Updated: Aug 23, 2019
When Mario and I first arrived here it was July. Summer was in full swing and friends and family filled the house, and as was every year prior to this particular summer, it was lovely. Then one by one people went home, the house became quiet and still, the days shortened and Winter drew in.
Spending a long period of time in No 19 had always been a dream for me, but suddenly the reality sunk in and I wasn't sure what my future held, and I wasn't sure this dream was going to end well. If I'm honest, I probably wasn't in the best mental state and in addition found myself alone day after day in an increasingly cold house with almost no money, very little food and Mario: a grumpy beige cat who, now more than ever, was becoming my reason to continue.
The Oxford English dictionary defines madness as 'The state of having a serious mental illness' which doesn't really clarify anything after some of your closest friends Skype you and suggest that maybe you're 'going mad'. During that first Winter I must admit I felt mad, and even if I hoped it wasn't going to last for ever, the not knowing was the most difficult part. The loneliness and endless silence plays with you and opens doors to strange rooms in your mind. I had continuous images of 'The Shining' and 'Grey Gardens' flashing into my dreams and although part of me found it kind of funny, the other part of me was a little concerned.
I felt like the house was watching me. I hadn't quite been accepted and I was being kept at a distance. I was also asking myself why I was there and if I really wanted to be there at all. The Winter was long and very cold and if I'm honest, I just wanted to make it to Spring.
Over the following months I started to throw myself into working on No 19. Parts of the house had become a mess during the few years we'd had it. There were half finished projects, new and old furniture, tools, and plumbing materials everywhere. Then there was the decay. Frosty looking white mold grew on layers of plaster dust that covered old quilts, sheets, carpets tinned food... everything. It seemed to get worse by the day and when one area was almost clean, another wall would lose a chunk of plaster and everything would start again.
I found myself short of breath and there was the feeling of claustrophobia which is kind of strange as the house is anything but small. But over the years the large farmhouse had been carved up into smaller manageable sections for the different members of Jirina's family, and although this had worked well in the past, it wasn't working any more.
One morning I took a hammer and started knocking down these 'new' walls which were blocking up doorways, arches, and entire rooms. It was like the house was suddenly starting to breath again, and I started to breathe too.
Years before, I had spent a week's holiday with some friends at a Victorian mansion in Cornwall, England and had got chatting to the caretaker. He told me some of the history of the house and said everything had always been in tip top condition until they demolished the porch and used the shafts leading to the cellar to dump the rubble. Within a matter of weeks mold started to appear in rooms all over the house and after consulting experts in the field, they unblocked the cellar shafts and the problem was resolved. He finished by saying:
"they knew what they were doing when they built these old houses"
This stayed with me and suddenly felt like something I should pay attention to. Although the hall had now become an unbelievable mess, after opening up the space into more or less it's original form, No 19 was starting to resemble a dryer, fresher house... an entire house with doorways that led to rooms and a logical flow through areas that had previously been blocked off, and I could now see how this space was going to be a home.
I can't stress enough that the budget I had was basically zero! And this also applied to the mess that was to become the hallway. My father had bought a job lot of surplus stone floor tiles of different thicknesses, and off-cuts of marble and granite kitchen surfaces from some guy he knew in England. It all now sat on the concrete hall floor along with bags of tile cement and an angle-grinder... it looked impossible but it was going to be lovely!
My father, his girlfriend and I decided on a design that seemed to look good in a space that had almost no right angles and used the materials to hand in a way that meant we had enough to finish the entire area. We started the job, my father showed me how to use the tools, and then left me to slowly continued alone until the area was finished which I must admit took me a couple of weeks.
I'm sure an expert would look at this floor and see all its faults..I see all the faults! But when I walk through the house now and think about how we created something ourselves out of kitchen surface and bathroom off-cuts, I'm so happy we did it this way. We created something we wanted out of materials that someone else had no use for.
I patched up the walls and cleaned up the areas without plaster, whitewashing it all to bring it together. I made simple doors and door-frames out of planks of wood and painted them grey with my favorite inexpensive paint from the next town.
This central point of the house suddenly started to come to life. There was light and air and the overall mood felt better... I felt better. A relationship had started... I was bringing no 19 back to life! But this was a kind of exchange and what I hadn't quite realized was that no 19 was also bringing me back to life.