What home decor catalogues don't tell you

"Oh, you've bought a house!" came the oohs and aahs, "So fun! You can pick out all the things you like!"

I'd read all the interior design catalogues. I knew which colour palettes I favoured. I demanded the impossible of a three-room HDB flat sans utility room - that our entire house look as spacious and breezy as the effortless, high-gloss, magazine-centrefold, Scandinavian-channelling photographs of studio apartments transformed.

We would host charming house parties, have a good supply of wine, adorn our walls with quirky art by local artists and generally be the hip nesting couple.

Or so I thought.

After wrestling with all the bureaucracy it took to obtain the flat, and then even more bureaucracy to fund something that cost three times what it did my parents' generation, my husband and I found ourselves with a space not much larger than the office toilet.

The previous owners had lived there for 30 years. They also seemed to have kept everything they had acquired over those 30 years and decided that they would not open any of the windows - ever. The house smelled distinctly mouldy. The walls were a Panadol-pink. I had a slight panic attack after signing over my life's savings, forgetting that it was quiet, in an excellent location, and wonderfully windy the moment we did, in fact, open all the windows.

Working on a house, I've found, is like living out a metaphor of marriage.

That checklist of expectations and things you refuse to compromise on? Chuck that out the window.

You will not get that exact shade of wooden laminate. It exists - but only in your mind.

You will not have enough space for a sofa, a dining table, a refrigerator, a rowing machine, a bar counter and a shoe cabinet all in one row according to your unimpeachable design sensibilities. Something will have to go. It will probably be your ego.

You will also encounter tiny problems that will mysteriously magnify themselves - because they can.

My husband, for instance, set out to buy eight-foot laundry poles, the standard size for our shoebox flat (he moved in before I did).

Then he texted me at 2am, after chucking an ever-expanding organism of laundry into our brand-new washing machine: "The laundry poles are six inches too long. They won't fit inside that ceiling space for laundry poles."

I inhaled and exhaled deeply: "It's okay. We can get the bamboo poles cut at that hardware shop."

"They're aluminium poles."

"Why did you buy aluminium poles! They're so expensive! How will we cut them!"

There was a pause. He replied: "I liked them better."

A lot about caring for a house is learning how to problem-solve as a team - and learning to let go. We eventually managed to trim the poles down to size with a $1.50 hand saw and gaffa tape.

Weekend after weekend, we learnt how to troubleshoot and compromise and smooth over each other's meltdowns (The Internet will be one month late? The shoe cabinet will have to be in the corridor? There's a wasp living in our gate?).

Why, I despaired, why is it that all those home decor catalogues never reveal a toilet crammed with assorted mops and scrubs, an awkward ironing board squashed behind a door or grimy sponges lining the sink?

My husband suppressed a laugh: "Honey, they hide all that during the photoshoot. Everyone has them."

I suppose it is better to have a house (and a marriage) with a mismatched colour scheme but with all the right cleaning materials to keep it spick and span, than to have a perfect facade decaying within.

Earlier this week - incidentally, our final week of renovation - I received a cheery yellow postcard from the arts space The Substation as part of their long-running Love Letters Project.

On the back was printed a poem titled Buying Furniture, by local writer Loh Guan Liang. I smiled, allowed myself to get a little misty-eyed and sent it to my husband:

When it was my turn to buy

a dining table, shared days

became measured to fit married life;

I had to throw window-shopping

out the door and learn to grow

into each other's promises

as we settle for a love called home.


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