We have been living in our house for over a year and it continues to be a source of considerable annoyance to me.
It turns out that I do not have impeccable taste and an eye for what would work in my home. Nor do I have a moment to address the vast array of continuing irritations that is my home.
I plan to go through them one by one in the hope that they will provide a catalogue of things to do, if we ever have any spare money, time or taste. And also, that it might make me feel a bit better. Anyone observing that the length of this list is such that I could have repainted the bathroom in the time it took to write it will be taken out and shot.
I grew up in a big house. This has given me delusions of grandeur. It did not prepare me very well for living in a small house with one main room downstairs and one bathroom for five people, three of whom “can’t wait”.
Our house is an end of terrace, disproportionate, 1930s number. The previous owners decided that there is nothing nicer than pink pebbledash. It’s a particularly nasty shade of salmon pink. The front door which cost €1,100 (emergency replacement when tenants were in residence and the previous door was broken down with an axe) is utterly vile. It is varnished a nasty shade between brown and orange, has cheap brass work and a fan light which features glass with bumps. I shudder.
All of the original front sash windows have been replaced by nasty double glazing which, unkindest cut, is so badly fitted that there is actually a gap between wall and window in the Princess’s room where the wind whistles in.
The back of the house features a small ugly extension (the kitchen and the bathroom) and green window frames (sash windows still there, hurrah) which are not a good match with the pink paint. Moreover the extension has no foundations. And when we moved in, the builders took one look at the roof and assured us it wouldn’t last a winter.
Actually, by the standards of these houses, the back garden is pretty large. It was almost entirely overgrown and I have spent much of the past year uprooting trees (I am the anti-Lorax) and fighting briars and bindweed. The upshot of this is I have no energy to plant things I might like to see either back or front (which features a forlorn and undistinguished patch of grass, a concrete path and a very high hedge). The back garden, inevitably, faces North.
Outside the back door are two sheds (new doors, hurrah, a worthwhile investment) and attached to one of them is a shoulder high wall whose only purpose is to ensure that as much as possible of the house is kept in darkness at all times. Beyond that is a weed filled patio. The paving stones are red and grey with bumps. There is also a low wall made of orange and grey bricks.
There is, to be fair, a really beautiful very high listed stone wall all along one side of the garden.
The hall features the cheapest laminate flooring that we could find. It was good enough for the tenants. I can’t help wishing that we had made more of an effort to get nicer things for the tenants and we could live with them now. It has a nice 1950s sideboard which I bought in Brussels and which is long and thin and excellent for keeping random gloves and bags off the floor. Unfortunately, our movers broke off the front of one of the drawers and it has sat there pathetically with its lower innards exposed for over a year as we try to put together the money and the energy to get somebody to fix it.
The previous occupants’ wall paper, painted over in white and amply marked by our children’s grubby fingers covers the walls. Except right by the bottom step of the stairs where a large hole has opened up and shows no signs of self healing. This is the spot underneath which the cat likes to wee.
Various pictures decorate the walls and a mirror sits forlornly on the sideboard having lost all hope of ever being hung.
We also have two coat stands: one large old-fashioned one bought in a brocante in Brussels and even then losing limbs (a problem which has now reached leprous proportions); and one that was in the house when we bought it. The latter is functional and ugly but largely covered in coats. Eamon, our evil electrician, convinced us that we had to get those little spot lights for the ceiling. They are ok and we have, at last, got round to filling in the large gaps he left behind while putting them in. We got a craftsman painter to do our painting (we really needed someone cheap and cheerful) and as he perfected each piece of wall, Eamon would rip out the electric wires behind it in his rewiring effort.
The Room Downstairs
To the right, through a door set at an angle (interesting), is the only downstairs room which the original house boasted. It is an absolute triumph that we managed to fit much of our furniture into it. Especially when you consider that this is what it looked like when our furniture was originally put in:
Under the window is Mr. Waffle’s desk – a nice desk, stacked with domestic admin and some of his papers (most of his work goes in bags where it waits patiently for attention) and a keyboard and monitor. To the right of the desk, over the radiator are shelves up to the ceiling filled with domestic admin and Mr. Waffle’s work. These shelves are more utilitarian than attractive and the files which sit on them are practical but not beautiful. Across from these, in an alcove, sit two bookshelves reaching floor to ceiling. Due to storage difficulties (my sister believes that all our space problems can be solved with additional storage) a number of other random items sit on top of and in front of the books. On one side of the desk is a nasty Ikea table supporting a nasty printer in shiny black. On the other side of the desk is a kitchen stool for which we couldn’t find a home and on which the telephone now sits.
In the middle of the room is a gas fire surrounded by a mock Victorian tiled fireplace which isn’t as ugly as it sounds. The mantlepiece is made of painted plywood which is not very nice but is still an improvement on the enormous mock Victorian baronial hall fireplace which we had removed. Over the fireplace is a very heavy mirror whose orientation is landscape but I wanted it portrait – the workmen guessed wrong and I hadn’t the energy to get it redone.
I bought our red armchairs from Ikea about 12 years ago when I was living in my own flat in Brussels. They were nice then but, like all Ikea furniture, they haven’t really stood the test of time. The addition of small children and a shedding cat has not added to their lustre. Our sofa was bought from friends when they were leaving Brussels. It is looking a little tired by now and mostly wears a blanket. The children like to stand on their hands on it using the wall behind as support for their bare, filthy feet. This may explain the state of the wall (the only wall in this room which does not have woodchip and, therefore, my favourite) behind but, obviously, Michael scribbling on it with a pencil hasn’t helped either.
Beside the sofa is the Ikea Expedit which houses a large portion of our children’s downstairs toys and more books. Endless books. It is very messy and a little alarming to look at. Lots of pictures on that wall – some of them more successfully framed than others. I didn’t like our dining table when it first came into my life with my husband but I have grown very fond of it over the years. It’s a heavy, dark, wood, extendable art deco piece. It is way too big for the room in which it finds itself but I am reluctant to let it go. We have nice plain chairs (again from my husband’s side) and three very expensive children’s chairs – purchased in our days of affluence. We fall over their legs with monotonous regularity and the children hang upside down on them, sit on the back and climb over them. Hey, they’re trendy.
Our television sits on another bookshelf. The television was a present from my loving family (they are loving, aren’t they?) and it cost them a fortune. It is quite large. The children love it but I find its looming shape a little alarming though, obviously, when I watch it, it’s great given my short-sightedness and refusal to wear glasses.
Pushed against the wall is a large, cheap early 20th century cupboard in poor order. It contains spare crokery, the iron, shoe polishing gear, candles, night lights, wrapping paper and whatever you’re having yourself. Beside this is my antique sewing machine, purchased for a song in the petits riens and beloved by me. It’s loathed by my husband and I can see that it does take up a bit of room and light while serving absolutely no practical function but I remain firm.
That leaves under the stairs (ours is one of those rooms where the outline of the staircase is visible) and the other bookshelf we’ve shoved into the corner.
Eamon the electrician convinced us to get spot lights again so there are 8 in the ceiling to Mr. Waffle’s (v. green) chagrin. The room is also awash with lamps, relics from our much larger accommodation in Brussels. All just as well really as natural light is in short supply. The pipes that run across the ceiling and down the walls have been inelegantly boxed in. The, mercifully, revarnished wooden floor (though, if I were doing it again, I would definitely go for a lighter colour) features large gaps through which crumbs inevitably pass, doubtless attracting vermin (how glad I am that we have a cat all the same).
We put yuppie blinds on the windows and these are a source of surprising satisfaction to me. When I can at all, I mean to stick more on the windows upstairs.
Off the room downstairs is a tiny kitchen extension. Before we moved in, my sister-in-law advised that, if you are going to live somewhere for any period of time, you should have a nice kitchen and a nice bathroom. This was excellent advice, 50% of which we followed. We paid this man, recommended by a friend, a reasonable sum to put in our kitchen. He was great. He was speedy, he came when he said he would and he gave us what we wanted. The fact that there is a nice kitchen does not change the fact that every counter in the kitchen can be touched while standing in the middle of it. It is the smallest kitchen I have ever been in. We kept the old cooker and the old fridge on the grounds that they worked perfectly well and why would we throw them out ? They do, but they are not beautiful. The floor was covered with rather cool red and green bouncy tiles but we could not get them clean so, we covered them over with laminate. Perhaps tiles would have been better. The kitchen has no tiles on the walls either and I would like some – I am adding them to the list. There is a big heavy wooden back door and a cheap wooden door into the other room. I would love to replace both of them with nice glass ones so that the kitchen is not always pitch dark. The electrician did not insist on spot lights here. The window is underwhelming but not actively objectionable. On one worksurface we have a large 1980s ghetto blaster and I fantasise of disposing of it and getting a cute little radio on which I could receive radio 4 without crackle.
Your idiot correspondent chose beige carpets for her stairs. Really, I despair. The carpet is, of course, now fatally stained and filthy.
The bathroom is on the return, the upstairs part of the extension (the original toilet was in the shed). We did not renovate the bathroom before moving in. It features really nasty rag rolled grey-blue tiles pretty much everywhere except the ceiling. It’s hard to explain the hideousness, you have to experience it. The shower is held together with sticky tape. The sink is surrounding by a white woodwork trellis inspired by the American South. It is also by far the coldest room in the house. Outside the bathroom door is another bookshelf.
The hot press is on the landing along with more corridor and less bedroom space than we need. I have put up all my children’s portraits on one wall creating a secular chapel effect. The attic is above the hot press and all around the walls and ceiling are the footprints and handprints of big people trying to get up through a small door.
This is probably my favourite room. It needs a carpet. It has bare paint stained wooden boards (no, I don’t mean tastefully, I mean blotchily from our craftsman and painter). It has my favourite piece of furniture which is a wardrobe that we had at home (I think it may have been my grandmother’s) and which my mother gave to me as faithfully promised when I was a child. We have an Ikea chest of drawers (the Malm, since you ask) and a rather expensive chest of drawers that we bought on Rue Blaes when we first moved to Brussels together in 2003 and we had more money than sense. The curtains are unsatisfactory. We have only one curtain as the window is too small for two and it trails along the ground having been made for rather grander accommodation. The bed was brought to our marriage by Mr. Waffle. It is made of pine. There is really nothing further you need to know. Alas, my Ikea bed (trendier and constructed by me using only blood, teeth and an allen key) was too big for the room and we pawned it off on friends. It is really quite big, only the other night we were at a dinner together and they were bitterly lamenting its presence in their life and trying to fob it off on our hosts.
There are some pictures I like on the walls: Redouté prints, a “Rape of the Lock” print by Harry Clarke. A chair for chucking clothes on and a full-length mirror, in which it is impossible to see oneself full-length due to excessive furniture, complete the room.
The Boys’ Room
We were quite astounded to find that we could fit two beds in this room. Well, not beds, as such, because, although they have started school, the boys are still in their cots. We have taken away the bars on one side you will be pleased to know. Entrance to the room is a little challenging due to the presence of a bathroom tallboy which does not, unfortunately, fit in the bathroom. I am very fond of it. I paid 20,000 Belgian francs for it when money was money and Belgian francs still existed which is a slightly outrageous sum but I was rich and carefree. I was just saved from spending 100 euros on a toilet brush at the same time by my prudent sister.
I decided that I would try out the “feature wall” idea in the children’s room (not my own, mercifully). Aside from the fact that feature walls are now very “last year”, my unerring eye for colour meant that the net effect is that their rooms are painted in almost, but not quite, identical shades of blue. It’s not a feature, it’s just a bit confusing. It does go quite well with the curtain (again half of a set meant for a far bigger window – pretty, specially made and heavily lined, the Princess has the other half), so that is something, I suppose.
The boys’ room has a further two Malms for their clothes along with toy baskets and a bookshelf. The surface of the Malms is always covered with randon debris about to tip over and brain one of the children. On the floor is a rug from Bosnia which we received as a wedding present and, of which I am very fond. It tends to divide opinion a bit. I think it’s quite cool and retro (as well as thick pile, not to be knocked) but some people think that it will never actually be cool no matter how long we wait. Between the beds is a beanbag – one of the very useful range of presents which the best dressed diplomat provided over the years – and on the walls are various artistic efforts by the boys. The rug does not cover the entire floor. The part of the floor that is not covered is paint stained wooden boards through which the wretched spot light thingies are clearly visible and a constant source of temptation for enterprising small boys with rulers.
The Princess’s Room
Again, the pointless feature wall (sigh). One good thing that we did was to get the master craftsman/painter put in a fitted press in the weirdly shaped alcove. Lots of storage where I can keep things like babies’ bottles (I know, stop at me) and the Princess can easily put all her clothes. It is basic but not unattractive. She has her Ikea bed which features slats that regularly come adrift, if anyone older than 6 sits on it. I can see this becoming a problem in the future. She has two big baskets and a large bookshelf which increasingly is only populated by her stuff (there was a time when some of our books sought refuge there but she has put her foot down). And the stuff, oh Lord, the stuff. Never has one so small had so much. She has jewellery boxes, stationery, dolls, art gear, dressing up gear, stuffed toys, comics, books, many night lights, avalanches of stuff most of which she likes to store on the window sill. She also has an Ikea computer desk which we palmed off on her when there was no room downstairs. She quite likes it though and, if she can see her way to it will sit and do her homework there. A plain Ikea rug graces the floor and covers most of the bare boards so she does better than her parents and her brothers.
I suppose it wouldn’t all be quite so bad if, next door with a slightly smaller but otherwise identical house, hadn’t created a thing of beauty, perfectly formed, inside and out.
It seems true that only women care about these things. Mr. Waffle is largely indifferent – although he would like more room, the decor does not disturb him (or else, as it is largely my choice, he is being tactful). When I put in lampshades, it took him weeks to notice. The children love the house. Once when I said that something would be possible when we moved to a larger house, they were all very distressed and asked in tones of great anxiety whether we would be moving. Certainly not immediately, I fear. Friends and relations clearly don’t care, why should they? But I care and it occasionally makes me gloomy. I blame my mother for giving me delusions of grandeur.