Clearing the decks

A few weeks ago, before the mass rioting took grip of the country, before our Government decided to respond by donning jackboots and stamping rather than even attempting to understand why this eruption had happened, and before I went on an intensive driving course and had to leave early due to being generally impossible (*blushes*), I had a wee trip out to the sticks to do a spot of sorting and clearing.

I’ve spent a significant portion of the past year sorting and clearing and splashing industrial strength cleaning products about. There have been times when, standing atop a seemingly unclearable heap,  I thought it was never going to end. But progress has been made. We really are almost there. Or at least ‘there’ enough to be able to start picking up certain threads of my life’s rich tapestry from where I put them down a year ago. Phew.

There have been two houses to sort and clear and the snapshots below are of the second.

Compulsive hoarding is almost impossible to adequately describe to people who haven’t witnessed it first hand (I had a go at describing here, talking about the first house). I can see why it’s hard to understand just how horrific it is if you’ve not been in amongst the piles; a heap of stuff is just a heap of stuff, surely? The stuff itself is overwhelming, but the stuff is so much more than material objects – it’s memories and people and happy times and sad times and hopes and ambitions and love and anger and fears and regrets and intentions and failings all densely packed and congealed with remnants of rotten food, mysterious gungy matter and rat droppings. And even if the heaps are gunge- and dropping-free, they’re still great big immoveable objects that restrict access to sinks, toilets, bathrooms, cookers, chairs, beds, windows, doors, floors and living. How can you have visitors if all the chairs are buried? How can you get someone to mend the leaky sink if the kitchen floor is four-foot deep in stuff? How can you turn on the central heating if the boiler or thermostat is behind a two-metre high heap?

Fundamentally, if you’ve got really bad piles, then they dominate your life.

The farmhouse I was clearing up had been overrun by rats when my father was living there. My aunt had cleared out all the bags of rotting food (the top layer of ‘matter’, exactly the same as in the other house) a few years ago when it was no longer possible for my dad to live there. After that, the rats moved out and the burglars moved in, but they didn’t make much of an impression…

The first house took a long time to do. I’d started clearing up when my father was living there but then the clearing continued for a different reason, so it was hard to get rid of things at once. There are right times to say goodbye to things. Recently acquired objects were easy to throw away or take to the charity shop, but I needed a respectable pause before tackling the things that had been in the house for 30 years. (I don’t think this is a hoarding characteristic; I think it’s completely normal when dealing with the belongings of a family member who has died). However, almost a year on, I’d become pretty ruthless. For me. So I hired a big skip. (Yes, it is the width of the house).

Big skip

Big skip

I also took my camera with me as, over the past year, I’ve  found that one way of making mucking out a house easier is to take photographs of items that you would have liked to hold on to (for a little while, at least) had gunge, droppings, time and space not dictated otherwise. I now have several hundred digital photographs of things. But they take up no physical room.

And so the clearing began.

Well, once we’d hacked down a Sleeping Beauty’s forest of nettles in order to get to the door and then sledgehammered and jemmied and angle-ground the boarded-up and astoundingly strong remnants of the burglarised door in order to get in, the clearing began.

Kitchen

Kitchen

Kitchen

Kitchen

Sitting room

Sitting room

Scullery

Scullery

Front bedroom

Front bedroom

Landing

Landing

Master bedroom

Master bedroom

The job required gloves, masks and a gung-ho attitude.

What was in the heaps?

Off the top of my head: endless newspapers and magazines, books on every subject under the sun, stacks of videos, shelves of videos, telescopes, microscopes, chemical balances,  the cassette recorder from my childhood, the car blanket, the tent, drawings by a five-year-old me, mirrors, more mirrors, more and more and more mirrors, 1950s radio sets, wind-up gramophones, portable gramophones, weighing scales, paraffin lamps, hi-fis, typewriters, broken printers, ancient computer monitors, sewing machines, a broadsword, an epee, two pianos, one harmonium, one electronic keyboard, a piano accordion, a broken guitar, hundreds of framed pictures from charity shops, the odd airgun and shotgun or so, Fordson Major tractor manuals, the traditional car engine in the kitchen, shotgun cartridges in boxes, Ferguson tractor manuals, shotgun cartridges loose in unexpected places, air rifle pellets, Dyson vacuum cleaners, a Nazi armband, a gas mask, new telephones, vintage telephones, Pocahontas-shaped bottles of bubble bath, a whip, a remoska, boxes of pans, sheet music, cameras, miniature steam engines, warming pans, theodolytes, light bulbs, copies of the Magna Carta, a Millennium dome keyring, Christmas cards, framed photographs, model aircraft engines, model aircraft, model aircraft plans, model aircraft magazines, wine-making flagons, chunks of lead, a small bottle of mercury, thousands of semiconductors and diodes, drills, socket sets, drill bit sets, electric screwdrivers, electronic callipers, slide rules, thousands of old photographs, barometers, a three-in-one pocket voltameter, miniature brass cannons, yo-yos…

etcetera

etcetera

etcetera.

And a lot of that went into the ‘keep’ heap.

As for the rest, before the skip arrived, we created piles outside:

Starting to move 'rubbish' out

Starting to move ‘rubbish’ out

More for the skip

More for the skip

And more...

And more…

And some more

And some more

As we worked down through the layers, we exposed things long forgotten:

Kitchen table! (And cutlery drawer)

Kitchen table! (And cutlery drawer)

 

Chair!

Chair!

Cupboard and drawers!

Cupboard and drawers!

Fireplace!

Fireplace!

Floor!

Floor!

More floor!

More floor!

Not too sure what's in there...

Not too sure what’s in there…

 

Sofa!

Sofa!

Granddad

Granddad

Irony?

Irony?

We left the bathroom for another time.

Bathroom

Bathroom

Once the skip was full, my cousin made cunning use of a couple of big round bales and compacted the contents, giving us space for another third of a load.

Squashing it in

Squashing it in

Scrap metal went in a separate heap for a separate skip, but we didn’t even attempt to move the collection of broken washing machines in the undergrowth.

And, eventually, this is where we got to:

KItchen

Kitchen

Kitchen

Kitchen

Sitting room

Sitting room

Scullery

Scullery

Landing

Landing

Front bedroom

Front bedroom

Back bedroom

Back bedroom

Master bedroom

Master bedroom

And the sun shone through the rain!

And the sun shone through the rain!

There was a very good BBC documentary broadcast recently about hoarding and Jasmine  Harman, who tried to help her mum clear the decks in the programme,  has set up this excellent site for helping people with hoarding problems. The documentary was so good because it showed how ‘stuff’ can privately dominate a publically ‘normal’ family and how horribly painful it is for the hoarder and family to get to grips with the problem. Hoarders are undoubtedly impossible to live with and can be aggressive and hurtful if you pass comment or offer assistance, but they’re in a terrible muddle and, though the powers that be are still shillyshallying about classifying hoarding as a psychological condition, it seems logical that  there are reasons and triggers for this sort of behaviour, such as some sort of loss, be it emotional or physical. I think that it’s a very sad condition, as the objects sometimes seem to become substitutes for other things; emotions, interaction, people.

I remember a conversation about a decade ago, at the farm, while trying to help my father do a bit of tidying up. I went out on a limb and suggested that maybe we could throw some things away. This suggestion wasn’t received too well, so I searched around for a suitable, harmless object to use as a guinea pig. My eye alighted on a battered and broken peach-coloured lampshade.

‘What about this? We could throw this away.’

‘But it was my mother’s’

‘Yes, but it’s broken. You can’t use it any more. We can throw it away.’

‘But wouldn’t she be upset with me for throwing it away?’

‘Well, she’d be more upset to see the state of the house!’

And he looked so forlorn that I gave up and we just shuffled a few objects from pile to pile.

The lampshade has now been thrown away.

The Famous Pinter Pause

Many years ago when I was young and lithe and an usher at The Royal Court, the first play I worked on was Harold Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes (which ran in parallel with Shopping and F**king). This was when the Court was in the West End at The Ambassadors and The Duke of York’s while the Sloane Square theatre was being refurbished. The Ambassadors had been turned into two spaces and the whole design had a spit-and-sawdust, temporary feel, which went some of the way to explaining why the stairs in the main space were so irregular, steep and tricky to negotiate if you had any kind of leg or eye difficulty. Those with leg or eye difficulties tend to be elderly, tend to have hearing difficulties and tend to want to sit at the front of a theatre, so there was an awful lot of helping the aged up and down those steps. One of the first of the many audience members whose arm I took was an elderly gent, who was terribly excited about coming to see Ashes to Ashes, very unsteady on his feet and deaf. He was with his sister, who was slightly less elderly, almost as unsteady on her feet and very used to talking to a deaf brother. As I helped her down the stairs she advised, with regard to her brother’s enthused chatter, in a booming stately-home tone, ‘Don’t mind him – he was shot in the head as a boy’. Conversation-stoppers over with, the elderly siblings settled in their seats and the play began with Stephen Rea and Lindsay Duncan on stage in complete silence. The audience sat, rapt with anticipation, also in complete silence, until the atmosphere was shattered by the elderly gent turning to his sister and remarking in the most spectacular stage whisper, ‘Ah-ha! The Famous Pinter Pause!’

A giggle-wave washed over the auditorium and I swear I saw Lindsay Duncan’s mouth ripple.

The reason I mention this is because I appear to be having a Famous Pinter Pause. The kind of pause which, to the casual observer, might look like there’s nothing going on but, behind that public silence, everything’s privately working furiously.

I’m, rather sadly, privately working furiously on giving my father a hand clearing up his house.

Clearing up isn’t quite right. Clearing out is better.

There’s a name for the problem: Diogenes Syndrome.

It’s a great name, but doesn’t quite give the right impression. Diogenes lived in a barrel and shunned material possessions; sufferers of Diogenes Syndrome tend to live in a space considerably larger than a barrel and hang on to material possessions for dear life.

There are years of incident, habit and family circumstances that have lead to the current situation, but cutting to the chase, in early August, I went over to my Dad’s house, bathroom cabinet in tow, with the idea of helping him tidy up a bit and putting the bathroom cabinet up.

However.

The front door was unlocked, but I had to squeeze myself in sideways as it would only open a few inches. Once in, it was like being in a partially built newspaper warren. There was a narrow path leading straight ahead to the kitchen, to the right up the stairs and to the left into the front room. There was a smell of decay. There were a lot of flies. Mostly there were newspaper-and-plastic bag mountains. Daddy called hello from his seat in the front room. I couldn’t see him because he was sitting on the far side of the table, in a tiny valley in the mountains of stuff surrounding him.

That first day was spent removing the surface layer of decomposing matter. Bags and bags of shopping, which had just been dropped on top of the heap. Unidentifiable masses of organic mulch in plastic bags. More recent purchases of a pepperami and a loaf of bread in varying states of decay. I didn’t know bread could rot in so many ways. A fascinating research opportunity for a bread scientist. Completely green within the bag. Completely solid within the bag. Completely liquid within the bag. Rolls like pebbles. Remarkable.

Small bags with rotten tomatoes in. Bags of desiccated potatoes. Eggs, dropped on the newspapers on the floor, creating wonderful breeding grounds for flies. The paintwork in the kitchen looked like it was spattered with black paint, but it was just covered in flies. Pupa cases everywhere. About the size of a grain of wheat. Red. Once home to pupating maggots. Or still home to pupating maggots. Hence the flies. Whilst picking up all this rubbish, I had to kid myself that these cases were actually red-stained grains of poisoned wheat as there was quite a lot of that lying about too – for the rats, you know, though, luckily, the rodents seemed to have given up and moved out.

It was quite interesting to note how rapidly you develop the necessary clinical detachment and calmness needed to perform this kind of task. For example, quite early on I saw a maggot crawl into my shoe. This would, under normal circumstances, (not that I would classify maggots crawling into my shoe as a particularly normal circumstance) make me squeal like a girl, but I didn’t squeal;  I stood on one leg, removed shoe and extracted maggot whilst slowly repeating ‘I am not happy about this’ in an extraordinarily deep monotone.

I filled 30 black rubbish bags and also managed to excavate a second chair in the front room.

I think now that I should have taken pictures, because I honestly don’t think words can convey quite what it was like. But my clinical detachment didn’t reach that far.

The thing is, there is logic and reason behind it all:

Q: What do you do if the clothes you’ve been wearing for a considerable amount of time are smelling dreadful?
A: Buy new ones.

Q: What do you do if you’ve got a bowl of uneaten food that’s attracting flies?
A: Buy a tin of fly spray.

After that first day of being faced with huge piles of crap, I escaped to the theatre to see Enron, which only continued the trend.

This was just the beginning. Days more of the same followed (without Enron – a repeat viewing of that would quite possibly have sent me over the edge) and my mother valiantly, kindly, astonishingly, above-and-beyond-the-call-of-dutily joined in.

Deciding how to go about the operation was a problem in itself. Where do you start in a house that’s full, filthy and almost impossible to move in? We started by clearing the table in the front room. Daddy has his computer at the edge of the table, the keyboard on a piece of wood resting on an open drawer and the rest of the table covered in a mountain of stuff (and matter). The table and some of the nearby floor took me and my mother, both extremely vigorous types, a whole day to clear.

Then we went for the kitchen. The stuff on the floor had started to compost itself, so the very bottom layer was like soil. Bizarre. Oh, and there was no water connected in the kitchen due to rats eating washing machine parts and there being a leak in the sink. So we cleared for a day, using water in buckets from the bathroom when we finally got down to kitchen surfaces that could be cleaned. At the end of the day we admired our handiwork – the surfaces were clear and the floor was visible and, as my mother put it, in a declaration which prompted us to disintegrate into almost hysterical giggles, we’d managed to get it to the level of ‘absolutely disgusting’. Which was a major achievement.

Then came the end of August and, poetic as always, Daddy pretty much stopped working over the bank holiday weekend and checked himself into hospital. And he’s been in intensive care since then.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, we carried on trying to clear and sort the mountains of stuff. We threw out 200 black sacks of rubbish. And stacked and boxed and piled the good stuff. What was in the mountains apart from newspapers and plastic bags? Hundreds and hundreds of model aircraft engines. Model aircraft plans. Model aircraft. Balsa wood for making model aircraft. Kettles. Packets of paper napkins. Wax candles that had been half-eaten by creatures with small teeth at some point in the past couple of years. Anglepoise lamps. Lawnmowers. Cutlery sets. Hessian shopping bags. Pocket anemometers. Forgotten sandwiches. Pepperami wrappers. Binoculars. Batteries. Did I mention the engines? And the bubble wrap and the Jiffy bags. And telescopes. And notice boards. And endless light bulbs. And bottles empty of vodka and full of pee. And bottles empty of cola and half-full of pee. The traditional car engine in the kitchen.

And in amongst all this, heartrending purchases that are too bloody sad to think about. Bumper boxes of 100 Christmas tree baubles. Boxes of quirky dinner party napkin holders. Packets of little tiny charms for little tiny charm bracelets. Yo-yos. Rolls and rolls and rolls of wrapping paper. Packets and packets and packets of Christmas cards. A packet of six tiny champagne-bottle-shaped ‘celebration’ candles.

And in the back room, more of the same, with the addition of a fridge which was full of rotten food. The freezer compartment and the top fridge shelf were filled with a block of ice. The block of ice was filled with frozen flies. I half thought they might come back to life as their cryogenic chamber melted.

This is how my Daddy was living.

It’s easy to be blinded by the astonishing state of squalor but, of course, leaving aside for the moment the terrible, terrible state of his physical health and the blimmin’ alcohol, there remains, once you’ve cleared away all those piles of papers and engines and rotting malt loaves, a giant elephant in the room. Surely he must be unhappy beyond words to be living like that? Or is he really ok with it? Whichever, he’s now in intensive care being largely operated by machine.

So.

That’s the reason for the Famous Pinter Pause.