A young couple in their first home start to redecorate and find the history of the house coming to life…
“Do we really have to take the wallpaper off first?” I asked, my heart sinking at the task ahead. “Can’t we just paper over it?”
Geoff shook his head firmly. “Nice try, Lucy, but if we’re going to do a proper job, we have to get it right.” He eyed the bright green striped design which had been put up by the rather loud couple we’d just bought the house from. “Otherwise that awful pattern will show through.”
Maybe he was right. I’d only been married to Geoff for over a year now but was still getting used to his sensible approach to life. Me? I tend to take risks, am happy to do shortcuts, but that was when I was on my own. When you’re a couple, you have to compromise.
Meanwhile, Geoff was getting out some kind of steamer gadget that, according to the packet, takes off wallpaper without any hassle.
“Look,” I pointed out excitedly as the striped monstrosity peeled away to reveal a faded pale rose pink pattern beneath. “Isn’t that sweet? I wonder who put that up? It looks quite old…”
“This can be your room,” said Martha hesitantly. “Unless you’d prefer the one next door. It’s a bit bigger but it doesn’t have such a nice view as this.”
The little girl was standing in front of the wallpaper, a rapt expression on her face. Slowly, very slowly, she traced the pattern with her finger, leaving a bit of a dark smudge.
Martha resisted the temptation to wipe it off.
“Rose has been through a lot,” the foster agency had said. “She’ll need a lot of understanding.”
That was true. So far, she hadn’t said a word since Martha and her husband had picked her up from the children’s home. They were quite new at this; Rose was only their third foster child. The others had been cheerful, happy little souls and had slotted quite easily into Martha and Stewart’s lives until it was time for them to move onto their adoptive parents.
Rose was different. Martha had spotted that as soon as they’d picked her up. Her eyes mirrored her own pain inside – Martha’s from not having been able to have children of her own, Rose’s from having had her own parents taken away so suddenly in that terrible motorway crash which, ironically, Martha had read about in the paper.
“You’d think there’d be someone in her own family who would have had her,” she’d told the social worker.
“There’s an aunt, apparently, but she’s working abroad. We just need someone like you, short term, to fill in until she can get back.”
No wonder Rose didn’t want to talk. Still, there was a light in her eyes which Martha hadn’t seen before. “Pretty wallpaper,” she said quietly, as though talking to herself. Then she turned to Martha. “It’s like our garden at home.”
A huge lump came to Martha’s throat as she stood next to her, looking at the wallpaper which she and Stuart had taken ages to put up in order to hide that awful pattern underneath.
It would be helpful if you could get her to open up, the social worker had said. It’s not good to keep it bottled up.
“Would you like to tell me about your old garden?” Martha asked softly.
Rose was tracing the pattern of the leaf now. “Alright,” she said.
My mummy loved roses best
As she spoke, she addressed the wall, rather than Martha; maybe it was easier for her that way. “My mummy loved roses best,” she said. She started to pick away at the paper, where it had got loose at the side. Again, Martha stopped herself from intervening in case it prevented her from talking any more. “That’s why she called me Rose.”
Then there was a sudden loud rip as the little girl tugged on the loose bit and yanked it across the wall, revealing the old psychedelic layer beneath. “I want my mummy!” Big tears were rolling down Rose’s face. “I want her now! I don’t want to live with smelly Aunt Nora. Mummy and Daddy never liked her anyway.”
Kneeling down beside her, Martha took Rose in her arms, holding her comfortingly until the judders stopped. Maybe it was a good thing that she was finally letting the grief out.
“It’s alright,” she murmured.
Then she looked up at Stewart who had come upstairs to see what was happening. As she looked at him, she could see that he had exactly the same thought as her.
“I hate my bedroom. It’s BORING!”
Sally shook her head in despair at her oldest daughter. You heard about teenagers getting difficult but she’d always thought that was because the parents hadn’t been strict enough. Now she was beginning to realise it wasn’t like that. Times were changing – it was the seventies! – and teenagers seemed to think nothing of answering back.
“What’s wrong with your room?” she asked, taking in Caroline’s school skirt which she had somehow managed to fold over at the waistband so it was much shorter than regulations allowed.
“It’s not trendy.” Caroline spat out the words as though Sally was at fault.
In a way, she was. After all, she had decorated it herself in what she’d thought was a rather tasteful Laura Ashley-type design with pretty mauve sprigs of tiny flowers. It replaced the sea shell print which, although pleasant, had worn away with age.
“There’s no need to be so rude.” Sally shook her head in despair. “Apologise or I’ll tell your father when he gets home.”
Caroline glared. “Go on then, tell him. I don’t care!” Then she stomped downstairs to watch television, even though she hadn’t even started her homework yet.
Sally didn’t tell Derek about the row until she’d given him time to wash and change after work. A man needed to relax a bit when he’d been at work all day. In fact, she was going to wait until after dinner so he could enjoy his meal – stewed oxtail on Monday nights – but Caroline brought it up herself.
“I want to redecorate my bedroom, Dad.” She put on a little girl voice, pleading with her father. “But Mum says I have to keep it as it is.”
Derek gave Sally a quick look. Theirs had always been a traditional marriage. She worked hard at home, making sure that everything ran smoothly, while he was a good provider. Normally, he left all the domestic decisions to her, but today, Sally could see that something was a bit different.
“We might agree,” he said slowly, “if you promise to be more conscientious about your homework.” Then he glanced at Sally. “What do you think?”
The result was staggering. On both counts. The wallpaper which Caroline chose was so loud and modern that it gave Sally a headache just to look at it, with its bright orange and yellow swirly circles and huge purple flower petals.
Not long afterwards, their daughter’s school report arrived in the post. It was, they both agreed, a big improvement on the previous one.
Maybe, Sally thought, they had the wall to thank for that.
The first thing Kitty did when she moved in was to put up new wallpaper. It had just been a plain wall until then. “Most folk like to make their own mark,” the builder had told her with a rather lascivious look in his eye.
She hadn’t liked the look of that. Since the war, certain niceties seemed to have gone by the wayside. Common courtesies could no longer be taken for granted. Some women appeared to enjoy this; becoming bolder both in their love lives and their workplaces.
One girl whom she knew actually pretended that she was a widow, her “husband” having lost his life at Dunkirk. Kitty, who had known the girl from school, knew this was a convenient fib to mask the fact that she was really an unmarried mother.
Still, the war had changed everyone. Kitty found her eyes filling up with tears as she thought of Roger.
“Marry me,” he’d asked, as soon as his calling up papers had arrived. “Then I’ll know you’ll be waiting for me.”
She hadn’t been sure to be honest. If it hadn’t been for the war, she might have gently explained that they weren’t really right for each other in her opinion, but how could you say that to someone who was about to go away and fight for King and country?
So somehow she had found herself saying yes and before she knew it, she was standing at the door of the church in a suit which Mum had run up for her from some old curtains in the loft. Roger had looked quite handsome in his uniform but secretly she was quite relieved that they only had one night together before he went.
Now, of course, she felt horribly guilty.
“Still, at least you’ve got his widow’s pension,” her mother pointed out. “And his savings will get you a deposit on one of those nice little houses they’ve just built overlooking the park.”
Would Roger approve? Kitty wondered as she struggled to put up a sheet of wallpaper on her own. She hoped so. Meanwhile, she just had to get on with it. It was a phrase which people used a lot, nowadays.
Just then, there was a knock on the door. A young man stood on the other side, wearing a brown hat and a rather pleasant smile on his face.
“I do hope I’m not bothering you but I thought I’d come and say hello. My name’s Brian. Brian Hughes. I’ve bought the house next door.”
She held out her hand before realising it was covered with wallpaper glue.
“I’m so sorry,” she said laughing – and then she stopped. It was the first time she’d laughed since the telegram had arrived and it didn’t seem right. Then again, Roger’s letters had always spoken of “forward, not back”, if anything ever happened to him.
“I’m actually decorating at the moment, although I’m not making a very good job of it.”
The young man rolled up his sleeves. “Then perhaps I can help. Providing I’m not intruding, that is.”
What on earth was coming over her? thought Kitty as she led the way upstairs. Inviting a strange man into her bedroom – how daring!
“I like the pattern,” he said, admiring the blue and pink scallop shells on the creamy background. “It reminds me of the sea where I grew up.”
Kitty’s eyes sparkled. “Really? I always wanted to live by the sea.”
Almost immediately, they were talking as though they’d always known each other, and before she knew it, the first wall was finished.
“Finished,” said Geoff triumphantly, just as I came in with another cup of tea.
I stared at the bits of paper on the floor around me, curled up with steam and age. You could just about make out some of the designs. There was a mauve flower on one; a rather bright geometric design; a pretty scallop shell scene, the pink rose, and of course, that awful green stripe.
“I’m not sure that we got the right one now,” I said, looking at the roll of beige squirls which had seemed rather fetching in the shop, but which now appeared quite bland. “Maybe we ought to just paint it.”
“Yes – but what colour?”
I was about to suggest something when the doorbell went. Goodness, it was the rather loud couple we had bought the house from.
“So sorry to disturb you,” said the husband who was wearing bright yellow trousers, “but we were just passing and wondered if you had any post for us. ‘Fraid we haven’t got round to filling in our re-direction form yet.”
“Sure.” I handed him the pile that I’d been about to send on.
Then his wife, who was loud in voice rather than colour, eyed my dusty jeans.
“Have you been decorating?”
“Just the small bedroom.” I blushed, hoping they didn’t take offence. “Not that we didn’t like your taste,” I added, crossing my fingers at the white lie.
“That awful green strip!” The wife dug her elbow in her husband’s side. “That was his idea. In fact, we had a big row about that, didn’t we, love? Always meant to do something about it but somehow we never got round to it.”
Then a thought occurred to me.
“I don’t suppose,” I asked quickly, “that you know anything about the people who used to live in the house before you?”
The wife nodded enthusiastically.
“Actually I do. In fact, I did some research on the house when I was between jobs. The library was helpful and the couple at number eighty-six, who’ve been there for years, filled in some of the gaps.
“The people we bought from in the Eighties adopted a little girl when they were here. Such a happy family, they were. The people before that had a daughter who’s become quite famous. She’s one of those child psychologists you see on telly. The first owner was a war widow who bought it when it was brand new. She married the next-door neighbour before they eventually retired to the sea. They’ll be long gone by now.”
Then she smiled. “We were very happy here. If it wasn’t for my job relocation, we’d have stayed put. The house has nice vibes, don’t you think?”
Both Geoff and I nod.
“So tell me,” says the husband who has hardly been able to get a word in edgeways. “What kind of wallpaper are you putting up instead?”
“Actually, we’re thinking of painting it,” said Geoff, his arm protectively around me.
“Really. What colour?”
I glanced down at my small bump. “Maybe blue or pink, depending on the scan next week.”
The wife tugs her husband’s arm.
“That’s so exciting! You’ll be adding another layer of history to the house.”
As she spoke, I had a strange feeling that this was exactly what we were meant to do.
We’re sharing tender stories from our archives every Monday and Thursday during July. Look out for the next in the series, and enjoy the previous ones here.
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