H. and I moved two months ago. My fortieth-something move. That’s not counting packing up the contents of my college room at Durham on the last day of every term, then unpacking it again when term restarted. No, it doesn’t get easier or smoother. Your body and mind – mine, at least – start screaming Enough is enough!
I’d never lived in a whole house before. I’d lodged in a few rooms that happened to be in houses, mainly during my student days, but I’d never had my possessions spread over two floors until now. I’m finding the experience somewhat unsettling. Disorientating. As someone raised between Italy and France, where most “normal” people live in flats, unless they are inordinately wealthy, have inherited their homes or live out in the sticks, houses – especially late 19th – early 20th century English houses – are for me best read about in novels or seen in the kind of magazine pictures that make the interiors look bigger and brighter than they actually are. I don’t care for all the traipsing up and down the stairs every time I need my glasses, forget a book or go to the bathroom (I practise Qi Gong every morning, I do not want to “exercise” on stairs). Moreover, any property with character is sure to lead to a personality clash with me. I have more than enough character to fill a living space, I don’t want the personality of the house or flat to interfere with it. Therefore, my ideal is rooms all on one level, with straight walls, high ceilings, large windows that open in full. No quirky arches, historical protrusions, charmingly irregular corners or period alcoves, thank you. I want to place my furniture exactly where I please, without the building dictating to me what it wants and where.
To H., born and bred on the island of Albion, however, it is inconceivable that any adult should deliberately opt for a flat. And so, after spending our first two and a half years in Norwich living in a flat, the opportunity of a house came up, H. liked it immediately, and I thought, well, fair is fair – especially when said house comes with a lovely landlord and bypasses contact with the un-evolved life form that is the average letting agent.
An early 20th century house with dinky stairs probably built by a lover of Jonathan Swift’s Lilliputians. Only half the plantar side of my size 39 foot fits on the steps, while H. has no choice but to put his size 48 feet sideways when commuting between floors. It’s the sidesaddle stair travel style. The one that goes with the walk-in-from-the-street-straight-into-the-front-room feature. Then, there’s another peculiarity. In the room that is now my Scriptorium, the main light fixture is not in the centre of the ceiling, as you would expect it to be (Please tell me I’m not alone in this assumption!) but right by the window, leaving the rest of the room unlit. Most puzzling. “What kind of jackass would have the one and only light in the room right by the window?!” I said, when describing the new house to a friend at the local health shop.
“I can tell you why. I’m an electrician.”
In shock, we turned to the young man standing behind us, who’d overheard our conversation. Now what are the odds…?
“They used to do that in the bedrooms of Victorian and Edwardian houses so that, when you got dressed or undressed, the light was always in front of you, so no one could see your shadow from the street.”
“Seriously? You mean it’s actually deliberate?”
“But what kind of jackass would get dressed or undressed by the window?”
“Well, just in case, you know… People used to be…”
What? Puritanical? Stupid? I was having a surreal experience.
The house has other eccentricities that led me to rant that the British are the best actors in the world, wonderful writers, that they have given us the Magna Carta and Harry Potter – but keep them away from building bricks. “But what about all these wonderful Medieval cathedrals you love so much?” H. said, in a gentle attempt to guide me back to some kind of balanced thinking.
“They were built by Normans!” I snapped.
A few days later, when our dream queen-size bed was delivered but had to be returned to the shop because the pocket-sprung mattress would not turn the corner on the dinky Munchkin stairs, I declared war on the house, my anger growing into a wise and constructive I’d-rather-be-right-than-happy attitude, otherwise known as slicing off your snout to spite your mug. I remembered a lovely Norfolk-based writer telling me that you need to feel settled in order to write. Well, I didn’t feel settled in this house, I never would feel settled in this house, so I would never write again. And never translate again. Or cook. Or do anything.
* * *
When we first saw this house, and H. saw the only item of furniture it came with, a long, sturdy pine dining table, he announced that this was where he would be working. Unlike in our previous two homes, I could have the second bedroom for myself. “You can have a proper Scriptorium,” he said.
“But don’t you want to have your study?” I asked.
He insisted that he wanted to work on that huge, sturdy table. I suspect he was being generous.
After two weeks of solid sulking, I got bored.
A Scriptorium with the light by the window. I put my large red anglepoise lamp on the opposite side of the room. Ha! Another small anglepoise on my desk. Nice. A large crystal, long-stemmed wine glass filled with white fairy lights, and a jar with coloured ones. Now we were getting somewhere. My beloved National Gallery print of Verrocchio’s Tobias and the Angel would look good on the back wall. Among the rolled up posters, I discovered Raphael’s Triumph of Galatea, which I’d never put up because H. doesn’t like it. I unrolled it carefully.
It dawned on me that perhaps houses were like people. If you were rude to them, they would be uncooperative. Hmm. I was right to be angry with the house. But being right can become lonesome after a while. The pine doors are actually quite attractive, and I like looking at the swirls and knots in the timber. The sun floods into one side of the house in the morning, and into the other in the afternoon. The bedroom window looks out, in the distance, on the tower of one of Norwich’s Mediaeval churches, and when the sun goes down, it sets the brass weather vane ablaze. The long pine dining table allows room for more guests. And we have a black and white neighbour with staring eyes who rushes to me and rubs her muzzle against my hand whenever she sees me, and purrs.
After a few weeks of polite diplomatic negotiations, the house and I drew up a treaty of mutual support and cooperation. We have an understanding that is slowly developing into trust. The house doesn’t hold my preference for flats against me. I am learning to laugh at its quirks. The Munchkin stairs are still a cause for minor tensions but – what can I say? – no home is perfect. But it’s home now.
Made me smile too while reading it with my cup of tea this morning. 🙂
Thank you :–)
One of your best!
That sounds very familiar – D and I lived in a Norwich house very like that when we were first married. Glad you’re coming to terms with it!
I wonder if this kind of house is a rite of passage or some sort of turning point! :–)
Just like Michael Seidel’s mom’s, my mom’s little cottage near my brother’s which she goes to Vermont to visit sometimes is also cursed with tiny stairs. Not only is the rise awkward, but the step is just as Lilliputian as the one you describe. When one is touring ancient castles, they always point out that the suits of armor are only 5 ft. or so because that was the tallest the knights were back then. So, what about people’s feet in the 19th-20th centuries? Do we assume that they were tiny too?
I don’t think they were that short. I think these were cheaply put together houses, not aimed at lasting over a hundred years. It’s somewhat conforting for me to hear that in North America you also have houses with such absurd stairs. I thought it was only in England. I’ve certainly never seen anything like this in Italy. Thank you for commenting.
Loved the blog but I do sympathise. I only remember one set of stairs in all the family houses that were gracious to my big feet. It was a magnificent house which even though it had been split into two, was lavish. You could be a princess sweeping down the stairs. The loo was something else – glorious. Happy memories. Hell to heat though!
Thanks for the tip. I’ll just imagine I’m the heroine of a Jerry Hermann musical, like Dolly or Mame! :–)
Haven’t heard from you for quite a long time, Kathy. Wish you to be friends with your new home!)
Thank you, Anna. Yes, the house move took so much time. This is the first time I’ve had time to write.
What a lovely post! Good to read on a grey Monday morning! Have a nice week in- and outdoors.
Thank you! You, too, have a good week!
I laughed, reading this post. Mom’s house has stairs like that. I commiserate. Interesting about the window and the light. Congratulations on the move, and happy to hear you and the house have a treaty in place. Hope it holds. Cheers
Thank you, Michael. It feels good to be writing again.
What a great moan. So funny – the un-evolved life form that is the average letting agent 🙂
Good to hear you’re making peace with the new/old Munchkin home. Sounds lovely to me.
Thank you! Well, I’m a flat with large windows and balcony kind of gal…