How to annex the spare room, Putin-style

Image of Robert Shrimsley

Amid the world’s great territorial disputes surprisingly little attention has been paid to the conflict over our loft conversion. We have received no diplomatic démarches, no peace envoys have tried to get us round a table and there is not even the hint of a visit from Angelina Jolie.

And yet, the top-floor spare room has become the Crimea of our particular corner of southwest London. Angry words have been uttered; efforts at compromise have been rebuffed.

The part of Putin in this dispute is being filled by the girl, who has claimed the room as the correction of a historic injustice and as part of her inalienable right to a larger living area. With all such disputes, one needs to delve into history to find the origins of the conflict. As the last born, the girl – who had yet to join us when we colonised the house – got the property’s smallest bedroom. Neither she nor the boy would have welcomed sleeping on a different floor when they were little so, over time, the attic came to fulfil a twin role as a guest room and a warehouse for items we no longer needed but were not ready to throw out. Thus was its territorial status as an independent junk and guest room established.

The girl put up with the injustice of her overcrowded room for a decade but, as her confidence grew, she assumed the role of aggressor, keen to annex the uninhabited territory. She began cautiously, only becoming more audacious when it became clear the major powers were unwilling to respond with force.

The first incursion came with the Sylvanians. They took possession of a small corner of the loft and have since multiplied across the floor, installing both a windmill and stately home. Initially it was just a family of Sylvanian rabbits but we now have guinea pigs, meerkats, badgers and bears. Though the Sylvanians are technically inanimate, the girl insists they profess allegiance to her and that she is now asserting her rights to protect this minority population.

Then came the spillover from her own room. Clothes, dolls and pencil cases began to populate the first-floor landing and stairs up to the loft. All complaints were met with the steely (and false) response that she had nowhere else to put them. She was, she insisted, merely responding to parental aggression and had, in any case, never accepted the imposed 2002 borders. As we attempted to make space for these items in her existing room, a new community of refugee toys made camp in the loft – all serving to increase the quotient of her personality in the room. Stuffed toys reclined on the sofa bed; craftwork littered the floor and errant beads were laid in standard minefield patterns as a deterrent to anyone thinking of walking across the demilitarised zone in bare feet.

Last weekend saw a sudden escalation as she unilaterally asserted her right to sleep in the room by, well, sleeping in the room. Clearly, we are reaching a moment of decision. We do not see a military solution but have not ruled out targeted sanctions such as boycotting her school play.

The difficulty is that we can see her case. But though the loft is uninhabited, it has just enough utility for us to not want to hand it over. With its attached bathroom, it is also a prime spot. We could send the boy up there and give her his room, thereby offering both an upgrade, but there is no reason why the firstborn should always have the better room – and we don’t want to render the Sylvanians stateless.

Consequently, we are seeking a diplomatic route. There may be a two-state solution in which she retains her old room but gets to style the loft to her taste and use it often. A sticking point will undoubtedly be the status of the second bathroom, next to the loft room. But here we see possibilities in a Hong Kong-style leaseback, where she recognises the rest of the family’s full rights to the facilities for the next 20 years.

Two decades may seem unnecessarily long but, what with house prices the way they are, it is best to take a conservative view of how soon she’ll move out.; Twitter: @robertshrimsley

Illustration by Lucas Varela

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