Someone turned all the lights out in the sky on my final journey back to The River House. At least, I hoped it would be the final journey, just as I’d hoped every one of the previous three journeys would be the final journey, only to be proved wrong, repeatedly, by stuff – not the stuff you really love which regularly enhances your life (all that stuff was already there, at the new house), or the stuff you took to the charity shop a week ago, but the stuff you probably wouldn’t miss if you lost it in a house fire or flood, stuff that, when you move a lot, you drag with you from home to home, because you feel sorry for it or stubbornly refuse to rule out the future day when it will finally come in useful. Straggling rattling odds and ends of stuff that spill and break in your car and trip you up because you’re so tired by this point – especially after the vicious bout of Covid in the middle, which made blood come out your arse and felt, at worst, like someone was thwacking your lower back with a steel pole while somebody else, who ate larger meals, knelt on your lungs – and you think will require one journey in a VW Polo but actually requires three, if you’re lucky. That’s on top of the eleven other journeys – or was it twelve? – you’ve done in the same car and three different hired vans, during an approach that you thought would save you money, until you realised how much the van company would charge you for a tiny tiny scratch you caused to the paintwork by driving too close to a hedge on a lane only two inches wider than the van, and you realised you hadn’t done any creative work for several weeks and that any equation involving money always inevitably becomes one involving time as well. With every successive journey back it had been the same: sunshine at the new house on top of the hill in Cornwall, lighting up the soft speckled valley; deep thick cloud at the River House, not quite black, special Dartmoor cloud that seemed to mirror the peat in the acid earth below it. The best you might say is that there was a certain bookending poetry to it: I’d moved into the River House during a spell of the same weather – what soon transpired to be almost an entire winter of it – almost precisely two years earlier. It was often very dark there. But this was taking things to another level: all-encompassing nighttime dark, like any bit of hope has been sucked from the sky. I checked the car clock. Just gone midday in the rest of the world. 2am on Dartmoor.
It had been a deeply romantic place to live, as a lot of slightly tricky places to live often are. “Deeply” really was the word. I often described living in The River House as like living down right at the bottom of the crevice between two sofa cushions. Maybe one where someone had spilt a fizzy drink. Because, right next to The River House – and I mean right next to it – ran the river. It was the first big plus of the place. Another was that being down at the bottom of the steep valley meant you were sheltered from the elements in a way you could never be in buildings on the higher parts of the moor. But you were also always aware of those elements, as they rushed past your living room window in a screaming torrent that had been gaining force for well over a thousand feet. After a few weeks of living there, I looked up the meaning of name of the river, Mardle, and discovered it translated to “Gossip”. In no part of the house could you not constantly hear the gossip of the River Gossip, even in the driest parts of summer when its gossip had been reduced to burbling rumours spread by half a dozen submerged voices. The flipside of all this was that you never got a sniff of a sunset and the light levels in most of the building, especially in winter, could feel non-existent. As I unpack my stuff at the new house, I am shocked at the amount of dust it has accumulated but that’s because I’m properly seeing it for the first time in two years. There is only one thing more dusty than an old stone barn beside a river on a moor and that’s an old stone barn beside a river on a moor where it’s too dark for you to be able to see the dust. I’ve now lived in 25 houses and have never known another where spiders seemed more at one with their environment. When I hoovered the house, I hoovered around them. “Oh, don’t worry!” said my landlady, on the final day of my tenancy, during a conversation about the lack of importance of cleaning The River House, a few days before the lettings agency she had employed tried to charge me £240 for cleaning. “I always vacuum them. I’m sure it’s a wonderful way to die. All that compacted dust. It’s like Spider Heaven for them!”
Early in our relationship, my landlady had told me that I needn’t be concerned about the sprites in the River Gossip because they were benign ones. This was in sharp contrast, she said, to the river sprites further upstream, just around the bend, whose agendas were more dastardly. That bend was where the houses in the village petered out: an area, owned by a very rich man from London who visited his cottage for just a few weeks of every year, that looked deliciously like the end of all civilisation. If you trespassed here, across the rich man’s land, as I and many of the other residents in the village did regularly with his quarter-permission, you got a detailed illustration of precisely how the river accumulated its gossip: a twisting mossy staircase of ravines, chasms, trees in socks and steaming natural log bridges where the bubbling earth sucked and licked at your shins. Back in the 1970s, not long after he’d casually bought the valley on a family holiday, the rich man’s father used to take showers in one of the waterfalls at the top of the hill: maybe the one my neighbours Hugh and Sue called “The Witch’s Cauldron” or the taller one, next-door to it. I quite fancied giving it a go myself, but never got around to it, and thought it perhaps unadvisable, knowing that one day when the pressure coming out of the natural shower nozzles in the granite was particularly fierce the rich man’s dad had been swept several hundred yards down the river and almost drowned. A ginger cat drowned slightly further downstream, not long after I arrived. All this was hard to believe on some days, such as the one not long before I left when I watched Hugh and Sue’s new Labrador puppies taking their first swim, very close to the bend where my landlady had said the river sprites became more evil.
I had Hugh to thank for the fact that I got to live in The River House. If I hadn’t gone over and chatted to him while he was feeding his sheep, I’d probably not have stood a chance. Over 70 sets of prospective tenants expressed an interest to live in it, in the midst of a bout of pandemic-induced panic renting like this country had never before seen. Hugh, telling me just how many people had been ogling the building, suggested that it might be not be a terrible idea if I went up to the house of the landlady, two villages away, knocked on the door and introduced myself in 3D. I embarked on a 40 minute walk up two very steep hills and, with a dead phone battery, stumbled around until I found a house that looked like the one Hugh had described and knocked on a big stable door. Just as I was about to give up and walk away, a riot of hair in a kimono answered it. The riot of hair in the kimono chatted to me for a while, handed me a copy of her self-published book on mysticism and the menopause, and a few days later I received the news that I’d been accepted as The River House’s new tenant. The exiting tenants invited me over for a glass of wine and told me that mandarin ducks often visited the balcony outside the kitchen. My landlady – at 79, at least ten years older than I’d thought she was – said the reason her hair was so big and thick was that she was a very stubborn argumentative person and her hair, being an integral part of her and hence very stubborn and argumentative as well, had rebelled against the plans the menopause had for it, by becoming bigger and thicker than it had ever been. She told me about the years when she used to live in The River House herself, back when an old lady in the cottage over the bridge used to ring a bell to wake the whole village up. In the early hours, before the bell rang, she used to lay in bed and listen to the boulders on the riverbed grinding against one another. A carpenter who came to mend the rotted decking outside The River House told me he’d heard that the reason my landlady had moved out was that the constant sound of the river was driving her crazy and she needed to be away from it.
It was a not very ‘me’ house in a very ‘me’ location. I was already marinated in the moor – in its dampness and its fogs and its bogs and its ghosts and its rivers – and was two thirds of the way through the writing of Villager, my novel set on a fictional parallel world version of Dartmoor. But I worship light, struggle with dips in mood over the winter months, and, many years ago, after moving from a dingy cottage into a large windowed midcentury house, I vowed never to live in a dark building again. But the rent at The River House was not expensive, my furniture – mostly 50s, 60s and 70s stuff, picked up cheap over the course of many years at boot sales and auctions – looked pretty decent there, and if I placed a couple of my rugs carefully enough you couldn’t see the place where the floorboards were rotting away. I looked upon The River House, and my landlady, as my saviours. When I had spent hours staring at the agent’s photos of it, planning my seduction of it, it wasn’t just because it looked like a very nice place to live; an element of desperation was at play. I was trying to get out of a desperately damp house a few miles away, which had recently flooded, causing a dispute between me and its owners, the stress of which had prompted me to get shingles and a blood clot. Finding the River House gave me an extraordinarily grateful disposition, so that even though my new landlady and I discussed a diverse range of topics, every word that came out of my mouth when I was talking to her, the whole time I was there, tasted like “Thanks”. When, straight after I moved in, it became apparent that the inside of the house had a considerable amount of standing water, I didn’t make too much of a fuss about it being investigated and put right. After all, at least I wasn’t standing in several inches of it, in the kitchen, on the phone to a patronising lady in Dubai who was refusing to pay for the damage her own negligence had caused.
As I moved into The River House, I felt Villager was just about done: in my head, at least. I didn’t need a new house, a new Dartmoor valley, to influence it. But how could this one not do just that? The river’s personality was too noisy, to all-encompassing, not to force itself in – albeit as part of the story of two different tenants, living in a different era. My landlady didn’t make it in there but the story about her hair did. The grinding boulders made it in there. The lady with the bell made it in there. The valley behind the house – a place that felt so much like it was where everything ended, it always seemed a bit wrong to look at it on a map and see actual place names and signs of human life beyond it – made it in there. Everything was water in my life. There was a leak in the garden, too, as well as in the bathroom and kitchen. Villager, already a quite watery book, became a very watery one. Reluctant to use the office I’d set up for myself because it was too cold, I huddled in the bed I’d made at the bottom of the crevice between the two sofa cushions, writing, listening to the rain and the furious current blurring into one another. Moss thrived, under the peat sky. The final leaf cover fell away, allowing you to see the trees in their magnificent bright green leg warmers. The River Gossip rose and screamed its tattletale allegations louder and louder through the final weeks of 2020, getting within only a few inches of entering the living room at one point around the turn of the year. I could not get the fate of that poor ginger cat out of my head and worried about my cats – including Ralph, who was nearing 20, and deaf – getting too close to the water, though they seemed to view it as exactly what it was: a monster. One night, I woke to the water’s loudest roar yet, with my cat Roscoe staring at me, wide-eyed and apparently baffled. It sounded like a thousand tormented, raging souls were outside the windows. I walked out on the balcony, careful not to slip over, which I often did, and saw the white shapes, only a couple of feet beneath me. They reminded me of ghosts, fighting while they swam. The force and fury of those ghosts could have obliterated anything in their path. There was a dark and special magic to the scene but I had rarely felt more terrifyingly expendable in my life. Both times summer came, it was so hard to fully recall the shapes and sounds of nights like this. Nosey cattle came down to the bank opposite, idly munched on thriving foliage and watched my partner and I cook. We drank wine on the slippery balcony and the water gossiped us to sleep until we were jolted awake by the regular sound of a neighbour shooting one of his animals. Some more of the floor rotted away. The bathroom sink came off the wall. The mandarin ducks arrived to eat the sacks of food I bought for them and made me feel constantly underdressed. “You have to stay here forever,” said people who visited, who didn’t know the many reasons why that wasn’t possible.
Why have I moved on from The River House? A few people on the internet always want to know that, every time I move. My other half and I didn’t much fancy a dark wet winter, worrying about rising energy costs, in a dark house that relies on an electric AGA for warmth, trying to find the least cold places to set up our work stations. The River House’s landlady is now 81 and she will sell it one day in the not too distant future to a person who, unlike us, can afford it. We love trains, increasingly dislike cars, and wanted to be nearer a station. But also, it seems, this has just become what I do now: as someone who can’t afford to buy a house, who works in a risky and unpredictable creative field, who finds the idea of exploring fresh landscapes thrilling, I move, embracing life as a renter, despite its downsides. The same thing will happen in another 18 months, which is the time in our new house that we have been allotted, but I’m excited about what is going to take place between now and then. I currently feel extensively kicked around – physically, psychologically, financially – by the move, my seventh (and sixth long distance one) since December 2017, but I’ll pick myself up, recuperate, find the strength to repeat the procedure. I always do. “It’s like your equivalent of giving birth,” my mum told me recently. “You seem to have some genetically inbuilt forgetfulness that erases the memory of how painful it was and allows you to do it again.”
After one of those final few journeys to The River House, as I was carrying those straggling possessions up to the front door of the bungalow where I now live, I dropped a manilla folder on the drive, and a set of estate agent’s particulars about another, slightly older, more imaginatively designed bungalow fell out of it. I recognised the place immediately: it was one I’d been to look at this exact time in 2013, in Suffolk, just after I’d found a buyer for the house I then lived in a few yards over the border into Norfolk. It had been my dream place, modestly but stylishly ticking every box I then kept in the Cool As Fuck Time Capsule Space Age House cupboard in my head, and seemingly affordable too, but when I’d made enquiries about a mortgage, detailing my previous two years’ self-employed person’s salary and the state of my savings, the broker I spoke to had audibly stifled a laugh. I remember feeling agonised, hard done by. I wasn’t asking for much: just a dated two bed bungalow in a quiet road to live in – and eventually, sympathetically, spruce up – as I reached middle-age. But now, looking at the particulars, and the price, I felt like I was peering down a time tunnel at something quaint and bygone, and, moreover, at a significant forking of roads in my life. This moment in 2013, out of sheer necessity, had been the one when I first decided to be a renter again, but it was also – little though I realised it at the time – one of my most pivotal moments as a writer. Not long after that, I moved 365 miles to the other side of the country. Each of the places I’ve lived in since then has injected a new kind of colour into my work. Whether that colour has enhanced anyone’s reading of it – much as I hope it has – is perhaps slightly beside the point. If you choose to write books for a living, that’s a long time that you’re opting to spend in front of a keyboard, with just your own imagination and experiences for company. This semi-nomadic life I’ve lived, its almost constant motion, has done lot to augment that. Eventually, the geographical restlessness and creative restlessness inevitably begin to merge into one entity.
If you overlook the fact that they both have two bedrooms and were built in a rural location, you’d probably struggle to find two houses more different than The River House and that 1960s bungalow in Suffolk. For starters, that bungalow was not a house where you would have ever felt slightly like nature wanted to kill you, not a house where you would have ever needed to search for the light in your day by walking out into an uplands storm, not a house where you would have ever felt like your space was shared with the other old buildings clustered around you in the gap in the sofa. There was an enormous gentleness to the part of the country where it was located, a topographical smallness in great contrast to the towering, craggy combe where The River House can be found. Four years after I’d missed out on the bungalow, I noticed it was for sale again, slightly smartened up, for more than double the original asking price. Perhaps there’s a parallel version of me somewhere out there, who somehow managed to buy it, and still lives in it. Maybe he’s a less excitable character than I am, who feels more financially stable. I’d be kidding myself to say, just because he didn’t get to experience living in lots of very diverse buildings in lots of diverse British landscapes over the last nine years, he would not have grown as a writer, because growing is something writers tend to do, if they keep getting older, and keep writing. He would have also avoided the various ways that renting – and speaking to the people that renting requires you to speak to – tends to infantilise you, which become a bit more wearing when you’re 47. I’m not going to write him off, just because he didn’t live in a terrifying house above a plague village in the Peak District, didn’t get to experience the most magical autumn of his life in the mists of Avalon, didn’t live on Dartmoor, in Dartmoor, or in an artistic enclave a few miles below it, or in a cabin with no locks on the doors and pigs in the garden, or near the Cornish coast. He probably had his way of life, just as I have mine, and made it work, just as I do mine. I sometimes even yearn for some of what he has: some of his certainties, the option to paint a wall, the not being charged £50 for not clearing up a pile of leaves that were already there when you moved in or forgetting to reattach a shit dirty lampshade you’d swapped for a nice one. But his books are different. Definitely. And I have very much enjoyed writing the ones that I have since our paths split and I abandoned him in his comfort zone.
My latest book, Villager, is available here from Blackwells with free worldwide delivery.
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