Stuff

The older we get, the more things and memories we gather around us. Generally. Of course, there are sad examples where this is not true, but I can forget about those for now.

Even the most ordinary objects can be windows into memories. An old man may find a long-lost screwdriver, red paint on its handle rubbed to a smudge of its former self; and he may look through the faded paint into the past: to hours and hours of fixing things. Taking apart a green and cream 1950s radio. Soldering inside. Then, putting the pieces back together and screwing in the last screw. A sharp CLICK, followed by a deep voice from the radio, crooning a country and western ballad. The voice has a hint of solidity that can’t be heard in a modern recording. It’s as if the song and the twang of the guitar is here and now: like real stuff.

Or, look at a pencil. Just an ordinary red pencil – the HB lead sharpened to a point, but slightly rounded through use. Not long ago, I sketched a cat with that pencil, but it looked more like a dog. My fault, not the cat’s. And the same pencil looks like one I used in a classroom, many years ago, to write words on the lines of a battered jotter. I sense the rows of other pupils around me, crouched over their own stories; and I smell the lemony smell of my old wooden desk. I move the pencil along the lines on the jotter, forming letters and words and seeing through them to sky-reaching trees and a long winding path, under the immense Seven Arches Bridge. I walk quietly, beside the Dichty – it’s waters fast and chirpy, in the cold timeless air.

I woke up the other day and I had become 58 years old. The same age Charles Dickens was when he died, in 1870. By then, he had written 15 novels, and many articles, essays, and letters. I hope I have time to catch up. I can always look at the stuff I’ve gathered over the years, and let the objects remind me of memories I should perhaps write about: times which had almost faded to smudges of their former colours. A blue raincoat becomes a window to a bright rainbow over the Hilltown. A brown and black wooden chess set is a window to a huge hall and long tables with a hundred seated chess players, two by two, facing each other with tense, unmasked faces staring at the boards.

For me, books also hold memories – in their words and sometimes in their appearance. I’ve got an old set of red encyclopaedias. Isobel calls them “encyclopaedias  blah blah” because of a story I like to repeat any chance I get. I was walking near home one day and passing a carpet shop. I noticed a pile of red books propping up a stack of carpets. I walked up to the window and saw that the books were the same type of set that my dad owned when I was a child. I remembered instantly their black and white and brown-tinted photographs and the smell of the red covers: the smell of long summers, time-travel, and the world presented in easy to understand chunks of wonder. One photograph stayed with me vividly: a tunnel cut in a giant redwood tree, and horses and men passing through it. So, I went into the shop, and bought the books for a few pounds from the owner. It’s not often I get the chance to buy back a bit of my own past. I don’t think it’s the same set, but it could be, and it has the same smell.  

The next time you’re in someone’s home, and you notice a cluttered corner or a  room full of stuff, remember : it may not just be stuff. You might not see the memories there. But someone will.

Harvey Duke

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