As I looked around my cute two-bed Nine Elms flat last week, surveying the piles of stuff (read: crap) I had accumulated over the last 18 months, it became increasingly difficult to swallow the lump in my throat. This wasn’t the flat I had been in when my partner left, but rather the place I’d moved in to shortly after, the home I’d built for myself and my son. It was the space in which I’d learned to love myself again, the place I had forged a beautiful relationship with my little boy and grappled with all those sanity-draining toddler issues solo. While trying to hold down a full-time job. And have a social life. And exercise. And date.
So why was I so upset?
I haven’t been in this space much since lockdown started. In January of this year, despite putting myself firmly back on the shelf, I met someone.
At Christmas, I had actively announced on Instagram that I was off dating for life, having had one too many self-esteem-shredding experiences in 2019. But then one of my most valued supporters, who only knew me in Frolo-dom, messaged to say, ‘So, I have a brother who is recently separated…’
My first response to the offer of a set up was a very polite, ‘No, thank you’. Which turned into, ‘Tell him to look me up in six months’. And then, once I’d seen his picture: ‘Ok, I’ll take his number but that doesn’t mean I’m going to do anything with it.’ Before I knew it a tall, dark and handsome man (wearing a jacket I still threaten to burn) met me under the clock at Waterloo. Though I don’t believe I had been living life as half a person waiting to be made whole by Mr or Ms Right, as soon as I saw him, I thought, ‘Oh, of course, it’s you.’
Fast forward six months and we had been through more than most couples in the honeymoon period. Contracting COVID-19 at the same time and isolating together, only to hear that fateful announcement about lockdown when I was only meant to be staying for two weeks. Two weeks has basically turned into forever. Paul met my son shortly before lockdown and the little dude was soon staying in a new house so that we had support when I was recovering from a milder case of the virus. Shortly after, I contracted a second virus, with symptoms that were much more severe: fevers, nausea, extreme fatigue – and being tested for diabetes. And just as that was on the wane, along came a chest infection. It goes without saying that during this time I was not the sex kitten you hope to be in those rose-tinted first months of a new relationship. But Paul couldn’t do enough for me. Even when my son had a bout of gastroenteritis and wanted to be glued to mummy and the sofa simultaneously, Paul went to the supermarket and came back with a care package of new pyjamas, a snuggly blanket and a monster truck. All while I worried that we were becoming too much of a burden.
As the weeks have gone on, Paul has mitigated my trust issues, treated me better than I’ve ever been treated by any partner in my entire life and introduced me to the joys of Lego. He’s the first boyfriend who has wanted to talk things through when there’s an issue and who actually listens and adapts his behaviour where necessary. I loved him anyway, but knowing that desire to compromise and be better works both ways – that is truly priceless. Plus, he has overcome a severe aversion to bodily fluids to scrape my son’s wet turd from the carpet. If that’s not love, then, seriously…
Since lockdown my ex lost his job, I lost my child maintenance and had to take a pay cut. I’m very lucky to still have a job at all. Living in central London is no longer something I can afford and though I had plans to leave later this year to move closer to family, the longer I spent with Paul, the more I realised that he was my new home. My son – a dedicated Mummy’s boy – is still getting used to sharing me with the new person in his life, but for every not-so-accidental kick to the balls there have been ten times as many hugs and exclamations of ‘We’re a family’ and that’s what counts. This is not the romantic story they tell children in books. But it’s real. And that’s better.
So, as I closed the door on my South London sanctuary, it was emotional. I was scared. I do still worry about the future. But as this year has proven, you can really only do your best and take things one day at a time.
My favourite movie, Garden State, discusses the notion of home and the point when the place you grew up in isn’t really your home anymore, it just becomes ‘some place where you put your shit’. Well, I did a hell of a lot of growing up in my London flat and it became so much more than just a place to store my (sizeable pile of) shit. But really to me, home is people. Home is my two boys sat with me on the sofa. And I’ve realised that’s all I really need. Forever.
Sally McIlhone is a professional writer, editor, and a member of the Frolo community. She lives with her two-year-old son and her new partner.
You can follow her on Instagram @mcsalface