep was hard for me, but insomnia wouldn’t kill me. I still sleep badly but I accept that now, and am getting better at sleeping without ear plugs. I can always catch up during the day if I have to. I know that’s bad sleep hygiene but sometimes 
I’ve just been too tired to function without a nap.

If life can get worse, I am discovering, it can also get better. I’ve still got a long way to go but moving house has definitely been a step forward for me.


  1. Hi Catherine,

    I'm still out here and reading your posts - just wanted you to know :)

    Times are fast here, hence the lack of responses from me re previous posts of yours. I am certainly still reading them, though!

    You captured the castle :) I love the metaphor (I am ever so fond of metaphors!). I'm so pleased for you. I'm imagining the poem ...

    All the best there, Catherine.


  2. Hi Kate,

    great to hear from you - hope everything is going well!

    This place is certainly bringing out the poet in me :)


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