Almost exactly two years ago I was forced to move house. It was daunting, dispiriting – but also exciting, in a way that only moving house can be: the promise of a new start, the purging of old habits; however illusory these expectations, they have a powerful grip, and after six years of living in one place, of growing through my mid-twenties into my early thirties in a house that remained stubbornly the same, I was ready for a change. I was beyond ready. I could no longer recognise the house that had given me so much peace of mind when I’d moved in. Instead the house felt oppressive, and I found myself becoming angry at it as if it was an entity rather than a thing, and after initially trying to find a new house in the same neighbourhood the realisation that I couldn’t possibly afford to stay where I was was liberating rather than upsetting.
As I packed my belongings to move I quickly became aware of just how many possessions I had: an embarrassing number, for somebody who at the time was only thirty years old, though most of them were books and CDs. I purged what I could, which was mostly food: a fridge full, a pantry full of inexpensive things which did not need to take up room in my new house. Twin jars of mustard, each opened and forgotten about and each still perfectly good; neither necessary. Old tubs of ice-cream. Open bags of flour, bags of rice, bags of pasta.
These last three in particular I was eager to eliminate. For several years before I moved my old house had been host to a fluctuating population of Indianmeal Moths, also known as Pantry Moths. At their peak they covered the ceiling of the kitchen all summer long; even at their lowest numbers they managed to pollute and spoil sundry bags and containers of food. Their capacity to infiltrate even the most tightly sealed containers was astonishing, and I quickly learned to recognise amidst opened bags and boxes of food the tiny black dots that were the moths’ eggs. I learned to recognise the pilling of infested flour, the sticky strands of white silk that lined the rims of jars and boxes in ever-thicker beds. Jars of food became like terrariums as generations of moths played out their lives within them: from eggs to larvae to cocoons to adults. In jars of flour the larvae burrowed through the loose grains creating tunnels which occasionally touched the inside edge of the glass and so revealed, as in a worm-farm, the hidden lives of the tiny inhabitants within.
For an animal which thrived so easily within the dark of the kitchen cupboards, the adult moths seemed startlingly incompetent at the simple business of being alive: if there was a heat source they flew to it, and so died in their scores in pots of boiling water, in pools of hot oil in the bottom of woks, beneath the flames of the gas cooktop. If startled to flight they took to the air clumsily and with what seemed like great effort, and once aloft their flight was cumbersome and slow.
Yet they thrived, and contaminated everything they touched, and so when it came time to move house I threw away nearly everything that had been in the pantry, whether it showed signs of infestation or not.
I was successful, my efforts were worthwhile, and since I moved house the Indianmeal Moths I’ve seen have been few, and isolated. Only twice in my new house have I opened a container to find it infested, and after several years of keeping opened bags of flour or rice or pasta in the fridge to keep them safe from the moths I now house them in the pantry, comfortable – as comfortable as I can be – in the thought that they will remain untouched. On those rare occasions when I’ve found an Indianmeal Moth in my house – before I moved I found them nesting, also, in my bookshelves, under flyleaves and in the spaces beneath hard-cover books – I’ve used their slowness and their lack of agility against them, trapping them in jars and releasing them outside where they fly, startled, into the open air, before invariably crashing to the ground or into a bush. I’ve kept in mind always Uncle Toby’s dictum, upon catching and releasing a bothersome fly in Laurence Sterne’s great novel Tristram Shandy: “This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me.”
Yet the struggle is ongoing and requires constant vigilance. Such is the nature of human habitation: our houses are forever being assailed by unwanted visitors; and of course we’re not alone in this, as each animal on earth must live in intimate company with other species whether it wants to or not. It’s easy to think of each of our irritations as a new discovery, our own unique trial; misery loves not company but isolation, and the delusion that each ordeal, however large or small, is an ordeal apart from all others. But the people who lived in my house before me undoubtedly discovered moths in their muesli; and likewise the people before them; and the people before them.
Who those people were, I don’t know: a collection of recent names on errant mail that still turns up in my letterbox from time to time; owners of a Dog (Canis lupus familiaris), most recently; owners of the house, going back some time further. Before that, who knows – generations of ghosts and memories scattered to distant houses and distant lives.
It can seem as though we know more about our houses themselves than their past inhabitants: if the people are largely anonymous, the houses boast easily remembered and casually ascribed nomenclature: Victorian terrace; Edwardian cottage; California bungalow. There’s an impersonal note to this, as if the permanence of the houses casts the contrasting transience of the human lives within them into such insignificance that those people, generations of city-dwellers, remain unnamed and unremarked upon. With the memory of them goes the memory of the city itself, until facts of history are nearly obliterated, to be shaken back into our consciousness at unexpected moments; when looking for houses in North Carlton, near my old house, I noticed a real estate agent’s description of one rental property as a “miner’s cottage”. Miners? In North Carlton? Ah, but wait, I see now: there’s the Quarry Hotel on Lygon Street; there’s the old quarry itself, now a playground in a pit at a local primary school on Nicholson Street.
Such realisations are a jolt. There’s no sensation that I can think of that is quite as strange as the sensation of being in a familiar place and suddenly noticing something that had until then completely escaped your attention. A shop previously unacknowledged on a frequently visited block; a view of a distant hill from a road traversed daily. Not long ago I was entering my bedroom – I say “my” bedroom though I’m only renting it and only a couple of years ago it housed somebody else altogether – and I saw on the doorframe faint marks, scrawled in pencil on the painted wood. The lower of the two markings reads “Alana 170cm”; above it is “Mark, 180cm”. I know neither Alana nor Mark; I’ve never heard the names before in connection to this house. Living by myself as I do I struggle to imagine the house – a rental property for many years according to my neighbours – as a place in which children were raised, in which parents marked out the height of those children as they grew. Having seen the markings now, though, having imagined in my mind Mark and Alana standing stiff and proud against the doorframe while their mother or their father held a ruler or a book flat on their head and pencilled their height onto the wood, I find scores of children coming to my mind: flitting delicately into the light, as if hatched in the dark cupboards and crevices of this old house.
So attached do we become to our houses that it can be discomfiting to imagine other people inhabiting them before us, loving them with an equal fervour, or perhaps hating them and wishing themselves far away. It’s an irrational feeling, it’s the fear of ghosts; yet if I confront it in myself I find that it disappears completely, replaced by the very opposite feeling: a comfort in knowing that many other eyes have gazed at the walls that now shelter me, that countless people before me have huddled before the heater in the sitting-room on the longest night of the year and dreaded the moment when they have to open the door and let the cold air rush in from the rest of the house. I can imagine the pride of the house’s very first residents, how excited they must have felt when they turned the corner of this small street and saw the new building shining in the southern Australian sun. They couldn’t have known how long they would live in the house, and perhaps their children remained after them, and their grandchildren. They would have worried about having enough food; they would have worried about keeping what food they had from spoiling. They would have admired the singing of the birds in the trees outside as much as they reviled the pests that invaded their kitchen. Eventually they would have vacated the house, one way or another, and the next generation would have moved in, grateful for the sturdy walls and eager for the discovery of their own lives. And so on, and so on, in every house and on every street, until gradually by an accumulation of lives this city gained an invisible but indelible history.
Image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org