A Chinese man is poling his sampan, yellow, across a green sea. A pagoda with a brown roof floating below classically drawn stereotypical Chinese mountains. Repeated again and again across the wallpaper of my room. I studied this scene often and for hours as a child trying to sleep. Or I would kneel on my bed and stare at the moon, elbows propped upon the windowsill, dreaming into the blank screen of my future.
My room was small. Except for the bathroom, the smallest room of the house. As the youngest in the family, that would always be the case, I’d get the smallest room in all the many different places we lived.
So, a generation later, the little two-bedroomed flat which was the first place I owned, was the perfect fit. Every room tiny. And over the years, more and more packed with furniture and bric-a-brac, so space in which to move getting less on a monthly basis. The mantelpiece over the fireplace crammed with momentos; gifts of candleholders given by friends for a birthday, a miniature cardboard house made by my son at school, a photograph of me with my first class of schoolchildren, a small Buddha in bronze which I have to this day. I lived in that flat for 19 years, and before that had never, as a child or a young adult, been in one place for more than three years. I have always believed that I made it “home” for my son, giving him what I never had. But now I realise I was making it home for me, too. This crowded, friendly space signifying roots, belonging, security.
I made changes. The open fire was replaced by a gas-fired one. My son and I swapped rooms at some point in his early teens, when his body demanded the slightly bigger bedroom. That was when his size 10 shoes left by the sofa seemed to fill the room. Only now, looking back, can I understand that his growing made the place shrink. It happened too gradually to notice at the time. Wallpaper was changed. My son chose black paint for his room, as only an adolescent would.
The flat suffered from damp and condensation. It was nearly 100 years old, packed inbetween others on either side and another one on top. I heard the arguments of my neighbours and knew they heard mine. My neighbour upstairs, a single mother like me, and I became lifetime buddies, looking after each others’ cats when we went away, and making sympathetic cups of tea for each other maybe once or twice a year when life got so rough for one of us we would need a shoulder to cry on.
Eventually the damp rotted the kitchen floor and I needed to get it replaced. My son was sent off to live somewhere else for a week and I had to manage without cooking. The cat was in heaven being able to investigate under the floorboards.
But to come home from work and find bare earth where my kitchen floor had been! To not be able to reach the cupboards because I was standing two feet lower than before. Not just the kitchen floor, but also my sense of rootedness, of belonging, of security was shaken to the core! So my “home” was really just a shell of walls and floors on a piece of earth, not a real and lasting thing at all. A construct. A lie.
This was not like putting up new wallpaper. This was destroying the foundation of my sense of having created around me, like an extra skin, a” home”. Hard to describe the panic and depression I felt at the time. The place smelled of damp earth. I had a sense of the land I slept on before any building had ever been there. It did not belong to me.
The floor was replaced. Life went on. And when I eventually moved from that place, my son grown and flown, I cried buckets, although I knew it was time to move on.
We (I had a partner, at last) moved into a big house. I felt rich. Big spacious rooms and lots of them, to wander around in and fill with stuff! But here I am now, back in a small flat. Back to my childhood where “small” is comfortable and familiar. Maybe I should put up some wallpaper with a Chinese motif.