When we lived in New York City and spent weekends and holidays at the Barn, guests were a way of life. At the beginning, that meant that everyone stayed in the old farmhouse across the driveway which had come with the property. It was probably a late-Victorian vintage, but not the charming vintage. More the utilitarian-structure-built-by-people-with-no-taste vintage. Its lack of curb-appeal aside, it was a perfectly serviceable house with heat, water, and electricity. And walls. All of which, in the early days, the Barn lacked. So we, and our guests, would kip in the house, sometimes three or four to a room (kids on camp cots), then rise and go our Barnish way.
The house, as I’ve said, was ugly, but it was not without its interest. In the attic we found all manner of weird, dusty, flyspecked treasures: framed academic certificates awarded to people whose names were rendered in such tortured ornate penmanship as to be unreadable; huge old school maps, one of them so old that it predated the Gadsden Purchase (1854!), unwieldy ugly dressers and chairs. Unlike the Barn, the house was not a refuge for livestock, but there were–or had been at some earlier time–mice, and their nests. Downstairs there were three or four small bedrooms (the one I slept in had cabbage rose wallpaper which I, at five, thought the height of elegance). Below that, the kitchen (with coal burning stove!), living room, and dining room, where my parents’ old paperbacks and furniture went to die. I have a strong, visceral memory of those paperbacks, with their lurid covers (even Mill on the Floss was rendered shocking! by the art and copy) and musty smell. Those books, which had names like Keep the Aspidistra Flying, were yellowed and crumbling and seemed very exotic to me, may account for my early onset book-lust.
Until we got plumbing, which involved dowsing and drilling and many exciting things, we carried water over to the Barn, where the electric stove and refrigerators were almost the first things to go in. Picture a make-way-for-ducklings line of family members, each with his or her pot or pitcher of water for cooking or washing up. O! Pioneers! And of course, unless you were really committed to roughing, you retired to the house for the private use of plumbing.
At night, the kids would be tucked in to be in the house; then the parents would retire across the driveway to the Barn for whatever revelry seemed good to them. My brother and I were used to this, but guest-kids often had a problem going to sleep in a strange house in a strange place with strange sounds outside, and would start crying. It fell to me, as the hostess and presiding child, to cross the pitch-dark lawn to the Barn and alert the parents that one of their offspring was freaking out.
The minute the Barn was at all habitable, we shifted our base of operations over there. This left a perfectly serviceable ugly farmhouse, abandoned for daily use. My brother and I used it for hide and seek; we were the only kids I knew who had a whole house to play house in. But as we got older those games palled, and the poor house was left to become colder and more empty, until my father declared it an eyesore. He’d never wanted the farmhouse. So he put an ad in the local Pennysaver: free house for anyone who would move it away. When he got no takers, he sweetened the deal: free house and a quarter acre of land to anyone who would move it away. That got someone’s attention: the house was raised up off its foundations, ready to be rolled away. Except the taker defaulted: he couldn’t afford to move the house. So now we had a house up on jacks, and it stayed there for months. Without foundations, the once sturdy house began to droop toward the middle, at which point, like a car with a sprung frame, it was declared a junker.
What to do with a dead house? In the end, Dad offered it to the local fire department, and they came over and had practice fires: light it up, put it out, light it up, put it out. What was left was ploughed into the foundation, and seeded over; within a remarkably short time there was lawn there, and you’d never have known there was a house at all. Those school certificates and the map without the Gadsden Purchase Dad gave to the local historical society, and there was no trace of the house at all. It was all a little bit like a structural version of A Star is Born–with the upstart upstaging the old veteran. I still remember the smell of those books, and that cabbage rose wallpaper, though.
Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third in the Sarah Tolerance series, just out from Plus One Press), and a double handful of short stories, available on her bookshelf. Her first Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, and The Heiress Companion, are now available from Book View Café. She has just completed The Salernitan Women, an historical set in medieval Italy.