I have always referred to the houses I’ve owned by their street name.
The first was Stanley. I moved in an unmarried woman and moved out divorced mother to three sons. Next was Dick, house of extreme embarrassment for my growing boys—But mom! We moving to a swear-word street! Then came the half-acre slice-of-heaven, Roosevelt, and seven years on the heartache home, Pommel Gate. Squished between I bought a rental property, Brandon. And now, there is Duncan.
It bears mention of a slight blip in the naming tradition, after Pommel Gate but before Duncan. I never once referenced the flat where I lived for the last year by its street name, Portland Place. Instead, it was always The Cave.
When I move into a new place, standard practice dictates that until I’ve lived there a full year, I should not paint. This was an offshoot of hitting the paint cans too soon at Stanley, Dick and Roosevelt, only to find myself repainting a week, month, or even year later because no matter how many pillows were strewn on couches or how many works of art hung on walls or how clever I was to snag a carpet with the perfect pattern to pull the room together, the colour just would not work.
By the time I moved to Pommel Gate, I’d wizened up, discovering that a house will speak to its new owner if they are willing to wait. The best course of action after moving into a new home, then, is patience. In time, a house will reveal what it wants to the willing. And so with Pommel Gate and Brandon, I painted colours the house deemed best suited both to their walls and me, no re-dos required.
As a renter this last year, repainting was a nonessential, and the Cave’s walls were pleasant enough. Neither white nor beige, the colour was an artful marriage of the two, more of a bisque shade.
In the one communal room that housed the kitchen and lounge area, the upper half of the walls were exposed brick, and not being able paint, I focused obsessive attention on that brick, spending far too much time imagining the hands that had mortared the stones. Since the building was erected in 1864, not a one of the men attached to those hands would have known that the foundation they’d built would be solid enough to withstand the infamous Halifax explosion—and me living there for a year.
It can be no secret that I both loved and hated The Cave. Entering its front door and walking the long hallway that led to 500 hundred square feet and three teeny rooms was to be swallowed by smallness and darkness.
For a full year, my days were spent in an ongoing pursuit of lightness and space. I found it by exploring the city’s library, cafes, and parks, seeking refuge in places of freedom and light. How I used to wish that I could bottle sunshine, take it home, and smash the glass in my subterranean flat letting its contents flood illumination into every nook and cranny of the claustrophobic Cave.
Sometimes the damn dark held me in a brackish, lightless grip that squeezed me from the bottom up, expelling everything I’d ever said or done for each moment of my 54 years, leaving me no choice but to confront every notion I’d ever held sacrosanct around fate and destiny and the very standoff that had led me to runaway in the first place.
Impalement on a nail-bed of unwanted memories.
“Stone walls do not a prison make,” my landlady Janet wrote to me in an email in late winter after I’d loudly bemoaned the impact of the lack of daylight and its terrible toll on my spirit.
Ha! I’d thought, after I’d read her words. Obviously, she just didn’t understand the human need for light.
After I gave my notice, Janet and I were in constant contact as she searched for a new basement dweller. People came and went. Sometimes I’d let potential tenants in and take them round the place if Janet couldn’t make it. Showing the flat was a quick process. Explaining subterranean living was not.
I suppose I might have told the inquisitive how often I would hear the activity of the upstairs tenants, Bonnie and Dan. The clatter of Bonnie’s feet quickly became the impetus to get out of my bed in the morning. Wasn’t it a surprise in the winter when I began to rely on her 6am footfalls above as my morning alarm since my bedroom was perennially murky and womblike, no matter what the sun was up to.
In the evenings, she and Dan watched TV. But volume was always so low I could never quite figure out what show they might be watching. Instead, the sound was absorbed into the baseline audio of the outside street’s customary nighttime melee of police and ambulance sirens and late night party-goers leaving The Local. Occasionally, a late nighttime message or text arrived to their mobiles and the phone’s vibrations would cut through the din, coming down through their floor and into my ceiling. I would lay in my bed below straining my ears to see if I could hear their Hello.
After the year of darkness, I wonder if it will be easy to fully rest when the moon sneaks into my room or if I will mind waking to the sun instead of Bonnie’s footsteps.
Life at Duncan.
I wonder what it will be like to spread out to two floors, many rooms and a yard after 12 months in reduced quarters. At The Cave, my son and I had to learn to parse out what does not matter and get along, not only with each other, but with our many visitors. We decided to laugh where once we might have complained and hug where once we may have cold shoulder’d. The Jenga and dominoes came out where once we might have retreated away from one another into the depths of Pommel Gate’s many vacuous rooms.
Small spaces and lessons, I don’t want to forget.
Janet suggested I change the name of my blog from No fixed address to Not from away since I am now a home owner in Halifax.
The email frequency between us reached its zenith the last week of August. We were in touch daily, sometimes three or four times, and on occasions our notes dipped beyond renting the cave. One day she wrote of the tenant before me, Josh, whom I’d once met when he’d knocked on my door asking me for a nostalgic walk-about of The Cave.
“Glad you met Josh. About 3 mos before he left, he told me he wanted to stay in his apartment (that is, in your “cave”) forever.
I imagine that might be me knocking on The Cave’s door someday for my own trip down memory lane. By then, for sure I will have let my hair go gray and my eyes might be a little rheumy and my face gnarly with wrinkles, but I hope my memories of that year remain intact.
I stink at goodbyes. Some are downright treachery, like when I must say goodbye to my two sons who live in Toronto at the end of a visit, while others are more a slow fade, like the end of my marriage.
“Hello,” I will say to the occupant when I go for my visit to The Cave. “I used to live here for a year.”
Hopefully, they might invite me in, as I did with Josh last winter. And after I walk through that darkened hallway once again and feel the walls, I know that I will remember what The Cave said when it let go of me, which had nothing at all to do with paint colours.
Janet was right, of course. Stone walls do not a prison make. I was the one who didn’t understand walls or prisons—or even light for that matter. Freedom and illumination. The Cave let me know place had not a whit to do with either. It was all me.
Home has the strangest ingredients. What to do with that list has always been my most difficult challenge. The Cave whispered me a recipe.
Goodby Cave and Hello Duncan.
Hardly three weeks in, Duncan forced me to take a a crazed cross-country tour to retrieve some of my stored belongings in order to fill its greater that 500 square feet spaces. I also brought back my nephew Spencer, who has decided he must move to Halifax too. September has me moving into week two of a plaster and lathe rewiring nightmare-mess-filled-madness while trying to unpack. The job was supposed to take one week and be completed while the house was empty. Nova Scotia and the best laid plans and all that rot.
Meanwhile, through the rewiring came a peerage into the large holes the electrician carved into my walls and ceiling, and I discovered Duncan has insulation-less walls, an important matter somehow entirely missed by the house inspector I hired to go through the house so I would have a sense of what I might be up against in a circa 1865 home-build. And now, I will need to get the walls insulated before the snow flies. Of course that can’t happen until I find someone to repair said gaping holes. Have I mentioned the general discombobulation that comes hand-in-hand new everythings while still working and attempting to write a book?
But I’m not complaining. I’m alive again and home never felt so good, plaster dust and all.
P.S. Duncan, I’m listening.