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Giles Wood: House Husbandry

Regulars | By Giles Wood | May 2016

Mary turns Thatcherite in my absence

It wasn’t so very long ago that the men in our Wiltshire village were still considered to be the masters of their households. Indeed, as late as 2010, one neighbour, now gone on ahead, even confined his wife to barracks, saying he didn’t like her to go out ‘because it gives ’er oideas’.

As a non -driver the wife was trapped. As a non-driver Mary was likewise trapped while I recently spent thirty days in Wales learning to be teetotal in a fashionable quest for mental clarity – the ‘new gold’. One or other of us needs to have our wits about us in these turbulent times.

But Mary claimed she enjoyed being trapped because her own quest is not for mental clarity but for mental ‘privacy’. She rang me on the first day I was in Wales exulting in being able to roam throughout the cottage freely without finding anyone else in any of the other tiny rooms. ‘It’s what you get to feel all the time when I’m in London,’ she explained, ‘but I never normally experience it.

‘No offence. I want you there by night, but not by day.’

But it seems she had no objection to her mental privacy being invaded by day by the cavalcade of visitors who began to arrive at the cottage as soon as my back was turned. Among them was a decorator friend who had managed to conjure up local workmen to perform certain menial tasks which have been pending for many years.

I came back to find some unsettling changes. The shelves where once I fished for pepper mill and clove jar amidst communities of bay leaves and soy sauce bottles now display serried ranks of stern Protestant dinner plates, the ‘clutter’ banished inside new cupboard space.

And there was Mary with a clipboard discussing with her decorator the merits of slate floor versus reclaimed parquet, and eggshell Paint Library colours for the wooden shelves. ‘May I interrupt, Mary,’ I proffered. ‘I thought wooden shelves were a feature in a cottage.’

‘No darling. Unpainted wood looks too much like 1970s stripped pine these days. If you had been out more you would have realised that.’

One so-called improvement already in situ has been the installation of a new electrical socket. As far as I can see it only means that the repositioned kettle now releases vapour under the cupboard where steam foams like theatrical dry ice. It’s adding to our condensation footprint.

It was the birth guru Betty Parsons MBE who passed the judgement on me that I was a ‘yes ... but’ man. That is someone who puts a spanner in the works of creativity and change. Especially so, Mrs Parsons noted, on the vexed subject of the cottage interior which, according to my book , should remain a work in progress. Until recently I was under-employed and as long as there was a Jackson Pollock of un-sanded Polyfilla blobs on each wall I could always point to being fully employed on cottage maintenance chores.

But thirty days is a long time in a marriage and in that time Mary has turned Thatcherite in her outlook. Where once she compromised, she has now begun bulldozing through the changes. Her determination to what she calls ‘finish’ the cottage suggests ulterior motives. House to let? Airbnb? Lodgers?

Whatever her bold vision might be, it’s clear there is no room for muddlers now that even traditional heartlands of the cottage like the kitchen which I thought my territory are up for grabs.

There is one corner of the house where her Thatcherite tentacles have not yet reached .The pointy room, so called because of its vaulted ceiling, where guests are billeted. There among the decorator’s suitcases remains a trestle table stacked high with boxes of decomposing apples, which in my view, lend the room a pleasant aroma.

Mary wants them gone but this is my Falkland Islands. Hands off! These apples are ‘winter larder fillers’, a reminder of an agrarian way of life that has almost vanished. In the 1930s it was known as the Simple Life, in the 1970s the Good Life. I’ll have to think twice before I leave her unattended again. It has given her ideas.

This story was from May 2016 issue. Subscribe Now