First short story of the new collection

The Big Move to the Old House
It all started at about 8:30am on a day that was forecast to be sunny and thirty-five degrees Celsius, a beautiful but unusually hot day for the Blue Mountains, an area that lies about one thousand metres above sea level and a couple of hours drive west of Sydney. I was moving from my newer, flashier, architect designed house to my older, smaller and much cosier house next door, as the tenants had moved out. It makes much more sense for me to live in the smaller house as I spend up to half of each year on the island of Malta, in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea. Besides, I think that the more modest house is a much better fit to my sensibilities; I felt a little out of place at the other one.

I did a couple of packed-to-the-ceiling car loads in the early morning, while it was still cool and before my friend Kim turned up with his Ford utility pick-up, at about 10:30. I had imposed on my friend and his vehicle before. Thankfully, he did not seem to mind, but I know just what it is like to own the type of vehicle that everyone else thinks is so “handy”. I have done my share of moving other people in years gone by so I greedily accepted the help, but could not stop feeling just a little guilty for taking advantage of his friendship. I was moving from number 95 to number 99 in the same street so I kept moving the small and easy things with my car until Kim arrived. It started to get hot. Then it was all heavy lifting, furniture moving and packing boxes of stuff into the utility.

It is demonstrably true that you never quite fully appreciate just how much stuff you have until you have to move all of it. So much stuff. Stuff that I do not even use. Stuff that I have never used. Things like multiple sets of sheets and pillow cases that my mother has given me over the years. And towels. How many towels does one person actually need? And just why is it that I have not thrown out the old, threadbare ones? Then there are boxes of financial statements, tax receipts and returns from many years ago that I will probably never need. Kitchen stuff! Kitchen stuff I have never, ever used and that just take up space in cupboards everywhere I go. Boxes of books. Why is it that we keep books after we have finished reading them? We seem to treat books as if they were trophies or something, leaving them on display on shelves or in cabinets for time immemorial. Whenever I contemplate giving one or more of my books away, I always hesitate because I worry that I might want to read them again one day, but I have never read the same book twice in my life. I think it has more to do with being possessive, somehow. Perhaps it is linked to some ancient caveman survival, hoarding instinct.

Clothes for goodness sake. Old clothes not worn in years. Even when I did the “haven’t worn it in the last twelve months” test, I still could not bear to throw some things out. Tee-shirts. Short-sleeved shirts. Long-sleeved shirts. It is a sobering realisation to think that I probably have enough shirts to last me for the rest of my life; not a happy thought for a middle aged man who already has unresolved anxiety about both his mortality and fashion sense. Perhaps I should just “bite the bullet”, give all my shirts away to charity and buy only a small number of modern looking ones. I could create a whole new image; be “the man with nice shirts”. Young women might notice me again, and not just because my shirts are out of fashion. No fool like an old fool in a cool shirt? I honestly think that I simply need to clothing-downsize. If only I had the discipline to do it. It would be nice to be the man of few clothes.

I’ve gathered a big box of kitchen things along with a big bag of sheets and pillow cases that are all going back to my dear mother. I have had a catharsis I have finally realised that she is the culprit and a major contributor to my materialistic obesity, innocuously passing on crap to me over the years that she does not want, or that other people have passed on to her. You see, she is Maltese and Maltese people cannot possibly throw out anything that could be of any potential use to another human being someday. Not surprisingly, being of Maltese decent I have inherited the Maltese frugal gene from my parents and their antediluvian ancestors. So … Mum and Saint Vincent de Paul, here I come.

My hypothesis is this: the fact that Maltese people are so frugal is due to the long, extensive and ubiquitous deprivation suffered on the archipelago over centuries of foreign occupation. I have listened with more than just a mild interest to knowledgeable people who suggest that this history of serial invasion and subjugation of Malta has contributed to a “siege mentality” within the Maltese psyche. This mindset is reflected in the architecture of the islands. The whole country is one large fortress, with a system of towers, forts and ramparts strategically spread all over the archipelago. Many of the older residences in the towns and in the countryside are built with internal courtyards and a minimum of windows on walls facing outwards, thereby providing light and air to rooms of the dwelling from within, while minimising external apertures which could be used to break in. Modern times still see many people putting “pregnant window bars” on the outside of their dwellings that bulge out at the bottom, so that they can stick their head out of the open window from the inside in safety, to see who is knocking before opening the front door.

Before I left the small, first floor apartment in Malta where I live each summer, I thought it prudent to visit the local police for information on crime in the area. My apartment is located on the south of the island in Marsaxlokk, a small fishing village with a population of around four thousand. I walked into the tiny, one roomed police station to ask advice as to whether I should buy insurance to protect my possessions while I spent the rest of the year in Australia. The police officer I spoke to seemed very concerned and suggested that I not only buy insurance, but invest in a burglar alarm system as well. This caused me some degree of surprise, not to mention disquiet:

“Oh really! I didn’t think it was like that here in Malta. So, you would recommend insurance and installing a burglar alarm as well?”

“Yes, yes. To be safe, I would do both.”

“Just out of curiosity, how many burglaries would you get in Marsaxlokk in any given year?”

“In Marsaxlokk? In one year? Oh, maybe one. Maybe none.”

So, the village would be lucky or rather, unlucky, to have one burglary per year and this guy is recommending insurance and a burglar alarm. I am surprised he didn’t advise me to fit iron bars to all my windows and booby-trap my front door as well. Actually, many houses in the town do have iron bars on their windows. Also, I have heard that people are reticent to let anyone but close friends and family see inside their house, out of security fears. And it is certainly true that people have warned me to be very careful not to give others the impression that I am, or might be, relatively wealthy. There seems to be some kind of innate fear that someone will take things away from you if you are not careful. This slight paranoia is exacerbated by the relatively low wages of Maltese workers, which means that valued possessions are hard to come by. Subsequently, possessions are typically cherished and must be made to last forever by Maltese people. I still remember my parents and relatives keeping new furniture wrapped in plastic for years, to keep it in pristine condition. They would also keep plastic mats on the floor so that the carpet would stay looking new. No matter that it was relatively unpleasant to walk around and sit on plastic all the time. In fact, my parents would wrap anything in preserving plastic that could not move out of the way fast enough.

This frugality also means that we Maltese are also very careful about committing to spending money and buying anything. I once told a young woman whom I was interested in, and who was also of Maltese decent, that it took me weeks to decide on a new pair of jeans. She replied:

“Yeah, and then I leave them in the wardrobe for weeks on end with the tag still attached in case I decide to take them back.”

I think it was then that I fell in love.

Anyway, it was a long hot day back at the house. After moving everything, it all had to be packed away in appropriate places. This was probably the most tedious aspect of moving. The first hour or so was absolutely unbearable. The next few hours were worse. Packing away the kitchen things was the most awful of the experience. Unwrapping glasses and crockery, gathering together pots and pans and finding all the cutlery and utensils was a real hoot. Part of the exercise of packing away that made it so taxing, was trying to work out the most appropriate place to put things within the new kitchen. The old kitchen was just right, comfortable and predictable, with everything in its place and a place for everything. It was critical to get it right again in the new and different kitchen layout. You did not want to get used to things being in the wrong place, least when you eventually move them to a more efficient place, you waste time by forgetting that you have moved them, and habitually go back to the original location you put them in (if you catch my drift). Sort of defeats the purpose of moving things to a more suitable cupboard if you keep forgetting that you have, and continually look where they used to be.

Of course, you then have to go through the same logical process with clothes in your bedroom wardrobes and drawers, and again with toiletries in the bathroom. Decisions, decisions. An anal retentive such as myself could easily go crazy over this. I could imagine waking up from a deep sleep in a sweat at three in the morning because I suddenly realised that I had put the nail clippers in the bottom drawer of the vanity with the spare soaps, toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste instead of in the top drawer with the tweezers, hairbrush, scissors and other grooming equipment.

At exactly seven minutes to seven in the evening my body and brain shut down. I realised I had skipped lunch and that all I had consumed since the morning was a beer I had shared with Kim before he had had enough of not minding, and left with his vehicle at around 2 pm. I quickly made and ate a simple green salad with tuna, watched some cricket on TV (another emphatic Australian win over the hapless English cheered me up), drunk two more beers and went to bed.

The next day I decided to organise the music room (I will definitely have to sell some music equipment and guitars) and tackle the setting up of the stereo sound system. Then it will be the oiling of timber decks, cleaning windows and attacking the lawns and gardens.
Only one casualty from the move: the washing machine fell off the back of Kim’s vehicle, and the front door catch broke. Another job to take care of.

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