At nine I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. To me it was just a grotty, old brick building which was completely creepy and yet to my parents it was the corner stone of a much bigger plan. It's only now, looking back, that I realise how big an achievement that first purchase was.
My Father, who was a Londoner born and bread, struggled with English and though he was fluent in cockney rhyming slang and was an avid reader he didn’t know how to write. Being over fifty, for him, learning any French would have been an immense struggle. My brother and I were young enough to pick up the language relatively quickly but even then it would be years before we were fluent. And so the burden of communication fell upon my mother’s shoulders who, with only school girl French, was faced with a wide spectrum of daily conversations, from having to discuss property purchases and law with French solicitors, to doing a weekly shopping trip.
Considering all of this, to finally be standing in the property which was now in their name must have felt phenomenal to a point that I can’t even imagine. To me however, as a child, it was horrific.
The narrow building was in the town centre, four stories high, with no garden at all. The roof was full of holes and the walls were damp, I wasn’t allowed up to the fourth floor as the floorboards were full of woodworm and there were holes everywhere. A tiny enclosed staircase lead to the third floor which was bare and uninviting, even with two windows little light seemed to enter the room making it bleak at all times of the day. The path to the second floor was a much more treacherous one. To get to the second floor you had to climb a wooden ladder and at the top you had to balance with one foot on the top of the three inch newel post which belonged to the stairs below and swing the other leg over to the floor above, if you missed you would have fallen two floors below, it was unbelievably dangerous and yet we all did it repeatedly nearly everyday for months. The second floor also had windows at the front and back which for some reason gave more light, I remember feeling less afraid there and discovered that eventually it would be where we would eat and sleep.
The first floor was the shop floor. It had previously been a hairdressers and had pipes which poked out of the wall and a huge glass window at the front. All of the sinks had long ago been ripped out and there was no running water or electricity and yet this was the main source of excitement. This was where my parents would walk around, arms flapping, sometimes pointing at walls, scribbling drawings on bits of paper and smiling with affection at each others suggestions. They were so passionate about what was to come, so full of vision that they refused to see the difficulties which laid ahead, convincing each other, in a way only they could, that everything would work out if they believed it would. It’s the way I like to remember my parents, full of passion not anger, excited not afraid, a team that no one could tear apart... though eventually they did that themselves.
The basement was for me the scariest part of the building. There was a creaking set of stairs which lead to a near pitch black room. There were no windows, just a coal shoot which let through droplets of light and big wooden garage doors. There was a single light bulb which hung from the ceiling and which almost made the atmosphere worse as its dim light revealed the dreary mud coloured walls. The floor was stones and earth and right at the back was a round hole dug into the ground which was the toilet. Around it was a thin cloth curtain hung by what appeared to be a washing line, there to preserve your dignity despite not quite reaching the floor. It would have been the perfect place for a horror movie and frequently I imagined people being chained to the walls and tortured. If I was ever left there alone I could feel the tension grip every part of my soul and my breathing became laboured. When I was older I realised that it was just a panic attack but at the time I was sure I was going to die.
My brother (who like most older brothers had a sick sense of humour when it came to his younger sibling) took a perverse pleasure in coaxing me down there, pushing the light bulb so it would swing, creating an even eerier feel to the whole place, and then running back upstairs leaving me there, in my own personal nightmare. And yet to my parents, this was the stuff of dreams.