We imagine that the things we have make us. All sorts of trivial stuff. Or at least I did, when I was younger. I thought I would only become a responsible, functioning adult when I had a house filled with everything I needed and more besides. And I spent years accumulating; accumulating things I thought I needed, things I knew I needed, and – almost always – things for which I had absolutely no need. If a life is defined by what one collects along the way, then, for the past four years, my life has been mothballed, archived, locked away into a vault. But, of course it hasn’t, because I am greater than the sum of my stuff. The more time that passes, the less inclined I am to open the vault, and the more certain I become that I don’t need what’s in there. But who am I kidding? The stuff of life reaccumulates. Replacement furniture and books and pictures on the wall and too many shoes have begun to find their way to me – begged, borrowed, and not quite stolen. This was the year I was to bite the bullet. This was the year I would deal with my life locked away in a dusty shipping container high on a hill in Ireland. Somewhere on the brow of the hill where the motorbikes hit one hundred miles an hour in the May races (that did not take place this year). A place where, in August, the side roads drip with unpicked brambles – be careful if you go picking there, be ready to jump in the ditch when a car comes too fast along the narrow road. It’s near the high part of the road, approaching the coast, where the vista opens up and Atlantic suddenly appears and, on a clear day, you can see the Paps of Jura jutting up behind Islay. My island stepping-stones between here and there.
It’s an odd old phrase, archaic: to bite the bullet. It conjures up the idea of enduring something painful, having one’s leg amputated with a bullet clenched between your teeth as the surgeon sweats and saws in a makeshift, nineteenth century field hospital. Nowadays we use it for affairs of the heart; say it in relation to pushing through on something unpleasant, something from which you are not going to lose a limb, but where you might be in danger of having your heart gouged out. It’s an ill wind, and I no longer have to bite the bullet as I have been saved by the pandemic. I cling to it as a legitimate excuse for placing the bullet biting into abeyance for another year. I’ve never visited this shipping container, but I packed the boxes – or some of them – that were loaded onto a van and sent there. Then I promptly pulled down a shutter in my mind, so hard and tight that I find it hard to recall what might be in there. It has been a lesson in not needing, in groundlessness, in non-attachment. A masterclass in the benefit of forgetting. So, come on now, try to remember – try harder. Screw your eyes shut.
I see that hammock from Medellin. When we were ever going to use it? What am I ever going to do with it? And a Turkish bedspread. At a glance, both look similar. That bedspread was so heavy that I couldn’t turn at night under the weight of it; it was like having permanent sleep paralysis. Will it be mildewed by now? Four copies of the same edition of Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters. Why so many? Blue cover with red flowers. I see them all the time in charity shops and hesitate, think of spending a pound and buying one, and then I remember: I have four in storage, why do I need another? Two highballs made from Murano glass, or something that looks like Murano glass. I like them. I would like to drink Gin and Tonic of an evening from one. Alone. Why not? I want them. Suddenly I need them, although I have not needed them in four years. The acquisitiveness has returned. And that balancing whale from Bamburgh. What on earth was the attraction? It can stay there: Jonah in the belly of the whale; the whale in the box; the box in the container; the container high on the hill; the hill holding my former life. A life that will remain locked away thanks to lockdown. The sifting and sorting can wait for another day. Did I call it trivial? I know, when the day comes to pull up the shutter, that it won’t feel trivial at all.
The Glove Compartment, by Douglas Dunn
After her stroke, hers was the first to go.
It sat for two years in their garage, though,
All through the months of her recovery,
Though that was far from full. Vocabulary
Re-emerged, but slowly. So he retired
A few years earlier than anticipated.
He couldn’t leave it all to the nurse he’d hired;
She said he shouldn’t, but that’s what he did.
‘Please, sell my car. I’ll never drive again.’
It seemed as final as a sung Amen.
He knew it must happen, but didn’t know when.
When he opened her glove compartment
He found small change, lip salve, tissues, receipts
From shops and filling stations, peppermint,
An ice-scraper, lipstick, and boiled sweets,
Two tickets for a play at Dundee Rep
(Unused), all sorts of trivial stuff.
He shoved them in a bag. Sat back and wept.
There’s love in the world. But never enough.