BEFORE I LEAVE | Annmarie McQueen considers the easy familiarity that comes with sharing a space.
by Annmarie McQueen
Through my window I can see the last dregs of light dissolving into indigo, the sky swirling into a watercolour palette of blues. Birdsong fills the air.
From from my bed I have a good view of it, the crackling candle next to me bathing the room in a soft glow and filling it with a sweet, caramel fragrance. I can hear the usual sounds of daily life coming from the rest of the flat; the click of a light switch, the gurgle of running water, the creak of wooden floorboards as my flatmate moves around. All the mundane little facts of living with another person that have become so normal to me that I feel unsettled whenever I’m left on my own.
It’s going to be hard to leave these things behind.
I suppose it’s quite a normal thing, to be flat-sharing with a friend in London as a poor twenty-something millennial. These are supposed to be the wild years; years of house parties and impulsive nights out, board games and cocktails with friends, dates, adventures, new experiences. That is, until coronavirus happened and sunk everyone’s plans.
These are supposed to be the years we spend figuring ourselves out, trying on different lives and personas until we find one that fits.
It’s also lonely though, and that’s the thing people don’t talk about as much.
‘What are you up to?’ my flatmate asks, popping her head through my open door. She’s been working from home all day while my company has put me on furlough, so I’ve spent it reading instead.
I show her the book cover and she comes in for a quick chat about it. It’s nice to live with another literature student, my best friend since the first day of university. We never run out of conversation, like a leaky tap that won’t shut off.
Later we make dinner together, singing along to the Hamilton soundtrack as we chop carrots and onions. We make a rather impressive pesto pasta and eat it on our uncomfortable leather sofa, avoiding the big wooden beam running down the middle that’s caught my back too many times.
The open plan kitchen/living room is a lived-in kind of messy; years’ worth of cleaning items in cupboards, an overflowing drying rack, my extensive shoe collection blocking half the doorway, the table by the window that I turned into a makeshift shrine for my dad after he died a year ago. In the beginning it was just a framed photo of him with a few tea-lights, but since then the shrine has expanded to become a home for my handmade candles, old birthday cards on display and a few Pokemon plushies. Like the rest of the flat, the shrine has accumulated items over the years.
“It’s the kind of easy familiarity and connection that comes from years of shared routine, of the slow and gradual intertwining of lives and schedules and plans.”
‘I’m going to miss this place,’ I tell my other friends when we talk over the phone, but my feeble words are incapable of explaining all of the significance in that simple statement.
This flat is home, I want to say. It’s been my home for the past two years and leaving it feels like leaving a part of myself behind.
Perhaps I’m not supposed to get so attached to every place I live in, to the shabby dorm rooms and mouldy shared houses I rented as a student, or the flat on top of an Indian restaurant that caught fire the year after I moved out.
None of these places are mine, I’m just paying for the luxury of staying there temporarily. But each time I get caught up in the mundane daily routines shared with friends who have slowly become family over time, letting our memories seep into the plaster of the walls and stain the wooden floorboards until they’re part of the building itself and I can’t separate the two anymore, until it becomes far too easy to forget that all of this is transient.
I think living with someone, whether it’s a friend or partner, is one of the most intimate bonding experiences you can have. It’s hard to feel lonely when you’re coming home to someone asking about your day, or the smell of freshly cooked dinner. It’s hard to feel lonely when you can hear the constant buzz of TV coming from the room down the corridor, and there’s always someone around in the evening to play chess with, have a glass of wine with, go for a walk or watch Netflix with.
It’s hard to feel lonely when you know someone so intimately that you can catalogue all of their weird little quirks and they can do the same with yours. You know they’ll leave the milk out of the fridge again, or that they like to sing in the shower, or that they’ll stay up all night watching youtube videos.
It’s the kind of easy familiarity and connection that comes from years of shared routine, of the slow and gradual intertwining of lives and schedules and plans.
I’m counting on the belief that this won’t be the last time I’ll feel this way. In a few weeks I’ll leave this flat to spend the rest of quarantine at my mother’s house; I’ll clear out my room until no trace of me is left, until the only evidence that I lived here at all will be two years’ worth of memories and the wine stain on the wall I could never get out. I hope one day I’ll find somewhere else that feels like home, perhaps even a place of my own to make new memories with people I love.
Before I leave, though, I write it all down. Just in case.
Annmarie McQueen is a London-based digital marketer and writer, and graduate of Warwick University’s creative writing programme. She’s been published in magazines and anthologies including ‘Words with Jam,’ ‘Buried letter press,’ and ‘The Little Book of Fairytales’ among others. She can generally be found scribbling furiously in a cafe somewhere, hidden behind her camera lens or learning a new song on the ukulele.