The wrecking ball hangs like a heavily ponderous thought over my childhood home.
How can it have come to this? No mortgage arrears here or even value depreciation in a shattered market. No crumbling walls, no squatters, no graffiti; the house looks pretty much as it always did, solid and knowing, its attic window-eyes focused on the historic Cavehill and the reach of those Black Mountains that semi-circle the city of Belfast.
Belfast January 1956
On the day they move, six-year-old Becka doesn’t want to get out of the car. The house sits there, like it has a mind of its own and that mind is made up. Yellow winter sun reflects in the attic windows. To her they seem like cats eyes and Becka is afraid of cats. Inquistive eyes, looking down and searching their faces to see if she and John, Grandma, Mum and Dad really do belong here.
“I don’t want to live in this house, it’s too big. An’ John says that there’s a bogey man who lives in the attic an’ he’s green an’ makes slithery, slurpy noises when he comes down the stairs.”
Her mother is patient. “But you’ll love it Becka...there’s a garden, with apple trees and a swing and you’ll have your own bedroom next to Grandma. And your brother is being ridiculous. There are no bogey men here.”
Of course all old houses have strange noises; water pipes that gurgle and grumble; floor boards that creak; chimneys that catch the wind, play with it and throw it back out with a wail into a stormy night. But in the emptiness of all these vacant rooms Becka senses loneliness. She thinks it’s hers but she’ll come to recognise and read the voices of this house, understand them in a way that only her grandma will share.
Today the removal men are smart on their heels and Becka’s dissent is given short shrift.
She has only been in this new home once and that was before the workmen moved in. The wall paper was peeling off the walls and she thought the house had a funny smell. She’d needed to go to the toilet and it was freezing in there and when she was finished she couldn’t get the door open and had to bang and shout and all the while the aged cistern was cranking and shuddering like it hated hanging up there and wanted only to be free.
Today Becka feels very small in all this emptiness, she talks to herslelf as if she’s in the company of another person. Becka does this a lot. Her grandma claims it’s her vivid imagination.
Then sunlight hits the stained, wall-sized glass window behind the little girl and throws shapes of yellow, blue and truquoise onto the bare walls. The myriad of colours makes Becka feel warmer inside even though with all the doors open the house is freezing.
She throws her still too short legs defiantly over the bannister and slides all the way down, thumping her behind on the newel post at the bottom and falling sideways onto the hall floor. She’ll do this hundreds of times in the future. In fact, sliding down bannisters will always be a thing with Becka. Twenty years later, after a research assignment in an old, rather grand and beautiful European embasssy, she’ll slide down that bannister too and be teased about it for years to come.
Of course, the house will embrace this new and soon-to-be growing family. But it will be Becka, more then the others, who will explore and understand how its rooms, even its walls seem to absorb the real spirit, the moods and emotions of this family. She’s the one who will feel the need to record and register, to tease out the narrative of the life lived here.
The child wanders down the hall, through the kitchen, out through the little room they call the scullery. She takes the huge-to-her, cold to-the-touch key from the nail on the wall. She unlocks the door. It has a wooden flap on the botton, which catches on the stone saddle as Becka pulls it open. Five steps down, Becka’s own booted feet seem to fit so easily into the curve that others have worn onto those stone steps.
The door into the walled garden is open, there are indeed apple trees and a swing. It feels private and protected. In years to come Becka will invite the newly discovered charaters of her favourite novels to talk to her here. Wonderland Alice, Mary Lennox, Pollyanna, Carrie Willow, even the Little Princess.
From attics to walled garden this was a house where creativity and imagination could and did have free rein.
Belfast December 1986
My father died on a St Stephen’s night. He fell asleep watching the television and had a massive heart attack. Left alone in this six-bedroom Victorian house. My mother was adamant that she would not leave. Thirty years of memories, two of her four children born into that home, in what was then, an elegant-suburban-street where Protestant, Jewish and Catholic families mixed easily and well; no this was still her place and she wasn’t moving!
She loved that house, we all did, big enough to accommodate her family and friends at Christmas and a delight to the growing number of grandchildren who rediscovered the nooks and crannies of attic rooms piled with boxes, old suitcases and generations of photographs taken all the way back to the launch of the Titanic.
We did recognize the steady drip, drip of things needing to be done — a leaking roof, yards of galvanized guttering that needed replacing, the huge cost of installing central heating. Belfast was still a much-troubled city in the 1980s yet over the following two years there was never a word of complaint; nor even a phone call in the early hours, for fear of intruders or of the noises that this aging house could throw into the blackness of a Belfast night.
My mother was an indomitable woman, independent. Her mind was made up.
Then came the offer. The Northern Ireland Hospice, which had some years earlier bought the school adjacent to our terrace needed to expand. They wanted all three of the double fronted houses in the terrace. In that depressed market it was a modest but solid bid.
I could say there were endless discussions but in fact when my mother was taken to see one of Belfast’s very first apartment developments, overlooking Belfast Lough, and she had done her sums, assured herself that there would be no need for a mortgage to haunt her later years, that she would still be in the same parish, her decision was made.
She would enjoy seventeen warm, comfortable and wonderfully happy years in her new home.
The hospice got its expansion and we who had lived our childhood, adolescence and young adult lives there, had to sort through our own feelings of loss. We learned to assuage our grief in the sense of something tangible lost, with the knowledge that any hospice is a place of peace. We felt virtuous in what we thought of as our sacrifice, hoping that in some way our own happy years would spill over into the last days of the so many who might need this kind of palliative care.
Christmas 2012 …I am at a New Year’s Eve party, in conversation with an attractive middle aged woman. We are discussing the difficulties of raising funds for causes we believe in. She mentions her involvement with the Northern Ireland Hospice movement and plans for a big new build. In a tone that, I hope, doesn’t betray my proprietorial interest, I wonder aloud what plans these are.
“I know the modest size of the footprint of that hospice, how do you hope to expand?”
“We need a completely new build. So the intention is to knock down the old terrace. Those buildings are no longer fit for purpose.”
I’m fathoms down, confusion and uncertainty wash over me, images form, surge and just-as-quickly, dissolve. My life-tide is on the turn and no one even notices.
I will forever hate that phrase ‘fit for purpose’ and yet even as I write this I know it is a selfish thought. How can I decry this plan when those who will work the spatial footprint of the building will bring to that urban half acre so much that is good and noble and dignified, to those who will need it most?
The wrecking ball hangs like a heavily ponderous thought over my childhood home.
The house looks pretty much as it always did, solid and knowing, its attic window-eyes focused on the reach of those Black Mountains that semi-circle the city of Belfast.
I won’t be there to see that first walloping swing, as the rope drum clutch is released and the ball is allowed to free-fall, physical confrontation of forged steel with Victorian redbrick and the release of all the intangible rest.
I’ll hold the memories like a ticket in my hand, my passage into the past and certain now of what I know, I’ll just keep writing.
Rebecca Bartlett ©