Our house was on the A12. It still is, but last week it became someone else’s house. My parents bought the property as a young couple, eager to leave the coal-polluted air of London that was ruining my five year-old brother’s lungs and the weekly wash. Situated on the Harold Park stretch of the original Roman road between Londinium and Camulodunum (Colchester), our new home faced heavy traffic fuelled by leaded petrol. Perhaps this level of pollution seemed less daunting in 1962 when you factored in the nearby green belt. Sixty years later, when my sister and I closed the front door for the final time it was a bright day and the empty house was full of light and warmth. We knew its shapes and shadows as well as the contours of our own faces. It was an emotional goodbye.
Like many east London families, mine moved even further east to the green pastures of Essex. Ironically, acres of farmland were rapidly concreted over and dissected by trunk roads to service the migrating population. Our house, positioned only a few yards from the tarmac of an arterial road (soon to be expanded from two to four lanes) was also built of concrete and consequently we were cold in winter and hot in summer. Nonetheless, the purchase of a detached house with garden was a huge leap forward for a docker and a machinist. My dad’s journey to work changed overnight from a half mile walk to a 24-mile drive. I don’t know how or why but during my primary school years I would get up at 5am to sit on the stairs with him, while he laced his steel-toed boots before setting out for East India Docks.
I have no lasting impressions about moving in, apart from gazing at the back lawn while standing on a patio of terracotta tiles. Green grass, red clay. Ooh, nice. Already an aesthete at three years old. There was a ‘proper’ row of shops opposite the house - baker, butcher, greengrocer, newsagents, pharmacy, wool shop, Post Office, hardware store – which required a subway walk or a negotiation of the traffic lights. Both routes were, at least for a decade, as safe as each other. However, when I was about six our fluffy white cat disappeared and we feared the worst. A few weeks later I saw it swanning around the hardware store and being fed by the shop's owner. Dad justified this by explaining that cats were pets who could choose their home. My brother and I remained outraged by its utter disloyalty.
Our house had no number. It had a name, and it was an awkward one for English speakers to pronounce. This was long before ‘global Britain’. Most citizens were still amusing themselves by stumbling over ‘Engelbert Humperdinck’. My family became accustomed to spelling our house name slowly and clearly on the phone. There was also a set patter to use when describing the location. Living on a road almost as anonymous as a motorway required a list of landmarks like the local petrol station, a grizzled tree, the ominous ‘Gallows Corner’ turn-off. When postcodes were rolled out, things were no better. The demarcated area was sited incorrectly, so people would – and still do - hurtle past the house and on to the M25. One of us would be sent outside to wave for ten minutes, a thankless task since most visitors blamed us for having such a ridiculous address.
Adults reminiscing about their childhood home often mention something inspiring about its location. A nearby wood, a beach, a park, a moor, a hill. This natural icon takes on mythical status in their memories, having had a positive impact during their formative years. The A12 was a barren thoroughfare. Its dirt, danger and noise were a perpetual part of our lives. It was also our seashell. The incessant roar of activity was held up to our ears all day, every day. Vehicles flowed in and out of vision, left and right, in tidal waves. The traffic sounds formed a seething, unabating background slush yet they also contained clear and rhythmic signals. Each of us could tell the time, the day, the weather just by listening.
Living on the A12 meant no playing in the street and a certain kind of isolation for me and my siblings. Other children hung about together in their quiet side roads where regimented rows of semis emanated from our larger, thunderous road. I attempted for years to join in, crossing under the subway after school in search of friendship each afternoon but never managed to be more than an outsider. I was once very excited to be invited for tea by a girl who lived “over the road”. Her mother served me peanut butter on sliced white bread, a delectable first for me and a moment in which I realised that not everyone still ate war-style food. When I returned the invite, my mother cooked mince and greens. The girl was appalled and never came back.
My childhood Christmases, Easters and Bank Holidays were usually quiet affairs at home with a few spats and even fewer visitors. I would imagine that the passing cars were travelling to parties and lunches in interesting places where everyone was glamorous and amusing. Other people were always going somewhere else. We were already there. Since my parents invariably spent Dad’s holiday fortnight painting the house, we only ever had a couple of vacations. Instead, Days Out were our family thing. Waking up to find Mum hard-boiling eggs and packing the car boot was a rare but huge treat, and I often found simply being in traffic even more wonderful than the destination.
Our house’s totally unremarkable position on the edge of London, on the edge of other people’s lives made me want to leave and achieve as soon as I could. Returning from university during semester breaks, it was a symbol of what I needed to reject in order to get on. I feared for years that the house might swallow me up into its ordinariness, despite that this made it a very grounded, calm place to return to. Last week, I swivelled round to watch the house recede as my brother-in-law drove us away for the last time. Then we slipped into the traffic flow and became just one of the many cars going somewhere else.