Six hundred and ten square feet of possibility
The furniture catalogs and interior design books belonged to my mom’s friend, who collected them in her flawless house in Wembley. I liked to peruse their pages on my overnight visits, after everyone went to sleep. As a 12-year-old kid with a vivid imagination and an aptitude for the visual arts, I’d long paid attention to space and aesthetics, to the way things landed and were laid out. But seeing others’ visions had opened my eyes to a universe of possibilities. Home didn’t have to be a compromise or mere afterthought; it could be intentional, a place built on principles. I daydreamed of someday moving into a home where I could paint the walls, where I could realize just one of those possibilities for myself.
At the time, my mom and I shared a flat on the first floor of a plain Victorian in Harlesden, London NW10. Her bedroom was real, but mine was a closet the width of my single bed, so small it could only be entered and exited from the left pillow side. A window was carved into the wall that ran the length of my bed, and a shelved nook was cut into the opposite wall—a closet within a closet. But the bed pressed against the nook, blocking the bottom shelves. Thick black spiders perched on the burnt-orange curtains at night and watched me ball up as far away from them as our narrow circumstances allowed. On our first day home, the landlord, a handsome Jamaican man with exceptionally clear skin, had urged us to not report him to the housing authority. But we never would have, not after everything it had taken to end up in that flat.
We had met the legal definition of homelessness soon after emigrating from France, which is to say we had no address and not enough money to afford one without help. This precarious financial position made us eligible for social housing, but London was expensive, so the waiting list numbered in the thousands. Until our turn, the city shuffled us from hostels to inns on its tab.
In the late afternoons, my mom would keep her phone on hand in case a bureaucrat called with instructions to sleep elsewhere. If no one called, we stayed where we had been the previous night. Whether this was good news depended. Sometimes, our stay was as charming as the bedrooms that my mom cleaned in her brief stint as a hotel maid. Other times, it was one more night in a cramped hostel—like the one near Edgware Road, past the posh homes and tall hedges, which had a mouse problem, and a kitchen that my mom refused to use without deep cleaning it first, and a repeat boarder whose kindness was undermined by the unfortunate scent that overtook the hostel anytime he showered.