‘As a rule of thumb,’ my friend Melanie advised – too late, much too late – ‘how ever long you think it takes to move, it will take at least five times longer.’
This was Melanie’s third emergency trip to the house, this time to pick up a fridge shelf that had been overlooked when its new buyers took it away.
She surveyed the scene. It was early afternoon – the plan had been to be on the road by late morning. The contents of the house, shed and garage were still on the drive waiting to be packed into a Luton van. The task of how to fit it all in was one that clearly required the input of several physicists with an advanced grasp of molecular structure. My spatial awareness, which was lacking at the best of times, was not equal to it.
It didn’t help that our moving assistant had become wounded early on in the proceedings. I had, unwisely as it turned out, filled a large plastic container with heavy text books. In a show of gusto, Gully’s brother had picked it up and manhandled it by himself down the stairs. This had done for his back muscles, and he was now unable to bend – or indeed, walk. So we loaded him, stiff bodied and groaning, into his car and sent him home, where he stayed for the next two weeks off work and stuffed with painkillers.
‘How,’ I wondered ‘had it come to this?’ I had been neatly packing stuff away in boxes for months. Lovingly writing out labels so when things went into storage and we needed to put our hands on, say, a Charles Dickens novel or a Rough Guide to Azerbaijan, we could do so. I had been airily telling everybody that it was ‘mostly done’ for weeks. Why now was there so much left to do? Even now, it is a question I can’t answer – along with why did we have so much stuff? Over the weeks I had been carting bags to the tip and charity shops – pressing unwanted items on tolerant friends, giving away all my worldly goods on Freecycle. How was it we had so much? When we had moved before – in the days when we moved from one place with four walls and flushing toilets to another – we’d had sofas and beds and white goods. We’d fitted it all in before, why couldn’t we now, minus the consumer items? The fact was that every time we had moved, we had upgraded – from a flat to a terrace, from a terrace to a semi, from a semi to a detached farmhouse. And slowly, over the years, we had just accumulated more and more stuff. More books and games and CDs and cuddly toys – and even after we had weeded out the ones we could bear to give away, we still had an awful lot of it left, it appeared.
So, it was with great relief that Gully eventually told me to leave and take the cats and children with me. I felt a twinge of guilt as we pulled away leaving his lone figure perched on a packing case surrounded by boxes and spades and drill bits. I had half-heartedly said ‘no, we can’t possibly leave you to do all this alone’, protestations that were ruined by an unseemly dash for the driving wheel and throttle pedal.
I cried as we pulled away. Houses have always been more than bricks and mortar to me. Their rooms full of the ghosts of former selves and past times. In that house my children had grown – leaving an imprint of their younger selves behind. This is the perpetual grief of being a parent – children grow and change and the toddler who pointed delighted tiny fingers at planes or lorries no longer exists. When we came to that house, my youngest was only just two, now he was nearly seven. Our house had played host to his evolution from baby to child and there were memories of all of the children that would forever belong there. And I had loved it too for itself. It may have been freezing cold and mouldy in the winter, but for most of the year it was lovely and on this, our last day, it was at its best. The sun shone, the sky was blue and the garden was full of bird song – it was a fine day to leave an old friend.
We now had a 270-mile drive in front of us – just me, three children and the cats. Earlier that day, the cats had been given pills to make the journey more pleasant. Too early, in fact. Having been given an estimated time of leaving as somewhere just before lunch, I had administered the happy pills shortly after breakfast. These were not wasted, however, as the cats were imprisoned in the children’s bedroom in case they felt like going on one last murderous trawl through the undergrowth and failed to come back.
So, drugged to the eyeballs, they stretched out on the sunny floor and went to sleep. At lunchtime, I went back to the vets for more pills, which was ironic really, because if anyone was in need of them it was me. Back home, I re-administered them and later we stuffed the cats back into baskets and set off.
It was with a fabulous sense of timing that Oscar set himself free. I had just joined the M25 at rush hour when something black, furry and, despite the pills, neither happy nor calm catapulted onto my lap. This cheered the children up tremendously, who shrieked with laughter as Oscar reverberated around the car. ‘Concentrate’ I told myself fiercely while issuing bellowed instructions for windows to be sealed. After a few minutes, Oscar, settled down. This was the cat who always jumped into the car to greet me when I came home from work at four in the morning. He quite liked the car, and once he had got the hang of the fact that it moved, he became quite equable.
Which was more than could be said for me. The problem was I couldn’t stop. Even if I pulled up on the hard shoulder, I needed to get out of the car to go round the back and retrieve the abandoned basket. This would be hard to perform without letting the cat out of the car, from whence he would clearly streak across three lanes of fast-moving traffic and be flattened in front of the children’s eyes. There was nothing for it but to keep going until the sanctity of a service station. Red-faced and highly stressed, I tried to ignore the stares and pointing from the occupants of cars, mesmerised by the sight of a cat looking with interest out of the window. Then Oscar discovered it was warm and cosy by the foot pedals and settled down for a little sleep on my feet while I frantically tried to kick him out of the way. After a while, he crept onto my lap, rested his chin on the steering wheel and had a nap. At last, a service station came into view and order was restored. He spent the rest of the journey with the door of his basket firmly wedged against the back seat.
Meanwhile, back at our old house, it was starting to rain. Nine long weeks it had been dry while the earth cracked and the wheat in the field opposite withered – then it chose to rain on the day our entire possessions were exposed to the elements. ‘How’s it going?’ I asked at 11pm, after we had arrived at my mother’s. ‘It’s raining and all the stuff is still on the drive,’ said Gully. I rang again at 2am. ‘How’s it going,’ I asked. ‘It’s still raining and all the stuff is still on the drive,’ he said.
I rang at 8am. A few hours sleep on the hard floor had revived Gully sufficiently to restore some optimism. ‘I’ll be leaving at 10,’ he said. I rang at 10 – ‘should be off by 12’, he said. This posed a problem, the storage place in Exeter shut at six and we estimated that even with a tail wind, the Luton would take several hours to make the journey from Cambridgeshire to Devon. Also, the van, which was already a day late, was meant to be back in Harlow by the end of the day.
‘Ah, it’s you causing me grief – again,’ said the storage manager as I begged for a one-off 24-hour access. The van hire firm was less friendly. ‘It had better be back here by 3pm tomorrow,’ said an angry-sounding man – his silent ‘or else’ left hanging over the phone lines.
Many hours later, with the near midsummer sun setting over the Exeter hills, our long overdue possessions puffed into the storage yard. Sticking precariously above the tail gate was an assortment of brooms, hoes, spades and gardening forks. It was an ignominious start to our adventure – but very us. We had convened a hasty working party of my sister and niece and nephew, although it was late and there was school the next day. The dog, who had been left to keep Gully company, hurtled out of the cab when she saw a welcoming committee. Had she been tall, slim and lithe, this would have been accomplished with grace and ease. As it was her 25 solid short-legged kilos became a hostage to gravity, and she fell hard on to her shoulder and developed a pronounced limp. Our toll of injuries was growing.
And our other problems were not over. It had taken nearly two days to carefully load a Luton-size van. Now, we had to unload it and reload it back into a Luton-size storage container. For a while we cheerfully unpacked. Contents were loaded onto trolleys, which were pushed into lifts with enthusiasm. The lifts didn’t allow people, so the procedure was to stand and press a button until it reached the top, then run up the stairs, push the trolley along several lengths of corridor, unload it, push it back, send it down the lift, run back down the stairs and start all over again. It didn’t take long for the cheeriness to dissipate and irritability to set in. As our helpers went home and the realisation that we still had half the van to unload dawned, despair set in. Once again, Gully was left sitting on a packing case surrounded by a hopeless mess, while I went home to my mother’s.
The next day we returned and paid for another large storage container. Our monthly bill for storage would now be running into the hundreds. So much for living rent free. This time I was left to pack it all away while the van headed back east – that silent ‘or else’ speeding it away.