Moving house with a child and all the moulded plastic that brings has been an eye-opener for Martyn McLaughlin
It is a good thing that you soon forget how trying moving house is, otherwise no-one would ever do it again. Supposedly trifling tasks such as getting the internet reconnected take up an entire day, largely spent as a witness to the Slovenian Philharmonic’s callous murder of Beethoven’s Fifth.
It seemed so straightforward when I last flitted in 2007. Back then, it was largely a solo effort, conducted in a few return car journeys with the help of a few pals. It was a choice informed by frugality, but mainly stubbornness. The idea of paying hundreds of pounds for someone to move my worldly goods, let alone for the routine task of packing them up, seemed wholly preposterous.
It was the view of a man happily idling through his early twenties. Beyond a few functional items of furniture, I had nothing to my name that could not be wedged into a spool of translucent bin liners. Other people had possessions. I had paraphernalia. The vast majority of it took the form of books. It was – and still is – a voluminous collection, but one easily dragged down tenement close and up another. The only item of value – a rare Star Wars Han Solo figurine that served as a handsome bookend – was swaddled in bubble wrap and triple-bagged.
The sprawl of the past decade, however, meant that the humble bin bag was not an option this time around. What began as a single person household had become home to three – and the smallest occupant took up the most space. There was a semblance of order for the first few months after her birth, but it did not take long for the flotsam of family life to colonise any spare nook in or out of sight.
This was not a careless or decadent clutter. Our household is not a materialistic one – until last month, the living room couch was a second-hand tawny Chesterfield whose springs had most definitely sprung, but its tumbledown charms were a fine match for our desired style of shabby chic, a term invented by the lower middle class to gloss over their increasingly stretched disposable incomes.
No, this was a entirely mundane hotchpotch of thingmies purchased by design, but which had crept on us as if by accident. Wodges of multicoloured moulded plastic from long-discarded toys squatted in nests of cables and chargers; batteries old and new co-habited amid a snarl of single socks speared by dried-up felt tip pens and a phalanx of Allen keys; the detritus of outgrown car seats and props with which babies perform their bewitching primitive magic spilled from cupboards and shelves. Whenever the cat daringly ventured into the hall recess, we gave thanks that he had been microchipped.
The extent of the muddle made imposing order an impossibility. Each constituent part belonged to another, but the tangle obscured connections that were once tangible. There was no beginnings or endings. Everything was a clue to a wider mystery – screws, fixings and extenders, a perpetuity of couplings divorced by the day-to-day. The house came to groan under the weight of this miscellany, beseeching us to relieve it of its strain.
We promised that we would not be ensnared by the extra space the new place afforded. Its four bedrooms, we knew, could easily accommodate the jumble of our lives, but its expanse of open space strengthened our resolve to lessen our load.
We prepared a moving plan fastidious in its detail. Each room was gutted and a series of drop-offs to charity shops and recycling depots culled the Mess to a mess. We learned each day to live with a little less. Before long, we forgot what we had jettisoned and began to look differently on our old besieged house.
It revealed skirting boards no eye had set on for years and its wooden floorboards ran from end of a room to the other, no longer interrupted by disorder. After a year in which its confines were a source of frustration, it blossomed again, reminding me of why I fell in love with it in the first place. It was not just Stuff that been removed, but burdens.
Anyone who moves house should cherish those days in the lead-up to the switch. It may be fraught with anxiety thanks to bewildering telephone calls from conveyancers and estate agents advising of last-minute hitches, but the absence of Stuff has a restorative, reassuring effect. You realise how easily you can get by with a saucepan, three plates, three forks and three cups. The ordinary family become domestic adventurers, able to survive on guile and Indian takeaways.
It is a pleasing fantasy, if a fleeting one. Any fantasies of a minimalist new style are soon shattered when confronted by what remains. In our case, it amounted to more than 80 boxes, all of it apparently essential. It had looked a lot less when funnelled down one side of the living room. Unloaded from the removal van and deposited in the new home, its scale proved daunting. We had tried to escape the footprint of our lives, but it was like trying to outrun a shadow.
It has been nearly a month since the move and the lion’s share of the boxes remain lined up in a spare bedroom. Instructions intended to be lucid (“Wires”, “Tech”, “Documents” and most maddening of all, “Misc”) add to the confusion whenever the door is opened for another chip away at the mountain.
But the door can also be closed. The alp of cardboard is still there, but it is out of sight. In time, it will be conquered and Han Solo will be returned to his rightful place on the second from top tier of the bookshelf. Yet there is no rush. After all, it is the Stuff that makes a house a home.