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Harriet Walker: 'This is part of the complex process of becoming a grown-up'


If an Englishman's home is his castle, mine is a pretty dank and smelly one at the moment. I'm not trying out a metaphor here – my flat literally smells like a stagnant moat or mouldy old keep at the moment, after a leak came through the ceiling, through the airing cupboard and all over all my sheets and towels. Which I'm unable to wash, dry or throw away until after my insurance company has inspected them.

How this inspection will go, I assume, is just a man walking into my flat, throwing his hands over all the airholes in his face and going, "Oh Cherrrrrist!" That's how it's been with everyone else who's visited, at least, as I sit in the heart of the fug, like a little goblin who lives behind a waterfall eating algae and arraying itself in old moss, the dark-wet slime-stench hanging in the air so thick.

I've actually ceased to notice how bad the smell is. I have any number of artisanal scented candles to help mask it: lemongrass, verveine, santal. I light these in turn, wondering if those in other social strata have scented candles that reflect their difference. As I invest in the ones that will make my home smell like an expensive shop, do people who already own lots of expensive things seek out aromas of cornershop, say, or last weekend's hungoverly fried bacon?

Or of medievally smelly damp sheets.

I come home and climb through the wall of odour each night, and throw open all the windows. As I do so, I peek at the progress of the friendly little funghi now growing on the sheets and towels that once came so close to my skin. Not now, no thanks: they are latticed with strands of what looks like witches' hair or elderly bear fuzz. I've been impressed at how much more quickly the hairs and mushroomy nodes have proliferated on the expensive sheets, rather than on the cheap ones; I've been unimpressed at how the insurance company has pretended they can't tell the difference between the two.

This is part of the complex process of becoming a grown-up, I think, putting in an insurance claim, and coping with a flat that smells like Poseidon's armpits. Or, in fact, coming home from the pub one night, not as drunk as you could have been but not far off, and opening the door to find water cascading down the walls you now own. The walls that you can't just call someone else about, the walls that are yours and which must be dried and maintained by no one but you. I called my mum. And then I called the council. I failed miserably at becoming a grown-up.

There are several phases to becoming a grown-up. Those I remember passing if not recently then at least definitively include having chickenpox, making a best friend, getting a piercing, losing a best friend and making my first lasagne. With this leak, I've passed another one, though perhaps not with flying colours because I didn't step in immediately, stop up the leak and replaster the ceilings with one hand. Or think to call a plumber before my mum told me to.

There are other tests of being a grown-up, which I pass every day without thinking about: such as crossing roads without being flattened, counting out the money for my daily Diet Coke. Choosing Diet Coke in fact, and not full-fat, which everyone knows is, like, really bad for you. Being an adult in practice comes very naturally. Being an adult in theory, though – that's where it suddenly gets impossible. In theory, as an adult, you should be able to admit when you're wrong. And to follow up on that one: as an adult, you should know that you're not the one everybody else is living their life around. I'm getting better at this one.

As I step over the fartudinous bags of my mouldy sheets for the last time (I'm allowed to chuck them after the insurance men come tomorrow) I feel that perhaps the whole leaky misadventure has matured me a little. All I have to do is imagine that people who don't agree with me are desultory household linens dotted with grotty sprouting colonies. And my coping strategy – that is, the way I will be a grown-up enough person to get along with them, will be to open the windows of my life and breathe deeply of the better smelling aspects.