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The night before I left my old house last month I sat down, exhausted after a day of packing and carrying, to watch Super Nanny. I found myself consumed with disproportionate rage against the barbaric little brothers she was trying to tame – three plain, fat-faced creatures with buzz-cuts and bare, flabby torsos. The parents were divided and ruled by these brats who swore, spat, sneered and smashed things, while their silent, obedient ten-year-old sister drifted about in the background, forgotten. I longed to spank the boys and slap their faces.
Any fool can see that at such a strained moment these characters were acting out aspects of myself, engaged in their eternal struggle for dominance or recognition. But at the time I thought I was only having a fit of the nameless emotion – testified to by everyone I’ve asked – that explodes in the heart and brain of a person who is about to move house.
“Oh, I hate the sorting, before you even start to pack,” said the former wife of a clergyman and veteran of many a vicarage. “You’re burrowing through cartons of stuff. You find something written on a piece of paper and suddenly you’re on the floor in floods of tears, thinking about what you hoped for, and what you’ve lost. Every time you move you have to work through your whole life.”
A barrister who has lived in more houses than there are years in her life said she had held it all together by treasuring one small thing: her childhood teeth, in a matchbox. This year she turned 40, and threw them away.
A Japanese student told me that when she and her ex-husband were moved to Australia by his company, she opened the 200 boxes they had “shipped and aired” and found she had packed every single thing they owned – “including a half-empty soy sauce bottle. Every box was surprise!”
In my store-room, this time, I found half a dozen shoe-boxes stuffed with photos I’d taken in the late 1980s, the ones that failed to make the cut for my album. I didn’t chuck them out at the time because I was afraid if I did the people in them would die. The price I pay now for that superstition is having to endure how young we looked back then, my friends and I, though we were already in our late forties and thought ourselves ageing. Our faces were smaller, our skin fitted the skull more firmly, our heads were poised high on longer, more graceful necks. And my God, is that Steve, when he was a bible-bashing born-again? How could I have forgotten his lazy cowboy beauty? I ran out the back and crammed them into the bin, negs and all.
“When I was in labour with my first child,” said a teacher, “I remember hearing myself yell: ‘I don’t want this baby anymore!’ Moving house is like that – once you start, you have to keep going till it’s done. And it doesn’t matter how many people are there with you, all help is external, and beside the point. You’re on your own.”
“Things improve,” said a musician from Bondi, “once you stop expecting your friends to help you, and start paying people.”
“The removalists I hired,” said a young journalist at the Gin Palace, “were strange to the point of being comical. They bumped the walls and broke things and sexually harassed me. They wouldn’t lift things.”
The two blokes who came last month to shift my furniture struck a bolshie note as soon as they walked in. First they informed me that, though their boss had inspected it and given me a quote, there was no way they’d be able to fit all my stuff into the vast pantechnicon they had parked in front of my gate. Then, having filled me with such panic that I made the tactical blunder of calling the boss to complain, they began, in an extravagantly relaxed manner and refusing eye contact, to carry things out and arrange them roomily in the cavernous vehicle. Everything fitted, with space to spare.
So they sank the knife when it came to collecting my dead father’s kitchen table from his empty house next door: apparently it was “too heavy” and “wouldn’t fit through the door”. “How do you think it got in here?” I said in a high-pitched voice. “Musta took it apart and then re-assembled it,” said one of them, fixing his gaze on the peeling lino. They closed up the truck and drove away, leaving me and the table standing in Dad’s bare kitchen.
A week later, two men from my family tossed the table onto their flatbed truck and flipped it into my new house. They laughed. “You were ripped off.”
Back in the big share houses of the ’70s, when group dynamics were shaky and we were always having to split and start anew, people used to pride themselves on being able to polish off the move in a day. (Bin all chutneys and mustards.) The women, especially the single mothers, learnt how to set up a place at speed. You had to make things attractive and get the new household whirring along on its little rails, so the kids could repose on a sense of order, and not be too sad about what they’d left behind.
Somebody told me that when Mother Teresa died all she left behind was a bucket and a pair of sandals.
I read in his obituary that in 1936, when the late Sir Ronald Wilson was 14, the bank foreclosed on his family’s home. Before the house was sold, young Ronald had to help bury his father’s law library in the backyard.
A journalist fell in love and left his wife. Months later he went back to their house to pick up some things she had dumped for him outside the back door. Looking at the house, he realised he felt married to it, that it was his security, his only anchor. The place looked wild and out of control without his care. He wanted to clean it. He was suddenly very frightened: he would never have another like it. “I started to whistle,” he told me, “in case she was in there. I drove away angry. I wanted to turn back and stand by my dog’s grave for a bit, but I was worried she might look out and see me standing there all sentimental.”
How many pets, carriers of helpless and unquestioning love, lie rotting under the backyards of the world, as houses change hands and again change hands?
“When you’re a student,” said the teacher who had wanted her labour to stop, “you move into a primitive, half-wrecked house quite happily. You fix it up in simple ways – white paint and calico – and you get on with your life. But when you’re middle-aged you have a feeling that you should move into something better.”
I’m embarrassed that my new house is less substantial than the previous one. Its walls feel fragile, insecurely grounded, not quite vertical. If I stumble, my elbow might go through the plaster. I imagine that people step in the front door, take a look around and start to pity me. “Well,” they say, trying to brighten me, “at least you won’t have to move again.” What – stay here till I die? In their concern they are consigning me to old age, to death. Is this why I have always kept moving? Because to stay in one place is deathly?
When I try to count the number of times I’ve moved, I start off confidently but conk out at about 26. Everything starts to blur. My thoughts veer off to events and people connected to this house or that one, to the associated outrages and periods of fruitful calm. Old grievances, guilts and fits of self-righteousness fire up and smoulder again.
A Californian told me she had changed her address so often that she looked like “a gun moll on the lam from the FBI”. Why should the number of moves matter? Listing my own houses, I remember a line from a Carole King song of the ’70s: “Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?” Did they ever? Not according to Bruce Chatwin, who maintains in The Songlines that humans are supposed to be nomads – a theory that has always irritated me.
I heard somewhere of a woman who had moved 40 times in ten years. After a short time in a place she would be filled with despair and overwhelmed by the urge to find a new house. Her dream was to have a home on wheels.
But how would it help, to live on wheels? Wouldn’t her discomfort transfer itself to the landscape outside the caravan window? Wouldn’t the sun be always slanting the wrong way, the trees casting a mistaken shade, the train roaring too close at night, the rubbish collected on the wrong day, the corner shop situated too far away and in the wrong direction?
A member of the original Circus Oz recalled her years on the road. “At every stop,” she said, “we would establish the caravans in a compound, and do the show in the big top every night. Then in a week we’d pull it all down again and move on. But the next time we parked the caravans, they’d be in a different relationship to each other. I was always very distressed until we got them hooked up to power and water. And the constant changes were very disturbing to the brain. By the end of the tour I would be so confused that I’d often mistake people I knew well for others in the group.”
Marcel Proust loved to write about the human need to subdue the unfamiliar and dull the pain it causes. He composed ironic hymns to “habit! That skilful but slow-moving arranger who begins by letting our minds suffer for weeks on end in temporary quarters, but whom our minds are none the less only too happy to discover at last, for without it, reduced to their own devices, they would be powerless to make any room seem habitable.”
And yet those wonderful Jungian dreams that everyone has, of finding in the house another room that you didn’t know was there, high up under the roof, a whole extra storey, unused or neglected, but with more windows, sunshine pouring in, a glorious view, and more space than you’ve ever had before or imagined you deserved. You can’t wait to sweep it out and furnish it and begin to inhabit it – to expand into it.
A house can be domineering, though. You have to get into the driver’s seat. Sometimes it’s only the light fittings that you need to subdue, but the task can seem beyond you. A screenwriter woke up on his first morning in a house he had bought, saw the ostentatious white and gold baubles dangling on long, marble-green rods from the bedroom ceiling, and began to weep. “What have I done?”
There was something else too – he was grieving the death of his mother. The world won’t slow down to give you time and space for moving house. It has to be done on top of everything else that’s going on in your life. This must be why people love to recite the statistic that moving house is up there at the top of the stress list, after death and divorce – which, when you think about it, are just different forms of the same phenomenon.
When our mother died in her nursing home, and my father at 89 moved into the small house next door to me, he bluntly refused to let his children sort through the stuff in the apartment that he was leaving. He made us pack the lot and bring it along. At the time we were concentrating so hard on setting up his new house that we didn’t notice how devastated he was by the move. He claimed as always to be feeling nothing, but he roared a lot and waved his arms. His thin white hair, which he usually combed down flat with Listerine, stood up in a fluff, and his eyes were wild; but we just kept boring onward with the domestic tasks.
I hate now to think of that look on his face, both furious and desperately trusting, for he looked up at me the same way from his armchair on the summer morning of the day he died, two years later, when I came in with my grand-daughter to take him out for a coffee and he told me he’d stepped out of the shower and couldn’t get his breath. I called an ambulance, and knelt down to strap his sandals on him so he could walk out of there as if he owned the joint, but they put him on a gurney, and the only person who dared refer to the thunderingly obvious fact that he was never coming back was one of the paramedics, who said to my grand-daughter, as we stood hand in hand on the footpath watching them load him into the ambulance: “Want to kiss Great-Grandpa goodbye?”
The house I’ve moved into is very similar in floor plan and orientation to the one I’ve left, so I set up my bed correspondingly, in the north-west corner. When I get into it I know where I am, and fall asleep at once. “Bed is mother,” as one shrink suggested. And bed, to those of us lucky enough to have one, is the centre of our personal universe, the safe point from which we let ourselves down into the shadow universe of sleep.
But now, when I wake each morning, though I’m horizontal and comfortable, though my feet are pointing the right way, I have at the same time a peculiar sensation that my shoulders are jammed up against the wall, that only the pressure of my back is keeping the house from sliding back to where a part of me still is, or thinks it should be: three kilometres closer to the city. I am holding the house westward of my former life by nothing but brute will. I can’t even get my hand around the name of my new suburb when I fill in a form or write my address on a letter. It starts out dashingly then sags in the middle like a failed cake. And on a purely pragmatic level, I don’t know how to get to anywhere else from here. Where do I find a decent coffee? Which way’s the post office? What route do I take to cross the river? Where the hell am I?
This must be what it’s like to be old. I feel flustered all the time. I can’t seem to grasp things, or understand them, or concentrate. I need to be told simple facts over and over. I can’t make decisions, or plan anything. Cooking is out of the question. The kitchen is full of unfamiliar outcrops: I can’t move across it without hurting myself. Between the sink and the cutlery drawer, I smash my knee against a cupboard-front and stand there snivelling with self-pity.
Anthropologists say that the house is an extension of the person, like an extra skin, or a shell; house, body and mind are in continuous interaction. A singer I know who loves to cook expressed it more gracefully. It took him months, he said, to find his ease in a new kitchen, to re-establish what he called, throwing out his arms and swinging his hips, “the dance of it”.
I’ve brought all the paintings and prints from my old house, but they’re stacked on the floor with their faces to the wall. When I tip one or two of them back so I can remind myself of what they are, I’m surprised and annoyed to find how many of them are full of darkness. A night road. A huge, gloomy cypress. A ferry moored at a night wharf. A moon shining on some black, rhythmic waves. And what daylight there is shows a paddock with one solitary gum standing forlornly in the middle. I don’t want to bring that old darkness into this house.
But there’s something shaming about undecorated walls and half-furnished rooms. Visitors go silent, then start offering advice: “This hall’s awfully bare. You need wall-hangings.” Wall-hangings? As if!
Now, a month later, I know where the return chute is at the library, the video shop. The stern Filipinos who run the post office have started to smile at me. I know the op-shop doesn’t open till 11 on Saturdays, that the motor that roars and roars at 10 p.m. at the bottom of the street is not some crazed hoon but the railway men mending the line. When the moon is full it blazes through my laundry window at bedtime, and into the bathroom at 4 a.m. I know that the cafe I like best is quieter at the end of the day than the library. Music plays there, but very low, and at each table sits a single person with a book or a newspaper or a mobile: absorbed, contained, content, with bowed head and motionless shoulders.
A solemn and very sensitive little boy moved with his family to Echuca. His parents had worked in advance to reproduce as exactly as they could the arrangements of his old bedroom in Melbourne. On moving day, when he first approached it, they held their breaths. He stood at the door in silence. Then he said in a soft, calm voice, “Yes”, and stepped forward into his room.
Helen Garner is an award-winning novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter and journalist. Her books include Monkey Grip, The Children’s Bach, The Spare Room and This House of Grief.