Archives for the month of: October, 2012

A client asked me to change a light bulb.

Now, before you get all sanctimonious (How many Dulwich housewives does it take to change a light bulb?  None.  She just calls her handyman.), that wasn’t why I was at her house.  It was just a ‘while you’re here’ moment.  And it also involved climbing a ladder.  It was one of those high-up halogen pot lights than can often confound even the handiest of homeowners.

Anyway, I told her I’d make the switch.

‘Great,’ she said.  ‘I’ll just go find the House Box.’

The House Box.  The what?  Is that a box for the house? A house in a box?   A box made out of pieces of house?  Or, like House Wine, is it a receptacle specially selected over all other products of similar providence to best represent this establishment to the greater world?

What could this mysterious vessel look like?  I imagined a fine oaken chest with elaborate, hand-crafted marquetry, protected by a grand brass padlock that can only be opened by an enchanted key made from the bones of the box owner’s ancestors.   Would it contain gold, frankincense and halogen?  And if it’s as precious as it sounds, why is it taking my Lady so long to locate it in her otherwise hyper-organised cellar?

At last she emerged from below with the cherished House Box resting atop her upraised palms as if she’d just unearthed the lost diaries of King Neferhotep.  I half-expected to see her blow centuries of dust from the cover.

It was Tupperware.  The lid didn’t close properly.  Inside were a few small light bulbs, including the one we required.  Some fuses.  Elastic bands.  Spare electrical wire.  Paper clips.  All varieties of tape.   Batteries.  Matches.  An old doorknob.  Rogue screws.  And a pencil.

The House Box.  Ta-da!

I had to admire this family’s organisational alacrity and foresight to keep all these items in one convenient, albeit hard to locate, container.  But at which point during the development of this command post of domestic essentials did it inherit the haughty name?  When did it morph from a common plastic bin into the much sought House Box?

I felt for a moment as if I were in the presence of royalty and privileged to have been allowed to reach my hand inside the treasured box in order to remove the item necessary for my assignment.  If only, I thought, I was asked to change light bulbs more often.  Just imagine the wealth of storage options I could be witness to.  I’d have access to House Boxes all over London.  Maybe I could be spokesmodel for a great advertising campaign devised to get a House Box in every home.  I’d be the face of the Box.

But it started with one.  And if it’s the one and only House Box I ever get to see, then Oh, what a lucky, lucky handyman I am.

This week I met a man with whom I wanted to sit down and have a cup of tea.  As I’ve said, I don’t really drink tea, so it’s really the conversation I wanted.  When I walked into his house, I almost forgot that I was there to fix his toilet and paint his gate.

I was distracted by his décor.  Forgive me.  The word ‘décor’ insults what was essentially a museum.  Nearly every available wall space was occupied by an original, framed work of art.  There were nudes, landscapes, animals, nautical pieces, portraits, religious images, abstracts and a host of unique posters.  They were done in every imaginable media:  oils, watercolours, prints, etchings, reliefs, tapestries, photographs, drawings, ceramic, string, paper cut-outs and pastels.  I think I even spotted some velvet.  And that was just on the ground floor.  I found out, just in passing, that he is most certainly a collector.  Quite possibly he’s a dealer too, but I didn’t get that far.  In fact when I arrived, he was on the phone with his insurer discussing a scheme for the transportation of one of his paintings, so he said.  He might very well be in the business, but I’m not in the business so I couldn’t recognise the symptoms.

I fixed his toilet, under the watchful eyes of ‘Him’ and ‘Her’, two abstract oils over his bath.  After which I wanted nothing more than to tour the gallery that had invaded his home.  And I got the chance.  He went out.  As is common, I was trusted to stay in the house alone.  Alone with his priceless collection of art.

I explored.  I didn’t snoop, it should be stressed.  I didn’t enter any room whose door was closed.  I didn’t touch anything.  I just wanted to take in the exhibition as I would in any gallery.

What stood out among his collection was not the prettiest picture, the biggest name, the largest canvas or the most ostentatious piece.  It was a pillow.  Just a throw pillow, about one-foot square, resting against the arm of a recently reupholstered antique Chippendale settee.  On the pillow had been printed a photograph, like you might find offered by any on-line photo processing site.  It was a picture of my employer-du-jour with his arm around Jennifer Lopez.

Imagine a coffee mug with a picture of your Auntie Loretta’s out-of-focus face on it, perched on a plinth in the middle of the Louvre.  That’s the impression it made.

Now, I’m not here to malign celebrities whose claim on the public consciousness is of questionable repute, but I couldn’t figure out why this pillow rested among the oil canvases in a place of such prominence. If he’d had his arm around Tracey Emin in the photo I might understand.  At least she’s in the visual arts.  Or Mother Theresa.  Or perhaps his wife.  So he met JLo.  Big deal.  I once met Kiefer Sutherland’s twin sister, you don’t see me plastering her image all over my soft furnishings.

My point is you never know what’s going to be consequential to people whose life, from the outside, appears to be full of significant consequence.

Having said that, I’m willing to concede that maybe he was just being ironic.

Sometimes I find myself in the homes of people whose genuine warmth and affability well exceeds what is expected in the customary client-handyman relationship. They go beyond the obligatory cup of tea and small talk because they realise I’m not just a faceless automaton with a drill. But I’ve learned that the respect they show relative strangers like me is directly connected to the respect with which they treat each other.

One of these families has proven their respect and love by actually living as neighbours. Three generations live in two houses opposite each other in one of London’s distinctive, idiosyncratic squares. On one side of the square, Mom and Dad and their two small children. On the other side, Grandma and Grandpa.

The parents, modern art lovers as demonstrated in the paintings I hung for them, both work full time. The grandparents, who also partake in London’s cultural scene to compliment Grandpa’s passion for cricket, help out with the child care. But when I was getting to know them, I sensed that wasn’t the only reason they live near each other.

They like being together, which – and I’m sure my family will forgive me – seemed odd. Daily, they share meals, possessions and time. They share the same likes and dislikes. They share priorities. They even share me. If they shared a house, not just the square, I imagine little would change.

I wondered how this family came to exist in such a domestic utopia. Most people of my generation couldn’t wait to move out and settle far enough away from their parents to be just on the other side of the ‘dropping in’ line, but close enough for convenient babysitting. What is their secret, I wondered; the source of their familial zeal?

Then one day I was over at the older generation’s house fitting some curtain rods, when some of the younger generation dropped in; Dad and his daughter came by for lunch. Dad walked into the lounge where Grandpa had the cricket match on the telly. When he greeted his father, he called him by his first name. I thought I might have misheard until he did it again. I didn’t think much of it; just two grown men calling each other by their given names.

As they ate their lunch – I was still working in the next room – I overheard snippets of the conversation. As you do. And I heard the young girl address her father by his first name.

That’s when it all made sense to me. The key to their success as a family is to treat each other as equals. To them, grandparents, parents and children need not be distinguished by their age differences or relationship to one another. They are all autonomous, esteemed citizens of their family where the hierarchy, at least in name, appears not to exist. It is a part of their identity, their DNA. It is one way – I’m sure of many – that they practise their belief in themselves; that distinguish their clan from all the others in the square and beyond.

I don’t know many families where this system would work. But for one London family, it appears there is no other way.

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