There is a little something you should know about me. Don’t worry, it’s not that I once bought a Dolly Parton CD or that I am the only European person who loves that old wacky corny American TV show HeeHaw, it is that I have a compelling draw towards derelict buildings.
Derelict buildings fascinate me. They are like the dead, they know so much of the time of their hey-day yet are the least able to impart their secrets – to a point.
I think it stemmed from when I was kid in my hometown of Omagh, Tyrone when I once came across an old house while out cycling a good few miles further than I was allowed. Most of the windows had lost their glass while some had broken glass clinging to the wooden sidings more out of habit than strength. I remember an old forlorn curtain blowing slowly in the breeze, hanging outside the upstairs bedroom. It reminded me of a flag of a long vanquished nation fluttering over the violent quietness of a battlefield in mourning. I didn’t understand how a house ended up like this as the house itself wasn’t an old gothic mansion but just an ordinary two level house, built in the 1950’s or thereabouts.
I looke in through the living room window and saw an old sofa lying on its side. The floor was covered with a dark carpet, long rotted and discoloured by months or even years of spilt beer and wantonly scattered cigarette ash and stubs. I remember the yellow wallpaper too.
This was a room where once a family lived in. I tried to imagine how the room was once, when the carpet was clean and bright, a TV in the corner and the room itself filled with furniture and the sounds of voices. I then began to wonder what had happened on that final day of the house being inhabited. Who had lived there and why did they leave?
Why did they just leave so suddenly?
Why didn’t they get someone to move in?
Looking into the living room was like looking into a robbed grave. The beercans and stubbs were a million papercuts of sacrilage. The body once moved, once laughed, once felt the warmth of love. Now it was just reduced to barewalls and the wind and the rain doing their best to reclaim this haven back to the bosoms of the green man of nature. The wallpaper was like the dusty black suit jacket that now covered the grey bones of the corpse.
I felt strangely excited by this however. It was taboo, well it is taboo to break and enter and stare into someone’s house but this was not a house; it was a time capsule, a edificial tomb. I wondered what secrets were left behind. Old letters, drawers, news papers? I went around the back of the house to where the kitchen was. Through its windows I saw the food cupboards, divorced from their doors which were long torn down and scattered on the floor. The floor was reduced to its concrete base for its lino had long been stripped, eaten and torn.
I would have gone inside if I hadn’t heard someone shouting ‘Who’s there’ from nearby. I ran to my bike and scarpered like the clappers.
I went back to that house the following week but I think someone got wise to it and it was properly boarded up. I was disappointed of course but I was glad. It gave the old house some of its dignity back. The wooden slats on the windows were like the coins they used to put over the eyes of the newly dead.
Macabre but fitting.
Ever since then, dereliction has held an extreme fascination for me, be it houses or old office blocks. I always stop and peer in whenever I can just to see what it was like on that unmarked day in the not to distant past when, for someone, the clocks had stopped and all remained frozen in that dark split second when a home became a mere house. I began to imagine stories behind the houses and the people who lived there and what had happened to make them flee so suddenly.
I still catch glimpses into those past lives, those past worlds.
Who was the last to eat at that table?
What was the last meal?
What was the last radio or TV show to echo through the rooms?
Did they know that the last day in the house was the last day at all?