In the bigger scheme of things (this is what people say to themselves when they are secretly appalled by something, but need to put on a brave face) home renovation is not the most important item on my agenda, but right now it has to be the most urgent. I have been living out of a suitcase in other people’s houses since last November, when I moved out of my small but cozy townhouse in Brookwood, Parkmore; so too has my ever patient and always supportive Canadian partner, Roberta (Rob), since her arrival here in Johannesburg early in December. By now we have both had more than enough of this transient life; we have imposed enough on the kindness and tolerance of friends and family. So we have set ourselves the goal of moving into the family home in Emmarentia, mine in terms of the divorce settlement, next weekend – at present, the place is simply uninhabitable.

Eileen (technically she is not yet my ex-wife; the matter will hopefully be set down for 5 February) vacated the house last November, having decided apparently that, as she was going down to Cape Town for Kathy and Gareth’s wedding in December  (a future topic for this blog, perhaps), this would be an opportune time for her to move back to the Cape, especially as a Settlement Agreement was finally in sight. Four and a half years of stalled settlement negotiations turned out to have translated also into four and a half years of total neglect of the property: when she finally moved out Eileen left behind  a house that reminded me, when I first set eyes on it again, of nothing so much as an abandoned family home in post-war Mozambique.

As I write this, I realise that for those families who actually lost homes in the civil war in Mozambique, this might seem a reckless comparison, insensitive perhaps, to their reality of conflict and loss; but it has an emotional truth, for me, nonetheless: the home I left needed attention, but was essentially comfortable, clean, liveable. The home I returned to was filthy, overgrown, and in a state of physical decay that shocked me to the core.

The heavy rains that marked this summer had turned the swimming pool into a green swamp, complete with wildlife and swarming insects. The once-landscaped garden was overgrown; high grass, rampant creepers and sprouting weeds had taken over everywhere. The rain, and the fact that the house had been standing empty for more than a month, were reason enough for much of this decay; but there were other, more troubling indications of long-standing neglect. At the side and rear of the house, wisteria had covered the walls, ripped through the eaves and gutters, and spread a mass of dank greenery over the roof tiles. On the other side of the house, outside the windows of what had been our children’s bedrooms, a tree had been allowed to grow through the eaves and roof. The damage to the eaves, gutters and roof was considerable; the roof, pillars and retaining walls of the front porch were cracked and disclocated by the roots of trees that had been allowed to grow unpruned and untamed for years. In the front garden, a fallen tree was in the process of being followed earthwards by two tall pines that now slumped, half-dead, against the garden wall. Everywhere were fallen branches, mounds of composting leaves, and creeper vines blocking out the light and obstructing the way. The ugliest cacti had multiplied themselves, colonising what was left of flower beds and open spaces.

Indoors, it appeared as if squatters had left the place barely one step ahead of us. The lounge, family room (Kathy’s former bedroom, which will be our office once Rob and I move in) and bedrooms were strewn with papers, abandoned utensils, items of clothing, shoes, bits of electronics and other flotsam and jetsam. The filth was indescribable: it was hard to imagine how anyone could have lived here, hard too to imagine how anyone with a shred of self-respect or respect for others could leave a place in such a condition. And, of course, the effects of the external damage were visible inside, too, in the form of sagging ceilings in places, damp walls and peeling paint, a rotting carpet in the stairwell, damp woodwork, cracks in the walls, a  dank pervasive smell.

So, as you might imagine, there is much to be done. Eve, our youngest, took it upon herself to call her mother and insist that she pay for cleaners to come in; two immigrants from Malawi spent an entire weekend scrubbing floors and countertops while Eve herself spent three days clearing the detritus from the floors and sorting out garbage from things that Eileen wanted packed up and sent to her in Cape Town. Rob busied herself getting quotes and hiring people; she had the carpet cleaners in last week, after Eve had finished her mammoth clean-up, and that alone made the place look more habitable. ADT is fixing the alarm system, which apparently has been non-functional for god knows how long (though I have been paying for the security service all along) and township contractors have spent two days clearing the garden (a subject worthy of its own post) and will be here for a couple of days more.

A quick run-down of approximate costs:

Building repairs: R140,000

Garden services; R10,000 (initial quote, from a professional gardening service, came to R50,000)

Security: R35,000

Gareth, my son-in-law, asked the other night whether I thought the damage and neglect was maliciously intended. I answered ‘no’. In the first instance, I think, it is the distilled expression of a lifetime of avoidance and head-in-the-sand denial of difficulties or challenges. It is also the sign of a deeply depressed and very unhappy woman. And yes, finally, I have no doubt there is at least an element of malice, not in the sense of intentional harm, but in the sense that, ‘well, it serves you right, if the place is a pigsty.’

Rob and I went out for a stiff brandy, after our first visit to survey our new domain, in December; and we were equally in need of a drink when we stopped by a second time, on our return from holidaying in Cape Town. The place still upsets and disturbs us, at times: we are agreed that we need to get in a sangoma, to cleanse the evil spirits! But, we are taking it as a challenge, and an opportunity, too, to make the place our own, to restore a once-loved family home, and to begin to build a life together. In the end, it’s only money. What matters is life, hope, renewal, and we have much to be grateful for.

The children, too, are happy for us, and positive that we will make this a home to enjoy and appreciate. I also suspect that, more than they might realise, the damage and decline of our home in Emmarentia has affected them no less than it has me: it will make them happy, I think, to see the house once more loved and lived in.

Watch this space!