What’s in your attic or mouldering in your basement? Maybe it’s time to find out, time to open the boxes and let the memories out.
Simply amazing, the stuff you find in boxes. Not that the stuff was particularly amazing when it went into the box. Often it’s a matter of not being quite ready to throw something away, so it ends up in a box. But years later, that which barely escaped the incinerator finds new life, bringing the joy of re-discovery, or even the pain of moments long past. Be it joy or pain, the emotion is all the more intense for being so long forgotten, so suddenly recalled.
Attached to the house is a large, unheated, uninsulated store-room. It has double metal doors at the front, a flimsy broken door at the side and a window largely obscured by spiders’ webs. This room is nominally designated as a ‘garage’, big enough for two smallish cars. In the twenty years or so that have passed since a car was last in it, the ‘garage’ has slowly become choked with more and more boxes. There is even the recent discovery of a box that was never unpacked since the move from the last house. But it is not confined to boxes. There are also assorted bicycles, golf clubs, things-that-might-one-day-be-useful, handbags, cases, boarding-school trunks and of course, a unique and no doubt valuable collection of plastic bags.
And yet what wonderful treasures this week has thrown up. It started with an old school suitcase, my name still stencilled in black paint across the lid. Once, surely, I must have known what it contained? But on dusting it down and easing open the rusty catches it was a shock to find my late father’s paints, brushes, palette knives and assorted artist’s equipment. He was no great painter, indeed he had not long taken it up when he died nearly forty years ago. The case stayed with my mother for the next twenty years, since which time it has been in storage with me. The real discovery, the real treasure was that within the box were three paintings, no more than unfinished sketches. Until the case was opened this week, no one knew of their existence. They are the sole remaining evidence of my father’s art, all else having been stolen by burglars years ago.
Flushed with this success I dragged out an old briefcase – hard, black and with brushed aluminium trim – all the rage in the 1970s and the phrase ‘Manhattan Lunch Box’ comes to mind. More joy of opening! Fortunately not a forty-year-old ham sandwich, instead the results of many hours spent in a darkroom at the bottom of the garden during the 1980s. Cibachrome! Who’s heard of that today? It had the capacity to produce the most brilliant prints direct from colour transparencies. I never understood the chemical process – was it dye transfer? – and I never mastered the technique, but the results could be brilliant. And among the test strips, the failures and the handful of passable prints there was a favourite picture of my oldest child that I thought had been lost long ago.
Another box, more familiar than most, invited attention. I knew it contained a collection of cigarette and trade cards. Ten or more years ago I’d arranged them in their various sets and thrown out all those stuck together and useless. Given the damp conditions of storage, it was a near certainty that many more would now suffer the same fate.
Guiltily I lifted the lid, already discoloured with mould. The unmistakeable smell of damp card told the story. Of the thousand or so cards, perhaps half have formed themselves into little solid blocks. Of the rest few are of great interest, but amongst those that survived unscathed are a collection of Cinema Cavalcade from 1940, and – perhaps my favourites – from Strollers cigarettes in Canada around 1925. As I leafed through the tattered albums one card in particular drew my attention. Collected by my father in 1922 it features cowboy actor William Russell on the back of a rearing horse. What caught my eye was that the image was almost identical to one from my own childhood: a poster of Roy Rogers on the faithful Trigger, torn from a comic and stuck to the bedroom wall. Out of that damp and neglected cardboard box had come a moment of direct connection with my father’s boyhood.
Simply amazing, the stuff you find in boxes.