When you rent a house, you’re seldom offered a clean slate. Entire lives were lived here before you moved in. In a rental house, people shared secrets, spilt wine, made love, argued, and raised kids. Here they cherished dreams, felt lonely, celebrated victories and grieved loved ones. Then their memories were carefully bubble wrapped and packed into boxes. To them, the house was only a temporary home. As this cycle repeats itself over time, the house silently bears witness to all the beautiful and messy lives lived under its roof.
It’s tricky to claim a rental house as your home. There are reminders of the previous inhabitants hinting at the lives lived here. You can camouflage all the obvious signs: add a layer of paint over the unsightly wallpaper, fill the random holes in the walls, deep clean the appliances, throw out the miss-matched fridge magnets, stash the accumulation of tacky sunset pictures in a cupboard, and vacuum up the hair and dust gathered in neglected corners. Despite your best efforts, there will always be some things you can’t erase. Things you learn to ignore and after a while even the suspicious stain against the wall becomes invisible.
But a rental house is a house with a history, and it won’t let you forget it. The stories embedded in its structure will surface as you go about your life. Splashes of purple paint on the carpet and windowsill remind you that your home office was once a little girl’s room. A DIY job, perhaps by a mom who painted the room in a bright colour to make up for the fact that her daughter got the smallest bedroom in the house. The advanced, but inactive, security system throughout the house tells a story of fear and anxiety. Microphones, panic buttons, cameras and alarms litter the walls. Maybe it was installed by a banker who lived on his own? Gnawed by constant paranoia, he waited for tragedy to strike. A foreign coin lodged into the wall skirting: a lost memento from a trip to an exotic country. An unused paintbrush in the drawer… Blackened oven mittens, discarded and forgotten in the back of a cupboard… A chip in the washbasin… A drop of red nail varnish on the couch… Ghosts of memories. You can only wonder at their significance.
Some reminders have a bigger impact. Like the long-neglected blocked drain in the back yard that acts up after heavy rain. The cheap shower head you don’t bother to replace because it’s not your house. The thin layer of paint that barely disguises the ‘poetry’ someone wrote on the bedroom wall during an evening of ‘inspiration’. The broken oven hob you’ve learnt to live with. Or the weather-worn cat left behind by the previous renters, who lurks in the yard.
Then there’s the smell. You notice it the moment you walk into a house that’s been someone else’s home. At first, you might not be able to put your finger on exactly what feels so unsettling. Because initially, that’s what it is, a feeling more than a sensation. The sense you’re trespassing on someone else’s domain. Then you realise it’s the smell. Not a bad smell, nothing dirty or unwholesome, it just doesn’t smell like your home. It’s a mixture of the food the previous inhabitants cooked, their deodorant and soap, their pets, their plants, and the recently used cleaning products and fresh paint. The smell unsettles you. A nagging reminder that this is not your home, not yet. Over time it gradually fades, and you smell nothing because by then it’s your home with your food and pets and cleaning products.
Renting is normally not long-term. Nicer houses, better opportunities, and new adventures will always call people away from their temporary homes. Packing a box with mismatched belongings becomes second nature. Even when the house is empty, scrubbed and cleansed, traces of the many lives lived under its roof remain. Rental houses are museums. Collections of fragmented memories. A testament to the fleetingness of these moments.