‘It used to be the servants’ quarters’, I say as people squeeze in through the front door and wonder at the narrowness of the rooms. Originally it comprised four simple rooms, two on top of the other, warmed by two massive fireplaces (now closed off and the source of some mould), with vast ceilings and towering windows and the narrowest of staircases. So narrow it reminds me of the Dutch stairs in older houses in the Netherlands, built with the smallest of foot-spaces since people had to pay tax on the stairs. As for our place, the servants would sleep in this simple space, drink and smoke in a moment of peace, but be ready at ungodly hours to wait on the family in the big, seven bedroom house next door. Or rather, it was not so much next door as part of the same construction, a few small rooms in a mansion on top of ‘The Hill’ in Newcastle.
Now the mansion as a whole is a little dilapidated, awaiting a saviour to scrub off the Easter Island graffito-mural on the eastern wall, as well the stencils and tags in odd corners, and with a thorough refurbishment and restoration bring it into line with the rest of the street. Meanwhile, we have a for a few years cheap rent in a central place – a few minutes to the beach, to the railway station and to the desirable (for my daughters) strip of Darby Street, there to eat and shop and hang out at coffee shops.
Over the years the original four narrow rooms with their high ceilings had been pushed out and up, as was the custom a few decades ago. At first the kitchen and bathroom created a ‘third space’: one above the other, they pushed out the back and were accessed from each of the two floors. In the process the small veranda on the ground floor and the balcony upstairs were filled in, with doors becoming windows, and external windows suddenly finding themselves in from the cold, so that odd corners abounded and the light was effectively closed from what were now the middle rooms.
A little later ‘Uncle Arthur’ – so named because of the shoddiness of the work – had decided to construct the loft. Stairs punched upward, the roof was filled and new space opened up in the heavens. Never mind that the windows don’t close properly, that the floor slopes, that the storage spaces open onto the street, that the cheap chipboard has a propensity to mould, that the whole loft shakes when a door is closed downstairs, or that the opened-up brick is a little drafty. The loft – now the domain of my older daughter – is a warm (especially in winter) and secluded space, an apartment within an apartment.
A great place to live in the increasingly good years of life – but one you would never want to buy because of the hidden problems. An upshot of the piecemeal additions and renovations is not only that this apartment is in better condition than the main house (populated by artists, ferals and hippies who enjoy weekend long parties, imbibing all manner of strange substances), but that the space is flexible. And we certainly flex it to the full.
A hub for daughters in their late teens and early twenties, a base for a few drinks before heading out into town, a place to crash in the early hours for all and sundry. At first one daughter (the youngest) had her room until the end of high school. She left briefly and then returned for university. And then her older sister, with her life here, both in town and at university, decided to move in too. She landed the loft and has been here ever since, realising the financial gain of not having to pay for rent or food while studying! To complete the house full of women, my Danish partner is here as well, completing her own study, a long-dreamed-of PhD. We too flex the space, for our bed is in the front room, close by the front door. Why? It is an eminently comfortable bed that simply will not go up the stairs. So what better place than the front?
Move we must at some point, perhaps when the girls have moved on to their own places, when the creeping fig has once again enveloped the house, when more parts fall off the front balcony, when the creaking floorboards give way, when the mould wins the struggle with the air dehumidifiers, when the roof begins leaking again after its temporary repair, when the owner decides to sell when the place threatens to falls down entirely. Meanwhile it is home.