Saturday, January 9, 2010

Home Is Where the Hearth Is...(as well as lots of other stuff)

When we bought our house in 1994, we spent every last penny we had on it. The Husband, who had up until that time lived with his parents at very low cost, had saved enough for a deposit. We both had reasonably well-paid careers so getting a mortgage wasn't a problem. The property was an absolute bargain: built in 1936, it had remained throughout nearly six decades the home of the couple who had originally purchased it brand new from the builder, until eventually the elderly widow had fallen, fractured her hip and been placed in 'sheltered accommodation' by her daughter. She then put the house - presumably her childhood home - on the market, priced for a quick sale. Having already decided some months before that we wanted to face the future as an item, we'd been browsing the property ads for a few months. We knew, having looked around a few, that we definitely did not want a new build. We didn't like the thin walls, small windows and pocket handkerchief-sized gardens. The Husband, being two metres tall, found the low ceilings oppressive. Older properties, the ones we liked the look of, tended to be well out of our budget, so when we saw this house in the estate agent's window, we did a double-take. We viewed it within 24 hours and knew, completely and utterly, as soon as we walked in through the front door, that this would be our home. Strangely enough, it was something to do with the light that spilled through the coloured leaded lights and shimmered on the bare floor-boards of the front hall. The building had been cleared out, stripped of its furniture and as we walked around the echoing rooms, we became more and more certain that this house was THE ONE. It needed some work and TLC: the electrics were original, bakelite fittings and twisty cables. No central heating, no insulation, no damp proofing. The bathroom had the original suite complete with a high level cistern and pull-chain, and the miniscule kitchen had a steel sink in it and nothing else. The back garden was just a mass of waist-deep grass. Although the house was cheap, it needed a lot doing on it just to make it habitable, and we couldn't offer the full asking price and afford to do it up. Taking a deep breath, we made the agent an offer we thought he would certainly laugh at, but - after a quick phone call - he told us that the vendor had accepted. Our jaws dropped in unison: we were astonished - maybe we should have made an even lower offer! It turned out that the daughter was not in any particular need of money and just wanted the place off her hands. Six weeks later, it was ours.
The amount of work required seemed to have put other buyers off. The building society wouldn't advance us the full amount until the neccessary work had been done on it. A survey had revealed that was structurally sound, but quite damp. We borrowed what we could and put together a month-long schedule of work. I was living in rented accomodation in a small village six or seven or so miles out of York, and my lease for the next six-month period was due for renewal. If I could give notice on it, and we could move into our new home at the end of the four weeks, that would be perfect. So we set to with a vengeance and it's amazing what we achieved in so short a time. A local builder was mobilised to move the kitchen wall into the hallway by a couple of feet to increase the kitchen size slightly, the damp-proofing company renewed the damp-proof course where needed, stripped off and replaced the plaster, and a plumber put in a gas boiler and radiators. The Husband (as he would not be called for another 14 months or so!) and I took time off work to insulate the loft and scythe the garden. Daughters #1 and #2 (11 and 9 at the time) merrily ripped the original lino out of the bedrooms and discovered some ancient sheets from the Daily Mail underneath. When we'd originally looked at the house, we'd been less than impressed by the two ugly gas heaters that stood in the fireplaces of both the living and dining rooms. The plumber capped off the gas supply near the meterbox and we pulled them out. We'd been considering renewing the fireplaces as well, but once the two hideous appliances had been removed we we struck by the beauty of the fire surrounds, which were the original oak with art deco tiles, which could now be clearly seen. We cleaned them up and bought new grates to put in the hearths. They were going to stay.

As well as a ramshackle shed, the newly shorn garden revealed the remains of flower beds, a cinder path, a couple of fuchsia bushes and a rather woody old hydrangea. And a large toad, which hung around for a while until the stubbly environment proved uncomfortably dry and exposed for him. We cleaned up the bathroom as best we could - the unallotted money had run out by then - and grew to appreciate its austere efficiency.

As for furniture, we had practically none, as my bungalow had been fully furnished (although I possessed some curtains and bedding) and the Husband had none of his own either, except a piano and a full rack of electronic keyboards, mixers, speakers and amplifiers. We'd bought a couple of beds from a local housebuilder's show house when he vacated a completed site. An old lady across the road (who'd been friendly with the original tenants and, coincidentally, the Husband's grandmother-up-the-hill) very kindly gave us two cottage-style armchairs (hunting scene tapestry/bare wood arms: not that comfy). We re-used the room-sized rug from the front room in the back room, where we also put an old TV and a donated VCR. Some kind acquaintances gave us some old Argos chest-of-drawers which we used for our clothes. On August Bank Holiday 1994, we moved in.

Talk about minimalist living! Over the next couple of weeks, the Husband and his dad put floor tiles down in the kitchen and fitted some very basic MFI units complete with sink and a heavily-discounted oven and hob. We lived on food from takeaways during this time (our neighbourhood, which has a high student population is extraordinarily prolific in them), and washed our plates in the bath! We grew rapidly and heartily sick of fast-food, and it was with great relief that we walked to the local supermarket (we had no car then, only a bike each) and bought fresh food to stock our new cupboards.

Because we were then both working full- time we could gradually add to our new home, month by month. We acquired bits and pieces of furniture, carpets (some second-hand from the Husband's relatives), more curtains, an old dining table and four chairs. We cycled everywhere and what with this and the continual DIY, we were lean and fit. When we'd saved enough for our wedding reception (family only) and a three-day honeymoon in Rome, we married. Within the year daughter #3 was on the way, followed two years and two months later by the Bright-Eyed Boy. The increase in the family size entailed a substantial remodelling of the house. We extended the mortgage substantially and had a two-storey extension put on the back of the house. The builder was an absolute star and had it completed within three months from breaking ground. It was sheer hell at the time, living in one downstairs room, everything coated in plaster-dust with muddy-booted builders tramping up and down the stairs all day. We gave up tidying very quickly as the mess re-occurred every day - not because they were particularly messy, they were very considerate, actually, but because the whole process was just messy! It was very a difficult time, with two very small children, neither of whom slept well, juggling our work (we both worked 20 hours a week each at this time) and managing the building project. By the end, we were pretty much broke. We had no money to decorate the new extension and the Husband spent every spare minute for the next couple of years, growing thinner and thinner, doing DIY tasks and decorating if and when we could afford the materials, whilst I (growing fatter and fatter!) tended the children. Never having really recovered from my late pregnancies, I had become run-down and exhausted. I had given up going out to work and struggled to keep our computer-aided draughting business running from home and look after two small children. I was certainly not in my element! The unpredictable demands of the construction industry (feast or famine work-wise, many different employers and never daring to turn away a contract) saw us regularly trying to meet a deadline by sitting up until 2 or 3 in the morning on adjacent computers, often each with a child in our arms. I think I probably went a bit mad during this period. We probably both did, being very much sleep-deprived.

However, in my madness, I decided that I now desperately needed to do something to revive my atrophying brain and so I enrolled at the Open University to study Classical Greek. I'd originally attempted to do this the year before and then discovered that the B-E-B was on the way and had postponed it. This did mean that I often had to start my studies at ten at night when the children were 'asleep', or very early in the morning before they 'woke up' although it was never predictable. Not the best way to learn a whole new alphabet and language! For a while the Husband kept me company, doing a module on Astronomy and Cosmological Science which proved ultimately too time-consuming for him to sustain alongside his other commitments. Fortunately, by this time the whole building industry had become far more computer-savvy and designers were doing their own CAD and, at the same time, the Husband's career was progressing nicely in the same field. Without any regret (save that for the extra income) I bade our last client farewell and mothballed the business.

And that was pretty much that. Still caring full-time for daughter #3 and the B-E-B, one OU course led another until I'd pretty well run out of Classical Studies options. On a whim, I contacted the Classics department at Leeds and before long found myself enrolled full-time (courtesy of the student loans company - yet more debt) for the next two academic years. After gaining a First in Greek and Greek Civilisation, I went on to get an MA by research in New Testament textual criticism. By this time the children were in full-time education. A rigorously organised schedule, plus occasional back-up, meant that I could drop them off at school, tear off to Leeds for lectures, seminars or tutorials and usually be back in time to pick them up, just like I'd been at home cooking and cleaning all day, or whatever it is that women fill their time with. And finally, after a decade of study, my academic perseverence paid off and I find myself doing a fully-funded PhD in New Testament linguistics. Not in Leeds, as my MA supervisor - who is a world authority in the field of textual criticism - retired, but (less conveniently) down in Birmingham where, once again I serendipitously find myself surrounded by world-class scholars.
But I could have done none of this without the support of the Husband, my rock and my star, who has supported me and kept me going with unquestioning love and tolerance, who looked at this unpromising creature all those years ago and decided that maybe - just maybe - she was worth the risk.

No comments: