[Blogger’s note: I’m an American expat living in Portsmouth, England, with my British-born spouse. We moved to the UK together a few years ago and lodged in rental accommodations for a time, but eventually the property bug bit us and we purchased a flat of our own – a first for this fifty-something vagabond. Here you can read about the lows, the highs, and the near-constant DIY that have followed. Check back soon for the next installment of the series!]
Chapter One: The Welcome Rat
Plump and bewhiskered, with a greasy brown coat and a long naked tail straight out of children’s nightmares, the uninvited guest seemed to take no notice of the two hulking humans peering at it disgustedly from above. It didn’t squeak, didn’t scamper away, didn’t try to gnaw at the nearest ankle. It just wobbled woozily in place, its eyes squeezed shut, its demeanor listless. I’m no expert on rodent behaviour – everything I know about rats I learned from the movie Ben — but something about this one seemed off. Was it sick? Had it lapped up a spilled pint in one of Portsmouth’s panoply of pubs and was now pissed out of its tiny mind? Or had it merely paused for a moment of quiet respite away from the, um, rat race? I got my grim answer when my partner pointed out the poison traps nestled in nooks around the courtyard where we stood, at the entrance to the flat that just minutes before had become ours. (We have since learned that such traps are common around these parts.) Poor little guy, I thought. Then a second later I thought, I am not picking that thing up if it expires right here.
My new life as a home owner was off to a bumpy start.
Oldster that I am, it’s a bit embarrassing to admit that I’ve never bought a house or apartment before. There’s the suggestion of Peter Pan Syndrome, as if I revealed that I still like to eat Cocoa Puffs for dinner or sleep in Spider-Man jammies. (Neither of which is true, Scout’s honour!) Stepping onto the property ladder is a sure sign that you’re a bona fide grown-up. But for various reasons, I’ve waited to take that step until well into middle age. As a young adult, I, like many, lacked the means in the extreme. I worked in retail for a pittance and couldn’t even afford to rent on my own, let alone buy. Throughout my 20s I shared a succession of untidy, funky-smelling hovels with at least two roommates at any given time. Once I lived with four other guys, and the state of the bathroom in that den of dudes still gives me the heebie-jeebies. I’m pretty sure there were raccoons living in the cupboard under the sink – I could hear scratching and growling, but I never mustered the courage to take a peek.
When I turned 30-ish, I started to make a decent salary as a journalist – those were the days! – and by and by had sufficient resources to secure a modest property, say, a fixer-upper with potential on the wrong side of the tracks. But the urge to nest never came. Guess there’s something of the wherever-I-lay-my-hat wanderer in me. (In the late ‘80s, I left Atlanta for Boston with nothing but two suitcases and a head full of clam chowder dreams, only to return south two years later with even less.) When I met the man who would become my husband and emigrated to Canada to live with him, I moved my meager belongings straight into a condo that he had already bought and furnished. Okay, after we were married it technically became half mine, and I did help out with the monthly mortgage payments, but it felt like I was once again paying rent, only this time to a particularly sexy landlord.
In 2016, the hubby and I left Canada for the UK. We spent a period of acclimatization in rental digs, readying ourselves for the day when we would search for our forever home together. The time came last spring. We went through the mortgage process together, thought about which areas of town suited us best, and viewed 40 properties in all over two months. That sounds like a lot but we both quite enjoyed the experience. It gave us insight into our adopted home of Portsmouth, the most densely populated city in Britain, boasting miles and miles of terraced houses all squashed up against one another. And we got an all-too-intimate glimpse into the lives of the residents of these dwellings, discovering that some were quite fastidious while others took a more laissez-faire approach to personal and household hygiene. I recall one flat where the heavily tattooed, possibly meth-addicted tenants kept an immense heap of full rubbish bags on the balcony and what seemed like a month’s worth of damp bras and underpants draped across the radiator. We were out of there in under a minute.
After losing a terraced house to a higher bid early in our search, we eventually scored a gorgeous two-storey flat in a Victorian-era building block on a quiet, leafy street. (For the purpose of privacy, the flat’s address will henceforth appear in these blog posts as 1 [REDACTED] Court.) On a drizzly morning this past autumn, we collected the keys from the estate agent and hastened to our new place, imagining all the improvements we’d make to turn it into a chic refuge worthy of our impeccable tastes. Breathlessly we babbled about trendy Scandi furniture, bold colour schemes, elegant curtains that billowed just so in the soft breeze, and mounds of decadently stroke-able throw pillows. Never before had I known the feeling of having a home that was actually mine. It felt wonderful, and only a little scary.
And then the rat happened. Or should I say rats. Following a quick tour of the flat to formulate a list of priorities, the spouse and I returned to our rental accommodations to prepare for the move, leaving the intoxicated interloper swaying on the courtyard planks. That night I pleaded with gods both old and young to give it the strength to crawl onto a neighbour’s lot before slipping beyond the veil. The next day, while my husband was at work, I made my way back to 1 [REDACTED] Court, in part to drop off some pre-move essentials – dust cloths, paper towels, Windex – but mostly to assess the rodent situation. The rat wasn’t where we’d left it by the door, so I scanned the courtyard. Sure enough, in a shadowy far corner, slumped over a clump of wet leaves, lay a rain-soaked, lifeless body. But – I swear this is true – it was a different rat. The groggy varmint from the previous day was a jumbo, brindle-coloured beast. In its pre-poisoned state it could probably have taken a teacup Yorkie in a fight. Whereas this fallen creature was light grey, slender, and about half the size. The spouse wasn’t there to bear witness, so he’s dubious, but unless the first rat got a dye job and went on the Atkins Diet before kicking the bucket, I stand by what I saw.
Naturally, I freaked out, or had what the understatement-prone Brits call “a bit of a wobble.” Was I now going to have to dispose of the remains? And how? I’d learned a lot about the UK since moving here, but knew nothing of the nuances of its rodent removal laws. Should I chuck it in the rubbish? Put it with the recycling? Place it gingerly by the street in front of our building with a sign reading “Slightly Dead Rat, Best Offer Accepted?” Suddenly, this whole “owning a home” idea seemed vastly overrated. Those lovely daydreams of billowing curtains and fluffy pillows were usurped by images of me surreptitiously depositing plastic shopping bags full of rat carcasses in the bins behind the local kebab shop in the dead of night. Was this what my life had come to? Would my epitaph be “Here Lies Doug – Furtive Rat Dumper?”
Then and there, I vowed never to return to 1 [REDACTED] Court again. I’d just continue living in the blissfully rat-free rental flat, or if the new tenants objected, I’d find a place out of reach of all vermin, like maybe a pod atop the London Eye. Fortunately for all concerned, but probably especially for the cleaning staff at the Eye, my spouse’s cooler head prevailed. After I related my horrific rat’s tale to him in frantic monosyllables – Ack! Rat! Gah! – he calmly emailed the property manager for our new flat and inquired about the building’s pest control policy. We didn’t hear back, but when we checked over the weekend, the cadaver had vanished. Whether carried away by maintenance man or by fox or by seagull we knew not, but at least it was gone. Reluctantly, I agreed to move into the new place with my husband, on the condition that all future rodent encounters fall under his domain.
That was several months ago and we haven’t seen another rat since. Little by little, the traumatic vision of that tiny flaccid corpse has faded from memory. But every now and again I open the front door a crack and glance into the far corner of the courtyard where the rat – the second rat – met its untimely end and I hold my breath, fearing the worst.
Maybe I ought to get a cat, just to be safe.
Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged UK Newbie