When I was nine, I would proudly tell people that I'd lived in nine houses, one for every year. Perennial box-packers, girls with itchy skin if we stayed in the same place too long. When we sold the eighth house, we used the money to run away to Canada. At the airport in Toronto, we almost didn't get through Customs - the guard thought my mum was stealing me away from my dad. She presented my birth certificate, his name absent, and we ran through, thanking the stars for disappointing fathers.
We stayed in a high-rise in the suburbs. I'd never woken up that high off the ground. I'd never seen chocolate milk made with syrup or yellow school buses or garbage chutes or waterbeds in big Canadian basements. I would do my homework - my mum had told the school that this was an "educational trip" and they'd let me go with a pile of worksheets - and we'd get doughnuts from Tim Hortons. I'd never seen a Wendy's or a Subway. There wasn't much to do in the suburbs except wander the too-wide roads, the huge shops with prices marked with numbers I couldn't understand the value of. We weren't homeless, we weren't poor. We suspended reality for two months. We went to Niagara Falls and stayed in a fancy hotel, wandered the strange Frankenstein houses and Believe it or Not! museums, we ate at Planet Hollywood and stole a cocktail glass. We stood underneath the falls and the water splashed my face. I turned nine in Gossip Girl dreamland New York, with mansion-sized Time Square Barbie houses and Broadway and a horse-drawn carriage through Central Park. We snuck into a private event at the MOMA and ate canapés on every floor. On the evening of my birthday, we ate spaghetti in Little Italy and a magician did tricks at our table and I drank a Shirley Temple, high on a hundred new experiences.
Back in South Wales, we lived in a shed. In a spare room in a friend's house with damp creeping across our ceiling. On Valentine's Day, we moved into our ninth house. I told everyone, I was so proud. Nine houses, nine lives, nine different girls woven into my history. I'd already seen so much of the world.
I guess I'm more like my mum than I would have liked to admit at sixteen, when I started moving again. To London this time, the city I'd crafted my fledgling identity around. So busy, so much stimulation, danger! You didn't have to move around in London. You could live nine lives in a day - a different person in Camden than in Notting Hill. Resting on the long underground journeys between each place, or closing your eyes against sticky heatwave windows on double decker buses, and then bursting into life again as you jumped off, eager, taking in the street, the buildings piercing the sky, the thousand different languages. I can navigate London better than all my friends who grew up there - I've been everywhere, swallowed every street like it was keeping me alive.
It kind of was - I was running away from the sickness I'd been in for two years, 24/7. I liked to pretend then that it was my hometown that was crushing me - it was too small! I was bound for greatness! I was bound for London, not small-town life, the local comp, the same streets and people. But it was more like trauma and eating disorders and a sickness that had become fused with my home and streets and life there like blood on carpet.
In London, I lived in the front room of an extraordinarily generous family friend. I could stay for free - she even helped me when money got tight, as did the lodger's supply of emergency fish fingers, stocked up when I or my cousin were looking skinny and skint. I lived in between her stuff - a hoarder, the house was stacked from floor to ceiling with furniture - mainly bookcases to hold a lifetime's collection of a reader who wouldn't throw away a single book. I lived between theology and science fiction. Geraniums crowded the shelves in the winter, and I obnoxiously stuck posters and post-cards on top of her glass-framed illustrations. I pasted my personality on top of her stuff for the two years I stayed there. Eventually I got a bed, instead of the ramshackle collection of planks and props and foam. I got some fairy lights - the insta-home decoration.
In my trips back to Wales, my mum begun to move again. To start with she stayed in the same house but took on a lodger, so my bedroom became his and the sofa became mine, which upset us both. Then to a bunkhouse, which, following the collapse of her community project, passed to her. Back to the house, to my grandma's, to a forge with no phone signal where she did clay and gardened. Now to a caravan - it's to be mine, she says. A stable home - a source of income if things get tough. My dad even made a stove for it. When I saw it, I felt an unfamiliar feeling rise in my chest. This is the first contribution he's made to one of our homes, my mum and me. It's a beautiful one. A sharp, steel indicator of his presence, until now unfelt.
I've had more homes since London, too. Paris for a month. Drinking cheap red wine on the glittering Seine, drinking cheap red wine as we danced to Dexys in our Rive Gauche apartment, writing reams and reams, pasting our ideas onto the walls, smoking too-harsh American Spirits while our legs hung out over the boulevard. A hostel in Belleville, briefly, where I rapidly learned to book the women-only rooms, where I stayed up all night scared and walked the whole stretch of Paris early, that morning and the rest, through Chinatown, through the empty Place de la République, through streets filled with mattresses and homeless families sleeping through the heavy July rain. That month was the first (and so far only) time that my eyes have burned with tear gas, the first time stealing bread from a bin (Cafe de Flore! Can you imagine). A lot of firsts, another dreamland where reality hung suspended. I was living with my future room mate at Oxford - we'd both got into the same college - and going to museums and reading Sontag and Carson and Simone Wiel. I didn't realise that this sort of life was real life for her, not dreamland, and that's been a stumbling block for us since.
Since then, the suitcase girl life has become more tiredness than adventure. In Oxford, you have to move out every eight weeks or pay conference prices over the vacations. The Christmas vacation took me first to Durham, then to London, then back to Wales and London again. I can't remember much of this. I was psychotic - induced by the stress of Oxford, and probably by exhaustion. I'd been living beyond my means for too long, refusing to just be an ordinary teenage girl, considering ordinariness to be toxic. But at Oxford everything sped up. Being exceptional was a superhuman feat. Just Being was a superhuman feat. People didn't sleep or rest or look after themselves, all those things I'd dutifully taught myself to do, so neither did I. My last inter-term home was my girlfriend's bed, while she was gone and my borderline head was driving itself psychotic again with fears of abandonment. We broke up a few days after she got back, with my suitcase back in my college room still unpacked. I was so exhausted.
I'm writing this on the floor of my grandma's living room, my current home-but-not-really. Being a frequent mover is less exciting than it was when I was nine - now each new home doesn't mean another self and another world of experiences, but disorientation and perpetual anger at never being able find any of my stuff. I'm heading back to London soon, but that room is more cluttered and less mine than it was. Technically I'm homeless (I can't say this without hearing Jean Ralphio's voice in my head, which makes it sound pleasantly less depressing and pitiable, because it's really not) but the kind of homeless than me and my mum have been so many times isn't really the hard-luck TV movie type. To a degree, we both chose to live this way, though class background and recession play into it. But my mum could have chosen the life of secure homes and no debt instead of trips to Toronto and Tunisia and Greece, just as I could have chosen the local comp and a university that doesn't kick me out every holiday. It's not pitiable or enviable. It just is.
In twenty-seven days I move into a house of my own. I'm finally going to unpack the boxes I packed three years ago. I guess I'm finally going to have time to relax, to stop running, to stop the manic experience-collector act I've been pulling for the last three years (or last nineteen, possibly). I'll be able to answer the question "where do you live" with a true answer rather than an approximation, a location last seen. No more suitcase girl. At least for a year.