He Shed She Shed
I like a shed. There, the secret is out. Until recent times the shed was always seen as male territory, a bunker for retreat. Now there’s the idea that women like sheds too. Really Sherlock? You think?
In the past the shed was always the getaway for harassed menfolk beleaguered by requests from wives to put out bins or replace a slate on the roof. Where could a man loll and do his crossword? Not in the living room where he was likely to be asked to lift his feet so that his good lady could vacuum up the crumbs from the biscuits she had baked for him. Not in the kitchen, no, heaven forfend, no male brogue should tread those hallowed linoed floors, not because the place is sacred but in case they were asked to do something. Clear a table. Wipe a worksurface. Sniff the milk.
So, they hid in the shed with their collection of airfix models (fill in speciality vehicle here) amongst the spiders and the plant pots and the hoes. Ah, peace perfect peace from the hurly burly of the domestic female life. Did she have to mow the lawn right NOW?
I think most women find that their domestic life is hurly burly and resembles that lived by Mrs Doyle in Father Ted. In one of my favourite episodes she has to lay off retiling the roof until the wind dies down and ‘there’s less chance of me being killed…’ a line spoken with full pinny, heavy duty gauntlets and a builders hod slung over her shoulders. Women get on with stuff a lot of the time. We have since primeval times when we foraged and gathered and had to have the nous to say ‘those berries are almost ripe, I must remember where they are for next week and I will invent the pie.’ This whilst simultaneously juggling babies and other needy relatives.
We invented the pie. Then we headed down to the shed to eat it in peace. I love a shed as I have said. Ours is a big tumbledown construction held up by ivy and slugs. I like the smell of a shed, the old wood and woodlice combo that ought to be made into a tincture and sold in old brown medicine bottles along with the scent of tomatoes in a hot greenhouse.
That last, that whiff of green and growing, is a Proustian trigger for me, recalling summers of my dad’s tomato crop, rolling around the house in drawer and on sill. It is more evocative by far than any Dior fragrance. That scent means something.
My dad has a shed. It is the same shed he had when we were kids and its been shored up and repaired over the years. Only the other day he was up a ladder in a high wind (he’s 80) screwing down the rather recalcitrant new corrugated plastic roof. It’s a bijou shed, barely big enough to sit in but I sat in it as a girl and I loved the light and the smell of the place. This shed has always been a disorganised space. We are not an obsessive compulsive kind of family, unless obsessive compulsive untidiness is part of that OCD spectrum. It’s a lucky dip in there, the tool box like a pirate chest randomly stuffed with nails and bradawls. The hose pipe was used to illustrate the Ashley Book of Gordian Knots.
My grandad McKiernan, my maternal grandfather, had a workshop. They lived in a council house in Little Hulton and part of the 50s ethos was to clear the slums of Salford and build new social housing where the houses had every convenience, including a brick workshop. It was whitewashed inside and orderly. He was an electrical engineer and liked to mend clocks and watches and spent all his spare time wearing blue coveralls. He didn’t potter, he tinkered or adjusted. He soldered. The workshop was a lovely place, it smelt of cold in a clean, fresh way and as I say it was busy and orderly. The workbench was loaded with wires and parts so that at any moment it looked like he might be defusing a bomb rather than making a light box for our Nativity scene.
The seeds of Shed were sown. You might, so far, think that this is conforming to shed type, these were He Sheds filled with man stuff. The spell is not yet done.
Elsie, a friend of my mum who lived down the road, had a wash house.
Yes. You didn’t read that wrong. Wash House. Her house had been built in the 20s and she had lived there all her life with her parents. When we knew her she was middle-aged and a spinster, something that is also a throwback to different times. In her garden was a black and white, windowed wooden hut that was called ‘the wash house’. There were old but good curtains at the small cobwebbed windows, historic 20s textiles even back then. The concreted floor held a mangle and other vintage washing implements which looked as if they might do far more damage than any screwdriver or shovel. It also smelt of cold in that clean fresh way of my granddad’s workshop.
In the summer, whenever we popped over, my mum would have a cuppa in the living room with Elsie and chat over some knitting as myself and my sister whiled away the time playing in the wash house. That odd wooden space meant more to me than any tarmac floored playground. This was an imagination space, nothing to do with the rough and tumble and grazed knees of the Rec. It was a mind space and it still is, existing as it does in my cobwebbed memory, mangle and all.
Our actual shed was, until recently, filled with, well, stuff. Amongst the inventory was a mouse chewed paddling pool of Olympic proportions, three lawnmowers, a pelloton’s worth of bicycles and some of Britain’s Biggest Arachnids who vied with a dead jackdaw and a family of rats for floorspace. In light of this, several years ago I decided that it might be quite lovely to have, ahem, a summerhouse. After some careful research I ordered one from the internet and it duly arrived and was put up by two gentleman in exchange for several mugs of tea. I myself had made the brick base for it to rest upon.
“I like your new shed.” said my then neighbour, a man with a selection of powertools all primed and ready to use on any given Bank Holiday. I baulked slightly. This construction does not contain any braces or bits, not a socket set or bucket in sight. There is a wicker sofa that I bought from a Gardenalia shop. But my neighbour persisted with ‘your shed’.
It is basically, fundamentally, intrinsically, a shed. However, it is a butterfly shed. Where others remain a cocoon of wood and felted roof, this Summerhouse Shed has a ship lap roof and a lot of long thin windows that look out and indeed fold out onto the garden. It smells of a Scandinavian forest, because, I suppose, a vast tract of one was shaved bare in order to supply the wood. It is warm in the sun and has its own light, burnished gold by the wooden interior. It looks like a little house and it is one of the best things my writing has ever bought for us. My husband who was initially sceptical, loves the place and many are the summer afternoons we while away reading a book and pouring another cup of tea inside it. Even in Autumn or Winter it is a little haven, a getaway from the house, from the untidiness of my kitchen and the clamour of my grown up kids and their lives. The glazed doors give you a particular creaky welcome as you tug them open, balancing your tea mug and your book.
I have written several books in this space, sometimes hunkered into my favourite old coat and a blanket, ice forming over my tea. It is headspace, L-space, sanctuary. You can’t hear the road any longer. The sound is altered within the wooden walls, you step into the forest past of this small square footage. Restorative.
I settle myself in the Adirondack style chair, the slatted seat covered with a sheepskin. The wicker sofa is the preserve of the spiders and who am I to argue?