You don’t always realise, as an adult, how much the things you encounter in childhood have affected you.
“Smells often trigger memories”, people say – and it’s true, to an extent, but for me it’s always been textures that really make the biggest impact.
My paternal grandparents’ house was full of textures; luxurious textures of substances I’d never encountered before and indeed seldom have since.
The house was huge – an L-shaped four-storey Georgian terrace with a cellar and a roof that I was allowed to climb out onto on a few rare special occasions.
And the textures began there, with the house itself. Tall and white, it seemed to be made – or at least coated in – thick white icing, which spread inside to the turgid swirls of the moulded ceilings in the large formal rooms at the front of the house.
Smooth too were the banisters of some shiny wood, starting with a spiral at the bottom and ending blankly in the wall way way up at the top of the house where the maids once lived.
The stair carpet was held down through all that distance by stair rods, exotic and previously unknown fretted pieces of brass clamping the carpet into place.
My grandparents rotated slowly around the house like a pair of nomads, each sleeping in a different bedroom every time I stayed there, and I never managed to arrive at a satisfactory count for the number of rooms.
On one of the half landings was a low upholstered chair, with short wooden legs and a sprung, circular seat. As I climbed up to whichever bedroom I’d been allocated for that visit, I would stop and touch the fabric – thicker, close pile for the raised dark red flower patterns; shorter, rougher cream sections in between.
And on another half landing was a wooden chair with a neat hexagonal seat and a very narrow, tall back incised with sharp patterns.
I liked the upstairs drawing room – a hangover from the days when the ladies would leave the gentleman to their port – with its unusual revolving bookcase, and I always looked forward to sitting in the dining room on Boxing Day, eating my grandmother’s wonderfully wine-soaked gravy.
But it was the living room I loved most.
That was where the enormously thick patterned rug covered nearly the whole floor. That was where I could stroke the almost greasy smoothness of the ebony bookend elephants with their ivory tusks and admire the big elephant supporting the coffee table. There were even more of them in the hall, holding up part of a large dresser. Elephants weren’t just decorative in that house; they had work to do.
The living room was mainly occupied by my favourite piece of furniture – a massive three-piece suite in horsehair, covered with a heavy cream fabric with a kind of indented square pattern that I can still feel under my fingertips to this day. Never will another sofa be as comfortable as that one was. The seat cushions were deep, firm but giving, and the back was so tall you felt like you were cupped in a giant hand.
The animals were mostly in that room, too – with the exception of the two dogs, who were restricted to the kitchen, and the huge goldfish who lived in the bath and had to be removed if you wanted to use it.
Bluey the cat had a breathing problem, and he would lie by choice in what looked like a very uncomfortable position with his head and forepaws draped over the arm of the sofa.
Ginger was a long tailed cat with a timid but suspicious temper who I always picture slinking away under the elephant table. He slunk away for good in June 1973, during TT week, and that was the last anyone saw of him.
The other ginger cat, Veg Veen, had a Manx name and was a Manx cat – something of a runt, I think, as his back end was even more deformed than is normal for the breed and he walked with a distinct sway to his gait.
Also in the living room could be found Brandy the guinea pig, who spent most of his time in a large basket of prickly straw beneath one of the windows. He made lovely friendly squeaking noises – until one day we visited and found him lying still and quiet beneath a heap of straw. Nana hadn’t seen fit to mention that he was dead.
And if I walked from the living room, always smelling of cold tobacco from Grandad’s pipe, through the hall, past the huge oil painting of a flock of sheep being driven home in the evening light, and through the kitchen door, with its distinctive click, I would be greeted by Zeb and Kirk, the two Alsatians, or later by Uncle Fred’s old dog, Fow – a black and white mongrel that Nana insisted on renaming Beauty, but who was deaf as a post and would in truth wag its tail at any name.
Or I could go out into the cold, greenly damp back yard, always in shadow, and look at the mysterious mangles – nobody ever seem to use them, so why were there so many, their rubber rollers all cracking from age? And then to the vast steel food bins full of oats and barley for Nana’s two horses, Tosca and Venus, who lived out in an enormous field way up in the hills and were very rarely ridden.
Or out of the front door and up the long garden, where if he was in the mood Blue would bat at palm tree fronds waved for him for maybe two minutes before becoming bored, and finally to the heavy black gate, it too thickly coated with paint, with its characteristic squeak and its unpredictable weight that left me scarred for life when it suddenly closed on my right ankle.
All this and more was contained in that house – the miniature orange tree in the bathroom and the smell of the orange and lemon-shaped soaps in glass jars.
The ancient liqueur chocolate ornaments that were hung on the Christmas tree on the landing, year after year and which I gradually plundered, the taste of old chocolate and strong alcohol blending on my tongue. Everything was exotic, rich, mysterious, expensive.
And even outside the house; at one point my grandparents drove a Rover – only one step down from a Rolls-Royce, it seemed to me, and I can still feel the hot, cracked leather on the back of my legs, smell that luxurious velvety scent and hear/feel the satisfying thunk as the thick doors slammed shut.
It’s no wonder that my own house – “only” a Victorian four bed end terrace – seemed rather dull by comparison.
Nor, now I think of it, is it any wonder that to this day I like big houses.
I recently nearly bought a 15th century townhouse in a small French town. This sounds a lot more glamorous than it actually was – the asking price was €60,000 and it needed complete renovation as there was no electric, plumbing, or even windows in most of the building. When renovated, it would have been beautiful, impossible to heat – and have had 250 m² of living space, not including the huge attic. My friend, who visited it with me, asked, “But what would you do with all that space?”
I thought of my grandparents and smiled. “Live”, I said.