The last couple who lived in our house got divorced. From moving in as a happy family to selling amid acrimony, it was barely five years for them. This is a fact that remains ever burning at the back of our minds as we attempt to renovate and restore our little cottage on the village green.
When we first got the keys, I walked into the front room to find a bouquet of flowers and a note from the previous owners. It wished us well, but reading between the lines it was clear that the place pretty much did for them.
Like us, they attempted to live in it while sorting it out. I can only imagine what they went through, what rows they had over their plans, as my partner Will and I set about the task of stripping crumbling walls and ceilings.
I hate to be superstitious, but at times like this I find myself believing in vague notions to do with “the energy” of a place, or whether there is a “good vibe”.
Almost immediately, despite the sad note, I felt the house was welcoming us. We hung my crucifix from the Holy Land next to the front door, while a statue of Mary I have had since I was a child went on a high shelf.
Within a few hours, however, we had a taste of what had, perhaps, thwarted the previous owners. As Will began hacking back the weeds in the garden, there was a bang at the door and then immediately an incessant ringing of the bell.
The next-door neighbour was standing on the doorstep, a thunderous expression on her face.
“If you’re cutting back the garden, I don’t want you to touch any of the overhanging branches of my trees,” she said, walking past me into the house.
I offered to show her what we were doing, and we went together out the back. We tried to be cheery but she was insistent. If her branches were to be touched, we were to fetch her and she would come and cut them herself. She hoped we would agree, because she was sure we would want to be neighbourly.
A few days later, the lady on the other side gave us notice that she would not be keen on letting us use our right of way round the side of her house into our garden. We tried to resolve this by saying we only wanted to use it to put the bins out, or to move large building items, and we would of course wait until she was out if she preferred that. No, she said, she thought it wasn’t very neighbourly of us to want to use it at all, unless while she stood there supervising us.
Over the next few weeks, the issue descended into a fraught row. As did the skip outside our house, the way our car was parked. In fact, everything we did was difficult for the neighbours to accept even when we explained that it wasn’t forever, just while we renovated.
Meanwhile, we were washing in a temporary shower in the basement, accessed by climbing over building rubble. The dust was driving me crazy. Will was working on the house late into the evening.
And so we began to row under the pressure, screaming at each other in desperation until we realised: whatever had done for the previous couple might do for us as well if we were not careful.
So we resolved to pull together no matter what.
“This is a community,” the next door neighbour told us pointedly one day.
“Yes,” I wanted to reply, “but we are a family. And a community ought not to be so strong that it breaks families apart.”
It all puts me in mind of what happens when you put new horses in a field with others. At first, the new arrivals are ostracised. Sometimes they are kicked around. Day by day, the herd allows the new horses to come ever so slightly closer. People are not so very different from animals, I find.
The good news is that after two months we have begun to break the back of the renovations, and the house is yielding some friendly omens: a suitcase in the loft containing miniature Enid Blyton books from the 1960s, a shield from an old school bearing the motto pietas parentum – be nice to mum and dad. And behind thick plaster, original fireplaces, alcoves, sky lights …
Sipping his tea, covered in dust last night, Will declared: “This house likes us.” I hope he is right.