I’ve long believed that certain locations possess an inherent character, an inescapable inner quality that both shapes and reflects the behaviour of those who pass through them. That the area directly in front of Camden Tube station in London, for example, is a mecca for drug dealers, the perilously drunk and other reeling miscreants because (or as a continuation of the fact) in days of yore it held a prison, and prior to that, a stocks. That churches were often built on established pagan sites not just to steamroller Christianity over pre-existing beliefs, but because the places in question had always simply felt like a good spot to sit quietly and muse about stuff for a while. That there are certain high street locations that have no desire to be a restaurant or bar, but yearn to be banks once again — which is why modish new eateries fail there within months, no matter how winsome their Brazilian-Irish fusion cuisine.
I’m beginning to suspect that the same obtains for the staircase and upper hallway of our house, and that it must originally have been an elevated prehistoric midden or dumping ground, a place where neolithic Londoners stored (allegedly temporarily, but in fact for ever and ever and ever) objects for which they had no use, or were at least unsure what to do with right at this moment.
It doesn’t matter how many times you clear the stuff out — or ask one’s wife to, as it’s all her stuff, or at least under her jurisdiction — within weeks a new pile has appeared. Piles, in fact: the big, spreading one in the upper hallway (a broken printer, old light fittings, small cardboard boxes full of nameless detritus); and the little satellite piles on every third step (catalogues, paperwork, scribbled-upon envelopes, pieces of ribbon and string). In so far as I understand my wife’s ‘system’, it appears the latter piles are for materials in current currency, and merely in transit from one location to another, whereas the former is for objects on their way out of our lives for good, ultimate destination currently unknown.
Any attempt to raise the middens in conversation is met with the bullishly straight-to-the-nukes discussion style for which my wife is widely celebrated (within my head, anyway). The middens are defended as a key opening gambit in the long-term project to tidy her study, something to which I can only pledge fervent support. I don’t like to go in my wife’s study. It unnerves me. It is the last uncharted wilderness. In a novel I once described a room where gravity had failed twice, in different directions. My wife’s study is worse, with that very Lovecraftian sense of a crawling chaos kept just barely in check. If Bigfoot or a major prehistoric lake monster is ever to be discovered, then just to the side of my wife’s desk is as likely a place as any. We had that Ranulph Feinnes in there a few months ago, looking for Eldorado. He didn’t find it. He went away muttering about needing more funding, but I think he was just scared.
I once asked my wife, when I was trying to track down one of our phones in her lair— and had just lost a valued sherpa (not just an experienced guide, but a damned good friend) in a retreat from the notoriously savage wastelands on the approach to the Inkjet Printer of Doom — if it wasn’t possible for the room to be a bit tidier. My ears are still ringing, and harsh things were said about her having an entire household to run and a proper job to do, while I just arsed about all day ‘making things up’. The same tends to happen when I raise the question of the staircase middens.
And so, in the end, I retreat to my study, a location where men and women have sat down the centuries, staring out of the window, not doing quite enough work — but where it has always been, nonetheless, quite tidy.