I don’t think I’m alone in eyeing phone calls suspiciously these days. If I’ve got a work call pencilled in or I’m awaiting a takeaway, I might be prepared for my pocket to ring. But without those caveats? A ringing phone is a curiosity and a concern. Who wouldn’t just text?
Certainly, as I sat at the hairdressers back in February 2018, taking some welcome respite from the chaos of an international house move, I didn’t expect my phone to ring. I didn’t anticipate a call from the shipping company that had my worldly possessions in transit. And I certainly didn’t expect that answering the call would signal the beginning of a chain of events that would change my life entirely, courtesy of a shipping disaster.
I’d been living in Dubai for seven years, working my way up the Middle East’s publishing scene to become editor of a popular women’s magazine – attending restaurant openings and glamourous galas, interviewing international celebrities and enjoying massive discounts on designer goods. My life looked, from the outside, gilded.
But behind closed doors, I’d been raising a toddler with a life-threatening genetic medical condition, and the impact of his birth had gradually derailed my marriage to the degree that I felt alone and unmoored, desperate for a fresh start. For the normality of life with a familial support net.
Relocating to Scotland was a difficult decision, but once made, I applied myself to the process of transit with gusto. I was savage in my wardrobe edit, held multiple garage sales and enlisted a friend who worked as a professional organiser to help me curate the belongings that would be needed in our new life. By the time the shipping company arrived to pack up, I’d reduced my possessions to twelve cubic metres of things I felt we couldn’t live without. My favourite fashion items made the cut, as did some of our better furniture. But the things that really counted were the irreplaceable – art, photographs, my child’s first clothes and toys, my late grandparents’ wedding crystal.
Each of these items was more than just an object, I realised. They were each a physical reminder of times past, of people held dear. Vessels for emotions and memories, evocative of times and places that I wanted to cling on to. Those crystal glasses, reflecting the love my grandparents had for each other long before I was born, were a must. A painting of an Ethiopian tribeswoman, kept not for its negligible financial worth but as a reminder of the somewhat hairy foreign assignment I’d taken tracking coffee beans from farm to flat white. A Moschino blazer, the first high-end item I’d bought myself having made the leap from skint jobbing journo in Edinburgh to editor in need of an editor’s wardrobe – kept despite the fact I was now making the same move backwards.
Carefully packed away into crates, and then into a shipping container and onto a huge cargo vessel bound for the UK, I waved goodbye to my boxes, prepared to meet them at the other end of the journey six weeks on. And then, ten days later, I answered the phone.
Initially, all we knew was that the ship had crashed while mooring in Karachi. Then video evidence of the carnage came via YouTube. In total, 21 containers had been lost overboard, a few dozen others damaged. The odds were in our favour, then. We just had to hold tight and wait for an update.
The news took weeks to come, but eventually, myself and the five other families sharing our container discovered that we were among the unlucky ones. Our crate had been sheared in two in the impact, “turned into a convertible” as the insurance underwriter later joked. Things got complicated. Some goods had been lost, some damaged beyond repair, and some looked to have survived reasonably intact. But in the chaos of the crash, it was unclear whose goods were whose – and until an investigation had been conducted, what remained would not be released.
In the weeks that followed, having arrived in Scotland with just two suitcases for me, one for my son and two for my ex-husband, I tried to take stock of what we may or may not have lost, and the value involved, while simultaneously coming to terms with the reality that, while I now had family around, I was also largely possessionless. Increasingly, it became clear that a new location would not solve old problems either. My marriage ended, this latest debacle the final straw that broke an already beleaguered camel’s back.
But amidst all the turmoil, I learned, as so many have come to learn in recent months during the pandemic, that it is not the big-ticket items of our lives which really matter when the chips are down. It is the small things that give us the most inexplicable joy.
I found myself making bargains with the harbour gods of my imagination. The sea could keep my Louboutin shoes. But those crystal glasses? My son’s first illegible nursery doodles? The coral he and I had collected together on a beach in Oman on a glorious weekend break when he was two years old? The things that were of little interest to the insurance company, having no monetary value, suddenly revealed themselves to mean everything to me.
The insurance process that followed took months. Accurate itemisation was an impossible ask and, years later, I still find myself digging around for things, only to realise that they must have been lost at sea.
Nonetheless, having done my best faced with such an unexpectedly odd situation, I eventually found myself in possession of a barren house, an almost empty wardrobe and a cheque. It was time to start from scratch.
Now, it would be easy to think that the way forward would be to simply replace what is lost. But in a new country, newly (though still complicatedly) single and contemplating the creation of a whole new normal, I found myself searching myself instead. Having lived for months with minimal possessions, I became Kondo-esque in my approach to purchasing. Who was I now, devoid of my things, away from the professional persona I had created for myself in Dubai, and what did this new person need? What would bring me joy? I wasn’t shopping for objects, but for the building blocks of an entirely new life.
Starting from scratch
Today, I live in a house that’s filled with things I love. I still mourn the things I lost – that Moschino jacket makes me weep – but I’ve realised that the memories of people and things live on inside me and, thankfully, on my phone too. Digital photography is something I will never again take for granted.
My son is healthy now. Our home is one we have created for our life as it is now, my ex-husband’s the same, and as I write this, amid lockdown season two, I wonder whether in a strangely fortuitous way, our shipping debacle has prepared us better than some for the strange situation we find ourselves in. None of us knows what is coming next but, having lived through a full-life reset already, I know that the world has a way of carrying on. I have learned that loss is not a finite thing. The current feeling of uncertainty may be global, but individually, there are common themes and many of them tie to the fear of loss, of losing the financial ability to continue on in the lifestyles we have built.
When you have already had to start from scratch, though, the fear of doing so again is greatly reduced, and the experience has ultimately made me braver. I have opted to start my own business as a freelancer, confident in the knowledge that my time and happiness are more valuable than anything a bigger paycheque could buy me. I am also willing to take more risks, less prone to overthinking everything, because I know that I can survive with very much less than I previously believed, even if only temporarily. Because it will always be temporary. We can build upon the foundations of what is lost. There is always a way forward.
Now, each night as I sit on a new sofa, in a new living room, a cup of tea perched on my new coffee table, spending time with my new partner, I take in the huge piece of coral that sits in the middle of it, the piece that survived the shipping intact. It still brings me memories of that weekend in Oman, searching for natural treasure with my son. But these days, it holds something more. A reminder that while life will change, while we will change, the things that matter will find a way to continue on with us regardless.
A version of this article was originally published in Imperica Magazine.