We are packing up.
The second time in year.
Only this time we’re not going as far: this time we’re not trekking from one side of a large African country to another. This time we’re merely moving across town.
Our new address is laughably ostentatious testimony to the snobbish hierarchy of British colonial administration:
House Number E8
Cheyo “A” Senior Officers Estate
Ulaya – in Kiswahili – means Europe. Anywhere in Europe. Anywhere from where white men may hail.
The houses on the dusty little lane all vary in shape and size. The one we’re moving into clearly wasn’t home to anybody of terribly high ranking; it’s too small for that. Nor is it as well positioned as others which face the view to the east and the sun rise. The Regional Commissioner lives in one of those now. As does the resident judge.
I hate packing. I hate facing the accusing clutter I have accumulated: rubbish which laments my failings as anything approximating domestic. I’d rather write than pack. I’d rather read than wrap china up in paper. I’d rather any challenge than that of securing the safety of a piece of glass in a sheet of crumpled tissue.
Why do we collect so much stuff?
Ben says, because I have bribed him to help me, ‘I’ve never seen you use these glasses, Mum, how long have you had them?’
They were a wedding present. So almost twenty years. They are Waterford crystal whiskey tumblers. Nobody in our house drinks whiskey. One still bears a sticker.
‘Why don’t you sell some then?’ enquires my practical son (whilst I make mental note to give him a cheque as a present when he gets hitched, not expensive glass).
‘Where?’ I ask, ‘who’s going to buy cut glass in the Outpost?’
Once I wouldn’t have considered selling the stuff because I’d attached all kinds of sentiment to it. Now it’s just packing fodder because I can’t think what else to do with it as we trail from house to house (our 6th since we got to Tanzania), possessions which I realize I only remember I own every time I unpack or pack.
I’ve packed it up again.
If I have to pack anything, it’s books. They’re easy to pack. They don’t need wrapping first. And they provide such happy distraction from the job in hand: you can’t examine a glass with the same joy that you can the back of a book. I have packed twenty boxes so far, I’ve barely scratched the surface, I pulled them from shelves and watched the dust motes dance in the sun, indignant at being disturbed for the first time in nearly a year. I watched the clouds of snoozing mosquitoes come to life and swarm in a cross crowd about my head, whining that I’d woken them up. I took satisfaction in that: vengeance for the fact they keep me awake often at night. I watched the occasional gecko tumble from the pages of the odd tome and scurry quickly for cover, its small rubbery body wriggling in agitation, sometimes leaving a tail behind.
Hat reports from her own packing up.
‘’You would be very proud of me’’, she says, ‘’I have even thrown some stuff out.’’
Hat is a worse squirrel than her mother. I blame my maternal grandmother, Alice, after whom Hat is partly named and from whom I inherited not only my tendency to hoard but most of my books too. Granny A couldn’t throw a thing away: it meant her cupboards were chock-full of the most delicious treasures including the original press cuttings from the Errol murder which threw Kenya’s Happy Valley into a state of scandalous turmoil. When I found them, they were quite jaundiced with age and curling at the edges like parchment.
‘’What haven’t you thrown out?’’, I enquire
‘’Bits and Bobs’’, she says.
Bits and bobs worry me; bits and bobs morph into rubbish quite quickly.
‘’You know: like that really long pencil I’ve got …’’
The sort of thing relatives give children as souvenirs of cities they’ve visited, the sort of thing you can never find a sodding sharpener for so its useful life is remarkably short.
‘’When did you last use it?’’ I want to know
‘’I can’t remember’’, she admits and wanders off.
I know the very long, utterly redundant pencil is going to find its way into our new home, just like my idle glass will. And I know that we will have precisely the same debate several years from now when we pack up again.
And I bet the same clutter follows us then too.