According to my gardening client, who owns (but doesn’t live in) a big house with a swimming pool and expensive views of a castle floating on an island, life is a game of numbers. The more hours you work, the greater the rewards. The more money you have in the bank the better you feel at three in the morning when the air is thick with regret and the only way out is death. He didn’t put it quite like that. In fact I suspect he doesn’t suffer too much from being awake at three in the morning. His numbers add up, after all, and he uses them to justify his existence and to hide from the pain of it.
My numbers don’t add up. This is why I’m awake at three in the morning, lying alone in my single bed, listening to the flimsy walls of my house flapping in the wind like the canvas of a giant tent.
I called it a house, but it’s actually a corrugated tin shed. Kind people, when they see the books and the record players and the cello in its old plywood case and the clutch of cobwebbed and stringless guitars brought back from various countries where the sun shines more often and the music is superior, call it a studio. They say that I live in my studio. Although if you asked the birds, I’m pretty sure they would say that I live on the ground floor of their nest and they only tolerate it because, like them, when the sun shines I sit outside on my milk-crate perch and sing.
I’m lying awake thinking about a question my seven-year-old niece asked me when she came to visit earlier that day.
‘Aunty Catrina,’ she said, ‘why does your garden smell of wee?’
I’d been scrumping. The floor was covered in apples. Some were bruised, some were rotten, all were ugly enough to be laughed out of the supermarkets, who don’t know the joke’s on them. Unlike supermarket apples, these apples actually taste like apples. They have the bittersweet taste of an English autumn, of bonfires and childhood and home.
It was springtime when I first spotted the tree that grew these apples. It was blossoming quietly by the side of the road, and even though the blossom was outrageously gorgeous, I only noticed it because I was cycling, instead of driving, and therefore travelling at a speed that allows for the noticing of things like trees covered in giant pink flowers.
I continued to notice as the flowers turned into hard green apples and the apples grew and ripened and turned rosy, especially the ones right at the very top of the tree. When the time for harvest came I was forced to clamber out onto branches so skinny I was sure they’d snap under my weight and send me crashing to the ground. It was autumn now and there was a chill in the air and the rubbish-strewn ditch underneath the tree was full of rotting apples. Even though the tree had never been pruned or managed in any way whatsoever, there was an excess of fruit. The worms couldn’t keep up.
My niece found me wrapping the apples I had collected in newspaper and packing them carefully into cardboard boxes for the winter. Apples can last for months when they’re packed this way, which is good for my budget. My niece picked her way through the apples and came to squat on the floor next to me. She tugged my arm and put a hand on each of my cheeks and turned my face around so that I was looking at her.
‘Aunty Catrina, why do you live in a* shed*?’
I thought for a minute, sorting through the apples on the floor.
‘Someone has to,’ I replied, handing her a misshapen apple, which she gamely bit into.
‘Like I have to go to school?’
And now it’s three in the morning and I’m lying awake wondering what happens when my niece gets to be my age and my story becomes her story and nobody ever told her the hard and complicated truth.
But what would I tell her?
I could tell her about all the things I wanted to do with my wild and precious life. How I wanted to go exploring, see with my own eyes all the wonders of the world, ride camels and climb mountains and wake up to the sound of scarlet macaws and howler monkeys. How I wanted to surf warm waves and fall in love and get high and come down and get high again. How I wanted to bang my head against the rock of life, make my own mistakes, find my own limitations, be my own person.
I could tell her about the woman I met on the ferry from Santander, and how she explained to me that place was space plus meaning, and how this particular place, this little tin shed on this little crossroads at the end of this little peninsula that juts out into the wild Atlantic is my little place, and I love it for all sorts of reasons relating to myself and my history and also because the smell and the feel of it are as comforting as my own skin and I sleep best here, in spite of the flimsy walls, because I know what all the noises mean and that none of them need to be feared.
I could remember how I wanted to sit quietly in a room of my own and write love songs and death poems and describe dragonflies and butterflies and busking from Norway to Portugal, because I felt deep down that this would be much more useful in the grand scheme of things than sitting in an office working to prop up someone else’s failing economy.
I could tell her I came of age too late, after all the houses had already been hoovered up for spares and holidays and pension plans.
And all of these stories would be true.
I reach for the lamp and turn it on. I still haven’t got used to the shock of electricity. My eyes struggle to adjust. The shed fills up with shadows. The shadows press on the curtainless windows and the west-facing door made of glass. The corners are full of imaginary spiders. Gusts of wind rattle the tin, which isn’t tin at all, but corrugated iron, which you can buy in ready-painted sheets from the builder’s merchants. It’s easy to build a house when you don’t have to worry about building regulations.
I sit on the edge of the bed, which a friend made and gave to me when his daughter grew out of it and which happened to fit perfectly in the space under the south-facing window where I used to sleep on the floor, on my surfboard bag. It’s cold. I wrap myself in a blanket and try to see myself through my niece’s eyes. I measure myself in terms of all the things society values: access to a hot shower, a toilet and a fridge, money in the bank, new clothes and a big television and a salary and marriage and kids and paid holidays and a pension for when I’m old, and I realise that I have none of these things. Not one.
But I do have the rare luxury of spending my time working at things that are not designed to enrich mass-murdering corporations.
‘Honey,’ I could say. ‘Houses cost too much.’
And I could quote my friend Thoreau and say that ‘the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, either immediately or in the long run.’
And, in the interests of balance, I’d have to tell her that I’m nervous of the winter and I crave thick walls and insulation and a separate kitchen and, yes, a bathroom, with a heated towel rail and thick white towels (these more than anything) but that every time I get near any of that I throw it all away because what is required from me in return is nothing less than my soul, and I cannot surrender my soul, however mad and lonely it is at three in the morning.
But I don’t want her feeling sorry for me. And neither should she. I am one of the lucky ones, born when education was free and the sun wasn’t cancerous and nobody had thought to invent Facebook or Instagram. Besides, I have a shed. She won’t have my chances.
I stand up and walk to the camping stove that used to be in my yellow van, before it was crushed into a cube and shipped to China. I light the gas and shake the kettle to see if there’s any water in it and put it on to boil. I sit on the stool that’s as old as me and made out of a tree much older and stare at the darkness, through the glass door that my friend who is a boat builder made for me so that I’d get the evening sun. I look down at the soft wood of Dad’s old drawing board, which I myself made into a (not very sturdy) desk. I have scratched various encouraging quotes onto it including this one from G.K. Chesterton: Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances we know to be desperate.
The water in the kettle is boiling. I turn off the gas and go outside and fish around in the broken shower tray that someone dumped in the overgrown garden during the years when the shed was abandoned and falling-down. I resurrected the shower tray (which was easier, as it happens, than driving it to the dump) and turned it into my kitchen-cum-bathroom. I check the cup for slugs (I learned the hard way to check my cups for slugs), rinsing it under the cold tap with the old piece of hosepipe attached.
Outside smells. It smells of stardust and infinity and muck and mist and November.
And I stand there, my bare feet all wet, listening to the sea rearranging the boulders a mile away to the west and thinking that what I really want to do is stick two fingers up to my gardening client and everyone else who insists that life is a game of numbers. I want to tell my niece about washing at night in freezing water and glancing up at the whirling constellations of planets. I want to tell her about harvest moons and pre-dawn skies and the sound of the geese in the morning. I want to tell her about barn owls and chopping logs and watching the sun go down slowly over the fields to the west.
I want to sing her a love song sung to me by a dying world, whispered on the howling wind. Because I am afraid that if I don’t, if I pretend and play the game, then it will all be forgotten: built on, buried, sold and gone forever, leaving nothing but the dust of time.