This was my ‘room with a view’… a view of a street on the go… during daylight hours the view often proved a distraction to me… its constant stream of people and traffic ebbing and flowing; always something to catch the eye momentarily or hold the attention for a while; to incite the curiosity and induce a fondness for daydreaming and people watching… my attempts at study commonly ended in procrastination; gazing out at the ‘down below’… from four floors up it was the perfect vantage point to watch the world bustle.
On match days the place would be overrun… red-clad ‘Gunners’ and ‘whoever else’… the pitch rising steadily as the crowds grew… subsiding eventually to a barely perceptible hum, punctuated only by the occasional cheer or roar, as the throngs of jerseys trickled away past the station and on to the stadium. I generally opted to stay out-of-the-way; to take my son elsewhere or to ‘busy’ myself inside; unperturbed by the hubbub but stealing occasional glances through the glass at the goings-on.
The balcony door was locked during the day, key on a nail; out of reach of tip-toe toddlers with clever fingers, fierce determination, and a knack for all things fiddly. Within the view was at odds with the outside world… a child’s play corner, book shelf and colouring table, a desk, a sofa bed and a giant purple beanbag… a mother and a bright-eyed, curly-haired little boy, essays and story time, cramming and crayons… coming and going… laughter and loneliness… muddling through.
The view from the balcony was most captivating by night… when the Coronet Free House cast red luminosity around it and the din of the day had faded. From where I sat, settled in the comforting lamp-glow, I could see lights from the tower blocks through the window… it reminded me somehow of the outskirts of Barcelona and I’d allow myself to imagine I was somewhere ‘on the continent’.
In the early hours of summer nights I’d stand outside, leaning on the balcony wall and losing track of time as I drank in the view. It would be almost quiet then; after the traffic had dwindled away… occasional night buses like phantoms rattled by, practically empty… or hissed to a stop to pick up straggling revellers making their way home. Sometimes a truck would thunder past… and blaring sirens regularly shattered the relative peace as they took the stretch from Highbury to Archway and beyond at speed… I’d follow the flashing blue with my eyes ‘til it was out of sight then stand gazing north towards ‘the neon horizon’. (Blackman, 2009)
I lived in that flat, on London’s Holloway Road, for three years. It was on the top floor of an old council block… 8 flights of concrete steps with shopping and a buggy when the lift was out-as it very often was… So much that was good and ‘bad’ happened in the space of those three short years… a lot of pain certainly but in many respects they were the best days of my life… sitting here now trying to recall I’m surprised to realise just how quickly and how far the memories have receded.
I arrived on the first day, laden down; with sturdy 11-month-old, buggy and far too many bags, only to find the lift decidedly out of action. The landlady and her mother kindly helped me up with my things and stayed briefly, chatting and giving me the run through before leaving me to absorb it all. I don’t remember my initial feelings about the place itself. It was nice, spacious and no nasty surprises lay in store. I had been anxious prior to arrival… anxious about moving from Ireland with a young child to a place that might not even exist outside of Gumtree. I was struck by the amount of dust and started cleaning around. The wooden floors were hard and too slippery for my son to crawl on. He was disconcerted… crying and coming after me, struggling to pull to standing holding onto my leg. His tetchiness and obvious unease left me guilty. I was overcome with a sudden what-have-I-done sort of panic in the pit of my stomach.
When I finally got him to sleep that night I sat in the doorway of the kitchen eating a sandwich and trying to watch him; terrified lest he roll off the huge bed with its wrought iron frame onto the floor… I kept an eye on him over the top of the book I was struggling to read in an attempt to quell the rising wave of homesickness. There was an old wall-mounted gas heater in the living room. Its pilot light and the noise the thing was making freaked me out…though I was 24 I felt like Kevin in the basement in Home Alone… everything was unfamiliar and I wanted so badly to run back home with my baby.
‘There’s no place like home’ and over the months and years that followed that’s exactly what that flat became to us… sure, we still caught a dirt cheap flight back to the seaside and the home-cooked meals given half a chance but as I grew accustomed to London living once more… old friends and Uni… this time with the addition of baby-in-tow, park-life, play centres and city farms… I found my feet and settled and there was nothing I liked better than ‘coming home’ weary with my darling son, at the end of a day well-spent… to my room with a view.
It’s been a long, long time since I’ve thought about the place… not really since I left; at about 1am that August night… not since I locked the door behind me, slipping the keys through the letterbox, and struggled, 6 months pregnant and half carrying my barely awake four-year-old son; along the dimly lit passage… and into the lift. It was working that night… I can still hear it crank into life- and feel the relief as it starts to shudder and steel itself for the decent, standing unsteadily, breath held, in the eerie glow of the strip lighting… as it counts down levels to the ground. ‘Doors opening.’ Then out, into the sweet night air… the heavy metal door of the building reverberating in its frame; shutting behind me for the last time.