House hunting in London is a curiously unhealthy combination of adrenaline-filled and boring. I lived there last year, and it took almost two months of traipsing around to places that turned out not to exist and places that did exist but only in an alternative universe where I was a princess from Doha with oil money to spend. I had to find somewhere to put myself and my things. Before I left Dublin I gave away almost everything — my furniture, my plants, my secrets. I held onto what I needed, which apparently was one entire suitcase of gym gear that had mysteriously gotten too tight to wear (peanut butter) and four champagne glasses, not flutes, but those 1920s style ones that I pretend to be Bette Davis with.
At first I sublet a place in Turnpike Lane. I knew I’d be safe there, because there were security cameras and police everywhere and everybody was always shouting. The little flat had a garden that was covered in snow. I guessed at the shapes — maybe a slide, maybe a little stone fountain, Tilda Swinton blanketed them all so I never found out. On and on went the bonkers round of viewings and exchanges with demented estate agents. The scientist whose wine I’d been drinking came home after 5 weeks and the sublet ended. I stayed in a friend’s place in Dalston while she was away. I tried on one of her dresses and mysteriously ripped the seam (peanut butter). There was a small deck out the back, dark and covered in hanging branches, a dejected looking barbecue unsure of what would happen next. I didn’t have the heart to tell it Next thing I knew, Josie was back too.
When I said estate agents were demented earlier, I meant it, but not, as my mother would say, in a bad way. It’s easy to rag on that profession, but that isn’t what I’m doing. Estate agents in London are demented from thinking about money and moving and more money all day every day in a crazy whirl that is spinning up and up with no resting place between floors. I’d be demented too.
I was back in Ireland one day, visiting family, peeling the inevitable potatoes, when I got a text from my flatmate to be saying she had found somewhere, that it was crazy pricey and it had a garden. After months of searching, it came down to my texted response, I got starchy water on my phone as I typed ‘take it!’ I included two emojis, a smiley face with a tiny gun pointing to it. I hoped this would convey my excitement.
The apartment was in Stoke Newington and had almost exactly doubled in rent since the last lease, three years previously. I knew this because Matt, the estate agent, sent me the previous tenant’s lease by accident. His boss, a woman who seemed to be called Tugboat, didn’t let him deal with us after that. Except for one time when he called over to check on the mouse issue (colony) in the kitchen. He found me on the front steps in the sun and we sat there together for a while in a pretty nice silence. He asked why I wasn’t using the back garden, and I showed him. The brand new sun had made it go crazy. It was tangled and overgrown and blown down and anyway, I explained, a fox was using it to bring up her baby foxes.
We lived in the house through the burning hot summer, and never used the garden. I would glance at it, see how the foxes were doing, resist naming them and counting them as friends. I felt a dull guilt about the garden. I kept meaning to do something about it. That vague and exasperating feeling was not limited to the garden. The poor old garden was the symbol of a reality that stretched to pretty much every part of me at that time. The hum of ‘I must do something about this’ haunted me through the hottest and loneliest summer of my life (so far!)
I had to leave London. I was determined to get the garden cleared before I went and this decision took on an exaggerated importance in my mind. I found a man on Gumtree called Sorya. The next morning, as I packed up my belongings, he came puffing up the steps — some kind of saviour in a white tracksuit, holding a strimmer in one hand, bouncing a wheelbarrow behind him with the other. As he smoked a cigarette to get his breath back, I asked him to clear everything, except the foxes den. Two hours later, the place was clear. I went out with a mug of tea for Sorya and looked at the new carpet of thorns and weeds and nettles. He began shovelling it into the wheelbarrow when I saw a big bunch of grapes , glistening and perfect, straight from a Roman banquet. I asked him if he’d brought them, and he explained no, there were three vines, full of grapes, and he’d pulled them down as instructed.
Gardening lends itself to metaphor embarrassingly easily. Cultivating, growing, nurturing, — I will spare you. Suffice to say that part of me regrets not thinking to look for treasure in the ruins, part of me is comforted by finding out it was there all along, and it will always be. I don’t know, I just know that I stood there for a long time , uncomfortably shifting in my too-tight running leggings, drinking recycled London water from a goddamn champagne glass, watching him tip the contents of the wheelbarrow into the bin, jewels and all.