Debi’s Story

It’s April 1995. I’m seven months pregnant with our first child and I’m relaxing on the floor cushions in my living room. G has just arrived home. He’s standing in front of me, talking about something he saw when he was out.

I’m not listening though. My eyes are focused on the envelope in his hand. It’s an innocuous, standard white envelope and yet there’s something about it that’s making me uneasy.

‘What’s that?’ I say.

‘It was on the door mat when I got back,’ G replies.

I hold out my hand and he gives it to me. My name is printed on the front, along with the words ‘Hand Delivery’. The dread intensifies though I still can’t explain why. With trembling fingers, I open the envelope.

‘It’s a Notice to Quit,’ I say. ‘We’ve got one month.’

And so it was that, with no prior warning and at a stage when most women are nest-building, we realised we had no idea where we would be living when our baby was born. Bad enough, you’d think. In fact, it felt much worse than that. We weren’t just losing our home and security; we were losing our entire community and our chosen way of life.

The Shangri-La Housing Co-op had already been in existence for several years when I moved in six years earlier. The co-op consisted of three adjacent houses, each split into two self-contained flats. Nominally short-life, the council leased the properties to a housing association which sub-let them to us at a peppercorn rent. We were responsible for all our own finances and repairs and, truth to tell, the flats were in a pretty poor state.

But they were home to us all.

Everyone had their own space but we each had keys to the other flats. In an emergency (and there were quite a few over the years) you always knew someone would be there like a shot. From the outside, we probably looked like oddballs and misfits. From the inside, we had created an alternative family and an irreplaceable support network. The parties we had every summer in the huge back garden were legendary!

Now we were to lose all that.

As I was pregnant, the council had a duty to rehouse us. And as we were being made homeless, we had no choice as to where that would be in the borough. I read through the list of things we couldn’t use as criteria for rejecting a property: damp and infestation were the ones that leapt out at me. We spent the next days and weeks looking round the borough and thinking, Ohmigod, please don’t let it be there. And then there was always the threat that no offer would come in time and we’d be put in a B&B.

Our experience at the Homeless Persons’ Unit was so painful, I can’t bear to recount it, even after all this time. Suffice to say, by the end of our first visit, I was standing amongst the hordes of hopeless-faced people with their sad piles of luggage, sobbing in a corner. Meanwhile, G was shouting at the dead-eyed woman behind the counter, telling her she should be ashamed.

Even so, we knew things could have been much worse. The month came and went; my belly grew and we hadn’t been evicted onto the streets. Three weeks after our son was born, we were offered a two-bedroom-flat a couple of miles away. The pain of the loss of the co-op was mitigated by the knowledge that this was a ‘good’ area and a small and pleasant estate. The flat was filthy and squalid – no place for a baby – but we were allowed to spend some time cleaning and decorating before we had to move in.

Armed with a £100 decorating allowance, each day of that sweltering summer I pushed the buggy across Peckham Rye to East Dulwich. I put the baby in a bouncy chair on the balcony and got stuck in. G joined me after work and we’d put in another few hours before trudging off back to the co-op, which still felt like ‘home’. We could only afford to carpet one room of the new flat, but at least it was going to be clean, bright and secure.

Two months later, and it was moving day. I stayed with the baby while G, together with some wonderful, helpful friends and family members, dismantled our home around me, making trip after trip with a borrowed van. Eventually, it came to the last journey. The back of the van was stacked high with boxes and furniture. In the middle was a solitary armchair. I sat on it with my baby on my lap, facing towards the back doors, using my free hand to steady the boxes that threatened to topple onto us. The van doors closed with a hollow clang. I was inside a sealed and windowless dark box. I felt the engine start and then I moved backwards, away from my home, away from my ‘family’, unable to even wave a last goodbye.

Eighteen years later, and we’re still in this same flat. Our children have grown up here and I’ve lost count of the times we’ve said how lucky we are and how much worse things could have turned out. This is our home.

I’ll always miss the co-op though. Try as we might, we’ve never been able to re-create the sense of community we had there. But then, if you’ve lived in Shangri-La, anything else is always going to be a come down. You can see why I chose to make the co-op, renamed as Nirvana, the setting for my first five novels, can’t you? The spirit of Shangri-La lives on, if only in fiction.

Debi Alper

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