Friday, 17 February 2017

Seven Answers X: A House

(I've never met this house.  It's one of Seven Answers).

3. Tell me about a house that was important to you when you were a child.

My best friend at primary school lived in a hotel.  It was three huge Victorian houses joined together, plus another one, The Annexe, across the road.

When I went to stay the night, aged seven, we visited her granny upstairs.  You didn't know where you would end up with the back stairs of the hotel.  I called the granny Mrs Lang.  She lived in a dark brown area called her flat, it had folded wooden screens to change the shape and size.  She wasn't brimming over with chat and adoration towards children like my granny was, but silent and not at all friendly.  I wondered if I was doing something wrong.

There were chambermaids who were very smiley.  They seemed quite young and small, with very short skirts.  They lived in tiny little rooms, we didn't go in, they came out to chat, one one of them had a baby living in her room.

The front stairs just went the usual one floor up at a time and were huge and grand but also brown and dark.  There was a shiny little brass lift which we weren't officially allowed to touch as it was all too easy for one of the 'residents' - very old tiny ladies with Pekingese dogs, fur coats and hair dyed red or black - to get stuck between floors if you opened the gate a bit.

On the first floor was the ballroom, the most enormous room you could be in, with dusty gold twiddly framed enormous mirrors.  It looked as though nothing had been painted since the hotel opened in the 1880s.  When we were teenagers we went to the New Year parties my friend's dad organised.  He often seemed drunk and had no idea who I was - Is it Arlette? he said.

Later we drank in the hotel bar ourselves and once saw Cliff Richard there, wearing a plum crushed velvet suit.  And once, the Wombles.

My friend is still my friend.  Her parents went bankrupt and the hotel closed down in 1978.  It was full of dry rot.  All the profits in the early years had been used to send the granny and her sisters on Grand Tours, where they did watercolour paintings of the pyramids, and there were no profits in the 1970s.  Now it's housing association flats but some of my dreams are still set there.

A couple of years ago, looking at mysterious spaces made of folded brown panelling in the Louise Bourgeois exhibition at Tate Modern, I was transported back to the slightly scary fascinating dark brown crumbly faded grand interior of the White House Hotel.

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