New Start

I cried when my father drove our Mercedes Benz away to swap it for another one, which looked no better to me. It wasn’t the first time, either. It seemed that as soon as we got used to one old, second-hand car, he’d be trading it in for another. I couldn’t see the point, and I wanted him to stop.

‘She doesn’t like change, does she?’ he chuckled to Mum, as I lay on the carpet, red-faced and inconsolable. She didn’t know what to make of it all. It didn’t stop, though.

You’d think that someone as addicted as I to new adventures, countries and situations would thrive on change. It’s a conundrum I’ve grappled with. It’s as though I want to experience everything, yet once I have, it must stay the same. For ever, like a painted backdrop to the theatre of my life. Nothing – nothing good – must change but I. Selfish? Yes. Unreasonable? Absolutely. My father was right to do what he needed to do to make him happy, which new-old cars did. He couldn’t understand the extent of my distress and how could he? I could barely articulate it to myself. I was four.

It isn’t just the discomfort of losing the familiar; the everyday parts of one’s life that make one feel safe and earthed. I have always had a somewhat unhealthy attachment to inanimate objects; particularly, of course, those which remind me of people, places or special times. I can be sentimental to the point it affects my reasoning process. At the same time, I like to travel light, both literally and figuratively.

My worst nightmare, while I’m on the road, is having too much luggage. I dislike clutter in my living space as well as simply owning too much stuff. I’m not quite Marie Kondo, but my mantra is: if it’s not beautiful, indispensably useful or – ahem – an irreplaceable item of nostalgia – out it goes. Except when you’re juggling businesses, jobs, study, and life in general, it’s hard to make time for a good clearout, and I have a particular aversion to throwing something away that could be used by someone. I was brought up with a wartime scarcity mentality of ‘mend and make do’. Swap it, but never chuck it. I can’t bear today’s single-use culture, but what to do with an item when it becomes surplus to requirements?

All of this made the act of selling my flat, my home of 16 years – the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere – incomprehensible to some, and the sorting out I had to do beforehand, an indescribable nightmare. The ‘change’ part of the process was necessary and desirable for all sorts of reasons, some of which I’ve described previously, and others yet to be voiced. The ‘letting go’ part, however, is ongoing.

Contracts were exchanged while I was in Morocco, in full painting holiday mode and with patchy internet. On my return – with even less internet, as my router had packed up while I was away – I had just over two weeks to sift through my life. It was easy to begin with. Into a few strong wine boxes I carefully placed all my Highland Stoneware; that I would never part with it was never in question. Clothes were another matter. It hurt to throw out old favourites simply because I can’t fit into them anymore, but I forced myself to be ruthless, filling three large bin liners for donation to refugees. Two smaller ones went to the textile bank.

I was dreading the attic. I had made a studio up there, which should have been perfect: with two new velux windows, a raised platform and some of the many beams cut away to avoid fifty percent of head bumps, it was my own little garret. It was freezing in winter so I invested in a heater, but the daylight hours were still too few, even coming from both sides, three storeys up. And when I began painting pots, a ‘real’ job where I was expected to keep regualr hours, I’m afraid the studio never got to fulfil its real potential. Instead, it became a dumping ground for spare frames, failed sketches, folios full of old college work and pile upon pile of ‘limited edition’ prints, from back in the days before giclee, when the minimum number one could order was 850 of each design.

Apart from art-related items, other things lurked in corners and that’s what scared me the most. Craig and Caroline drove over to help me; I couldn’t face it alone. Craig went up the customised ladder and passed armfuls to Caroline, who handed them to me, while I tried to find a bare patch of floor, not already stacked with boxes. Then they left me, Caroline’s pick-up bulging with spoils both wanted and grudgingly accepted: an old chest of drawers, as I couldn’t justify keeping two; realistic-looking imitation tropical plants which had graced my stairwell; a food processor I had long ago ditched in favour of a stick blender when life became far too busy for gourmet dinners. One wooden chair; I’ll keep the other one for throwing my remaining clothes over. They abandoned me to sift through what I should have dealt with years ago. In fact, I am ashamed to say, some things arrived into the flat in boxes they never made it out of, while ‘I’ll get around to it one day’ turned into ‘I hope I never have to.’ And yet, the shadowy presence of excess baggage sat heavily within the depths of my consciousness.

And then I found the bears. Pooh, completely bald and with a row of clumsy, black stitches up his tummy where a piece of metal from his growler had caused a hernia, and thus been operated upon. Patrick, still woolly but with tufts coming away in my hands – had the moths found him? And Bessie, a bear in a dress that once held my nightie; named after the elderly, unrelated aunt who had gifted her. The chosen three that my mother hung onto until the end; all other toys outgrown and discarded by my heartless teenage self. I stood, holding the plastic bag which had encased them for two decades, trying not to look them in the eye. These were not my bears anymore; I had not intended to keep them. I was now dealing with my mother’s things, which was infinitely harder. Jane had come over to help me wrap pictures. She stopped and looked up, as if reading my thoughts.

‘You can’t put bears in the bin,’ she stated decisively.

You can’t. I couldn’t.

‘He needs to go to the teddy bear hospital,’ she suggested, looking at Pooh. If he were pristine, he’d probably be valuable. A vintage bear. But I’m not sure he’s salvagable. It’s not as though I have any small children in my life who would appreciate him. I put all three bears into the ‘deal with later’ pile. I still don’t know what to do with them.

Somehow, everything was eventually sealed into boxes, crates and bags; the rest stuffed into the car and brought to my temporary lodging. The removal men ran good-naturedly up and down the six flights of stairs and the bundles disappeared with the speed of a time-lapse movie. With everything safely tucked away into a storage container, the flat was now empty and vast, a bit shabby around the edges and rather forlorn. I’ve always believed that home can be anywhere you’ve spread your things. I have friends who have changed homes seven times since I’ve known them, and each time their place has ended up looking the same, all the properties blending into one. But as I glanced around my beloved flat I realised how much of myself I was leaving within the very fabric of the building. From the doors I replaced to the windows I added; the fire I installed and lay beside; the crooked walls and creaking, uneven floorboards which absorbed my tears and provided a safe, cosy haven during one of the most tumultous periods of my life.

I have no doubt the flat chose me. I realised it was my home from the moment I peered through the narrow glass panel on the front door.

‘The living room’s this way,’ said Marcia, as she led me in. ‘And the bathroom’s on the right.’

‘I know,’ I said to myself. It was as if I’d been there before. I didn’t need to be shown.

And now I was leaving it. It was now or never; I couldn’t keep it, fix it, and do what I feel compelled to do. So once again, I chose freedom.

It had the last laugh, though. On the final night, the kitchen sink and shower blocked themselves so completely that I had to call the plumber. He arrived at 8am the following morning and was finishing just as the removal van pulled into the car park. Although it was one extra stress I could have done without, I knew what it was doing. It was telling me I was right. That it understood, and that it was time. It was letting me go.