Sometimes I feel a bit sad when I finish a job. Especially if it’s an empty house that I am doing up for sale or let. It seems so final. I load up Jalopy, kick off my boots and vacuum the house. I have a good long look at every room and lock the front door for the very last time.
Over the weeks I’ve often built up a close relationship with the house. Got to know it, discovered its potential and disguised its drawbacks. Wondered about the people that have lived there over the years and sometimes even imagined living there myself.
I’ve been working in a house in Cambridge for a couple of months. I wasn’t looking forward to the job as it seemed a bit of a dive. Dark, dirty and depressing. Between my viewing to quote and my arrival eight months later the owners had installed a brand new kitchen and bathroom. These glittered like jewels in a house that had a good feel but had lost its looks and gone to seed. It had been rented out for fifteen years and now was going to be sold. It was an investment proerty and had to be buffed up. When it went on the market it had to shine.
The house was built in 1960 and clearly had not had had a decent overhaul since then. I painted all the ceilings, took down the faded curtains, had a good long look and discussed the potential with the owners. The undersized cornices were replaced with regular sized ones, I put beading on the plain flat doors and we replaced the tired aluminium door knobs with good brass ones The house was repaired and painted with the palest yellow (almost sunlight on white) with white woodwork, inside and out. As the weeks flew by I began to love the house, enjoyed being there and making it look good. Under the tawdriness it was a great space.
Living in a village, I realised how much life on a small city estate intrudes. There was a row of similar terraced houses bang opposite. I got to know the routines of the inhabitants. At five the kitchen lights went on and most people prepared their evening meal, small cinema screens that always drew the eye. I was amazed how many people started by frying onions until I discovered via Chris Evan’s Drive Time that Sainsbury’s top selling vegetable is the onion.
The elderly couple seemed to shop everyday – taking their time parking their car exactly in their drive The husband always opening the passenger door for his wife and escorting her slowly to the door. The young student in the house next door who studied endlessly, occasionally heating up a small saucepan – soup? Some households were more affluent then others, with large pots containing shrubs beside their front doors and rather swish cars. One house had converted their garage into another room.
And I was in their sights too. People called by. Shy and courteous. One asked for the number of the man who had fixed the fencing. A lady asked for the name of the colour that we’d chosen for the garage door and a few for my contact details for future decorating work.
In the back garden a wren snacked endlessly on the new grass seed (I was amazed when the remainder finally germinated). An enchanting squirrel gradually ate every berry from the shrubs before delighting me as he raced and leapt through the branches of the trees that lined the road beyond. I watched him dig holes in the lawn and feast on whatever he discovered. Fearless he stared intently back at me as he chewed.
The leaves on his trees would have hidden him in the summer and shaded a road packed with interesting people. I observed them pass the back gate. Professors, students from the busy Bell School of Languages, helmeted cyclists, the slim man and companion Alsatian dog who jogged every morning and again at dusk.
By the end of my stint I hardly noticed the ambulance sirens from the nearby hospital that had disturbed me during the first few days. Apart from the repairs and decorating there was just so much going on. Such as the tree in the photo. This fascinated me. Eight feet up it divided into two large trunks. These stood so close but were clearly happy living like this. Examine their branches – so open and expansive. An unexpected joy.
And there was the mystery that lasted from the start of the job to my final day. During my first week I pulled an old carpet back and revealed a word written in the floor in capital letters. EINAT.
What did it mean? Was it a person, a place or some sort of code? Initially I assumed that it was the name of the carpet fitter or a carpenter who had worked on the house nearly fifty years ago. A few weeks later I found a date 1991, written inside a cupboard. If I hadn’t been standing inside the cupboard I wouldn’t have spotted it. It was written in the same hand as the writing on the floor.
That evening I trawled Google for Einat 1991, and discovered that an Einat had won the Miss Israel contest. So Einat was a woman!
During my last week, I needed to paint the skirting in the same 1991 cupboard. There was a low shelf made from lengths of floorboard that I removed and stacked against the wall. When I came to put it back I turned one of the boards over. It was covered in strange writing. I examined it carefully – the sentences began from the right of the plank. Could it be Hebrew, Iranian, Arabic or even mirror writing? Had I discovered a modern version of the Dead Sea Scrolls?
We had taken down a lot of tatty mirrors from the bathroom and wardrobes. These were standing in the landing. I held the plank in front of the row of mirrors but it did not transform into anything that I could understand. I turned over five of the six planks. Each one was covered with the same sort of script. I was flummoxed.
Then I turned over the last one. No need to place it in front of the mirrors.
In clear English, it read: “In case you are wondering I actually had a good time overall. I am writing this so that when I am older I can return and read what I have written. Einat 1991-1993.”
So Einat’s mark had been recognised. She had intrigued me for a good two months and I was delighted to begin to crack the mystery on my last day.
As I drove away, I considered the possibilities. Had Einat won the Israel beauty queen title and come to Cambridge to learn English or was she just an ordinary Einat who studied English for two years at The Bell School and wanted to leave her mark.
Jalopy nosed her way through the oncoming traffic and as we headed for the Mog Magog Hills, I realised that there is no ordinary.
We are all extraordinary.
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