I remember the strange day we moved into the new house. It was like walking into the ghostly shell of somebody else's life. We had the keys but they didn't feel right in our hands yet, like it still wasn't really our place, but it was no longer theirs either, and it just existed in some kind of psychic no-man's-land ...
She was anxious to make her mark, so we got on with decorating straight away, and it was my job to gut the kitchen. The first thing to go under the sledgehammer was an awful 80s work surface, and just before I smashed it to pieces I found IMRAN AGED 9 scrawled in pencil on the underside, a memorial to a little boy's childhood, an attempt to somehow preserve it all, condensed into that one phrase, hidden in that secret place ... I found it curiously moving that a little kid could feel that way, would think of doing such a thing, and that he took it for granted that the work surface would stay there forever and his memorial was somehow permanent, when actually it was the first thing to go, smashed into useless shards of MDF within five minutes to make way for some flat-pack Shaker-style cupboards from Ikea
Her job was steaming off all the wallpaper, and by God that place had seen some layers and layers of it, going back through every bad idea in the history of home decoration, through 80s zig-zags to rounded 70s browns and oranges and beyond, and all the while I kept thinking of Imran aged 9, and Imran aged 2, and all the folks who'd been there before him, lives we'd never know anything about, except for the wallpaper they'd been surrounded by, generations and eras coming and going, as transient and colourful as the pale pink spring blossom through the kitchen window, and only the buildings that housed it all remaining, like a coral reef or a fossil record, accreting new layers, cannibalising the old ones, till we came along, added some Shaker-style cupboards, and then eventually left in our turn
My walks round the neighbourhood would often take me past the local mosque, an elegant Georgian building that started out as a Methodist chapel, then became a Huguenot church, then a synagogue for the Hasidic Jews, and now, for the time being, a Bengali mosque - a marker of the waves of immigrants who have washed through the area and made it their home for a time. At the top of the building is a beautiful sundial dated 1759, a sundial which bears a phrase that summed up everything going through my head, the story of us and of everyone who'd ever wallpapered that house, who'd ever tried to build a life round here: UMBRA SUMMUS, it says - WE ARE SHADOWS - and I suppose in the end we are: insubstantial things marking the circles of time, the circles of the Sun which shines the same forever; cycles of Huguenots and Jews and Bengalis, of me and her, and little Imran aged 9
Words by Michael Smith.
View our full our House&Home range here