‘Nice watch,’ I overheard a woman say to her friend in the gym.
‘Trouble is,’ the watch-wearer replied. ‘It hasn’t worked for years. But it has sentimental value, so I can’t get rid of it. And now I’m always late.’
Like her, I used to have an attachment to stuff. After my father died, I gathered bags of the bias bindings he used to manufacture before my mother could cart them off to a charity shop.It was the same with my godmother’s extensive collection of leather gloves. I kept them, though they were all far too small to wear.
I saved strings of beads that had lost their fastenings, books I’d never read again, cracked crockery, soft toys that had lost their stuffing, my children’s broken dolls’ house furniture. I daren’t let anything go in case I lost some vital, vague, and indefinable link to the past.
In the last three years my family have cleared the houses or flats of four departed relatives. Their belongings, I feared, might contain memories that would be lost if we let them go. And so I gathered the things my more practical relatives happily discarded. My mother-in-law’s photograph albums, trinkets and jewellery; my aunt’s boxes of medals and collection of glasses; my mum’s sewing boxes, tea sets, napkins and canteen of cutlery—it all ended up in our house.
There comes a point, however, (as aficionados of the clutter-clearing guru Marie Kondo will agree) when far from providing a direct line to the past, stuff begins to obscure it.The crunch came when my mother’s walnut canteen of bone-handled cutlery began to bug me. I’d kept it because the knives and forks had come out for my parents’ dinner parties when I was little. They reminded me of their suburban middle-class 1970’s etiquette; that there was such a thing as a fish knife, or a soup-spoon. But now the box of cutlery sat in our kitchen, the bone handles began to seem macabre, the turned-up blades of the fish knives menacing. The cutlery brought back memories of family rows as well as happier times; it was not a source of happy nostalgia after all, but rather a nagging reminder of my mother’s descent into dementia. This dark blot at the edge of my vision reminded me of who she no longer was. Of who we’d lost. My partner confessed the box reminded him of a coffin!
I gave away the box of cutlery, and for good measure my mother’s silver tea service and a whole china tea set once belonging to her mother. It felt ruthless, then freeing. It set off an avalanche of releasing things. Rather than regret, or guilt, I felt a massive, energizing sense of euphoria at the unburdening. As insurance, I took photos of the things I was getting rid of, a record for my siblings or children if they ever asked. There is, however, another more creative way to pay homage to clutter, I found. And that is by recycling it in fiction.
Everything in fiction has to be there for a reason.
If a gun appears in scene one, Chekhov tells us, the writer must make sure it has been fired by the end.
The walnut ‘coffin’ of cutlery? It appears in The Darkening Hour, Theodora’s pride and joy. By the end, Mona, the domestic worker, has sold the silver-plated spoons for cash.
My mum’s blue darning mushroom? Sonia in Tideline thinks about it when she sees the hole in Jez’s socks. By the end of the novel it has become a murder weapon.
The sculpted head of my mother with a broken nose? A benign statue sitting outside an old man’s window becomes the cause of an accidental death by the end of The Darkening Hour.
I have no idea why these inheritances play such sinister roles in my fiction. Freud would have a lot to say about it, perhaps.
At present, I’m trying to be less morbid. My late aunt’s yellow Aquascutum coat is worn by the heroine in a new novel I’m working on when her friend first falls in love with her. My godmother’s breathtakingly extensive collection of leather gloves become the focus for another character’s passion in the same novel.
Using things of sentimental value as inspiration for writing is surprisingly fruitful: the memories they spark, the conflicts they represent, the emotional attachments they rekindle. And once they are written down, they can live on, but without taking up any energy or space. Far more exciting to give new fictional roles to objects than to have them pile up, absorbing valuable space, energy, and—as the defunct watch belonging to the woman in the gym symbolized—time.
Chekhov’s gun theory
If you hang a pistol on the wall in an early scene then it should be fired by the end.
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