Midnight fix

8 Jan

Late yesterday evening  – a time when I should have been watching Newsnight, having a bath, reading the paper or thinking about catching up on sex or sleep – I was peeling off wallpaper from the landing walls in huge sheets. I’m awful at DIY, and yet I attempt it at the most random times with no before or afterthought. When home insurers agree to take me on, they should check out my previous work. If they had sent an ‘aesthetic’ assesor around, they would have been far less worried about the problems a few old rickety pipes would have caused, and concentrated on the aftermath of my attempts at home improvement. I am a liability. I should just leave things to the professionals.

When we moved into our house a year ago it could have been used as a set for a BBC drama in a ’30s rest home for dogs (if there was such a thing.) The smell as I entered for the first time was akin to sticking my nose into the fur of a damp spaniel’s buttocks, after he’d farted. It penetrated the walls, the carpet, even the understairs cupboard where the leaky gas pipe couldn’t mask the odour.

Large stickers had been liberally plastered on every available window, similar to the inside of a phone booth advertising massage. But these were not prostitute’s calling cards: instead of semi-clad women with confectionary names, they were images of various breeds of large slobbering dogs. What’s more, they wouldn’t come off with any amount of scrubbing or scouring. In the end, a razor blade, some muscle and a spare day was what it took to remove the majority, though there are still a few faint pastel scratch lines that are reminders of the canine portraits.

Change is easy with a bit of cash, so while we were flush we got rid of the death smell by ripping up the carpet, knocking down a couple of walls and taking down the lace knicker curtains, though we kept the crème caramel marble tiled fireplaces that my mother says depress her. They are deco, and I know they will be desirable features at some point, though they are as far from Miami as Brixton is from a beach.

The money ran out half-way though our grand plans, so now the house is a mixture of nursing home and nice. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, which is the only room that is properly finished. Once the builders had left, I started to look at the anyglypta on the walls that hadn’t been bad enough to go, and thought “This is ok. In certain lights it even looks quite romantic, like a grand apartment in Berlin.” Quite how I thought this about our ’30s house in Tulse hill is questionable, but it’s all about squinting, imagining and kidding yourself. In truth, the walls are quite like the ones at our local pub, that haven’t been cleaned since the smoking ban came into place. It’s a place that sells itself on smelling of piss, an excuse for the drunken clientele to go unwashed for days so they can blend into their surroundings.

I now have to do something about the bare patchy walls I have exposed, because, like a joke that’s backfired, they decided not to reveal themselves as beautiful slabs of distressed plaster. They are yellow, brown and look damp (although, thank god, they are not). The previous owner and his strange taste might have been cheap, but the paper had been plastered on for a reason.

I’m good at blaming but no so great at fixing. I blamed the baby for ripping the paper earlier on in the day, although at 10 months he won’t admit responsibility, and I know that he only peeled a mere inch and I went from there with generous tugs. What looked a bit sad and old fashioned, but could easily have been tarted up with some of our better framed pictures, now looks like the inside of a love-deprived squat.

My daughter woke to use the bathroom whilst I was sadly gathering the fallen paper. On seeing the landing walls she said, “Mum, what the hell have you done?” I tried to look hopeful, muttering something about looking in half light with barely opened eyes, but it was lost on her. “You know the tunnel into Brixton underground? Well our walls look like the concrete in the corner where all the tramps wee.” She had a point.

There was no quick fix to this one. In my late night panic I did think about going to a 24 hour supermarket (nearsest one I could think of was on the Westway near Hammersmith) and buying some wallpaper paste and some sort of lining paper. Or calling an emergency plasterer and asking him to work all night (there are no such things of course.) I was sent in to a fluster that made me do something even stranger than both of the above.

I found some old cushion material and started tacking it to the picture rail with nails. If you can imagine a make-shift puppet theatre with no actual ledge for puppets and no backdrop, this is what the finished product looked like. As it stands I could, if I like, start up a mini photographic studio for babies, like the ones you find in cheap shopping centres. I have a landing big enough for a couple of small children’s arses. And the stripy backdrop is so much better than clouds.

It would be good to think that I’ve learnt my lesson, but I know it’s in my nature to scratch the itch, whether it is picking my children’s scabs or taking scissors to ugly excess wiring. I’ll just have to get a little bit richer so I can call in the professionals, day or night, to fix the mess when I do something wrong.

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