Riyadh: Saturday 6th April 2013
Yesterday, as a result of a downsizing of our service delivery team in Riyadh, I was obliged to move out of Villa 13, the compound accommodation in which I have been housed since March 2010.
My new house, shared with two colleagues is in the same part of the compound and considerably better appointed. I have a larger room, better furniture and subtle lighting as opposed to the single ceiling light I had before. My bathroom is shared with one of my housemates but is in considerably better condition. The back is not rough as though the enamel has been scrubbed with a wire brush at some point in the dim and distant past. The sink is angled correctly on the wall so that the area behind the taps do not collect water and the living room furniture, while old, is not dirty or suspiciously stained as Villa 13’s was.
Villa 13 was something of a midden when I moved in but it rapidly go worse. Although I was a good 10 years older than my housemates, Jean-Paul & Brian, I was housed with them at the discretion of our then director who fancied that we would be “young guys together,” whatever that means.
What it meant in practice was that the place rapidly became as bad as the worst student accommodation I ever experienced. Neither JP or Brian had any interest in washing up or housework of any kind. Their pallets were undeveloped and cooking skills basic. Within a week it became necessary to clear a place on the worktop just to undertake the most basic level of food preparation. Within a week and a half, there was not a single piece of crockery or cutlery that was not caked in dried on food. I had tried to keep a semblance of discipline to the kitchen but it was a losing battle, utterly demoralizing and impossible to win. Neither of my housemates saw anything wrong with coming down late on a Thursday morning to discover me completing the washing up and preceding to begin the whole process again so that by Thursday evening the sink would once again be piled high and the worktops cakes in grease.
After a while I lost it! But to little effect. Their answer was to get a cleaner, but they resented paying her and continually lessened her hours asking her to concentrate on the washing up. Eventually, obliged to tackle 3 hours worth of washing up in an hour and spending the first half hour collecting the crap from around the living quarters, she packed it in writing a rude note that they destroyed before it could be read by me.
In the interim, my housemates, each in their Early 20’s, bought a set of music decks and speakers at great expense, and got the landlord to install a pool table in the dining room. For the rest of my time in Villa 13 I was unable to eat my dinner at a dinner table but obliged to eat it on the sofa. In the interim, weekends were spent in my room listening to the thumping music from downstairs (an I might add, neither was an especially accomplished DJ. Moreover, our house became a sort of social club for the young of the compound who could play pool and listen to music before returning to their own immaculate residences.
JP, in the meantime, was fond of downloading vast quantities of data from the internet. Mostly this took the form of mini-series such as Dexter or Lost, which they would watch together on work nights. The net result was to slow the broadband connection, making Skype more difficult and adding to my woes.
Brian left in 2011 and was replaced with Carter, a Filipino whose comparative cleanliness and ability to cook substantially civilized the kitchen. JP still only rarely stepped before the sink, but we would eat together in the main meaning that one or the other would cook and I would wash-up. In this way the kitchen was slowly tamed. Yet the house was by now even more tired than it had been when we moved in. Strange smells emitted from awkward corners, which no amount of cleaning seemed to be able to eradicate.
And to make matters worse, at some point, JP discovered carpentry, so that the porch was filled with bits of MDF, hack-saws, screws and brackets. The sawdust he would create would add to the ever-present Riyadh dust and sand. No longer was it just miserable inhabiting Villa 13. Now, it was embarrassing just seeing it. I was humiliated by the sight of a neighbor, who, I noticed, encouraged the gardeners to grow the hedges to obscure the mess of our porch.
I could not protest my innocence and isolation in the house. I could not approach neighbors and say, that I wanted nothing to do with the place. I was guilty by association. I knew what they were saying about the place, about it being like a squat or that it was a bachelor pad. I hated it.
Several times I sought in strong terms to be moved. Yet the truth was that no one wanted to move to Villa 13 and everyone realized that a new starter would take one look at the place and leave without unpacking his bags. JP too was keen that I should stay and lobbied that I do so behind my back. He knew the maxim better the devil that you know. Knew that no one else would tolerate the behavior I had.
JP left before Christmas and gradually the place began to be civilized. His bits of wood were cleared, as were his decks. I could not get rid of the pool table because he had left without paying the rental on it and I could not afford the outstanding sum (and had no intention of doing so, even if I could), but it did start to look and feel a wee bit more like a home.
And as if to complete the validation, of my suffering, Carter was able to arrange the return of our cleaner who would come once a week and leave the villa floors spotless and dusted. After a couple of weeks I started to see things I had not expected. She was now on top of the cleaning and began to fill up the spare time with things she was not asked to do.
I would return to find my pillows fluffed, or my laundry basket emptied and washing complete and hung to dry. I had reached a point now where I had to clean up before she arrived to prevent her from doing things I myself would have put off to the weekend.
And neighbors began to smile at me, for the first time. This was the greatest validation I could have hoped for. They seemed at last to understand. I was a prisoner there. I had not been party to the sleepless nights listening to thump-thump thump through the walls or the random, half built bits of shelving on the porch. I was slowly welcomed back into the community of the compound.
And so it was, that last night, my move almost complete, the sun set and the villa looking stark and bare and lacking once again the basic homeliness I had slowly sought to engender, that I looked around and felt just a hint of melancholia.
Mine has been a somewhat itinerant existence, a series of homes occupied for periods of only a couple of years or sometimes only a few months. When leaving each of these “homes” I have undertaken one last tour of the empty rooms to say a last goodbye. In each I have conjured a special memory, a moment that meant something; my own last memory shared with a space with which I had shared intimacies and had grown.
Last night in Villa 13 I could find no such fond memories. I have not enjoyed one minute of my time here. My bedroom recalled memories of isolation and sleepless nights listening to my housemate’s music. The living room recalled long weekends waiting for the time to pass before I could escape to the haven of work. The dining room recalled strangers treating my house like it was their social club, the kitchen recalled nothing but mountains and mountains of dishes filled with caked on ketchup and JP’s inedible children’s food.
But there was a feeling a wee bit like sadness too, fighting to rise to the surface.
Around this time I would be sitting watching the TV, probably an American sit-com or maybe the news. In a short time, I would head upstairs, aware that JP and Brian would soon emerge from their rooms, cook whatever delicacy took their fancy, well done steak and smiley faces, perhaps, and settle for an evening watching X-Factor.
In my bedroom I would Skype my lassie; reassure her that one day, when I had earned enough, we would put down a deposit on a house of our own, build a life together. And then I would sleep the better to bring forward the day I would be able to leave this place.
And now this moment had arrived. The TV was no longer there. My bed had been dissembled and reconstituted in another house. I was leaving Villa 13 for the last time. I have lived in this place for 8.3% of my life, and while I cannot recall a single truly good time here, a moment when I was really happy or where I had a real sense of achievement, it has, in a curious way, provided a sort of comfort. It had corporeal form. It was a certainty, a routine. Spend long enough in prison and you will come to love your prison warder, so they say. Here was my day of release and I was procrastinating at the gates, reluctant to leave.
And so with the deliberate, tired movements of a person who had spent a day doing unaccustomed heavy lifting, I finished the last of my tea, and as a conscious rebuke to all the dishes that have lain unwashed in this house, I took the fairy liquid and a sponge, and cleaned my cup, leaving it to dry in the drainer, a metaphorical baton, passed to the next occupant of Villa 13.