Edinburgh Waverley, mid January 2010. My feet were numb, colder than I could remember since going out carol-singing in Yorkshire as a child, or to collect the Christmas meats from the butcher’s with my mum, snow drifts as tall as me. Outside the station there was snow lying, and forecast, and the Met Office advice was not to travel. I was due to complete the sale on my late parents’ house, the house in which I lived from the age of thirteen until I went to university, the house less than a mile down the hill from where I was born, the house to which I returned regularly, from Newcastle, Bristol and Edinburgh over the next three decades. I chose to travel.
Once the delayed train arrived, and departed, holdups were no worse than I’d known at many other times. Change at York. I remembered making the journey five years earlier, wondering what I’d have changed into, what would have changed irreversibly, on my return. The family friend who often met me at the station was ill. Rather than take a taxi or bus, I trudged the mile or so up from town and over the brow of the hill on foot. How many times had my parents picked me up, and driven home by this route, a short distance between two valleys, Calder and Spen?
Most of the house’s contents, my inheritance, I guess, had been subject to a chuck/charity/keep triage over the past year. This now left me free to take walks and visit friends and neighbours, and – it seemed important – to shop at the local Morrisons for a final time, honouring the weekly routine of a retired baker and shop-keeper partly put out of business by the supermarket chains he later came to depend on, even like. I would return, but not as an occupier of (t)his house.
My parents’ ashes are buried three miles away in the churchyard of the village where my mum was born and grew up, and where I spent a lot of my childhood. Her father sang in the church choir for most of his life. I’d been there three weeks earlier, when spending a final Christmas at the house, and every time – roughly monthly – that I’d been down since she died in September 2007, followed by my dad in August 2008. Now, with a developing chill from the extreme cold, and a deadline involving a removal van, I decided not to visit or lay flowers at their memorial stone, and walked across the Spen Valley to see my mum’s oldest surviving friend instead.
Monday morning, more snow. The removal van, due to take into storage the furniture I was keeping, was delayed by hours. By the time it drove off full, it was getting dark, my chill was worsening and I didn’t wish to attempt the journey back north, should that have been possible. I phoned the solicitor – old school, three-quarters retired; I’d been suspicious of him at first, but came to realise he really was ‘acting for’ me in the best sense, through quite a few complications with the sale. He contacted the buyer, who agreed to let me stay overnight before they took the keys. I took a bottle of brandy, Morrison’s cheapest, that my dad bought and nobody wanted to drink, to the neighbour across the road. We had a couple of glasses and I left her with the rest, then went back and slept in the empty house. Next morning I arranged for the landline – with the phone number we’d had all my life – to be cut off, then gathered up my hand luggage, including the telephone, and left. I dropped off the keys with the estate agent and got a fast, efficient train back to Edinburgh. I was nearly always met off the train in Yorkshire, but invariably walked home when I returned to Edinburgh; with welcome and pleasing symmetry, a friend now picked me up at a still sub-zero Waverley, and fed me shortbread.
I’d lived in cities since 1983. Studying at, or working in, universities, this was practical, but – art galleries, opera houses, restaurants notwithstanding – I’ve never really felt at home in an urban environment. With the house in Yorkshire, I had a foot-hold somewhere that was semi-rural, on the edge of a mill town, on the edge of the Pennines. As my parents grew more frail in the new century, I visited more often.
The house, 9 Elm Road, was unremarkable (unless you were an estate agent needing to make it sound and look remarkable): three-bedroomed detached, with small front and rear gardens, identical but for variations on a theme with the thirty or so others on the estate built on a former mill site in the 60s. My mum used to decry them from the two-bed redbrick semi a mile away that was her first marital home, but grew to love number 9, and died there. When my dad died, I knew I wouldn’t sell up straightaway. I went down regularly, to check on it – several friends no doubt fondly remember my boiler-anxiety sagas – and also just to be there, and to walk in the area, and to learn to say goodbye to a large segment of my life. I spent two Christmases there, and became re-acquianted with my cousins. My first attempt at putting the house on the market felt too soon and I took it off. I considered various options of keeping it, or renting it out, but they weren’t sensible or practical at the time, and I eventually went through with the sale a decade ago, in the cold winter of 2009-10.
I returned to my fourth-floor tenement flat overlooking Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags, and set about planning moving out of town, somewhere with an extra room, maybe a garden, nearer the Pentland Hills or the sea. I’m not tough enough to live out in the middle of nowhere – that’s fine for writing retreats or holidays – and want relatively easy access for work and social life to the city centre, Glasgow and Fife: in some ways a location similar to where I grew up would suit me fine. And I found one, just inside the City of Edinburgh bypass, twenty minutes’ walk, or a few bus stops or short drive to the Pentlands, close to Colinton village but more affordable.
It was partially familiar – I’d been walking in the Pentlands for over fifteen years, knew the hill paths intimately – and at the same time very strange and new. I was diagnosed with moderate-severe depression a few months after moving, in summer 2010. It was quite a slow road to recovery from an illness partly triggered by several major life-changes in the space of a few years, and by the newness of my situation, but a recovery also ultimately enabled and – precariously – maintained by the new location. For the past decade I may well have been trying to recreate in a corner of Lothian what I left in Yorkshire; on my terms, for a new era. Here’s to the 20s.