I just had the declutterers in. It’s sheer extravagance, but when you’ve still got the debris from your father’s estate to weed out, ten years after his death, probably justified.
Maybe in 2008 I believed I might still keep him – deny death - by holding on to every fibre of the stuff he left the day he died.
Declutterers are professionals and, by God, they work fast. They’re a reincarnation of the shoemaker’s elves, who tidied for him overnight – come morning, the house is totally transformed.
It’s good to start with a list, because these self-identified neat freaks do love a list. It also keeps them under control; watch them closely or they go feral. Their little fingers itch to organise and classify: they’ll arrange your fiction alphabetically before you can say Kazuo Ishiguro.
Crates of “stuff” – mainly paperwork – get tipped out on to the dining table and rigorously classified by the declutterers. I’m then offered handfuls of categorised items with suggestions - mainly that I chuck them in the bin. Five rusty hole punches are probably not essentials in the modern home, and these young women have a gift for identifying bits of gadgetry which I’ve only held onto because I haven’t a clue what they’re for.
When they find an unusual storage solution they particularly like, they snicker with delight. I have a neat pull-out ironing board disguised as a cutlery drawer in my fancy B&Q kitchen. Searching for places to reorganise, they pulled, they found, they snickered. And they recorded a little video of it.
Releasing elfin strangers into your home is an unnerving business. They got through my list in a morning and I had to come up with new tasks for the afternoon. What to do, what to do?
I was forced to resort to more scary, personal crates of stuff from my childhood and from boxed-off segments of my life. I was paying these expensive declutterers, and I ought to try to get my money’s worth. I knew there were items in there that I had been hiding from my own consciousness, but I took the plunge.
It was a shock. All kinds of things showed up: press clippings about ailments, letters from a consultant to my GP, love notes, weird cuttings from even weirder alternative medicine magazines. Photos of my tiny baby son, crying and far too scrawny, the shocking sign of a bad mother. I went into freeze frame. The declutterers’ magic little fingers made piles of “health”, “personal”, “receipts”, “photos”.
Seven receipts from Waterstones: bin? Eleven from Sainsbury’s, 2016: bin? But I was preoccupied with all the letters. Letters from my grandma. Letters from my mum. Three diaries I apparently kept as a student in the late 1970s. I never knew any of this stuff existed. I thought that crate, stored for years in my father’s loft, held my old school exercise books and some school magazines - not a carrier bag full of other papers, unseen by me since the day I flew home from studying in Paris.
We had to stop, and have a cup of tea.
In the next crate, something else unexpected: a CD-Rom. I had been looking for it; on occasion I woke at night in a cold sweat thinking it must have been thrown away by accident. It contains my father’s entire known family tree, first researched by my great-aunt and then checked and verified by a genealogist. I was told the CD-Rom meant I could “drop” the whole tree into Ancestry.com.
This is the prospect facing me now. What will happen if I do drop it in? Will I be deluged by contact from other Duvals, Finets, Bacheliers? What if I don’t have time to respond to them courteously? Who are they, and what will they want from me?