The house that Frank built
An Irishman’s Diary about the pitfalls of parenting and property ownership
‘In the meantime, I had bought a doll’s house for my daughter. And this decision, at least, must have been infected by the madness of the period. Because it was an enormous house: a neo-Georgian mansion, with three storeys and an attic, plus basement (for the servants, naturally)’.
Six or seven years ago, when the boom was still booming, I bought a ridiculously big house. The good thing, in retrospect, is that it wasn’t a real house, although I was in the market for one of those too at the time.
The house we were in then was getting very cramped for three children. Nearly all the received wisdom, still, was that we should trade up, via the biggest mortgage possible, and worry about payments later. But being a natural procrastinator, I dragged my heels. Then the crash happened, and what had been mere inertia suddenly looked like prudence.
In the meantime, I had bought a doll’s house for my daughter. And this decision, at least, must have been infected by the madness of the period. Because it was an enormous house: a neo-Georgian mansion, with three storeys and an attic, plus basement (for the servants, naturally).
Mind you, I didn’t appreciate its size then, because for months the house was still in boxes, awaiting assembly. After the enthusiasm of the purchase, there were the inevitable delays in starting construction. A few times, I took out the booklet and, appalled at the amount of work involved, put it back, postponing the job until my holidays.
Then, very belatedly, the project got under way. This is when I first became concerned at the disproportionate size of the doll’s house vis-a-vis our actual home, in which space had been scarce even before this monstrosity. Still, I cleared a site, somehow, and the doll’s house rose on it, in fits and starts.
It took me at least a year, maybe two. Out in the real world, whole housing estates were being constructed in less time. But in my defence, I had to consult the owner on every important decision: the wallpaper in the master bedroom, the kitchen tiles, the all-important choice of chandelier for the entrance hall.
And I’m glad, looking back, that my daughter and I did linger over these things, at least. I’m glad too that we shared a moment of triumph the day I finished the last part of the job – the ingenious but finicky wiring – and switched on the lights.
Because along with that fleeting triumph came a bittersweet epiphany. It was like the denouement of an O Henry short story. The doll’s house was at least finished, but my daughter was suddenly 12. Even as we discussed which room to furnish first, I realised that, any day now, she would be too old to play with it.
Sure enough, that’s what happened, and even sooner than I feared. Months passed without furniture acquisition. Then a year. Then another year. The house remained bare inside. It also remained where it was.
Well, the detachable basement was moved to her bedroom at some point, where it has since gradually disappeared under clothes, make-up, petrified pizza slices, and the other accessories of teenage girlhood. But the main part was too bulky to move anywhere. It stayed where it was, occupying a corner of the kitchen/living room, mocking me with its grandeur.
Mostly, these days, I just try to ignore it and the small nagging pain it causes me. And any time it or our general lack of elbow-room becomes oppressive, I remind myself that – property disasters aside – space is always part of the trade-off for city living.
This is painfully obvious whenever the children visit their country cousins, who tend to have bigger houses and gardens, and more apparent freedom. Against which, as I tell the kids, we have parks and museums and theatres, only minutes’ walk in every direction.
All right, museums and theatres are still a hard sell to people under 15. But there are also shops: the deal-breaker for my daughter now. And some museums are better than others, even for children.
I was also reminded this week that, about decade ago, when my two older kids were still pre-schoolers, we had the exciting prospect of Ireland’s first national children’s science museum being built just around the corner.
It would be part of a huge complex of apartments, offices, and shops. And the thought of it helped sustain us through the subsequent siege as construction machinery took over the neighbourhood.
In the event, we got the apartments, offices, some of the shops. After that, the money ran out and the science museum was shelved. Until this week, that is, when we learned that it will finally go ahead, but scaled down, and at a site elsewhere in the city.
Also, it will be not open until 2017, by which time the aforementioned pre-schoolers will be entitled to vote. The moral of the story is that children always grow up too soon. It’s only economies and construction projects that stand still.