It snowed at the cottage. Winter was ushered in with a damp whimper. No glorious blanket for Nature, just the depressing wet snow that dissolves on contact with the ground. Our eldest, energized with every last fibre of being 5, raced around. Chasing the flurry, trying in vain to catch a snowflake only to watch in dismay as his efforts turned to water in his palm. I know how he feels.
C took the boys out for a few hours. Our baby daughter slept soundly in the middle of our bed. Stripped of its bedding she dozed on a blanket, under blankets, surrounded by boxes of books. She was safe and unaware of the calamity of our lives at present. Four years ago, our eldest did much the same, napping in a travel cot surrounded by rubble as we stripped the damp rotten fabric of the cottage back to its bones. How has it come to be that we are back here again?
Back then, our priority was to get the cottage habitable. It had been empty for a few years at that point and, although loved by its previous inhabitant, neglected for many decades. It seemed it was the layers of wallpaper that held up the crumbling plaster and had also acted as a form of ineffective insulation. The fireplace, a grate complete with bread oven and likely to have been the original one installed back in the mid 19th century was so damaged from the rainwater which trickled down the chimney that even the conservation officer declared it beyond saving. It disintergrated despite attempts to remove it with care. It had been the sole fire at the cottage. I lit it once. Smoke billowed out from all corners of the chimney and, alarmingly, from distant areas of the roof.
We replaced plumbing and put in a temporary bathroom. We installed a new multi-fuel range and in blind romanticism declared it to also be our cooker. And cook on it I did. For 3 years. Sometimes it cooked a roast in half an hour, sometimes it took an hour to make a bacon sandwich. The novelty wore off pretty quickly but having, foolishly, not asked the elctrician to install a cooker point I had no choice but to persevere. And I got pretty good at it too.
We have tried to be comfortable for the last 3 years. It’s been a challenge. At times it has been bitterly cold (the doors don’t fit well). At times it has been magnificent. As grown ups we were always aware that we needed at some point to finish it.
That time has come.
So we have temporarily relocated. And every day we sort the kids out and pack them into the car and make the 20 miles journey to the cottage. We light the fire as we have always done. We move stuff around, take stuff apart, measure. Measure again.
Only that day, when it snowed without really snowing. When our boys were out and our daughter was sleeping, I dismantled the coffee table. We don’t have space to store it and we were never planning to keep it. It was a second hand, temporary piece that the boys used as their dining table, their painting table, their base for a railway, road, building blocks, a launch pad to the sofa. At that moment it was just a piece of excess, cheap furniture and using the only screwdriver I could find, I took it apart and left it by the fire to be burned. It was a minor, 10 minute job.
My eldest cried when he walked in. More than cried, it became a full blown meltdown. He didn’t want to change the coffee table for a big table. He didn’t want to have more space. He didn’t want anything to change. He didn’t want his home to change and, by the way, incase I missed the message, he wanted to come back home. NOW.
I tried to assure him that we didn’t want our home to change either. It was why we had drastically scaled down the amount of work we were planning to do. But something things needed to be fixed, finished and replaced to make it a proper home. ‘But this is our home!’
And I guess I saw it then. He knows where our old house is but I doubt he remembers anything of our life there. Not now. This cottage, to him, has always been home. No matter how unfinished, how draughty, cluttered, cramped and patched up it is. It’s his home. It’s where he lives, with his family. Where he has his toys and books, where he plays and sleeps. Where he knows he is safe. It’s his territory and he knows it well. My destruction of the coffee table was a change too far for him at that particular moment. He feared that the work we were doing would create a place unfamiliar to him. So our mission now, is to get the work done, get it finished and still preserve the home that he has come to know and we have all come to love.
I’m not sure what the conservation officer will have to say about that.