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Five-Minute Memoir: Alexandra Shulman on a first-home disaster


I have a recurring dream. I am standing in the hallway of the flat where I spent my childhood and where my mother still lives. The wallpaper is dark green stripes and through the windows of the sitting room I can see trees in full leaf in the sun outside. I am in a state of some agitation as I am very concerned that I am still living 'at home' and then suddenly, I remember that it isn't true, I do have somewhere else to live after all. I have a home of my own.

This no doubt says a great deal about a number of things to do with my inner psyche, but a discussion of that has no place here. However, one of the curious aspects is that the place I remember I own is neither where I live now, nor any of the flats that have been mine over the years, but one in which I lived as a young woman in the Eighties, as a lodger of a friend. When in 1985 she got engaged to be married, I had to move and became obsessed with buying my own place.

Urged by the tenets of Thatcherism, we were all encouraged to buy property and become, so we were told, masters of our destiny. That, combined with a childhood of living in what I saw as the precarious circumstances of a rented home, made me determined to own somewhere. Of course then it was far more possible than now, but even so was a substantial stretch for someone earning £15,000 a year.

I looked for ages and had particularly liked a flat above a café on the northernmost end of London's Portobello Road and imagined it filled with vases of cornflowers and Suzanne Vega on the stereo – but neither bank manager nor mortgage companies were keen to lend for somewhere above a café, so I had to pass. Eventually I found a place. I didn't love it but it was in the area where I wanted to be, the scuzzy end of Ladbroke Grove, and had high ceilings and two large windows. The fact that one of them was only four feet from the 52 bus stop didn't cross my mind.

To finance the flat I calculated that I would not be able to do any of the things I like doing: taking taxis, eating in restaurants, drinking in wine bars, unless somebody else paid for them but – and this must say something about that time of my life – that didn't seem impossible or unlikely. I distracted myself from the financial worry by spending more money on furniture for the flat – an old table from Camden Market, a velveteen sofa from Shepherd's Bush Road, and a beautiful, huge armoire from Portobello.

Eventually, the mortgage signed and contracts exchanged, the day arrived to move in. The sofa was only just able to squeeze into the narrow communal hallway and round the corner into the flat, but then the door to the sitting room had to be knocked down to get it through there. In the time between finding the flat and taking possession, I had broken up with a boyfriend who lived on the road that my bedroom window looked onto. When still together we had joked that I would be like a gatekeeper, keeping an eye on his movements, but now that proximity was agony, and when I arrived I closed the slatted blinds and tried not to open them in case I spotted him in the street.

The first night there I filled the small place with friends to toast the move and I tried to keep them there as late as possible. I didn't want to be left alone in my new home and was worried that I might be frightened of sleeping there. Eventually they all left and I got into bed. The noise of Ladbroke Grove outside the window was unremitting and terrifying. The traffic roared accompanied by shrieks and shouting in the neighbourhood and the physical judder of the buses stopping and starting outside.

I didn't sleep for a second. I cried all night, so upset that I had bought a home where I thought I would never be able to rest. On the second evening another boyfriend came over (yes, life was complicated) and I wailed at him about how the purchase had been a disaster. He told me to calm down and lay on the bed with me telling me to imagine that the sound of the traffic was not cars, vans, motorbikes and buses but the waves of the sea; that it was soothing not frightening; a lullaby not a continual alarm. And such was my susceptibility to what he said, the power of his suggestion, that I slept deeply all through that night and was never bothered by the noise again.

Alexandra Shulman is the editor of 'Vogue'. Her novel, 'Can We Still Be Friends' (Fig Tree) is out now