Behind a neo-Gothic church, a few doors down from a private men's club, it was named after a palace. We lived on the top floor. Floors one to eight were original; solid and handsome. But the ninth was ugly, a late-80s add-on, mirrored glass and paper-thin walls. Office partitions, really, intended to contain the noise of secretaries clicking and clacking, of faxing and Xeroxing, dictation, not life noises, not dancing and drinking and vomiting and vacuuming. I was just 17 years old, it was my first flat, and every night the girl in the room next door and her new boyfriend grunted and groaned, while I lay there, my bed shaking with their every exertion, weeping for my mother. The flat disbanded before the year was out but not before the gay couple in the room down the hall had taken me under their wing, seducing me with their collection of Catholic kitsch, their complicated cooking. Not before that flat had become, briefly, proudly, my home. Never mind that the bathroom was reminiscent of a public toilet, that the kitchen had no bench. We were Melrose Place. We were Friends. We were literally having sex in the city.
Over dinner the other night a friend told me her first flatmate from some 30 years prior had asked if she could come to stay. Once, she said, she would have been thrilled, but now felt a slight sense of dread. For while she was still renting, still dealing with a mouldy bathroom, an oven with a faulty thermostat, last time she'd visited her former flatmate, with whom she had shared a scungy, charmless, $63-a-week dive, she'd stayed in a guest room with her own ensuite and a vast array of throw pillows. How is it possible, she said, that we could have started from the same place?
These days I live in a perfectly nice house in a perfectly nice suburb. I should count myself lucky. And generally I do. Two or three times a week I walk my dog in a local park, past a man whose home is defined by a supermarket trolley on one side and a rotting squab on the other. My dog usually likes to go in for a sniff and I always call her back. That man has no privacy as it is, and I don't wish to intrude any more than we already are. Several days a week I drive past a boarding house in my neighbourhood, which was described in this paper as "a place of last resort", as a "slum" that's "infested with rats". And I am both repulsed and I am ashamed.
So I know it is shallow, wrong even, to complain, and yet I get where my friend is coming from. I get that although she has been enormously successful in her working life, she worries what her lack of a mortgage, of stuff, says about her. A person's home is perhaps the greatest, most overt manifestation of their life's station. How someone lives offers an entry point into their psyche, a way to read them. And when invited into another's home it is the rarity among us who is not guilty of indulging in the act of comparison.
More and more of my neighbours have swimming pools, and I was telling a friend with children older than mine that I feel the need to get one too. Really, she said a little disbelievingly, possibly because she first knew me when I had more bohemian tendencies, when I would have scoffed at such petit bourgeois trappings. Yes, I said, slightly defensively, it will be good when the kids are teenagers; it will encourage them to stay close to home. She laughed. Teenagers, she said, aren't impressed by the house with the pool, by the flashest pad. Teenagers, she said, congregate at the house with the most accessible liquor cabinet, with the laxest parents.
Five years yet shy of adolescence; my daughter's class has been studying the extraordinary photographic essay, Where Children Sleep: 56 children's bedrooms from around the world, some with walk-in wardrobes, others with wire netting for walls. She is outraged by the wealth, anguished by the poverty, and pauses at the rooms most closely resembling her own; comfortable but not lavish. "We're lucky, aren't we," she says, "to be in the middle."