There’s an upturned lampshade in the bath. It sits there, like a spaceship which has crash landed on the surface of a smooth alien planet, all jagged points and angles. When we first bought it, years ago, it took ages to put together, popping bits of plastic out of a sheet, folding them and locking them together. My wife masterminded it, as she does all logistical efforts, and I just did as I was told and slowly it became something more beautiful than the sum of its parts under her expert direction. Now, replaced, it sits forlornly in the bathtub waiting to be cleaned up and reinstalled in another room. It will be sprinkled under the shower, scrubbed and dried and at some point carried down the hall to its new home. It’s an unenviable task – every crease, every fold is dusty, marked with a shade of grey that wasn’t there the day we hung it for the first time, flicked the switch and looked on in wonder.
If we didn’t have a guest coming to stay in May I would put money on the lampshade still being in the bath come summer.
All around the flat are other things we mean to get round to. If you came to visit, perhaps to point and gawp at my upturned lampshade, you wouldn’t be able to do it in guaranteed privacy because the lock on the bathroom door hasn’t worked for years. At one stage the knob fell out, dropping with a thud on to the carpet in the hallway, leaving my friend Dave stuck in the bathroom with no means of escape at half-six in the morning. We had to retrieve the knob, reinsert it and unlock the door from outside, which only happened because Dave has big lungs and wasn’t embarrassed enough to knock on the internal wall separating the bathroom from our bedroom. The other thing that ensured his liberty was that Kelly is a far lighter sleeper than I am.
After that mortifying incident, we decided it was preferable not to have a lock at all than to risk imprisoning any more guests. All the plush towels in the world, mints on the pillow and interesting magazines on the bedside table are no consolation for an overnight stay where the bathroom doubles as the Hotel California. We started to look at getting a replacement lock, but that quest was abandoned for the same reason that many are; it was just too difficult. So now when guests are over the unspoken rule is that if the door’s shut you don’t go in. It seems to work well enough, and most of the time I don’t even worry about what they must think.
I’m sure we will eventually fix the bathroom door, probably around the same time that, one day, we put the flat on the market.
Of course, we tell ourselves, if it was the lock on the en suite we would have fixed it by now, if only because the lock on the main bathroom plays an important part in the dynamics of marriage. Before I moved in with Kelly I didn’t realise the unspoken rules of bathroom etiquette for cohabiting couples: if you’re in the bathroom but not using the toilet, the door is left ajar. If you’re using the toilet for a number one, the door is shut but not locked. For anything more scatological, the door must be shut and locked. If the door is shut, even if it’s not locked, you are not to open it on any account. A broken lock on the door to the ensuite would definitely be fixed, because the consequences of not doing so are too horrific even to imagine.
Incidentally if you did see our main bathroom, you would also see the towels still on the rail from the last guests we had to stay, a couple of weeks ago. At some point, we must get round to washing them.
The list of unfinished jobs goes on and on. In the airing cupboard, the socket housing the switch for the heated electric towel rail hangs slightly off the wall, unscrewed but otherwise intact. An unsightly criss-cross of bright blue masking tape holds it crudely in place. We kept meaning to fit a timer for the winter months so we would have lovely warm towels first thing in the morning, but Kelly bought one and looked at it and again it proved too difficult so it never got done. We still maintain that at some point we will find a decent electrician and one of us will work from home one day and it will all be sorted, but there always seems to be something more important to do.
Similarly, the cold tap in the ensuite bathroom doesn’t work any more. It started out constantly dripping, and when that got too irritating we turned off the water supply to it. Kelly took the tap apart hoping to fix it, but it was clogged up with scale and impossible to repair, so another job got consigned to the growing list marked Just Too Hard. Now washing our hands is a high-octane race against time, rinsing away all the lather before the water gets so hot that it takes your skin off with it. We promise ourselves that at some point we will buy new taps, find a decent plumber, one of us will work from home one day and it will all be sorted – and maybe one day we will. Nobody who knows us would bet on it.
In the bedroom outside, the wall above the bed has three splodges of paint on it in a variety of shades of pale blues and greens. Their names are written next to them in pencil in my wife’s angular handwriting. We decided we liked the light blue at the top and bought two tins. They sit under the bed in the spare room, unopened, admonishing us in silence for our slothfulness.
When we bought this flat we were the first people to move in and it was the first place I had ever owned. As a result I was introduced to snagging, previously a concept completely alien to me. I remember going round the flat with Kelly finding all the things that weren’t quite right and making a list. The heater in the living room wasn’t big enough. The work surfaces in the kitchen weren’t finished as they should be. It would be nice to have a shelf put up in the airing cupboard so we’d have somewhere to stack the clean towels we would always have ready for guests. There were dozens more, all added to the list and handed to the developer, a wide boy called Andy with a pencil behind one ear which he conspicuously never used. Some of the jobs on the list got done, some were done so badly that we wished we hadn’t asked. Some we gave up on, because after a while you can’t keep asking.
I imagine that Andy meant to get round to them eventually, an attitude which exasperated me back then but which I completely understand now.
“That list is very important.” I said pompously at the time. “If we don’t get it all fixed while it’s fresh in our minds it will just become part of the furniture and we’ll wind up living with it.” I can almost hear myself saying it even now, and I want to heckle myself and say Yes, you’re right, but you’re missing the point. Because some things don’t get fixed, and you do end up living with them, and you realise just how insignificant they really are.
I used to think that signs of neglect were sad and that disrepair was something to be pitied. Years ago, I would have been depressed by visiting a home like mine. I would have considered it evidence that people settle and make do, say things like “I keep meaning to get that fixed” and making excuses. But now I realise that things don’t always make sense in isolation and perhaps part of being an adult is understanding that. Some things get worn or worn out because they are loved, and that is what gives them their beauty. With some, it’s more that they never get sorted out because other things are more loved, and in a strange way that is their beauty too. So even if the black filing cabinet in the corner of the living room can’t be opened for fear that its contents – the paraphernalia of procrastination, precariously balanced bank statements and envelopes and boxes and instruction manuals, things we have no use for and have hidden away – will fall out and engulf me in a tidal wave of paper, I’m not so sure that’s a problem after all.
I used to want everything to be perfect. I wouldn’t buy a book with a creased spine or a dented cover, and if I lent something to a friend I would rather not have seen it again than have got it back in anything less than pristine condition. I still feel like that about many things, but when I look at my flat I wonder whether I might have grown up, even if only a little. Now, when I look at the piles of paperwork on the dining table (a table which would be more accurately described as “the paperwork table”), or think about the socket hanging off the wall in the airing cupboard I can see them for what they are – physical proof that we have better things to do. Every time we’ve gone out for dinner because we can’t be bothered to cook, every time we’ve walked to the pub to play a companionable game of cards with a pint, or spent the evening chatting or surfing in silence on our respective ends of the sofa, those are the real evidence of what we’ve built together, even if it’s a little less obvious to visitors.
Besides, sometimes I visit houses that are nothing like mine and I realise that a life without obvious defects is not necessarily a life without defects. When I first met her Kelly had plenty of married friends with this kind of house. They are immaculate, to the extent where everything looks new long after it has stopped being new. There’s enough storage for everything, so everything is tidied away. It’s all so calculated; anything which is visible is visible on purpose. These are houses with space to display objects (how I would love spaces to display objects, or objects to display for that matter). If a book is out on the table, it’s because it’s the sort of book which is meant to be on a table, and the angle it is placed at has been deliberately chosen too. You never know where to put anything, you wouldn’t dare make yourself a cup of tea and the occupants rarely look happy. And I don’t know if it’s physical or psychological, but every time I’ve been to a house like that I spent most of the time there wishing they would turn the heating up. Maybe they just haven’t fixed their electric towel rails yet, but somehow I doubt it.
I used to want everything to be perfect and now I know that almost nothing is. More to the point, I think I am beginning to know that perfection is overrated. Anyway, if you find one thing that’s pretty close to perfect – and it only has to be one thing - it’s remarkable how sometimes you stop being so bothered by the rest. So come over if you like, stand in my bathroom with no lock and look at my remarkable upside-down lampshade in the bath, you’ll be more than welcome. I just can’t promise I’ll tidy up first.