If I stand very still by my kitchen window I swear I can hear it.
The revving of hired van engines, the sighing of keys, the heaving of books into massive Ikea bags, the human orchestra of a generation moving down and out to the suburbs.
Last year saw millions of us questioning our life choices, from the decision to marry the stranger you’re now stuck with to the decision to paint your bedroom red. In the cold light of a pandemic, all our previous choices were exposed, as if the lights had come up in the club, revealing suspicious stains, spills and lots of ancient problems shoved roughly behind the speaker.
Was it really the best use of your redundancy cheque to buy a single pair of shoes? Had it really been a good idea to move so far from your family? Is it right that you’re spending two-thirds of your monthly salary on a studio flat that smells of ham?
The answers, which many came to in the fifth or sixth month of staring sadly into the foggy mirror of themselves, having had their allotted daily walk, but still finding their feet tapping, were roundly negative. These reckonings, along with the fact of cities shutting their doors – offices, restaurants, museums, all closed – are leading people out to the suburbs, where I wait for them patiently, with the kettle on.
You see, I was first. I was the first person under 35 to move to the suburbs, you can check that. The first to crawl back into the belly from which I emerged, having spent so long, and so, so much money trying to escape.
Where I was born, at the very top of London’s Northern Line, it smells of cut grass and hash. There is always a cat watching a dog watching a fried chicken box, and there is always an elderly neighbour putting their bins out. While the newcomers are migrating with grand ideas of ‘an outside space in which to grow a herb’, or ‘escaping the sound of a stranger’s tantrum’, or ‘seasons’, I, from my cold rock of wisdom, am here to explain to them the nuances, the small flakes of knowledge that come from being still mentally young in a place, as I saw it, designed for retirement.
Things like, the slow appreciation of sunlight hitting a wall at half past five. The intergenerational friendships that arrive when you take in a neighbour’s package. The hundred hellos you must say when popping out for milk. The big day you finally sign for your delivery of waterproof trousers.
It’s funny, I fought so hard against moving to the suburbs, in my mind a place where rebels went to die, that it took until last year’s lockdown for me to realise something. I’d stopped looking for an escape route. For the last five years, my secret hobby has been scrolling Rightmove after my family has gone to sleep, just in case. Just in case we’ve made a terrible mistake, and our life is waiting for us in a flat near Topshop. And now, now that I’ve spent so long inside, so long contemplating the deeply cultured backdrop to my online meetings, so long training my houseplants up and over the picture rail, so long injecting my domestic life with shots of decadence and glamour simply in order to get through the days, I realise that I have not just settled into the suburbs, but grown to relish them.
While working from home would have been impossible in my old life, where the bed was also dining table, sofa and desk, in the suburbs, where space is no longer at a premium (in fact, there’s so much of it, it becomes rather tiresome), I can hot-desk in my own house.
In the morning when my brain is fresh, the kitchen is best, with its chorus of children clattering to school. For a meeting, it’s the Zoom room, formally my study but now curated to within an inch of its dusty life – no predictable bookshelves for me, oh no. You want a meeting with me, you get me, you get my best jokes, and in the background, you get all the art my boyfriend finds too kitsch, broken or bad for the walls he shares. You get perfectly directed pink-tinted light. You get – though you may not see it – the aura of two quite dear scented candles. Then, after a stand-up lunch over the sink, because I’m not the Queen, I may choose to work either in the bed or the bath, the latter balancing a precarious laptop, the former a livid cat. Who would dare say that this is not the life?
When, this year, the rest of my generation catches up, taking two trains and a bus to do so, I look forward to watching similar evolutions. Their directional hairdos growing out by spring. The toll of emotional terrorism that comes with hearing foxes mate at night. Their inevitable slide towards mid-tempo jazz. Welcome home, friends. The future’s bright, and casts shadows on the garden. The future is suburbia.
This article first appeared in ELLE Decoration February 2020
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