Splinters were the main hazard of the house I grew up in.
It was a dilapidated Victorian semi – four storeys of rough floorboards, crumbling plaster, peeling layers of paint and wallpaper, faulty wiring and plumbing, and a myriad problems in between, for my dad to gut, rebuild, decorate and perfect.
I loved that house. And prying splinters from your fingers and feet seemed a small price to pay for discovering its secrets.
My brother and I, and an evil beagle, were deposited at our new home by a former neighbour as moving day was drawing to a close. He was five. I was seven. That beagle, mercifully, didn’t have many dog years left on the clock.
We found mum liberally dousing the upstairs bathroom with bleach. She scrubbed at the toilet bowl, its wonky, broken lid constantly flopping down on her forehead, determined to sanitise the 1890s-meets-1980s mishmash of a bathroom in hopes her offspring might survive this DIY adventure. She was wearing Marigolds and the most hideous fleshy-pink tracksuit ever forged by man. As she stood up to rinse her gloves in the sink, she consoled herself that at least this place had hot running water.
She left us with strict instructions to use this bathroom – and, under no circumstances, the downstairs loo. So my brother and I immediately went galumphing down the two flights of stairs to check out the forbidden toilet.
It was December and the basement was like an icebox. The floor was lined with smooth, tessellated slabs that felt cold beneath my slippered feet. Winter shook through the cracked wood of the sky-blue back door. There was a cubbyhole under the stairs where the washing machine and tumble-dryer waited to be plumbed in. Then a stark room – a kitchen, of sorts – painted white and fitted with a sink, an oven and some token 70s cupboards. Next, a larder – by far the most fascinating room. It was long and narrow, and lined with shelves and junk and a thick layer of dust. I licked a finger and rubbed away some dust to reveal brightly coloured but corroded fragments of oilcloth lining from ye olden days that tore to the touch. The third room was filled with old furniture and had no discernible purpose.
Then came the door to the downstairs loo.
My brother flung the door ajar with his foot. It was a cramped brick cupboard leached onto the back of the house. The white walls greyed with mildew. One hundred years of spiders dead in their webs clung to the ceiling. The cistern hung, inexplicably, above the toilet bowl. It was so cold in there you could see your breath. I took a step back… and shoved my brother inside.
“I dare you to flush it.”
He obediently grabbed the fat, black rubber handle that clung to the end of the chain and yanked it. The toilet spluttered and roared – and failed to flush.
We slammed the door and ran away.
We found dad in the kitchen. I don’t have many memories of him before that day, but I think it was the first time I’d seen him truly happy. He didn’t waste a second getting stuck into the DIY.
The most pressing task was disconnecting the downstairs hot water.
It would be 11 years before I experienced the novelty of warm, running water flowing from a kitchen tap again.