Saturday, 23 February 2013

Housemove Horribilis

We all remember when the Queen described 1992 as annus horribilis; the majority agreeing the year could hardly have gotten any worse for her family.
When it comes to house moves, the one I went through a couple of weeks ago is seriously up there on the horribilis scale.
It didn’t help that this move – finally into an apartment on which I secured a long term lease – was the fifth move I’d made in ten months.  Moving house is known for being disruptive, unsettling and time-consuming, but forces seem to have been primed to make the ultimate move the one to break my patience. 
To begin with, the reference and credit checks (which the private owner used an agency to conduct) were more invasive and frustratingly slow and tedious than the paperwork I did when buying a house in Australia.  The emails, phone calls and requests for more private information beggared belief.  And of course when they asked a question they demanded an immediate reply or threatened to cancel the process (for which I was paying handsomely).  When I had questions, however, they ignored me for days on end.  So, before a lease was signed or a single belonging packed, the experience was nothing short of torturous. 
On several occasions I complained to my closest confidant: “Come on, this much hassle can’t be normal, it’s a bad omen.  Painfully, life has taught me you can’t force a square peg into a round hole… I think I should give it up.  There’ll be other apartments.”   To which she advised: “but Mullins, then you’ll be back to square one and wasting another month flat hunting.  You need to get settled and this kind of frustration with bureaucracy is just how it is in the UK”.  There was truth in that, my friend was genuinely thinking of my welfare, so I persevered; albeit sometimes against my instincts.   
Nevertheless the following Monday morning I emailed the owner to say “if the checks which have been carried out to date are insufficient then I can no longer consider the property as an option. You have known from the outset that I work as a freelancer and if the proof I’ve provided re affordability isn’t satisfactory then it can’t be helped”.   She quickly replied “Everything is fine.  We can meet to sign the Lease on Wednesday evening, before which please pay £2,500 into my account for the deposit and first month’s rent.”  She gave me the account details.  I transferred the money.      
For the next day and a half the owner then repeatedly told me the money had not arrived.  The bank repeatedly confirmed the money had been sent.  Wednesday evening, half an hour before the scheduled appointment to sign the Lease, the owner prevented me banging my head on the wall by saying: “Oh, I seem to have given you the wrong account number… sorry.”   After several more phone calls to the bank the money is recovered.  But no, they can’t do the transfer again, to the correct account, as it’s after hours.  The Lease can’t be signed… as I’m not prepared to sign it without being given the keys, as agreed, at the same time.  Again my friend steps up to plug a hole, and as she’s set up for online banking (something I haven’t gotten around to doing in the UK) she transfers the deposit for me! 
The meeting takes place, the Lease is signed, the chit-chat is forced but friendly enough, and we part with an agreement I will turn around this move in the ridiculous time-frame of less than forty-eight hours. 
I’m astounded I’ve allowed the owner to bully me into moving on a date which suits her far more than it suits me, however such is the difficulty of finding a decent apartment in London in an area as popular as Wandsworth that I’ve fallen for her threats that “if you don’t take it, I have someone else wanting it”.   Only after signing do I discover the reason for the unreasonable hurry is that she is about to go overseas for several weeks.  Nevertheless I am starting rehearsals for a new musical that coming Sunday, so moving house that Friday… or not then for a month… are my only options.  I accept the pressure and resolve I’ll be relieved when it’s all done and dusted.
I had a much needed couple of wines that night in a bar with two friends, on route to Australia after some skiing in Europe.  I hadn’t been drinking alcohol due to a virus which kept recurring throughout January; each time, it seemed, that I got too cold or sat too close to someone coughing.  Given how many bugs go around in the thick of a European winter, and not being used to the cold as a born and bred Pommie, my immunity had taken a beating.  Yet my health had significantly improved in the last week so it felt good to relax and celebrate with friends; my new direction set, for better or worse.
Thursday was spent packing at a rate of knots.  I surprised even myself with the no fuss organisation and efficiency.  (Clearly I’d learnt something from multiple house moves.)   By late afternoon I headed out from Clapham Junction on the train to St Margarets, to pick up a friend’s car.  I returned in quiet traffic and was so ‘on a roll’ I decided to do two carloads of bags and boxes that evening. 
When I fell into an armchair to watch the late news my arms were aching.  Daily boot camp had enhanced my upper body fitness recently, but the twenty odd stairs at the new apartment were a killer.  I knew it was time to stop for the day, and sipping chamomile tea I felt relieved the job was half done.
Friday morning I jumped up early, completed boot camp, and finished packing the other half of the house.  I lugged everything down the stairs and piled it into the corridor near the external door.  As I was about to fetch the car where it was parked in a quiet street opposite, my great friend called to say she was sending her husband down to help me.  Talk about timing.  And with that assistance and a man’s eye for packing cars, we loaded and delivered one round, and then packed the car with the last load.  I was so pleased with the progress, helped by having only a few small pieces of furniture, that I asked him to wait by the car while I went upstairs to get a bag of groceries from the freezer.  That proved fatal.  For when I returned minutes later with frozen peas etc under my arm, we watched in dismay as a police car pulled up.  Thirty seconds sooner and we’d have been away.  But it turned out I was a metre over the boundary of where my car would have been legally parked, and the policeman in attendance was not only a stickler but rather rude about Australians.  Given I wasn’t blocking traffic, had genuinely thought I was responsibly parked, not to mention in the process of moving on, I hoped for some lenience.  No such luck.  He handed me a £130 ticket and an annoyingly patronising lecture about “red zones” and “learning the UK road rules before driving in this country”.  Ugh, what a pain.
We soon delivered that load anyway and when I returned to the old flat to complete the cleaning, I was very conscious of parking carefully.  I parked in the same quiet street as the night before, and walked up and down inspecting the signs.  I fed the meter and put a ticket on my windscreen for just over an hour, by which time I expected to be ready to return the car to Twickenham.  Cleaning done, and just a few small bags in my possession, I crossed the street and approached the car with five minutes to spare.  “Hmm, I don’t remember it being this far up the street’, I thought.  Back and forward I wandered.  Recalling my steps between the meter and the car, I shook my head in disbelief.  Eventually there was no other conclusion to be drawn other than “the bloody car’s been stolen”! 
In Neighbours parlance, this reaction would be described as “Julie is gobsmacked”.  And I was!   But what to do?  Up and down the street I wander like a lost waif.  What is the registration of the car?  No idea.  And no-one to ask as the friend who left me her car keys is in India!
Hell.  I call the police.  No registration, they can’t help me.  I return to the ‘scene of the crime’ and start asking strangers stupid questions.  My heart rate has already reached optimum as I contemplate the difficulty of recovering a stolen car without any details of ownership.  OMG I am up shit creek without a paddle.  (Sorry, but insufficient resilience for elegance here.)  When I return to the street a neighbour leans out an upstairs window and asks: “are you looking for a silver car?”  "Yes!"  I reply hopefully.  “They towed it away about twenty minutes after you left it”.  “Who the hell is ‘they’….. and why?????” I manage to stutter.  “That one spot in the street is a disabled parking place”, she tells me apologetically.  One spot.  In the middle of a long street with different rules – the like of which I am completely unfamiliar with.  The signage to tell me as much is simply some faded white chalk on the ground, beneath where it seems my wheels had found themselves.  Even if I’d been accustomed to looking on the ground for signage, it’s unlikely this particular day I would have seen it when there were several garbage trucks in the street, and I had to reverse forward and back several times to let them pass before parking.  Yet I never park in disabled parking spots.  I have an uncle and close friend in a wheelchair.  I wouldn’t dream of it.  But being so careful, how had I missed it? 
Clearly the old adage “the pathway to hell is paved with good intentions” stands true.  As I walked back to the old, clean and empty flat to cry, the kindly neighbour yelled out “sorry, the guy who lives there must have phoned the tow-truck company the minute you parked”.  Yeah, I bet he did, I thought; no doubt for a nice back-hander.  Suddenly I feel like knocking on his front door to give him a piece of my mind about practising the tolerance he demands from others – for it was clear by the meter ticket my infringement was a genuine mistake of only an hour’s duration - but I didn’t want to add other charges to my increasing bout of criminality.
I speak again to the police.  They give me the name of a company who locates ‘towed vehicles’.  They can’t help me as I have no registration number, and even if I did I’m told I can’t reclaim a car if I’m not the owner.  The car will have to stay at the pound for £200 a day.  Could it get any worse?
After another exhausted cry, this time more like sobs… I recall the name of the place where my friend bought her new car.  I phone them and thirty minutes later a saint of a woman has searched the database and found my friend’s car.  Armed with the registration number I can now go back to the car pound and negotiate.  Well, if it isn’t annoying enough that’s it’s now almost dark, wet and freezing, the car pound is not in Fulham as I’d been told it might be… but rather, Croydon!  Why in hell would you take cars from Wandsworth to Croydon – it’s not like the car was parked on a busy street causing traffic havoc.  Talk about over-governance.  But of course, no time to complain, I am feeling sick with responsibility for my friend’s car; significantly worse than if it were my own.
Multiple conversations later, escalating through various managers, I find someone with a little empathy and lateral thinking. He agrees if I can produce proof of address, a current driving license, proof of insurance (which  hopefully is inside the infamous car), and the car keys, that he will release the car to me that night for £255 pounds.  If I leave it longer it’ll be £455 (the £55 component, the ticket for parking in the disabled place, as if the trauma of being towed weren’t enough!). 
It is now six hours since I ‘lost’ the car.  I am utterly exhausted.  I can not face public transport.  So I take a mini-cab for another £30 – another investment in the charade for which I could have hired two men and a truck to complete my house move with FAR less stress!
I arrive at the pound and the guy who’s promised to bend the rules for me has gone home.  Seconds before collapsing on the floor in hysterics, I plead “but surely he told someone here about our discussion…. please ask your colleagues”.  A very cool, laid-back guy is shaken up by the sight of a lady on the edge, so he disappears for a while and comes back with someone who smiles at me and says “yes, he passed on the information and it’s our intention to make the release of the car as easy as possible for you”.  Thank you God. Thank you God.  Thankyou God, I say under my breath.  Though wondering why He’s had most of the day off.
I get the car.  I drive it through the ominous gates and they slam behind me. I park and call a friend.  I simply do not have the energy or emotional stability to find my way across London in mid-Friday evening traffic and rain.  He googles from the office and directs me to a large Sainsbury’s where he wisely advises me to sit and have a coffee and something to eat before attempting to navigate my way back.  I do this.  And I’m a little revived. 
Eventually at 9pm I pull up outside my new apartment.  Again I walk up and down the street checking signs with the suspicion of Woody Allen.  I can’t understand what I’m reading.  I’m too tired. The wording is ambiguous.  I decide it’s too dangerous to return the car to Twickenham, as I’m likely to kill myself or someone else on route.  My girlfriend confirms this decision over the phone and I resolve to leave the car whether or not I get another ticket.
I make my way up the stairs of my new ‘home’, though it hardly feels like it, desperate to relax.  With shaking hands I open the door, ooh it’s freezing.  I rush to the thermostat and turn it up.  I go into the bathroom and turn on the hot water to run a bath.  No heating.  No hot water. 
Seriously true.  This is why they say fact is stranger than fiction. 
I am beside myself.  Pushed beyond all reasonable limits. 
I get into bed, cry and fall deeply asleep.  The next day I go out and buy blankets.  I return the car without incident and for a reward eat a big chocolate brownie and cappuccino.  At least I have returned the car safely.  I have an unfortunate story to tell my friend who owns the car, but at least I haven’t abused her trust (I hope). 
I return to the flat.  It’s still freezing.  I start rehearsal on Sunday with another cold and little voice.  But I can only hope I’ve turned the corner and things are going to get better. 
That’s the thing about anything horribilis… that’s the thing about life… you simply have to turn the page. 
But… do you think if I asked Adam Hills to knock on that guy’s door to share a few thoughts it’d be considered less discriminatory?