I was living in England when I really learned what ‘torrents of rain’ meant. On the one hand, this was extremely appropriate. On the other, I was climbing uphill cobblestones in ballet flats at the time, and despite my masochistic inner satisfaction at having what I was sure was a ‘terribly English’ experience, I was also the kind of miserable that comes with a head cold, a lack of funds, and the utter certainty that absolutely everyone at your new school would much rather talk about you than to you, and even that not much at all, because you are not very interesting.
I think it was around this time that I first started spying on other peoples’ lives. I wasn't spying on individual people, please understand. That would have been creepy and weird. No, I was just looking in their windows when I passed every day, putting together the clues of their routines and the smells and noises around breakfast and dinnertime and the faces that I occasionally spotted in their windows or cars, and trying to piece together what their lives were like.
Much less creepy and weird. Obviously.
There was one house in particular that I found fascinating. It was part of a long row of houses on my walk to school, in one of those suddenly quiet and tree-hung bits of street right before you rounded another corner and were surrounded by pubs and minimarts and charity shops again. It was two stories tall, a ramshackle, rounded sort of place, with porthole windows and an arched front doorway that was so close to being the entrance to a hobbit-hole that they had to have planned it that way. It was built from a pinkish-brown, porous rock, unusual for the neighborhood even if you managed to forget that you were in the London suburbs. The front yard was all overgrown by two crab apple trees and a thicket of big flower bushes. At least one of them was a rosebush, and it had a small car growing out of it. (I say this because the car was much the same color as the rosebush, and, as far as I could tell, permanently parked in it or possibly in front of it. At any rate, they were close. Much closer than I had seen cars and rosebushes get before. I say this with no judgment whatever, you understand. I’m sure they were very happy together.)
There was a low wall surrounding the house and garden, like there was around most of the other houses, only this one was sort of haphazard and multicolored and always had a child’s toy or a half-finished project of some kind lying on top of it, right alongside the postbox like an unexpected cheery greeting. “Hello! Lovely day. Wouldn't you like to stop in for a chat?” Once, it was a tie-dyed beanie baby that had clearly seen better (and less damp) days. Another time, there was a row of hand-painted flower pots, balanced perilously along the rounded stones. I remember pausing for longer than usual, awfully tempted to move them onto the ground, because honestly, it was a neighborhood full of kids, someone was bound to tip them over and their bright terra-cotta sides were sure to get smashed. I didn't, though, and the next day they were replaced by a child’s beach bucket of broken sidewalk chalk. The front walk was all done in powdery flowers and sea creatures with big teeth, that day. There was a very impressive angler fish, I distinctly remember, detailed just inside the gate, wearing a terrifyingly cheerful expression.
I wish I could say that I plucked up the courage, one day, to walk up to that front door with some excuse to talk to the inhabitants – compliment them on their flowers, maybe, or pretend I’d found one of the toys fallen in the lane, and wanted to return it? But I never did. I never even saw any of them, which was certainly passing strange, since I usually walked past at the right time in the morning for any children to be running out to school. Or grown people to be getting off to work. But I never actually saw a single person there.
It’s a curious thing to realize now, but just the existence of that house - with its cheerful quirks, bright colors and gobs of personality spilling out into the street - just seeing it there every day made me feel a tiny bit less lonely. Depressing, huh? ‘I’m in a foreign country, vaguely terrified most of the time but too stubborn to admit it, with someone who is ostensibly my best friend but who I have already begun to resent, and I’m far too unhappy to even realize how unhappy I am, but there’s this house...’
In time, I got familiar with a few people at school, and they were friendly acquaintances, kind enough to let me join their lunch circles and even invite me out once or twice, my desperate shy unhappiness notwithstanding. I tried. They tried. And eventually, I was managing, on average, enough friendly human interaction to get by in a more or less healthy manner. But I was never quite as interested in them – or they in me – as I was in that pink hobbit-house that I passed every day on the way to school.