Moving house is proving horribly stressful. How, for example, does one buy a bed?

“Ikea,” says everyone, but I'm not wild about making my own furniture. Call me old-fashioned, but isn’t that someone else’s job?

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Is there anything more stressful than moving? Divorce, because that can involve heartbreak as well as moving. Death of a loved one, of course. But that’s it. And you don’t expect to hit death and divorce too many times. But moving – that’s been happening to me a lot over the past three years. This, though, is the worst one yet,  by a long way.

The reason for this is that the last two major moves – London to Scotland, and Scotland to Brighton – were to places owned by friends. There was no paperwork. This time, I’m going through an estate agent. And the landlord is someone I do not know, so they’re not going to say: “I’m sure you’ll be fine for the rent.” They will want to know that I am kosher when it comes to matters financial. Which means that, among other things, they will want my tax returns for the past three years.

Long-term readers might recall that my relationship with HMRC is… unorthodox. I pay my taxes, eventually; and I like to think that the late payment charges, and my willingness to accept their estimates of my profits (a  word that looks wrong, somehow, when applied to me) instead of hiring an accountant I can’t afford anyway to knock the figure back, mean that I am doing that little bit extra for the government’s income.

Every so often I ring HMRC up just to say hi and let them know I’m still here, and they say hi back, and I say how much do I owe you, and they say we’re not actually sure, for all we know we may owe you something but I wouldn’t count on it if I were you,  and I say thank you, and it’s all quite civilised. Then I forget about it for a while until another buff envelope arrives. Let me put it like this: I am almost as bad at claiming money as I am at paying it, if a form is involved. 

That way of doing things,  I realise, doesn’t cut any ice with estate agents. So I am now paying a significant sum of money in order to pay another significant sum of money, and the twist is that it has to be done by Friday – that’s last Friday, by the time you’re reading this. (It’s a bit funny to think that by the time you read this, I will have moved, either to my tiny flat or, I don’t know, someone’s sofa. Or under a bridge.) Yesterday I bought a pint of milk and realised that I’d have moved before its expiry date. That said, I’ve observed that the expiry date on bottles of milk is no longer a reliable guide to how long it will remain drinkable. Anyone else noticed this?

But that’s the easy bit. Someone else is actually filling in the forms. I, meanwhile, have real work to do on the ground. I have to buy kitchenware. I have to buy a Hoover. I have to sort out the internet. I can’t remember if I have to buy curtains, but I’m pretty sure  I do. I have to buy a table, chairs, a sofa. I have to buy a duvet, pillows, a bed.

How do you buy a bed? “Ikea,” says everyone, but I am not wild about making my own furniture. Call me old-fashioned, but isn’t that someone else’s job? Also, for reasons both personal and political, I hate Ikea.

I had a conversation with my daughter about this.

“You know what?” she said. “I bet you’ll just about manage to have a mattress on the floor and you’ll be fine with that  for months.”

“How dare you,” I said.

“No, I’m not saying it in a bad way. I’m just making  an observation.”

And it is true. I was once told by someone who lived with me and was therefore in a good position to see how I adapted to circumstances: “You’d find a way of making yourself comfortable if you were chained to a radiator  in Beirut.”

This was in the days when chaining people to radiators in Beirut was all the rage, of course, so I was much younger then. Somehow, these days I don’t think I’d like it very much at all, even if I had my meals brought to me and I didn’t have to cook or do the washing up.

But the clock ticks down, and the sense of impending doom grows stronger, to the point where not even sleep is a refuge. The unconscious can be rather brutal at times, and last night I dreamt that I was back in the castle in Scotland, pottering into the kitchen while the Laird carved an enormous ham – about the size of a Shetland pony – and I hovered around trying to be invited to dinner, and wondering how to broach the subject.

As I said at the beginning, and I think amply demonstrated, the whole business has generated unbelievable levels of stress, consuming every waking thought. It is a mercy, I suppose, that my hair has gone white already. Why can’t your teeth go white as well? 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 02 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the Union

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