A central principle of a working life – or, at least, of my working life – is that anything non-urgent can be put off until retirement. The folders full of paperwork, the stacked boxes of VHS and cassette tapes, the mid-1980s cheque book stubs, the vast collection of keys long dissociated from the locks in which they might once have turned – all can be left in boxes in the garage or the loft in the hope that, one day, you’ll have the time and wisdom to work out what should stay, and what should go. And when, sadly, the older generation draw stumps, they bequeath a fresh influx of papers and artefacts that threatens to burst the banks of what little storage space remains.
Then the day arrives. You’re retired, and there are no more excuses. Procrastination, in a strange time loop kind of way, is yesterday’s thing. Added to which lockdown, for all its downsides, presents the best possible opportunity to do something about the situation.
So that’s where I am, now – trying to do something about the situation. It’s a maelstrom of tidying-up, affecting pretty much every room in the house, but with the garage at the epicentre. It’s not been home to cars for many years – more an outstation of the municipal recycling centre. But little in the garage is stationary – artefacts flow around it, front to back, back to front, side to side, out into the house or even (almost poetically) away to another place. At a superficial glance, nothing much seems to change, but a time lapse would show an ebb and flow like a tide washing up and down a beach.
I can see why I kept much of this stuff. Small mementos might have sentimental value one day. An ancient kitchen utensil might eventually be put to good use. But in the end, there’s a choice to be made. If something is essential, it should be in the house. If not, it should be freed from garage purgatory, and sent on its way.
Like a prospector panning for gold, I sift through everything, and nuggets emerge. Mostly those that evoke memories of my parent’s lives, and of those close to them. They might appear banal to the uninitiated, but to me they’re looking through the round window into lives that were dear to me, but of which I probably knew too little as I forged my own.
A certificate from a 1971 RSPCA dog show, placing our beloved dog Sally as a Reserve for ‘most attractive crossbreed’; Sally’s name tag from her collar. My dad’s bowling trophies, won among a community of people now long gone, shadows on a bowling green that’s still there, but unused. The photographs: the maternal grandfather I never knew, in the Army in Baghdad during the First World War; my parents’ wedding day, brimful of happiness and hope; the beach scenes through the decades, the cares of the day dissipated by sand between toes. Three dimensional moments, frozen into two. Seen, but inaccessible to the other senses.
I look deep into the photos to try to discern what those caught on film were thinking and feeling. Were they living through something trivial or profound? Were they happy with their lot or disappointed? What did they want to happen next, and for the rest of their lives? Out of the public eye, but at war, in love, experiencing happiness or pain, realising dreams and coping with nightmares. These were lives that were both ordinary and extraordinary in equal measure.
Through the artefacts I have, I can at best weave together a palimpsest of the lives that were lived. It’s emotional work, and I’m conscious that an unhealthy fixation on the past can eat into both present and future. But I still feel I have to honour the lives that have been, and give them the afterlife they deserve – not in any spiritual realm in which, as a humanist, I don’t believe, but in the tender recollection of those they left behind.
I’ve often said that humans are bound up in narrative. We look for stories everywhere for reasons which are rooted deep in our evolved psychology. But my garage experience makes me think that maybe it goes beyond that, and that we’re not only devoted to narrative, but that we are narrative. Of course we’re flesh and blood, but the thing that defines us most is the story each of us represents, and how it intertwines with those of the people around us.
In those stories, death is the biggest, most abrupt full stop of all, and for those left behind, it can obscure much of what precedes it. I’ve learned that it’s my duty to look back and sketch out the well-lived lives on which I’ve built my own.
The garage, the loft, and wherever else the tributaries of papers, pictures and objects flow, have taught me that the most profound insights into the mystery and meaning of life are more likely to be found in cardboard boxes than in many grander inquiries into existential truth.
And that simple stories, tales of lives lived with honesty, compassion and fortitude, are the most glorious realisations of that thing we call ‘the human condition’.