When I first met my husband 10 years ago he lived in a rundown house right where the Olympic stadium now is. I can’t remember much about the house as I was mostly drunk at the time, but I do remember it had a fantastic deep, over-run garden which I disappeared to enigmatically on our first date. I had watched too many Fred and Ginger films and I was hoping that he would come and find me in the moonlight and we would kiss. Instead, he thought that I had had a terrible time and gone home. I stood outside for about 20 minutes before going back in and trying to laugh it off in a cavalier (if still slightly enigmatic) fashion.
He then moved to a house in Stoke Newington, to a road where everyone else was Orthodox Jewish. Literally, everyone else. He had a really high bed (yes we overcame the moonlit garden incident pretty quickly) and a great little courtyard with white brick walls outside the kitchen window where we would hypothesise on which animals we would be able to kill in one-on-one combat, naked. Notice I say hypothesise, although it did come pretty close when, to our derision, a spectacularly wet friend of ours stepped up and said he could finish a goose off barehanded. The courtyard was going be the battleground (and we would have an executive box at the kitchen window), except he suddenly stopped calling at about this time. And my husband only stayed there for another 6 months.
He then moved to a flimsy-walled new build near Victoria Park, where the bedroom dimensions made me weep and vow to seek vengeance against the vindictive architect who had it so designed. The final straw was when his flat mate started watching suspicious videos in the room next door. So he moved in with me.
At the time I lived in the real East-end of London, by which I mean the scabby bit, neglected by Pearly Queens and Del-Boy. In my East-end, everyone was miserable all the time and any remotely aware person would have immediately moved out. I loved it! I was unknowingly subletting a flat from a man who shall be known only as Dave. I lived on the top floor: below me was for some time a lady who eventually went back inside for more treatment and guy called Ed, a complete bounder, who had declared himself bankrupt and chipped to Brazil in the middle or the night, got married, moved back with the girl (way out of his league) and then disappeared for a second time, leaving her behind. I thought I was Holly Golightly. I was in fact Raskolnikov. But with less romance and flogged horses, thank goodness.
The flat had its upsides. It looked out on to a cemetery which to some minds is outrageously close to a Stephen King setting. But if you live in a city, it’s rare to get a view of the sky, no matter how persistently grey. Besides, the funerals round there were proper East-end, full on parades with carriages and black horses wearing those tall feather showgirl hats. The flat consisted of a little kitchen with mould, a bathroom, no shower and an exceptionally vocal fan and the remaining third comprised living/sleeping space. No, I lie: a quarter was taken up with the stairway leading up and an in built wardrobe which I generally ignored after I tipped a whole pot of paint on my head trying to dislodge a sleeping bag.
So living and sleeping made up about a quarter of the space, which probably equated to about 100 square metres. For a TV, a sofabed, a computer and a wardrobe. And bookshelves. And a bedside drawer thing. With two people in it, who’d never lived together before. And a George Foreman grill, which wouldn’t fit in the kitchen. Normally it looked a bit like one of those pictures the astronauts send back from space, where they’re all desperately trying to look relaxed and cheerful in their pods but stuff is just floating around and nothing is where it should be.
This is how we lived for 3 years.
If you’ve ever lived in a studio flat you will know that you start with good intentions which gradually erode until one day, you just can’t be arsed with making up the futon again. And from that day forwards it is just a bed, a sofa nevermore. Now, as this is very often the eating space as well, the bed quickly takes on a muesli texture, with little bits of ciabatta or peanut falling into the cracks. Again, you start the fight bravely, shaking off the crumbs (maybe even out of a window?) and then …well who cares? Eventually you romanticise it, and the bed becomes a safe haven, the big pirate ship in the middle of the turbulent sea of discarded knickers, DVD covers and phone chargers. Home is truly a crusty bed.
I like to think of our years together in the studio as relationship survival training. Arguments were ridiculous. You couldn’t storm off; if you went outside you may get shot or procured for Fagin’s gang and if you sat in the kitchen you’d die of consumption. So you sat it out, on the crusty bed. And to this day, I think my husband and I could co-exist in a phone box. Even now, we can quite happily spend a day on the sofa getting on with our own things without feeling the need to meddle in each other’s business. I still find the sound of Pro-Evolution Soccer being played on an X box as meditative and sleep inducing as any Chopin and he (mostly) still overlooks my psychological need to pile things by the side of my bed.
If personalities are forged by the age of 15, then I reckon that relationships (and one’s tolerance levels) are fixed by the time you flee your first shared nest together. And if you are having misgivings about your current choice, I would like to fly in the face of conventional counselling wisdom. Don’t give each other time or space: go live in a studio flat for a bit. I know a guy called Dave who could sort you out ….