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Saturday 21st September 2019

You can’t know someone until you live with them

"I was in a low place and found one of my greatest friendships"

Living with people you don’t know is not unusual per se. In London, insane rent and a constant influx of new people make it an inevitability for many. This was the case for me.

I am very lucky to know friends all over my beloved city. But I spent much of my early twenties broke – the kind where you know how many pennies there are in your pocket and live off sporadic baked potatoes. For many reasons, finding work was sometimes very difficult. So I became used to adapting to unfamiliar and unpredictable living situations.

I Spare Room-ed, sofa-surfed, rented legally and illegally, sublet student rooms, lived on estates and in big town houses (overwhelmingly the former), lived in an industrial warehouse with 27 housemates, house sat, crashed with friends, and many times moved in with strangers I didn’t meet until after I’d already unpacked.

It was often uncomfortable, and occasionally intolerable. But I had a few wonderful experiences which I have carried with me into my (less broke) thirties. Here’s one.

In the late summer of 2013, I stuffed my belongings into Sainsbury’s bags for life and hauled them from Camden to North Kensington. It was August, and boiling hot. The bags stuck to my legs as I tried not to be sick (I was sitting on the engine) on the bus across town.

My mum, who lives in Sussex, had recently met a woman called Jenny, whose father she was helping to care for in the neighbourhood. Jenny lived in London, and was interested in sharing her one-bedroom housing association flat in Ladbroke Grove for £100 per week.

Jenny and I never met before I moved in. At 50, she was exactly twice my age. When I arrived that first afternoon, she was away and I was greeted by a neighbour who gave me the key.

Jenny had specified in our brief phone conversation that I should take the bedroom. She liked to smoke as soon as she woke in the morning and so preferred to be in situ in the living room in case the urge struck early.

Within a fortnight of my moving in, Jenny’s father died. Her mother was already dead and she had been close to him. She was quietly devastated.

Though I was sleeping in it, the bedroom remained Jenny’s. Her sheets were on the bed, the wardrobe was full of her clothes, and her photos and objects scattered the dresser. I put my bags down on the floor, where they remained unpacked for the entire time I lived there. She set up a fold-out single camp bed in the tiny sitting room.

The flat was very small and though it was carpeted, didn’t have a working Hoover. It was on the first floor, and the walls of the narrow staircase leading up to it were painted red and covered in horse riding paraphernalia.

In order to get to the kitchen, which I could touch every wall of if I stood in the middle, stretched my arms and spun, I had to go through the sitting room.

In the early morning, this meant climbing over an unconscious Jenny in her camp bed, which took up the only available floor space. She was thankfully a deep sleeper. We arranged that I should pay her in cash, and that if I couldn’t make rent one week, I could cover it later.

There were a few periods where I built up weeks’, even months’, worth of rent debt to Jenny. She never hassled me for it.

Within a fortnight of my moving in, Jenny’s father died. Her mother was already dead, and she had been close to him. She was quietly devastated, but besides one or two evenings of talking about him over a dusty bottle of red wine, she kept her grief close.

Instead, she asked me in depth about my life, my romances, and my hopes for the future. I was unemployed, heartbroken, and very depressed. I hoped she couldn’t tell how badly and kept the darkest parts to myself.

Jenny was full of her own pain, but treated me as though I was worth getting to know. She liked to memorise quotes and lines of poetry and would relay them to me when she felt they were apt. We compared youths – hers in the eighties and mine in the present – and I used to think how cool she sounded, how unencumbered and fun. As the nights got cold, we often hung out in the sitting room together, one of us working, one of us offering commentary or a thought out loud.

At the weekends I would go out a lot and she would usually head to the country to stay with her boyfriend. We’d reconvene on Sunday night, and she’d ask me what I’d been up to but always interrupt before I’d answered to guess what I’d done and who with. She had an old Nokia and wasn’t sold on Google, let alone Facebook. She’d sometimes ask me to find something for her online, and heap me with praise when I did “so quickly”.

I lived with Jenny for nine months. There were a few periods where I built up weeks, even month’s worth of rent debt to her. She never hassled me for it and I would pay off big chunks at a time as soon as I got paid for any work I did.

She worked hard and was underpaid for the 14 or 16 hour days she pulled between her two jobs as a clerk and assistant. We could always tell when the other was too tired to talk.

After a few months of job hunting with bits of freelancing thrown in and a few more working the 8pm-5am shift at a news site seven nights a week (alternate weeks), I finally got a permanent, full-time, day job.

I came to Jenny with no expectations. But from almost no investment grew one of the most precious relationships of my early adulthood.

Jenny knew that my heart was in east London and that I’d eventually want to go back there, once I had the cash to rent a regular room. But she never put me under any pressure. In fact, she stressed how much she had come to enjoy our strange way of living. She said she might even get another lodger, once I moved out.

I left for Bethnal Green in the spring of 2014. I did it at the weekend, while Jenny was away. Before she left, we’d hugged and said that we loved each other. She said I was always welcome to come back whenever I wanted, or to use her flat at the weekends when it was empty.

I’ve lived in several places with many different combinations of people since Jenny. Some have been great, some dreadful. Some people I already knew, others were a surprise. A few I grew to treasure. I’ve just gained a new housemate in the flat I currently live in who has labelled her own bedroom door, so we’ll see how that pans out.

The winter I spent in Ladbroke Grove was in some ways one of the hardest of my life. The initial optimism of my earlier twenties had passed, and I had little hope. I came to Jenny with no expectations.

But from almost no investment grew one of the most precious relationships of my early adulthood. Neither of us had any idea what to expect, but we decided to trust each other. You can’t know someone until you live with them. Knowing Jenny turned out to be one of the great privileges of my own youth.

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Holly MC Thomas

Holly MC Thomas

Holly is a freelance writer and editor based in London. She writes regularly for CNN and The New Statesman, among others.

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