The place of lost dreams, is the way a friend described his basement to me last month. ‘Don’t be silly’, I said, thinking that he was being overly dramatic. But the more I thought about it, the more our damp basement, and the things stashed in it, felt just like that. Lost dreams that weighed on me. Which didn’t spark joy. More a vague dread.
When I realised that I’d be alone in the house this week, I called my handyman and booked a time for him to come. ‘I don’t really need you to do anything while I’m sorting’, I said to Rob. ‘I just need you to be around for moral support. And, when I’m done, I need you to take the stuff to the tip and charity shop’.
When we first moved into our house, ten years ago now, my husband insisted that the basement wasn’t damp. When he eventually admitted that it was, after his favourite books were ruined, we agreed to an expensive damp coursing treatment which promised salvation. The contractor was near messianic in his predictions. My husband would be able to work in the basement on the hottest of summer days, it would be so temperate down there.
My kids weren’t so easily sold. When he left for overseas, my son refused to let us store his bike in the basement, insisting that it stayed in his bedroom. ‘But that’s what basements are for!’ spouted my husband, who’d paid for the damp coursing.
When I realised that my son was a bit right, about the basement being damp, I bought a humidifier and tried to remember to turn it on regularly, amazed that a machine could suck moisture from the air and turn it into two litres of water, just like that.
But then life got busy and I stopped caring about the basement. The humidifier sat idle. Instead I avoided entering the basement. And the longer I avoided entering it, the easier avoiding entering it became.
When Rob arrived yesterday, I told him that he was to instruct me to stay in the basement until I’d finished sorting. ‘I know it sounds crazy’, I said. ‘But I so don’t want to do this. I think I’d rather a trip to the dentist’. He smiled and set to work, shaving the side off a door that my daughter had hung and that now wouldn’t shut.
I went down into the basement. It was as bad as I’d thought it would be. Worse, perhaps. White mould and disintegrating wood greeted me. That dank smell. Was this all my fault? I stood still, arms hanging by my sides. Pulling myself together, I decided not to go that way. Instead, I would stick with the practical task of taking things up into the courtyard, one by one, and sorting them out there.
I found an extra lamp and plugged it in. Immediately the basement looked less dingy. I grabbed some bin bags, cloths, broom and Damp Rid, which I hoped would do what it said on the spray bottle. A mouldy pet carrier was the first to go. An orange backpack which caused my daughter’s back to welt on The Overland Track (a six-day hike) went next. Three framed pastels by my father-in-law, that he’d weep to see stashed in a damp corner, I wiped and stacked on the table in the courtyard. Mounted black and white photos of Venice, from our old kitchen, joined them. Then it was two black bags of lint from the laundromat, which I used to use to make firelighters with (don’t try it!).
Time was also up on an old green felt card table that I once admired the design of, but had never used. Then it was mouldy pictures frames, a kneeling back chair that I’d grown to hate, complete with two dodgy wheels, the first chair my son made at school, beautifully made but too low and concave to actually sit on comfortably, two lampshades which when my husband bought them I wondered why, and a Conran lamp from our London flat that I still liked but didn’t have a use for. And yet more pictures that I’d rather found a home on someone else’s wall, rather than a corner in our basement.
Then it was the paint and garden cupboard’s turn. A bottle of Round Up and an only slightly less evil weed killer. A can of Rust Rid and past-expiry-date rat poison sachets. A citronella coil that we rarely if ever used. A worm farm I hadn’t fed in months and that, despite my neglect, had skinny worms crawling to the surface of. Various tins of hardened paint.
Even in a good life, not everything works out. Even when you love your home, as I do, there are things that you’d rather be rid of, be free of guilt about. Perhaps the whole concept of clutter was invented to liberate us from getting out from under the pile of things in our attics, garages and basements.
Now and then Rob came down to the basement, asked if I needed a hand, and disappeared again. Time passed and the courtyard filled. The next time Rob came down to the basement, he glanced at his watch, signalling to me that he was keen to finish up. Rather than saying anything, he started taking the things in the courtyard out to his truck. I loved that he said nothing as he did this. He didn’t tell me to put a new battery into the tap timer that was missing its lid, and to use it in the garden this summer. He just did his job and I did mine until, by dusk, the basement looked like a basement that could be swept out, which I promptly did.
During all this time I managed not to get pulled into byways of memory. I didn’t undo the plastic bags full kids’ toys to handle the matchbox cars. I didn’t wonder about the Christmas decorations, or how damned quickly the festive season came round. I just sprayed Damp Rid on the top of the trunks containing these things, checked the plastic bags and boxes were secure, and lowered the lids.
Over the years, our basement came to symbolise a wordless rebuke that my kids directed my husband and me, at their irresponsible parents who let perfectly good furniture and other items rot in a damp basement. There was, I felt, no point in making a rejoinder to them about this. Besides, there was a part of me that agreed with them. I had let perfectly good chairs, and other things too, grow mouldy in the basement. Shame on me. ‘But hang on’, I wanted to say to my kids, ‘just wait until it happens to you – life, that is. Just wait until you have so many balls in the air that you drop one or two of them. And then get up the next morning and drop the same balls again. Just wait until the day you stray into your basement, garage, or attic, and find it full of things you neither want in your home nor can bear to get rid of. Just wait until you resort to calling a handyman to give you moral support as you sort through what to keep, throw and donate. This won’t feel natural. It won’t even feel voluntary. But there will come a point – as it has to me – when it becomes necessary.’
Eventually I cleared a space in the middle of the floor of the basement, by stacking furniture round the walls, and started to feel free of the stuff around me. It was as if, by taking items out of the basement and into the courtyard, and subjecting them to the light of day, I’d cut the strings that tied me to them. What, till yesterday afternoon, was a basement of stuff that preyed on me in a dull persistent way, like some domestic gum disease, had turned into things to be dealt with.
From one afternoon to the next, the basement had ceased to feel like a dungeon, a place of lost dreams. Instead it was a place to store the carpet cleaner, Christmas decorations and a fold-up frame of a guest bed.
Perhaps the best result, in this crazy-making yet ordinary afternoon, was that the door the handyman fixed, while I was sorting out the basement, had a lock in it. So that when, yesterday evening, I walked the dog before supper, and for the first time in my life forgot the key and had to break my son’s bedroom window with a pair of secateurs – in the rain and dark – to get back in, I was able to lock his bedroom door behind me and feel safe sleeping alone in the house last night. What would I do without my handyman?