My Father’s Coat
There is a garden here, with a yew hedge, a lavender border, peonies, a vegetable patch, herbs, and a washing line. The house is made of bricks, painted cream and, on the inside, it has big exposed beams and old, at times slanted, floors. It feels as if I’ve been lifted sideways out of my normal life and into a hyperreal painting, some potent archetype of the English imaginary, and a stability of existence which is so inconceivable to me, it is almost laughable. Until a few weeks ago, the government’s message was ‘Stay Home’, but this is not my home. It is my boyfriend’s parents’ home and it is in Surrey. It is the only house he has ever lived in apart from the one we left a week before lockdown was announced, which we share with two other boys, just off the Clapham Road.
I have lived in London for three years now, over the course of which I have had five addresses (or six if you count this one). I have lived three versions of the same obligatory chapter of early-London living: the dodgy bedsit, the box room, the basement room with mould. Only in the bedsit did I have a desk to call my own; otherwise my early London years have seen me writing in bed, or at the kitchen table. Here, in my boyfriend’s parents’ house, there is a dearth of desks, and so I work at a small cupboard. If I open one half and put my legs inside, it sort of works.
My boyfriend is a management consultant, the child of accountants, and I am a freelance writer, mainly of book reviews. His older sister, who lives alone, has also come here. She works for an engineering company. In no time at all, I have gone from working and lunching alone in an empty house to being surrounded by people in full-time jobs, who work long, highly structured hours in highly remunerative professions. This makes me feel self-conscious, deeply insecure about what I do for a living, and how. I wonder if I am making a huge mistake and should in fact be trying to become a lawyer; some other profession which would endow me with the capital and safety of a cream-coloured house.
I have been freelance longer than I was a normal employee. As time goes on, I wonder if I will ever be able to re-enter the traditional workforce. I worry I am somehow fundamentally unfit for the 9-to-5, which means I will never know secure employment. Meanwhile, I hide my more creative writerly ambitions behind self-mockery and sarcasm: a bit sad, you might say. I am trying to write a novel, and the only way I have found to work on it is by waking at 5 a.m., before anyone else in the house is up, to treat it sort of as a secret. I have not yet figured out how to talk about it without sounding as if I’m over-compensating for the fact that my markers of success may never translate into the most commonly accepted ones.
It is nice to be no longer eating lunch alone. Mostly, my boyfriend’s mother, who is retired, does it. She lays the table, puts out a cheeseboard, makes salad, clears it all away afterwards. Her children come down when they are called, or sometimes not, because they are on calls. They are seemingly always on these. While I think it is good for me to be in a family context under present circumstances, it makes me miss my own family keenly. I have one grandmother in France and one in Spain. My parents and sister are in California. My brother escaped at the beginning of all this to a boarding school in the Midlands, which is now empty, where he has a friend whose mother is a housemistress. He sends me pictures of himself making pizzas in an industrial kitchen. The school closed early, like all the others, so they still have 600 people’s worth of food in four walk-in freezers. He goes for long walks with a borrowed Labrador called Rocco. He plays tennis. It would be a good setting for a novel, I reckon, and think too, with dread, of all the novels which will be set this year.
I feel very lucky that I had somewhere else to go during lockdown; that my boyfriend’s parents are generous with their resources and that I do not need to work in my mouldy bedroom. But I also feel completely infantilised by the situation: finding myself in a suburban family home again (one which no longer has a family living in it), being trapped in the perpetual present of lockdown, and being confronted with the yawning gap between myself and these baby boomers who don’t belong to me. There is a seemingly egregious ease to the way they attained all the things we are still told we should want to work for; only now, for us, to come of age is to face the long aftermath of the 2008 crash and, worse, to be looking askance at the coming recession.
One thing I brought with me when we left London is my father’s coat, which my brother had been wearing and left at my house by mistake. It is an old coat, almost as old as me, I think, navy-blue, a barn coat made of grosgrain canvas with a leather collar and huge pockets, bought from a mail order catalogue when we lived in California. Here in Surrey, when it was still cold, I would wear it every day when I went for walks in the woods near the house, setting off in the mid-afternoon to call friends, and find a log to sit on while I talked, swinging my legs. The coat is obviously too big for me and I look silly in it, but it feels like my father’s arm around my shoulders. It is the coat he is wearing in so many of my early memories. Wearing it takes me back to a windy beach near San Francisco, running around, gathering sticks and shells and bringing them to him in armfuls for his inspection; the cold suck and roar of the Pacific against my toes; my mother in a red jumper picking up smooth pebbles, the family dog, my baby brother in bright yellow bug wellies. I remember the fog rolling in like a duvet over the Golden Gate, the smell of redwoods and ponderosa pines, the tawny, lion-coloured hills, how big the sky felt then and there. I was small and unafraid, I knew nothing of the somewhat toxic relationship between the big city and the book critic (or rather, the big city in the twenty-first century and the freelance book critic), let alone how the life expected of me would become, over the course of my adolescence, nigh on unattainable.
I have lived in England, away from my parents, for ten years now. I came here to boarding school and then university; stayed to scratch a living out of London and, yes, to meet a nice boy with whom to build a life. This is as my parents foresaw. When I went to university, they found fifth gears in their careers and shot off, finding fulfilment and success which they weren’t expecting. We all now have a WhatsApp group where we speak every couple of days, exchanging articles and the funny flotsam of the internet. Speaking on the phone is a little more difficult, because of the time difference. If I am having a meltdown and want to talk to my mother, I either need to wait until the weekend, or try and catch her in her lunch hour. We see each other every six months, in the summer and at Christmas: short, intense times where there is pressure not to squabble and spoil it. Of course, it looks as if I won’t be seeing any of them this summer at all. Having not suffered from homesickness for the past decade, it now afflicts me with a fierce and feral ache. It is not homesickness for a place, but for them. I am no longer consoled by the thought they are only a plane ride away. I miss having them in the routine of my life. I wish I could meet them on a whim for lunch or coffee, or, with them, never take free museum entry for granted again. I want the healthy dynamic of a well-individuated adult child and their parents, who just get on well, and the spontaneity of people who live close to one another. The home I want has them in its catchment area. It’s as simple as that.
I have been thinking, of late, of a passage from Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger: From the North African Front of the Second World War the narrator enumerates the small pleasures of home in peacetime, which have taken on a sacred stature in conflict: hot meals, warm baths, evenings in green gardens, clean sheets. Mundane things have once more become utmost aspirations: family dinners, pubs, long days in the park, hugging my friends. A real double bed, libraries, bookshops, train journeys; good food, films of uneven quality, reading – as long as we all shall live. These are the things I really, truly want, and the need to feel at home, prepared for the precarious project of living.
Stephanie Sy-Quia‘s reviews and articles have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the FT Magazine, the Spectator and the LA Review of Books.
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