Opening the container in London

To ship, or not to ship? the question that lingers longingly when emigration is imminent. Does one de-clutter with a vengeance and leave with suitcase only, or does sentimentality reign, and Grandma's old hand-me-downs suddenly become infinitely precious? MICHELLE BURTON looks at the highs and lows

of beginning an English adventure amidst the contents of a 20-foot Africa-shaped container.

To ship was my watchword. Leave Africa without my chattels and china? Not I. After all, each and every one of my belongings had great value. My children had grown up around the long, refectory table spent hours scribbling equations into its wooden surface as they studied, celebrated birthdays around it since they were old enough to sit, and waged fierce battles of monopoly atop its impartial length.

Desks and dressers alike had been lovingly amassed over the years – their pine and oak skeletons worthy guardians for books and old bottles, and myriad collectibles that simply could not be left behind. And so they were packed. Carefully enshrined in mountainous quantities of bubble wrap and cardboard fitted together in military fashion to ensure that no container-space was left unfilled I added to their number.

A tiny slice of every memory found its way into the boxes – stone carvings from Borrowdale sidewalk, bottle-top baskets from Doon Estate, cotton sheets from Ruwa, and even a box of Sitra mosaic floor tiles for my one-day own home. It was easier to leave, then. Knowing that home was on the other side, my journey across the seas was made more secure. Anticipation reigned. Until I unpacked.

What I had conveniently forgotteN was that English houses are not like African houses. They are smaller. Much smaller. So much smaller, in fact, that I could probably have furnished three homes. Instead, I put to work every creative idea I could muster in an attempt to fit the contents of a farmhouse into a semi.

Glances from inquisitive neighbours first bemused, and then positively uproarious – spurred my efforts, and one haggard week later, the task was complete. All around me was the smell of Africa; a tangible, dust-laden clinging that pervaded everything smoke and woodfire essence that permeated our English walls and lent comfort.

On the undersides of cupboards were cobwebs from home; silvery threads once frowned upon and swept away, now lovingly avoided by the duster. On the back of a mirror clung a red-clay hornet’s nest empty of its fiery warriors, but tenacious in its effort to stay put. And in the bottom of one of the cartons, a dessicated mouse; not quite, but almost, in taxidermists prayerful supplication. Death by disappointment, perhaps the knowledge that there would be no room at the inn? For there was no room at all! Not even for human inhabitants.

The house bulged at the seams groaned audibly at its sea-borne cargo. And we became practiced in the art of manoeuvre. In fact, we took on crab-like characteristics passing each other in a skilful sideways dance on the stairs, in the passageways, around the table, and through the doors. Queues outside the bathroom never formed; there was no room. Television was watched in relays, and even mealtimes had more than a second sitting. Within the heart of rural Wiltshire I had established a corner of Africa; a mini shrine to the culture of home; an Aladdin’s cave of rustic wonders but, a narrow maze of habitable space more suited to furniture store than family home, and a nightmare to keep clean!

Today, there are still pictures on the walls, books on the shelf, old bottles on the trunk, and candlesticks on the dining table but much of the past has gone. Relegated to the attic, or the garage, or passed on to the children who have left, the chattels I once treasured dwindle. In their place is a newfound realisation that life is too short to spend it polishing, space too valuable to clutter with possessions, and time too precious to waste on the wanting. This year will be better. This year, I will not partake of enervating ritual or surrender spring to zealous endeavour; I shall simply enjoy the glorious flowerings, discard a little more of yesterday, and remind myself I should really have brought just a suitcase.

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