‘How did I get here?’ I think dazedly. I am sitting in the Big Yellow Self Storage in Balham being interviewed, there is no other word for it. The person interviewing me is a relentlessly cheerful girl who wants to know everything, there is no other word for it, about me before she rents me a storeroom. But not only that, she wants to know everything about something she is ominously calling ‘my storage needs’.
As I deliberate on the prices and options, she announces: ‘This is about making sure it’s the right decision for yourself.’
I want to store a piano for a month. I’m not choosing a pension plan. But I don’t say this. I just sit there thinking the world has gone mad and I wish I could get out of it all somehow.
I wish I didn’t have to witness this girl’s enthusiasm for storage, or storage solutions as she calls it. Her thoroughness is so exhausting that, after ten minutes, I feel I am being crushed by the very idea of extra space. And what does self-storage mean? I’m not going to store myself. I start sweating.
The girl smiles with her head on one side, leaving me in no doubt that she knows I’m in a mess. No one comes through the doors of the Big Yellow in Balham without being driven to it by chaos and despair, but we change all that, her face says. Do you? Do you really?
I find myself explaining that I am trying to sell my house but it’s not shifting, and I want to buy this cottage in the country, so I’ve changed agents, and the new agent says de-clutter, move the piano — in fact, he called it the keyboard, which only underlines the reasons why it will have to go — and all the books. I take a breath. I cough. I blow my nose. I am run down, I tell her. Possibly, I will start explaining that I have trust issues and relationships are a struggle.
‘Yes,’ she says, leaning forward on the desk, giving me a wide, conspiratorial look. ‘We do get a lot of people in your situation. Some people are moving, some people just want more space. You know… they’ve run out of room…’. And she raises her eyebrows.
‘Yes, I can imagine,’ I say. ‘People must come here all the time wanting extra space. Wanting storage.’ If she feels my sarcasm she shows no sign of it, and continues by asking me to take a look at some of the sizing options they can offer for my storage choices. ‘Come this way,’ she says, with a wink, ‘to our sample storeroom!’
And she gets up with a flourish, comes around the desk, and conducts me with great fanfare to an area a few feet from her desk — ‘Here we are!’ — on which has been drawn various red squares showing what 30, 40 and 50 square feet look like.
They all look impossibly small — it only occurs to me later that they might have been made deliberately small-looking, with some optical illusion — so I take the 50, which is a lot bigger than the piano mover said I would need.
But then there are all the books, hundreds of them. The agent eyed them suspiciously then advised they be cleared from the shelves, as if they were out-of-date vegetables.
I wanted to say, ‘It irks me that people nowadays view books as litter and that you, sir, despite being smart and urbane-looking, don’t even know the word piano.’ But I didn’t. I agreed. I must de-clutter to sell or I will lose the cottage in the country and face another three-year search for something in Surrey I can afford.
The agent also wanted me to move the packets of tea on the shelf above the kettle. ‘Do you know what they say to me?’ he said, with a swagger, as if he was about to reveal the square root of pi. ‘That I like tea?’
‘No. They say… “There is no storage in this flat!”’ He said this so loud it made me cower and agree to put the mint tea and Earl Grey in a cupboard before viewings.
In conclusion, he assured me that buyers will not be able to work out that there is no storage, it’s just that I’ve hidden all my stuff in boxes in a storage unit. It’s all most dis-orientating.
‘When are you thinking of moving in?’ the smiley girl asks. ‘In here?’ I say. ‘Yes,’ she says, looking unfeasibly excited.
I’m not moving in. I rather thought I would just store the piano, I want to say, but I don’t. I must play the game. ‘Thursday,’ I say, adding, ‘if that would be OK with yourself?’