Over the years, I have acquired huge quantities of what most other people would consider to be junk.
A postcard from my grandparents in 1973, showing an attractive view of the seafront at Bournemouth, several pebbles from the beach at Sandsend (which I selfishly considered to be too beautiful to leave behind) and tucked away in the back of a book, I have the last note my Dad ever wrote to me – about how much food to give the dog and when I needed to put the bin out.
I have a box full of these things and I can’t bear to part with them.
They’re a fragile link to happier times, when we had a full set of family members and nothing really mattered for all the right reasons. When I read my father’s handwriting, I can imagine he has only stepped into the next room and when I look up, he will be standing in front of me and everything will be the way it’s always been.
Of course, I have memories as well, but I need to read and hold and touch and feel the past in my hands. To make sure it was really there.
And I’m frightened of forgetting.
A postcard, a cinema ticket, a pebble from the beach – seemingly insignificant things which are lying at the back of a drawer or hiding in a coat pocket. One day we will stumble across them again and realise they are amongst the most precious objects we possess. A gift from the past.
And photographs. Hundreds of them. Photographs, which were once stuffed back in a Kodak envelope and forgotten about, are examined over and over again … in the hope that they will be generous enough to release another memory or by staring at them for long enough, we will see something we’ve never noticed before.
My Dad used to say that if someone bothers to dust your photograph after you’ve died, then you’ve done rather well for yourself.
There was an old lady who lived several streets away from here. Within a few days of her death, a huge skip appeared on the driveway. Each day when I walked past, I noticed that in addition to the broken furniture and the rolls of carpet, little pieces of the past had begun to appear. Photographs, letters, treasured ornaments which were once dusted and admired … the last person they mattered to had left this earth and once again, they had become insignificant.
I think this is why I find car boots so fascinating. Hidden amongst the broken bits of Lego and the soggy paperbacks are items which once had the power to touch someone’s heart, but now find themselves sitting on a trestle table in a wet Sunday market. Forgotten, lost and worthless.
I once stood looking at one of these trestle tables and a man next to me pointed at one of the items he wanted to buy. It was a photograph of a soldier from the First World War and, although he was slightly faded and time had stolen some of his spirit, he looked just as a hero should – handsome, courageous and full of hope. The seller began making idle conversation, as he took his one pound fifty, but the man next to me interrupted him and said:
“I’m not interested in the picture, I only want the frame”
And so the stallholder took the photograph of the old soldier out of the glass casing and threw it away. The young man in the picture had ceased to mean anything to anyone in this world and there was no one left here who wanted to claim him.
I often wonder what will happen to my box of memories. To anyone else, they will be an inconvenience – a strange collection of insignificant things which will be thrown on a skip or (if someone is lucky) sold for a few pence at a Sunday market. And, although it hurts to admit it, I doubt very much anyone will bother to dust my photograph.
If anyone is wondering, I rescued the old soldier from a black bin liner on Calverton market. I paid fifty pence for him. I have no idea who he is – whether he lies in the Green Fields of France or if he returned to a hero’s welcome and lived to a deliciously old age. But in the spirit of Eric Bogle, I will always think of him as Willie McBride.
And he is dusted and he matters.
Perhaps, long after I’m gone, someone will be kind enough to do the same.