With a best-selling book, The Flatshare, based on her own life experiences, Beth O'Leary is here to tell you how to successfully navigate this relationship dilemma
No matter how well you know somebody, you’ll get to know them better when you live with them. There’s just something about sharing a space that brings you closer. Your lives start to intertwine: your shoes sit in the same tangle by the door, your toothbrushes cross tails in the mug behind the taps, your elbows execute the same exact trick for opening the front door when the lock gets sticky.
But what if you never, ever saw your flatmate? Would your lives still intertwine like this?
This question fascinated me. It became the basis for my debut novel, The Flatshare, a story of two strangers who share a one-bed flat but who are never there at the same time because one flatmate works night shifts. The spark of the idea came when I had just moved in with my boyfriend. As a junior doctor, he was working long stretches of nights, and so I would go days and days without seeing him. One of us was always home, but we were never there at the same time. Sometimes I’d even see him driving past to work just as I walked up the hill from the train station at the end of the day.
I may not have seen him, but I still saw all those little clues that bring you closer to your flatmate. I knew how tired he was at the start of his shift by the number of coffee mugs sat by the sink, and I knew how late he was running by whether those mugs were washed or unwashed. I figured out what he’d managed to cobble together for his 9am dinner by what was missing from the fridge. If his trainers were sitting by the back door, I knew he’d be feeling cheerful because he’d had time for a quick run.
The phone signal at the hospital was bad, so even for the windows of time when we were both awake, it was hard to text each other. We started to find other ways to communicate: I’d leave him out a plateful of dinner for the next morning, he’d write me a note on his way out the door. Even though we were moving like ships in the night, our relationship was growing. Somehow, we were still getting to know one another better by living together.
Since The Flatshare published in hardback, I’ve heard so many joyous stories of other people who lived with – or loved – somebody living on opposite hours. In a bookshop in Ireland, I spoke to a man whose wife worked nights as a nurse when they first started seeing one another. They would meet for five minutes each day on the corner of the road as they crossed paths on their journeys to and from work.
Later, an old family friend told me of his years driving lorries at night, and how peculiar it was to be completely nocturnal when his family were living on regular hours. He remembered the quiet, the endless darkness, the camaraderie between night-time drivers. Most recently, my editor sent me a BBC documentary called Postcard from London in which Clive James and Victoria Wood discuss how they lived when they were younger. Like Tiffy and Leon in The Flatshare, they shared not just a flat but a bed. For Clive and Victoria, though, it was a scheme cooked up by a landlord. Neither of them was aware that someone else was sleeping in their bed when they weren’t there. Theirs is such a bizarre story – genuinely stranger than fiction.
Just a few weeks ago, my boyfriend worked his last ever night shift. Those days of deciphering his life from the leftovers are over, and I’m already a little nostalgic for them. At the time, I felt as if those night shifts were putting pause on our relationship – I was missing out on the chance to really live with my partner. But now I feel like those strange, quiet days were much more than just an inconvenience: they were part of our love story.
* The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary (Quercus) is out now in paperback