Yesterday and the day before, I helped a friend move house. My friend had lived for the last five years in a very nice shared flat in the East End of London. Then, one day, a couple of months ago, the landlord gave all the residents notice to quit. The reason stated was that renovations were to be made, but the tenants were given no say in the matter, nor any opportunity to return to the new, improved accommodation.
My friend — whom I shall, for the purposes of this post, christen Sebastian (for there is something indefinably yet Anthony-Andrewsesquely Brideshead about him) — found himself thrown into the dual chaoses of uprooting his life and transferring it elsewhere. In this case, the distance was walkable, but that is irrelevant. Packing is torturous. Moving is hellish. Unpacking is infernal. Dante would surely have consigned all three to the ninth circle.
Sebastian didn’t ask me to help with this torment. He is a kind and sensitive person who would not inflict such horrors on those he cares about. No, the simple fact of the matter is that I — I, of all people — volunteered. He said he was trying to find a man-with-a-van and I remarked that I was a woman-with-a-van… It was entirely my own fault; I could have said ‘mmm, good luck with that,’ and left him to it. You see, packing is akin to being a phobia with me. I have moved house/city/country some forty or fifty times in my life, and it never gets any easier. When — and I admit that it’s rare these days — I have nightmares, they are invariably packing-related. Sometimes I’m packing up to move and the suitcases and boxes are too small; other times, they fall apart; or I have to pack everything and get to a station or airport by a certain time and the clock is ticking but the items remain scattered around me; or I sit there, surrounded by debris and detritus and have no idea where to begin. I awake, panting, petrified, convinced that those boxes still await me, patient in their malevolence.
When I first made incursions into nomadism, all my belongings would fit into a suitcase and a holdall. Then, at some point, I passed my driving test, and suddenly my life expanded to fit into a car. Over the years, it has grown and grown until now, I’d probably require a fleet of pantechnicons to get me from A to B. Another friend, this time one I’m naming Branwen (for reasons she — if no one else — will, I hope, appreciate), recently remarked that all the things that matter in her life would fit into her car — as for the rest, she said, it’s just stuff. Sebastian has accumulated stuff in his five years in the old flat, as I have I throughout my life. Could I, I wonder, sift through it all and select just those few items that would fill my van? Could he? He swears he’s going to throw out the majority of the stuff so that when he next has to move, he’ll have perhaps one van load instead of four. Personally, I’m not convinced. I’m older than he is and thus better acquainted with the dread perfidy of stuff — it proliferates; it sneaks up on you while you sleep; it takes over your wardrobe, your shelves, your house, your life; it seizes you in a stranglehold and will not let go. It encumbers your existence. It ties you to the past and prevents you from exploring the future. Stuff is wholly invidious.
So yesterday, in the blazing hot sun, Sebastian and I lugged hundreds of boxes and bags down in the lift from the old flat, across the car park to the van, and up two flights of stairs to the new flat. I exaggerate, of course; indeed, most of the lugging, and all of the heavy lifting, was done by Sebastian; I assumed a supervisory/decorative/van-guarding role for much of the time (when one has such a prodigious skill at anything as mine is at observing and advising, one should make the most of it, don’t you think?). And whilst Sebastian was thus sweating and cursing, and I was listlessly supervising operations/decorating the landscape/guarding the van, I fell into conversation with Cathy, a homeless person to whom we’d earlier given some food — a cheerful, chatty homeless person whose stuff seemed to have defied its natural, multiplicatory instincts and be restricted to the confines of one old sleeping bag and two Tesco’s carrier bags.
Maybe Sebastian and I do have too much stuff; maybe Branwen does too, even if she would, should she ever have to, have an easier job of choosing what to keep and what to throw; maybe Cathy is genuinely happy with her meagre, portable existence, depending on the kindness of strangers for what little she does have; maybe she chose to live that life and never feels even the smallest pang of regret or envy. But I don’t think so. We, who have the luxury of stuff, also have the concomitant luxury of complaining about it; but would we trade places with Cathy just to be free of our self-imposed burden? Of course we wouldn’t. Not in a million years.