Kit de Waal experiences an epiphany when she moves house and finds a new favourite place to write
In October, I moved house for the first time in 22 years. I’ve gone down size-wise from a big Victorian villa, complete with rattling windows and eye-watering heating bills, to a two-bedroomed flat, renovated by a builder with a good eye and styled to within an inch of its life.
I viewed it eagerly, imagining that some of that style might rub off. Instead of shuffling about in Primark joggers, in this spanking new Regency conversion, I might graduate to cashmere yoga slacks and find myself, overnight after completion, svelt, groomed and sophisticated. I am nothing if not a sucker for a pipe-dream, so I bought the place, halved my books, quartered my furniture and got the keys in six weeks. Neither the cashmere pants nor the size ten backside have materialised.
What I have gained though is a sort of stillness that I didn’t expect. There’s a place by the bedroom window where I temporarily wedged my desk, thinking I would move it later when I rearranged the furniture à la Pinterest. But every single time I sit there I just want to write. And not just write but write with a real pen, on real paper (something I rarely do).
I have no curtains at the window, the radiator doesn’t work properly and there’s no plug socket nearby for a lamp—and yet the place has something magical. If I believed in feng shui, I would say that it balances the room somehow, or that it faces east (I have no idea) or that it sits in a river of energy (I made that up) but I’ve never really been one for dissecting why some things feel right and others grate on your soul. Suffice it to say, my desk at the bare bedroom window has become my favourite place to write. And not just that. It has become a place to read and it has become a place to think.
Last summer, frazzled to beggary, I lost the run of myself and took a month off. My mother died unexpectedly; I had been working hard; playing too little; and I needed something—some stillness, some peace. The idea of moving house hadn’t yet entered my consciousness and I would have crumbled under the prospect. So I decided to do an eight-week mindfulness course. I signed up, paid up and turned up, parking my doubting self at the front door like a wet umbrella for collection on the way out
But the course was great, as was the woman who ran it. I learned to pause and breathe and be aware of myself and my thoughts. I learned to be grateful and conscious, to look up from the pavement and see the buildings I pass every day, to look into the distance, to look at the sky. I learned to detach from the circus of my own imaginings and the ridiculous half-invented narrative of my life and see the events that make my history as not necessarily causal, just that one event follows another, follows another, follows another. That we don’t plot our lives forward. Things just happen. And I learned to be still. For three whole consecutive minutes sometimes, I could be still and quiet and find myself again.
Of course, if I’d known that all I had to do was wedge my desk by the window in my new home I could have saved myself a few hundred pounds and a lot of soul searching.
I don’t know what I’ll write at my new still place. I’m working on a short-story collection about the minor characters from my two novels. Some of them have presented themselves to me, sat in my armchair and told me their story. It’s been like taking dictation. But one man in particular has been hard to reach. He’s a black man who died in police custody, beaten to death in his cell. I know men like him and I know a man who died that way. I know police officers and I’ve sat in a hundred prison cells in my time. I’ve sat with men like my character, angry at the world, violent when pushed, dislocated, lost, and I expected that this man, Castro, of all the characters, would be easy to find.
I’m trusting the process and I’m trusting my desk to deliver up the tale. I’ll sit there one day—soon, I hope—with the real pen and the real paper, and I’ll loosen up with some freewriting or some flash fiction and he’ll enter the room with a swagger.
‘Took your time,’ he’ll say. ‘I’ve been waiting.’