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A Place to Write by Alva Holland

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Alva Holland

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‘You need to do something with this space,’ – the wise words from my son a couple of years ago when he visited me in the basement of our house one afternoon. At the time, I was sitting at my computer, perched precariously on a typist chair at a cluttered and cheap high-school student desk. I faced a blank wall (not recommended) in a poorly-lit chasm under our living room. As my son spoke, I looked up and around me at the junkyard my basement had become. I had to agree with him. In 2013 the first flutters of a fledgling writer stirred inside me.

And so it began – the basement became my ‘Den Project’ – my quest to create a place to write (and read). Luckily, the underground space spanning the entire width and length of the house was dry, mould-free, had a decent floor and was structurally sound. Had any of these aspects been an issue, budgetary constraints would have resulted in my leaving it exactly as it was.

I have always been an avid reader. My many hundreds of books accumulated over years, were stored in boxes, on mismatched unreliable shelves, in moss-green and dark brown recyclable supermarket bags (yes – really) and piled everywhere in my house. They deserved better.

My first challenge was to get rid of all the rubbish. How cathartic it was to tackle a seemingly insurmountable task and to slowly see triumph emerging. Floor space – multiple square yards of it started to spread out before my eyes. Walls freed of decrepit shelving began to show promise. Rusty filing cabinets were emptied and carted to the local recycling centre. Broken suitcases were binned. One day someone will explain to me why we keep broken suitcases.
Old dressers were cleared of many eclectic delights such as busted table-tennis accessories (from the days when the basement housed a TT table), instruction booklets for long since discarded appliances and electronics, useless plumbing and electrical parts, cables, etc. And the paperwork – oh my, the paperwork – mounds of obsolete household administration crammed into drawers. Further proof of the ‘just in case’ hoarder I had become.
The old dressers and the buried tables and chairs were discoloured but they were sound and had potential – nothing a good scrub and considerable elbow grease wouldn’t solve. Half-way through the clear-out, the floor yielded the biggest surprise. For years, I had been descending the stairs with blinkers on. Buried under a choke-hold of cardboard boxes, old rugs, broken appliances and general rubbish, the charming ceramic floor was begging for attention.

I was getting somewhere. It was exciting. I could visualise the concept. I considered halting the project just so I could enjoy the feeling of space. But I needed light. It had to be artificial – the only window at this level was a tiny specimen tucked high into one corner, leading out to a concrete ‘water drain’ in the garden above. With the knowledge that investigation into natural light would lead to costs considerably higher than my fragile budget would allow, I ignored the window and set about creating artificial light.

Enter the most obliging ‘jack-of-all-trades’ friend of a friend. Four sets of track lights were installed in the ceiling. To avoid costly electrical disturbance, we ran surface cables. These were cleverly camouflaged into the paintwork and stucco by a few litres of white paint.

This magical emulsion also concealed the bathroom and kitchen water pipes and electrical conduits, which of course traversed the ceiling of my new space. After all, it was still a working basement, with utility services running through it.

I painted the walls the palest shade of rose pink – a whiter shade of pale. An ingenious handyman from Poland came up with the idea of a modular bookcase. I bought two – sourced locally. They were cleverly put together by the said handyman to seamlessly cover one entire wall. He didn’t charge me enough. I know value when I see it. My budget remained intact.

The basics were in place. The finishes involved a little creativity with interior design. Using existing tables and chairs, scrubbed to shiny and exhibiting new and removable bright aqua seat cushions, I created a dining/card-playing /get together-for-tea area. A large and much maligned desk which had been shoved into one corner years earlier emerged rejuvenated as my writing desk, my workspace. I tucked a small wooden filing cabinet underneath.

A variety of multi-coloured floor rugs softened any echo from the hard surfaces. Two plain cream deckchairs sporting colourful table runners (creative!) provided extra seating around a well-worn but much-loved ottoman.
An old paint-spattered sofa, neatly masked by a plush cream throw, created a boundary for my reading section against a backdrop of the stairs. Travel books and a collection of Irish-themed hardbacks filled the centre coffee table here, flanked on the other side by my favourite item in the room – my reading chair with its overhead light is my snug and comfy haven.

As I read, a palm tree cushion nestles into my back and a University Graduate teddy bear looks over my shoulder. To the left of my chair, my books are majestically displayed in their new modular home.

There are dancers on my walls. A miniature tandem bicycle sits next to my desk. There are turtles everywhere. I collect turtles and tortoises. A lime green sea-turtle flops over my pc as I write.

Photos of family and friends and gifts from abroad adorn all nooks and crannies. My name (lest I should forget it) is etched in a fun-inspired childish wooden plaque behind me. My initials, sewn in colourful free-standing fabric letters pop up here and there just to remind me that this is … my den!

I did something with the space. Now, about that novel …

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