We ‘helped’ at a flitting this weekend.   Elisabeth and Robert moved from their rented flat near Finchley road, London, to their first ‘own’ home, in South London.

It reminded me of removals that we have done.    They all seem to contain broadly the same elements.

Firstly, as you actually move into the new house, there’s a great sense of relief that the looking, the offering, the bargaining, the weeks of waiting, the anxiety that it will all fall through, the sense of insecurity, are finally over.    For better for worse,  this is the one:  you’ve bought it (and pledged a great deal for it), and now it is yours.   This, for the foreseeable future, is your place.

As you’ve waited over the past weeks or months, with increasing impatience and anxiety, you’ve planned down to the smallest detail how you think you’d like this house to become, and it is with that image in your mind that you approach your new purchase.   As you walk to the door you are assailed by a mixture of emotions.    You still like it.    You’d still buy it.    Then you open the  door and a two fold reality hits you.   Empty of the previous owner’s possessions, the bare bones of the house are visible, and it is a nice house : spacious, light, an orderly flow, a happy spirit.   It smells fresh and sweet and light pours through it.   As with the chemistry between people, there is magic and mystery in this.    The house spoke to you.  It still does.

But then the present reality.   The house seller has been good to deal with, and has left the house in a perfectly acceptable state: clean, empty, welcoming.  She has left light bulbs and toilet rolls and done everything she ought to have done.   (May she prosper in her new abode.)     But now you can see that the house is tired, old-fashioned.    You can see where they had pictures on the wall.   There are stains you didn’t notice on the floors.     Every single room needs redecorating.   Carpets that you thought might do, probably won’t.     How come you never noticed any of this?    It is as if the house were an animal in a pet sanctuary seeking a new household.   It has danced and pirouetted and wagged its tail for you in the hope that you would find it charming, for it knows it has urgent need of a new owner – but now the effort has exhausted it and it lies slumped in a corner and you can do what you like with it.   For the present it has nothing more to give you.

It is immediately apparent to you that some of your plans must be abandoned forthwith.    The space is not large enough;  or the light is wrong;  or there is some insurmountable impediment you hadn’t noticed, like a chimney in the way.    Everything your eye lights on is a problem.   The house is habitable, it has heat, running water, security – but it is a thousand miles from being your home.

The removers arrive and begin unloading your stuff.   You have labelled it carefully and your helpers – your brothers and their wives, your parents, assist in the task.     The team is fed.    The removers thank you for being nice people to work with;  you pay them handsomely;  they depart.     You sit down among the mess and realise how extremely tired you are, and you look round and you wonder where you will begin;  how you will accomplish it all;  have you the flair, the practical skills, the organising skills, the financial clout, the drive…   You’d like to curl up in a quiet comfortable corner and have someone feed you;  but there is no quiet comfortable corner.   Although you had labelled everything with the utmost care, just at that point it seems impossible to find even a teaspoon.

Your mother has brought food of the hearty, nourishing kind, and everybody stops working and you open the champagne.     An informal meal, on picnic plates is served.   It is only as you tuck in you realise how hungry you are.   You sit on your deck, in the afternoon sun, as you had visualised doing.   This is the first party of your new home.

Your siblings with children of their own depart.   Your parents leave.   Your brother assists in the assembly of your bed.    You know where the linen is.   They too in their turn depart.

You and the house are exhausted together.   It has taken so much work and time and effort to get here, and now all you can see is endless, expensive work, so much so that you’ve no idea where to begin.

But  the house, now that you’re alone together, begins to stir once again and it talks to you quietly.    Just us at last?   I’ve been waiting for you for so long…    We will get along nicely together, it whispers.   I will grow young and beautiful again with you.     There is plenty of time.   Don’t worry that you are uncertain where to start.    I have done this before.     Welcome to your home.

(The photograph, courtesy of John Armstrong, shows Robert and Elisabeth Sullivan in the garden of their new home, with Rory and Sarah Armstrong and their son, Ewan, and  Alastair Sullivan and his fiancee, Ninjeri Pandit,  and myself.)