The landlord decided to sell up. There was the immediate but short-lived fear that they’d all have to move out, until they realised that they could buy their three floors. The house was never divided up, the middle floor, with it’s pink walls and upright piano, remained a shared space. Jack and Stella hammered away at the keys – a limited repertoire, mostly ‘Chopsticks’ and the piano was never in tune but it provided a focus for the two families to spend time together. In 2010, after 25 years, Jan and Lief decided to move. The piano would have to go. They left a crowbar and a hammer. Dismantling it revealed the wood without its thick layer of lacquer, the insides were still marked with penciled measurements. Jack extracted the teeth, filling a thin plastic bag with the keys. The wooden panels now sit in his new home. He’s making them into a chest for the hallway of his shared flat.
Helen taught herself English. She and Harry had settled in Chicago. Their family history was one bruised by persecution and so they fled their Russian homeland. They had 6 children, 2 sons and 4 daughters. Harry did well in the construction industry and his children wanted for nothing. In the 1920s his daughters Micky and Francis travelled to China, on a particularly glorified ‘shopping trip’. This is where Francis bought the vase. She eyed the antique dealer, carefully hid the base and nonchalantly handed the vase over to him. She’d identified the seal on the base as one issued by the imperial court, it bore a star – marking it out as an object of exceptional value. As a child Bethany had always admired the vase in her grandparent’s house. After Harry died and Helen moved to Arizona the vase went with her. Bethany’s uncle had also admired the vase, ‘Jefferey’ was written on its base marking it out as his to inherit. But when Bethany announced to her grandmother that she was engaged, Helen insisted that she must have the vase.
Rachel’s childhood was much like many childhoods of the late 50s and early 60s. There was regular church attendance and a degree of order and conformity to her life that she didn’t miss when she began university. Her childhood had been privileged and largely happy but she relished the 70s and the new freedom of a less stratified society. At Norwich she met Steve and Abdhul. Abdhul left to travel across India and Steve and Rachel moved into a commune. They were joined by Rachel’s friend Eileen. Rachel wrote to Abdhul about her friend and when he returned to England Abdhul and Eileen began dating, they later married. Abdhul made this seaweed pattern pot and gave it to Rachel when Eileen left the shared barn. Rachel has now passed it on to her daughter Holly.
They met on a boat. Gertie was travelling to Italy and Chummie to Germany. She was leaving home to train as an opera singer. The purpose of Chummie’s trip was to persuade his relatives to follow him to South Africa and escape the growing threat of the Nazis. Gertie and Chummie married in Johannesburg. He continued his work as an insurance broker while fundraising for the evacuation of Jews. In 1948 he travelled to the Congo in search of donations. This is where he bought the ebony head. At the age of forty he died. Daniel never met his grandfather and Gertie never re-married. But she has always been strong. A few weeks ago, at the age of 97, she renewed her driving license and just a year ago she had hip replacement surgery so she could continue practising yoga. Her grandson married in a small family ceremony in Johannesburg, this head was her wedding gift to Daniel and his new wife, Bethany.
Norman bought the land because of the oak tree. Any fallen branches were used, sculpted into rabbits, drawer handles and magazine racks. Everything in the house was made from solid oak. Each piece, from the stairs to the grandfather clock to the small animals he carved, bore the intertwined initials N and E. He’d proposed to Liz just a month after meeting her. They met at work where she taught English and he taught technical drawing. Norman kept the best work from ‘his boys’. After his retirement, his eyebrows growing into increasingly unruly caterpillars that he perpetually stroked, he passed the ‘bits of old paper that had faded and smelt funny’ to Ben. In 2010 Norman died and Liz gave Ben his tools. Ben is making a box for them, to keep them as ship shape and sharp as his Great Uncle kept them. And the wood Ben is using? Oak.
It’s April and the mantlepiece is littered with sheep dwarfed by their gamboling lambs, the baby Jesus lies in a manger crushed under the weight of his Fimo pretender, a flocked Bambi cowers outside while green butterflies the size of kites fly over the roof. Their home was constructed out of vegetable boxes that Kiran collected from the local market in Dalston. Over 17 years the strange menagerie has grown. When Kiran and Julie’s son Max was 3, he sculpted some piggies from Fimo. Julie picked up some mismatched kings in Naples and a camel from a local charity shop, even a Spanish nun, St Rita – bought because she shares a name with Julie’s mother. This motley crew live together in perfect harmony on a bed of pine needles from last year’s Christmas tree. Even a candle setting the manger alight couldn’t disrupt the peace. Kiran arrived home to see flames licking from the roof, he threw the burning mass into a sink. The only evidence now is the slightly charred tummy of an angel and a few blackened beams. The manger is the sweet and eccentric centrepiece of the room, pointless then to have it out just for Christmas.