Friday, 28 May 2010

Playing house

The playhouse is being dismembered. Loud cracks and splintering sounds are punctuated by sudden crashes, all of it reverberating down a green tunnel that is the row of gardens between two terraces. Virmas, a Lithuanian, and very possibly the best workman in London, is knocking it down.

Why? Because a neighbour living somewhere behind us, we don’t know exactly where, has objected. I bet they can hear it now, whoever they are. They might even be watching. Arguments, shouting children, booming music, we hear it all, and see quite a lot of it too. Our very own south London Rear Windows. Disgusted, I go back in the house to chop onions.

That playhouse was made from guilt - and my grandmother’s money. Guilt that, at our old house, three little boys had only a tiny, concrete garden to play in for years. The previous owner, fancying himself a bit of a bricklayer, had erected walls and platforms, none of them straight or level and all made of different materials, which dotted the area like toddler trip wire. Its only redeeming feature was a beautiful apple tree that Middle One in particular loved to climb.

On hot days that garden seemed to shrink, even after we eventually removed the concrete. It was so small the boys bounced off the fences while their footballs invariably bounced over them and adults, despite sitting as far away as possible, always got soaked from the paddling pool.

So what did we do? We moved to another house, where we live now, with another tiny garden. It faces northeast with no redeeming features whatsoever, not even a tree. Brilliant!

So when my grandmother left us a little money I hatched a cunning plan, (as Blackadder would say) finding out who owned disused land behind, (housing association) and enquiring if we might buy, or lease, it. After much to-ing and fro-ing we eventually signed a contract and the lovely Virmas come to sort it all, knocking down partitioning, erecting new fencing and laying turf.

Voila! We doubled the size of our garden and gained a tree for Middle One to climb. But still, it was dull. A tree house would have been ideal, but complicated. So Virmas made a playhouse (essentially a shed on stilts) with a hole in the roof to climb out and railings so they wouldn’t fall off. We presented it to Youngest for his birthday last year.

For three weeks the idyll lasted, then a letter. Someone had complained; the Council wanted a look. Let them! Surely they can’t make us pull down a shed in our own garden? Ahh, the innocence…

It was a lovely South African lady at first. She smiled; she said she couldn’t imagine the Council taking it further, what with the expense and the inconvenience. So when new messages began again in January, from someone else, I was sure it was a mistake.

Nope. More visits and letters, phone calls and the threat of an injunction. We needed planning permission. For a shed! The charmless new official wrote there was evidence of “demonstrable harm,” involving “noise and privacy issues” for our neighbours (the ones who keep us up having parties and barbecues in the summer, no doubt). In other words, our noisy children could look over the fence.

Husband wanted to fight it. I wanted to let it go. Then I wanted to fight it and he wanted to just let it go. When we found out planning permission costs £150, entails endless forms and would probably be denied, in a rare moment of accord we rang Virmas. Let’s spend the money on something else!

Best thing we ever did. John Lewis just delivered. “This is much better than a playhouse!” say the boys and right now they’re screaming and shouting at the top of their voices as they jump up and down.

Of course, bouncing on the new trampoline gives a clear view of all the gardens around and one neighbour's garden in particular.

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