My parents were never content to sit by the same fireplace for more than one winter. Perhaps it was because they were both expatriates with itchy feet. Perhaps it was just because they liked building. My childhood lives in the bones of houses lived in by families that were not our own. The houses born from lines on a page, realised as rooms with too few scratches in the hardwood floor for me to consider them home.
“This will be your room,” my mum says. We stand in a skeleton of timber and concrete. “We can paint it pink or green or duck egg blue.” By six I know not to fall for that line. They’re always beige. Easier to sell with neutral colours.
By seven, three welcome mats have borne our last name. All in a row. The neighbours call it Laundry Lane. At night me and my brothers pack our bags and take torches into the rain. We explore the half-built crawl space. We light fires and pretend we’re on the run.
I see more men in hard hats than children during the summers. Sitting on upturned mixing buckets, flecks of paint under their fingernails. They eat last night’s corned beef, sandwiched between white bread. One brings his chocolate lab, Motor. I hear him say “shit” and I blush. To me, ‘shut up’ is a bad word.
Fifteen years later I get a Facebook message from one of the men. I don’t reply.
I don’t mind being such an anomaly. I am the queen of the jobsite castle. I fashion tea sets from scraps. Cement pies on laminate plates, mugs of tubing and the odd fiberglass saucer. They leave splinters as long as eyelashes. My mum tells me to stay away from the insulation, even though it looks like candy floss and would be an excellent addition to my kitchen.
My dad often comes away with a new scar to match the new house. A nail gun bullet hole in his foot. A broken wrist from a fall off scaffolding. He’s more of a lawmaker than a dad. The sort of guy who chews on matchsticks and tells me not to ask stupid questions when I say “Won’t that catch on fire?”
We carve our names onto any surfaces that will eventually be hidden by the skin of the house. We know even then not to get attached to a place, but we can’t help but have our favourites. Mine is the cream three storey; the garden attracts hummingbirds and my room has shutters. I wake up every morning and throw them open as if I’m a Disney princess. I come home from school one day and there is a woman named Margarita in my room, she says it will be a beautiful nursery for her daughter. There isn’t even a ‘For Sale’ sign at the mailbox yet.
Mum is particular about packing. “Pack your books into small boxes,” she says, “The bigger they are, the heavier they get.” I know the drill. Label big and clear, wrap glass in clothes and newspaper.
Prepare to lose things.