I'm not alone...
Updated: Aug 23, 2019
"Take it! Go on..." I open my eyes. Someone laughs. Mario's blinking and looking up from a chair in the opposite corner of the room staring in my direction but beyond me into the space behind. I rub my eyes, sit up and look round. The room's empty. Mario and I are alone. It's an extremely hot afternoon and I'm at No 19 alone. I'd been working in the hall downstairs and had come up after lunch to have a rest as was my habit at the time. Czech summers are extremely hot and I'd found the best way to make the most of the day was to start early, rest in the afternoon and continue in the evening avoiding the times of day when the heat was unbearable. When I got back to work I started to convince myself that the voice I'd heard that afternoon belonged to someone who had been playing a joke on me... my neighbour's son-in-law perhaps. It had been a man's voice but other than that I can't really describe it and although it sounds strange, I don't even know what language it was in. Had I dreamt it? Were there ghosts in No 19?
The house was certainly old - probably around 200 years and had an interesting history that I didn't know that much about.
Before my father bought the house 15 years ago it had been owned by Jiřina and her family for about 70 years. Jiřina is now my neighbour and one of the people I feel closest to in Starý Týn, but I'll talk about Jiřina another time.
The house is situated in an area which used to be known as Sudetenland, an area predominantly inhabited by a German speaking population who were expelled after the fall of Hitler and the start of communism. Growing up in the relative stability of a country like England, for me this is something mind blowing: an entire population and culture living in a place for hundreds of years suddenly has to leave taking with them just a few personal belongings.
While working on the house the thoughts about the people who had lived here before were continuously with me, and when they slipped from my mind, they would throw something my way to remind me that part of them was still here.
When doing up an old house you are more often than not actually undoing work carried out by the prior owners. You discover things that have been done based on the style of the time, the budget of the owner, things that are solutions to problems and things that have been hidden for years - and this is the beauty of living in and working on an old house.
I was sitting chatting with Jiřina the other morning about the usual things I'm able to understand with my bad Czech, and she just came out with it:
"It's such a shame I no longer have all that German glassware and china we found bricked up in the bread oven... you would have loved it!"
My heart momentarily stopped. Like many people, for as long as I can remember I've loved rummaging through old and forgotten stuff. When I was a child I went to the jumble sales held at our local fire station, and I can confidently say that for my entire life I've never been comfortable passing a high-street charity shop and not going in.
The first time I heard about No 19 I imagined an old house brimming with oak furniture and floral curtains like something out of a childhood adventure book. But the reality was very different. For many years most of No 19 had been used as a holiday home and was full of oddments of furniture, books, ornaments, and the things that a family neither want enough to keep, nor dislike enough to throw away. I found the bread oven - it was empty and in a bad state of repair. A chimney-breast had been built in front of it probably when the roof was replaced in 1905. This addition was now supporting a ceiling where the 'black kitchen' used to be (a black kitchen is a large open chimney that is used to take the smoke from the bread oven and fires out of the house) So in the end we decided to close it up and leave it to be rediscovered by future occupants of No 19.
Among the objects in the kitchen which was the original stable, I found a couple of white ceramic plates with Swastika logos on the underside. In the attic was a lithograph dated 1945. In it is depicted a scene in which a Russian soldier is accepting flowers from a little girl, his foot is placed on a dead German soldier. To the right is a grey scene of the British and U.S. army, to the left are fields bathed in sunlight, factories and healthy looking hardworking people - a glimpse of what was, or was not to come. Over the years I've found blocked up doors and alcoves, fragments of original stenciling on plaster, an old wooden chest in one of the sheds... but nothing amazing... no treasure, and no more hidden German china... that is until this week.
A friend of mine in London recently suggested I ask Jiřina if she had any old photos of the house, so I did. She seemed kind of reluctant at first, but then opened her modern living room cabinet and proudly took out an ancient looking falling apart photo album. This was the gem! I opened it up and there was page after page of photographs: people living, growing up in, and loving the house I loved so much. There were pictures of Jiřina's mother and father, her brother, her husband and children, and then there was No 19
Different window frames, older plasterwork, a cobbled space where my garden now stands. A timber framed cottage where my roses now grow, different roof tiles, different people, a different world, but unmistakably the house I now love. There are pictures of the family re-plastering the front wall and putting windows into the previously windowless storage room upstairs that is now my sewing room. I see people doing what I'm doing and I realize for possibly the first time that I'm not the first one: No 19 has always been loved.
If I were to die now and I had to spend eternity in a place of my choice, without a second thought, it would be the house I love, it would be No 19.
And maybe I'm not alone in that choice, and maybe I'm not alone in this house... and if that is the case, and I'm sharing my space, my life with others who loved No 19 the way I do, I can honestly say I'm in good company.