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Keith Ridgway on the Idea of Home

This week’s story, “The Party,” takes place, as its title suggests, while a party is under way at a house in London. It’s told, however, from the perspective of the elderly next-door neighbor. When did you start thinking of this as the premise for a story?

I wanted to write about this party, but I was struggling slightly with how to do that. It’s just a little difficult, technically, to do what I wanted to do—to combine different perspectives in a crowd, to move from one point of view to another, to use different voices, etc. I did it in the end; it happens elsewhere in the book this is taken from. But while I was mulling it over I was walking around my neighborhood of Camberwell in South London and I spotted a house that I thought might be the party house. I do this quite a lot—pick out real places and steal them for my fiction. And I was standing across the street looking at this place, working out its layout, etc., and the front door of the house beside it opened, and an older woman came out with a bag of rubbish and put it in the bin. And she gave me a suspicious glance, and looked up and down the street, and went back inside. And that was that. I was immediately much more curious about her and how she’d react to what was going on next door than I was about anyone at the party.

In your story, the woman’s husband has recently died. Do you think her neighbors, a younger gay couple who had dropped by to give her advance notice about the party, see her as anything other than an old lady?

No. I don’t think they do. It never occurs to them that she is a woman with a complicated, intricate life, a queer woman even, with a story that might in fact be far more interesting—and far more radical—than theirs. They are simply not capable of imagining that. They’re not hostile to her. On the contrary, they are actually quite kind, in their way. But they are not curious.

How disorienting is the woman’s grief and loneliness? Does her home represent a life that she’s now lost?

Well. Grief and loneliness are disorienting. It’s entirely natural that they would be. But with love and with community and with support and care that disorientation can be assuaged. A person can feel that she is still part of something. But in this case she has none of that. She is utterly isolated, discarded. And in her home it’s as if time has come to a halt. It’s a waiting room. It’s no longer a home. It’s a trap.

And the absence of community, of support, is a direct result of the general undermining of the idea of home. I live in a city in which—to a very great extent—home, at a planning or policy or societal level, is of little interest to the powerful. Property speculation, investment returns, rental incomes—they are of interest. Community vanishes from places like that. And people end up living in isolation, and in anxiety. And that is where this woman lives.

As the party gets going and the bass reverberates through the wall, the woman starts to get more curious about what’s going on. She’s noticed a dent in her wall and begins to pull away at the plaster. How did you approach this aspect of the story? Do you want it to feel at all surreal?

I tried to write it real. As in, I myself have never broken through a wall to look in on my neighbors, but I thought a lot about how it might work. I don’t even know if it’s possible. And of course it’s absurd. And she knows it’s absurd, and she is completely alert to its symbolic potential, and she just finds that quite funny really. She’s quite giddy with metaphor.

She can’t place it, but a line from Anne Sexton comes into her head—“take off your life like trousers,” which is from Sexton’s “The Wall,” a poem about dying which seems to suggest a way of living. Reveal yourself, Sexton says. Dismantle your wall. Take off your clothes, your flesh. . . .

unpick the lock of your bones.
In other words
take off the wall
that separates you from God.

So she is doing that. She’s breaking cover, in her own small weird way. And, while she has no thoughts of God, she is I think escaping in the hope of being met.

In the course of the story, we gradually realize that the woman’s relationship with her late husband was less straightforward than it may initially have appeared. The man who died was once a woman she met. Did you have this scenario in mind from the outset? When do you imagine that the reader will start to pick up on this?

Some readers will notice it immediately I’m sure. And, yes, I did have this in mind from the beginning. But the woman is dismissive of her own story. It means so much to her that I think in an attempt to protect it she won’t even allow it to be voiced. Even to herself. It exists now only as memory. And on the one hand what she wants most in the world is to have someone to tell. To tell her story to. And on the other hand she thinks it’s worthless. Who would care?

We live in an era of far greater openness. What do you imagine your characters’ lives would have been like when they were young?

I suspect, though this of course may be wishful thinking on my part, that they would have been in many ways better off than today. Living in a London where housing-as-homes was possible, in which community still clung on, and in some places flourished. I imagine the two of them, two queer people, in and around South London in the nineteen-seventies maybe. Perhaps they might have lived in one of the queer squatted communities in Brixton or Kennington. Maybe they knew Olive Morris. Maybe they were part of the struggle for openness and equality. It was a tough time, sure. But some amazing things were happening, and maybe as a part of that they felt they were living lives that were worthwhile. I like to think so.

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