All the houses in our street had steps up to the front doors, and basements half buried. A smart Georgian terrace of seven identical 4-storey houses – ours the seventh. Our house was the only one with an ornate iron balcony at first floor level. It was kind of a romantic structure but we were never allowed out onto it. I wonder now whether that’s because the structure was unsafe (as I always believed) or whether in fact it was because we were unsafe, as children – not to be trusted. Either way.
So, this terrace of seven identical (ish) Georgian townhouses faced onto an old factory on the other side of the short street. I always thought of it as a marmalade factory, but of course that can’t have been right. I just think maybe once I saw something that made me think of marmalade in an upstairs window, and the idea stuck and became like a fact. In reality I have no idea what kind of factory it might have been in Georgian England. But it was a smart and solid brick building with large windows – arched on the top floor – which became desirable loft-style apartments in the 1990s.
My parents would have been able to tell you the names of the people in each of the seven houses, but I recall only some of them. At number one was my friend Neelam, a girl my age, and we’d knock for each other and play in the big garden out the back. We called it that, the big garden – a shared patch of grass beyond our back gates. At number four (I think) was Lucia and her mum, Lucia was our babysitter. I think they were from the island of Saint Lucia, but it’s possible I made that up… And at number six, next door to us, was Bob. In the early days he had a wife and kids – my favourite doll (Rebecca) was a hand-me-down from his daughter, whose name I can’t remember. But in later years his wife and kids must have moved away, and Bob became a sad old drunk. I guess that happens to people.
Our house, number seven, was the last in the terrace of seven identical townhouses, but we were attached on the other side to number eight, which was quite a different style of house. Older? Newer? I’m sorry to say I don’t really know, but number eight is where Clare and Neil lived – still live – and they were a family of musicians. How lovely to hear them playing the piano through the walls. I guess some people would find that a bit annoying, but we appreciated it as something beautiful and kind of Victorian.
I could try and describe the inside of our house, which I should know intimately. You enter through a solid wooden front door painted a kind of pleasant mossy green – probably a sage green. Our doorbell was always a remarkable feature – by which I mean that people would always remark on it. A brass handle on the outside, which you pulled sharply out, connected to a wire, that ran inside, up the walls along the ceiling of the hall, to a real brass bell of quite a decent size, which jangled loudly like a proper bell to announce someone at the door. A ding-a-ling ding ding ding ding ding – I can hear it now. Joyful and bold and ‘an original feature’ – or at least it seemed to be. Restored? or reinstated? Hard to know.
My parents bought the house in, let’s say 1977? A couple of years before I was born, anyway. And it had no electricity, no central heating, and only an ‘outdoor too’ in the back lean-to. I think they bought it from two sisters who had lived there all their lives, and legend had it their beloved brother had gone off to fight in World War two and never had returned. And so apparently his room, which would become our bathroom, was left untouched by these bereaved spinster sisters, his pipe still on his mantlepiece when my parents bought the house.
My dad always said our house was the luckiest on the street because of the way it looked out over a row of gardens at the front – a gap between the old factory and the row of houses down the side of the square opposite. And because we were lucky enough to look out across the gardens, we had a clear line of sight to the church tower of St Martin in the fields – have I got that right? The Georgianess of our house, the grandeur of the architecture down our street and round the square – I always felt quite connected to the idea of old Hackney, when people rode around in carriages and the place was a village some miles from London.
But anyway, these two sisters had stayed in the house and never left, so somehow number seven was the only house in the row that wasn’t at some point bought up by the council and modernised. All their basements were infilled with concrete, or blocked up at least, whereas our one never was, and in our basement dining room an ancient range cooker still stood in the wide fireplace with an old copper kettle still in place.
So, the basement housed the kitchen and dining room, low ceilinged rooms with thick walls, half buried, as I’ve said. And in the dining room, an old pine dresser built in along one wall, and a coal-hole under the front steps. In days gone by, coal would have been tipped in through the hatch on the top step you see, but for us it was a kind of cold, spidery store room where we kept the wine and empty ice cream boxes.
A large oval mahogany table took up nearly all the space in the dining room, with a couple of cupboards built into the alcoves – one full of glasses and the other for wrapping paper, junk and other stuff – a rabbit shaped jelly mould, cake tins, and old rolls of wallpaper, I seem to think, falling out against the door as you tried to wedge it shut.
The fireplace, which I’ve mentioned, dominated the wall opposite the dresser, with a high mantelpiece above, upon which an old granny clock sat and needed winding. My father’s chair, a high backed wooden thing which came apart if you tried to move it by the arms. This was his seat, at the head of the table, or in the evenings, next to the bookcase looking up the etymology of random words. A mismatched mix of wooden dining chairs for the rest of us, and wicker table mats. The window, dressed with woven patterned curtains, looked out into the front garden, into a kind of trench, half below ground, half above – grass, hedge, tree, sky.
There were two doors off this cramped and cosy dining room, low ceilinged and carpeted and cluttered with piles of books and post and British Medical Journals and photos in clear perspex frames and dusty papier mache bowls we made at infants school and all kinds of cluttery bits and bobs accumulating dust. Two original wooden doors on metal latches – one into the kitchen and the other into the downstairs hall, a small space dominated by a defunct old mangle that came with the house. Tool cupboard, coat hooks, burglar alarm – a passing through place at the bottom of the stairs.
The kitchen was a half step lower than the hall and the dining room – a little bit of extra height probably excavated when my parents did the tiled floor. Not a fitted kitchen in the modern, stylish sense, but built in cupboards in the nooks and a built-in pine worktop over the fridge, freezer and machines. A free-standing gas cooker with an eye level grill. A run of little shelves holding all the herbs and spices. Hooks hanging pots and pans beside the door.
I should have mentioned the bright yellow walls. I think they were always yellow, but I know my mum and I repainted them together when I was nineteen. I think she wanted a project to distract me from my depression, so we did it one weekend. A cheerful colour but quite intense in that low ceilinged room. I’m pretty sure we could paint the tops of the walls without standing on a ladder. The floor tiles in the kitchen were a kind of grimy yellow-green, I can’t think who would have chosen them but there they were, square and cool and slippery in socks. You could run a loop around the basement – from the hall, through the kitchen, through the dining room, to the hall, and back into the kitchen, round and round and round. I guess that was probably pretty fun but we were always yelled at not to run in socks, until the day I slipped and smacked my head on the dining room step. My dad tied his tie around my head to stem the bleeding and I had seven stitches. You can feel the scar on my forehead still – that and the one above my eyebrow from when I fainted on New Year’s Eve in Barcelona.
I have another memory of that hard tiled floor. Saturday or Sunday mornings, our parents still in bed, we’d pull the 4-litre tub of vanilla ice cream from the freezer and sit around it with spoons on the kitchen floor – delicious!