Ben Reeve-Lewis recently recommended that I interview my HMO tenants to backup this blog’s aim of showing the human side to being a landlord. Nadine is the first victim and knows why I’m writing about her (just in case anyone is worried about privacy infringements!).
Two months ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer and immediately underwent surgery. The interview takes place from her hospital bed during her second chemo treatment. She’s mostly positive, we’ve all had a laugh with her wig and NHS “fillet” as she calls it and now I want to understand, from her point of view, what it’s like to deal with debilitating treatment whilst sharing the house with relative strangers.
Whilst Nadine has been renting for years (she’s 45), this is her first experience of a room in a shared house. She’d been stung a couple of times after someone purporting to be the landlord took a month’s rent in advance and deposit, gave her the keys, until she met a man in the kitchen claiming to be the actual landlord and threw her out, minus her belongings. When she finally caught up with the original “landlord” he refused to give her any money back claiming that it was his fee for storing her goods! After seeing various rooms in dreadful states – including one offering just a mattress on the floor – she landed on my doorstep through a contact at the Salvation Army.
How has your perception of house sharing shifted since being diagnosed with cancer? “I’m less tolerant, which is to be expected. I’ve always tried to keep everybody as friends but slightly at arms length then you don’t fall out with people or have problems. I’ve found that I’ve had to involve a lot more people that I wouldn’t normally involve as I knew it would have an impact on their lives as well as mine which has been difficult and trying to get them to understand what’s going on . I think they’ve sympathised, not empathised as until you’ve been there yourself you can’t empathise.
Have they sat and talked about what you’re going through or kept you at arms length? “I think it’s brought us closer and I’ve tried to explain as much as possible, leaving booklets out asking them to read and understand what I’m likely to go through. But it’s not their problem and it’s not fair for them to become too wrapped up in something that’s not their problem.”
I think that’s very generous of you to say that but there are 5 people in that house and it could have happened to anybody. “Most of the tenants have been absolutely lovely, but I’ve become less tolerant of the noise and the people around me. Two of them have even helped with the cleaning”
Do you feel comfortable in the house or would you prefer to be in your own house? “If I’m honest, of course I would prefer my own house and it’s only going to get worse, like the times when I’ve got no hair and I have to go into the kitchen and meet someone or their friend. That’s the thing I will find difficult and I’ve discussed it with the others. I notice I’m sneaking around more in case any of them are drunk!”
Do any of them understand your need for peace and quiet? “I have tried to explain to them that there will be times when I will tell them to **** off but I don’t mean it, but it might happen and I’ve tried to pre-empt every situation that might go wrong as much as possible.”
Has having Andy there made it bearable? (Andy is Nadine’s step brother and a lovely fellow tenant who is registered partially blind) “Yes, because he’s made me a cup of tea, cooked meals, sorted out the buckets and it would be a lonely hell without him. He has a calm quiet demeanour whereas the others will try to cheer me up and be positive! I worry that, as the treatment goes on, it’s only going to get worse and have a profound effect on me and on the house.”
What’s your greatest dream? “To travel to India, see the world, do voluntary work. I don’t want lots of money, I want to be free. Life’s too short and this illness has made me even more determined to achieve my dream”
On privacy: “I’m terrified that when I lose my hair I don’t want to have to put a wig on just to go to the bathroom. I feel so self-conscious and what doesn’t help is that my room is by the front door so I hear all the comings and goings.”
Did the nurses or doctors show an interest in how you were going to be looked after at home? “No, not really. You’re expected just to get on with it and they wouldn’t give me patient transport – they said I had to get the bus.”
How have you changed emotionally through this experience? “I’m an emotional wreck. I feel very alone and it’s a lonely journey. It doesn’t matter how many friends you’ve got, some have backed away because they don’t know how to deal with it or I think they think you’ll become too needy. I haven’t seen some of them for months, but that’s because I’m probably off the scene.”
It must be very strange to feel alone when you’re in a house full of people. “It is”. Do you think it would be better in a bedsit? “I think it would be the same as it hasn’t got anything to do with the amount of people around you but that it’s something you’re going through and nobody else is.”
Do you get support during the bad days? “Not so much, because during the bad days you just want to curl up and die, but Macmillan are brilliant on the end of the phone and little texts from people letting me know they’re thinking of me is lovely.” I’m frightened I’m turning into a neurotic monster but the drugs do make you feel intolerant of other people.”
Stop worrying about other people, concentrate on yourself. There are far more antisocial behaviours you can inflict on the other tenants than being a stroppy bitch – normally that’s my job. They’ll get over it and if they want to party they can go to their friends’ houses or the pub. “I don’t like causing people trouble and I know it has a profound effect on everyone and I’ve spent months preparing them. It’s very important, when living in a shared house, to keep a certain balance in terms of we all get on and we’re equal and we don’t feel anyone is given preferential treatment. It doesn’t work if one person tries to be the head of the household or more dominant than the others and it’s very difficult to keep it like that. Shared housing is about tolerating. It’s very difficult to get the exact balance of people.
Do you feel safe in the house? “Most of the time, but at this point I’d love to have my own place just to have that bit of serenity and calm and you don’t have to worry about who’s coming in and out of the house and if there are too many people drinking there’s going to be a fight.” These are valid issues that I can do something about. I’d be livid if there were parties going on in other houses. But I have to catch them at it otherwise they’re going to think they’re being gossiped about. ” Yes, they’re lovely people but they do tend to forget.”
The point about a shared house – if you want to party, get your own house, go to someone else’s or go out. This is where people are living and it has to be kept quiet as tenants have different shift work or routines. I understand why she doesn’t want to upset anyone but for me it’s a big issue as I don’t want them traipsing around, getting pissed and throwing bricks through the window – yes, this has happened which he still hasn’t paid me back for.
Nadine’s treatment will last until after Christmas during which she has chemo sessions every two weeks which I take her to and bring her home with my builder as back up transport if I can’t do it. We’ve put an external lock on the downstairs toilet so she can have some privacy while being sick and doesn’t run the risk of coming across the boys’ pee!