Sunday, 24 June 2007

Mrs Chung's

I am living in Mrs Chung’s house. In every room the house sighs, it is overcome with an old-fashioned malady; the house is pining for its true mistress. Despite my continual efforts at deChungification, her ghost is everywhere, I can sense her. Mrs Chung’s essence is embedded in the décor: it is in the pink frosted glass light fixtures, in the textured wall paper, and the carpet that goes with the chairs that go with the curtains. I can see Mrs Chung out of the corner of my eye; she is dusting, plumping cushions, and feeling quite pleased.


It would have been the height of the 1980s, when Mrs Chung consulted an interior designer and commited herself to Country Pastel. She would have looked in magazines, she would have thought about it for years, she took mental notes every time she entered another woman’s home, and when she finally had her house all done up, top to bottom, it was just the way she wanted.

The lounge and dining room were made boldly ‘open-plan’ by cutting an arch into the intervening wall. The paint around the arch was ‘texturised’ by lathering thick white paint and while it was still wet the decorator’s fingers were squiggled up one side, then over, and down the other, creating undulating waves. The ceiling also has decadent levels of paint where the decorator dipped a rag, pressed it to the ceiling and revolved his wrist carefully to create the repeated effect of circular paint splodges. Mrs Chung approved.

Not to be out done, one side of the room has different textured wallpaper to the other. On the right there is a cross-hatched pattern in pink white and grey. The opposite wall echoes the same colours but in a pattern of orchids. Both sides use a raised stroke effect that feels like foam to the touch. I remember on daytime TV how puffy paint was a popular method of hand-decorating jeans for creative but bored housewives and gay teenage sons destined for the fashion industry. Ah, remember the 80s?

Every room is pastel pink except the bathroom which had an olive green three-piece suite; it was the one room that did not get the Mrs Chung treatment. Perhaps she ran out of money, perhaps it was next, but somehow it never got done. It must have irked her every time she sat down for a pee that her house was not complete. It was all that remained from the people before Mrs Chung, who favoured an orange, olive-green and brown décor that would have been right on in the 70s. Mrs Chung would have thought it horribly drab.


It is a common thing, particularly for women, to lament the previous owner’s taste in décor and enjoy stamping their own individuality on their ‘nest’. My boyfriend did not go through this rite of passage, as he was too busy with other things to bother. He was however very house-proud, this being his first home; so he was a full grown man pottering around in a pastel pink house not realising he had become Mrs Chung himself as he arranged fresh flowers for the table and adjusted the alignment of her ornaments as he passed.

I have lived with Mrs Chung for a year. I have cooked in her kitchen, opened her curtains and looked out on her roses. I don’t know what she looked like; although my boyfriend met her several times, she has no face for me. I know her only by her taste. My home, my most private space, has her living in it. In fact it is me who is living in her house, in her slowly fading monument, some 20 years after she achieved it all.

I have been told Mrs Chung was married, but Mr Chung doesn’t seem to have asserted his manly influence inside the house at all. Perhaps Mr Chung spent his time in the potting shed that used to be in the garden. My boyfriend doesn’t do anything practical, from knowing what is going on under the hood of the car, to cooking vegetables, to growing them; domestic DIY activity is mysterious to him. He got rid of the potting shed and the vegetable patch, so that where there was once a purpose to the path dissecting the rectangle of lawn in the backyard, it is now a path to nowhere. Mr Chung has similarly vanished.

Chung is an exotic family name and it is also very familiar to me as I have come to England after living some years in Hong Kong. But Mrs Chung, I am told, was white and judging by her taste, stolidly middle class. Even though Mr Chung was reputedly from the Caribbean there was nothing exotic in the house at all to reflect his origins. Mr Chung is invisible, but Mrs Chung is everywhere. My boyfriend said before he got rid of it that there use to be a little sign that declared, ‘The opinions of the husband of the house are not necessarily those of the management.’


‘Oops!’ I dropped another of Mrs Chung’s ornaments in a subversive phase of deChungification. The Chungs downsized from this small house, to an even smaller unit at a retirement village, so they had to leave many of her things behind. My boyfriend swears he took boxes full of her objects to a charity shop when he moved in. However, four or five glass bowls, some funereal vases, two miniature lamps with floral designs, and a ceramic bell – these ones for some reason he kept. ‘You should have seen the ones I took away!’ he giggled.

I confess when I first visited some 6 years ago I harboured some suspicions about my boyfriend’s sexuality. A friend who stayed here described his house as looking like a B&B. If I had not known his apartment in Japan which was all grey and utilitarian, I would have nothing to calm my girlfriend concerns. But now I know it was because he was infused with Mrs Chung, she has refused to let go.

I have made some progress of late; gone are the frilly pelmets over the downstairs curtains; a few more ornaments have bitten the dust; the floral curtains upstairs are three pairs down, one to go. It is an on-going campaign of attrition; the pink doily light shade in the bedroom was an early casualty, while I only got around to removing the gold framed botanical print of a rose the other day. The trouble is everything matches so well, that if you attack one thing, then the next one is forced into relief.

There is no alternative; there has to be complete revolution. Deep inside I know that if ever I do get to the end of it – the wall paper steamed off, carpets replaced, light fixtures changed, ceilings sanded back and repainted, everything made modern – then naturally it will be time to move on.

When it is finally finished the next woman in here will have to contend with the ghosts of my decisions. But somehow I think Mrs Chung’s spirit is the stronger, she is proving a stubborn mistress. Really, I should cut my losses to save my energy for the next place as I will never dislodge her from here. I am living in Mrs Chung’s house.


Friday, 1 June 2007

‘Feels Like Summer'

It was the hottest April in 300 years and the locals didn’t know whether to be gleeful or worried, and so they settled on a compromise of guilty enjoyment. (Unless of course they went off to Spain for Easter in which case they felt cheated and wanted their money back.)

Weather to the British is something more than a combination of barometric pressures; it is a collective measurement of mood, where the seasons are depression, hope, happiness and anxiety. Back in April we entered the season of hope, traditionally associated with ambitious gardening and travel plans, and with picnics.

The weather had been for weeks unseasonably and relentlessly warm forcing a perceptible cultural shift – the locals began to anticipate good weather, to rely on it, and even to invest in outdoor furniture (one month and several hundred millimetres of rain later expectations of the weather are back to normal). It was under similar circumstances last summer that my boyfriend decided to teach his Aussie girlfriend the art of the picnic.

However, he was bluffing, he had never ever picnicked before, despite having passed through childhood. (He insists he was out working from age 4, and for this he believes he should be admired and pitied in equal measure.) With characteristic verve he had acquired the appropriate picnic equipage some years previously, in the form of a fully stocked wicker picnic suitcase complete with straps designed to attach to one’s open-top automobile (presumably).

He was longing to have his moment; he had added a tartan blanket and even stuck in a Frisbee (he was also deprived of Frisbee play in his David Copperfield childhood). And yet despite there being several warm days in those intervening years he had not yet managed his fabled picnic.


As in all Jane Austen novels at last the great day had arrived – he had tickets for Opera in the Park to be held on the grounds of a vast country house not far from the city (yes, tickets!). With glee he skipped off to Marks and Spencer’s and bought a pre-packaged salad, some cheese and biscuits, and four bottles of wine. After a few rounds of cultural confusion we worked out that an Esky was the same as a ‘cool box’ and he was delighted to find another strange object in his cupboards actually had a use.

It was only when we joined the long, long line to get in to the park that we realised this was no casual picnic affair. Officials on either side of us herded streams of people into VIP and plebeian queues, and no guesses which one we were in.

After half an hour the British reserve broke and people started talking to each other. Conversation started with a comment on the weather, as in ‘I don’t like the look of them clouds over there’, and progressed through complaint, ‘the queuing was just as bad last year, you’d think they’d’ve got it right this time round’, to end up with comments of admiration and envy, ‘Gosh, you’ve got a lot of equipment, no wonder you need a trolley!’

The boyfriend noticed how other people there had elevated the picnic to a fine art. The man with the trolley had four folding chairs, a table, lanterns, a stereo, and about half the kitchen. He was accompanied by two women who had enormous backpacks usually seen humped around Sumatra by 20-year olds except that theirs were bulging with farmer’s produce, ‘Organic,’ they told me.

By this stage the boyfriend had decided it was better to put the attractive but heavy wicker picnic basket down between queue movements, and, glancing back along the queue stretching over hill and dale he was starting to get the idea there would not be enough room to toss someone the cheese knife, let alone a Frisbee.


After a full hour and a half we entered the park grounds to be met with a sea of garden furniture. The locals seemed to have turned the humble picnic into an ironic art form.

Everywhere over the crowded hill there were men dressed in black tie. They were accompanied by women in ball gowns, who had plastic tiaras on their heads. Each party was seated formally at table, faces flushed red from wine drunk out of real glasses. On the table was serious dining crockery and cutlery, one table even had a butler (in shorts) and a lantern done up like a chandelier. The effort! The one-upmanship! The organisation! The Victorians who sent the servants on ahead to set up their picnics would have been proud.

The numbers alone would have overwhelmed their forebears; the scrap of lawn where we spread our humble tartan blanket was overlooked by tables on all sides preventing any view of the stage which was probably over a kilometre away. The only saving grace was we could find the blanket again when we came back from the Portaloo queues because we were the only ones on ground level.

And then, after weeks of sunshine, with the locals gnashing teeth about the state of their lawns and crying ‘drought!’ and ‘hosepipe ban!’, the heavens opened up and poured scorn on the butler in shorts, on the ladies in taffeta and on our pathetic blanket. Two seconds later in concert all around us we heard popping noises, as enormous golf umbrellas sprouted everywhere, as in a David Attenborough time-lapse sequence of fungi sprouting in the rainforest.

The locals were determined to enjoy themselves. I even heard one group singing rain-song medleys with ‘Have You Ever Seen the Rain’ segueing into ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’, until the ‘Shhs!’ were too loud to ignore. I had entirely forgotten that there that somewhere far away they were playing opera.


At about 11pm a fireworks splutter from the other side of the ornamental lake was the signal that the seasoned ironic picnickers knew well – the race was on. Crockery and cutlery and butlers in shorts were put on trolleys and trundled away in great haste. We knew something was up, and bundled up our sodden blanket, put the mushy biscuits back in the Esky with the empties and made a made dash for it.

It took a full three hours to get out of the car park. The rain was bucketing down, the fluro-coated traffic wardens were splattered with mud and in foul moods. We didn’t talk much. It was after 1am before we got through the front door. The picnic basket went back in the cupboard, with the blanket, dirty cups and wet biscuits still inside.

That was a year ago. The Frisbee I am sure is fine, although it has yet to be given its maiden flight. We are too frightened to see what might have grown on the more organic elements in the basket. And all I know is that the boyfriend is cured of picnics, ironic or otherwise. Yes, now he wants to have a BBQ.