Once upon a time, a book helped me to find myself. Not in a spiritual, self-awareness sense. No. In a literal, actual, physically-located sense.
Seriously, you couldn’t make it up.
I’d moved into a friend’s flat in west London, house-sitting for a while as I helped prepare it for sale by cleaning, painting, warming it and making it a home instead of a rental that had been a little neglected by previous dwellers.
I moved in over one crammed day, in which we discovered the former tenant hadn’t moved out his stuff, and presumably hadn’t even seen a surface to clean it for several years. Between us my friend and I (thereafter known as the Freakishly Strong Women, House Removals Team) emptied the entire flat, taking several carloads of detritus across London to the old tenant’s new place between attacks on the worst of the grease, grit, grime and grossness of a very lived-in apartment.
Late in the evening, after my friend (Freakishly Strong Woman 1) departed to return to her young family, I perched precariously on the edge of a bed only recently vacated by the previous tenant and wondered if I should sleep on the floor. But the floor was probably worse. I perched some more and wondered where I could go for more cleaning equipment.
And it was only then that I realised I’d moved into this flat without ever visiting it before and had absolutely no idea where I was. Somewhere near Chiswick. In the vicinity of Turnham Green. Acton was out there too. Near a school and a park, both empty at this late hour. Or at least, I hoped they were.
Furthermore, it was too late to try to set up the TV or even a strong enough wifi connection to connect online. The boiler wasn’t working, it was January in Who-knows-where, West London, and I suddenly felt very cold, lonely and not a little scuzzy from the lack of hot water.
I didn’t even have a book with me to while away the chilly hours and the night ahead loomed pretty bleak. I did, however, have just enough data to download an ebook to my phone. I browsed listlessly through Amazon, with very little idea what to choose – but suddenly remembered reading an article about ‘Cold Feet’ creator, Mike Bullen, in which he mentioned that he’d written a novel. That would be worth a read, I thought.
Found it. Downloaded it. Teetered on the precipice of a grungy mattress with actual cold feet, and started to read. Then just a few pages in, I started to laugh.
He was describing a place in west London. Not quite Chiswick. Near Turnham Green. Midway between swooshy Chiswick and less swishy Acton. The character mentioned a park – it was my park! At the end of the street, not forty metres away! I half-expected to read the name of my street next, or hear a tap at the door and find Mike Bullen standing there, screwdriver in hand so he could fix the boiler.
It was the weirdest, most surreal experience. Mere seconds before I’d been asking (in a rather self-pitying bleat, I might add) ‘Where am I?’ And right in my hand was the answer.
Here and connected to a writer you admire very much. Here in a land of dog-walkers and young families, of lush parks and gently decaying houses. A stone’s throw from the M4 and the escape route from London, but an even shorter throw from upmarket Chiswick and sensible shops in Acton. You’re here, where everything’s just fine. You’re here.
Next morning, I sprang from my mattress edge with renewed vigour and began to explore properly. I became very fond of that little flat, and unlike Mike Bullen (or so it appeared in the book) I grew to really love that nameless triangle of west London and its eclectic mix of people and places and puppies. I don’t live there any more, but I really recommend it if you’re on the lookout for a sweet little spot in Chiswick’s (or is it Acton’s?) hinterland.
As for the book that helped me feel at home – well, again, it’s hard to believe. The title?
And in the end, when we find ourselves lost, that’s maybe all we need.
Jill Marshall is the author of fiction for tweens, teens and adults (www.jillmarshallbooks.com), and a trainer in creative writing and creative pursuits (www.thepracticalcreative.net). She’s also a big believer in the #everyday magic that connects us all. Read more on Jill’s blog.