I am looking at a box. It is not an especially unusual or remarkable box; its construction is not of the finest walnut or rosewood. In fact it has not even been made from wood. It is, quite simply, a plain and ordinary box: plain in the sense that it bears no decoration other than the language of commands – ‘This Way Up’, ‘Fragile’, ‘Handle With Care’ – ordinary because it is exactly the type of box that one sees everyday, the kind of box that is generally passed by ignored, the kind of box which is merely a conduit for its more desired contents. The box is roughly square in its shape, its dimensions approximately half a metre across, and at one time fulfilled its role adequately enough as storage for some type of electrical goods. I cannot recall what exactly it was that it held, and the barrage of codes and symbols which adorn it provide my memory with no assistance at all. The box, and indeed its contents, may not even ever have belonged to me, and their history is inconsequential.
Now the box holds onto a different cargo, a stack of objects and memorabilia, and I am left wondering whether or not they might be the final collection that it can call its own. Perhaps it will find a secret place in which to stack both them and itself, to be undisturbed for all eternity; perhaps what it contains will only serve to consign it to a landfill site. The answer, I know, must come soon.
I do not need to touch the box or rummage through its contents to know what it holds. Each item floods back to me like a tidal current as clearly as if I had placed it in its final resting place within the previous few minutes. I can give a name to each one, remember its own journey and tell you how it touched and affected me. But I am not looking at the box in order to remind myself of my life. No, these thoughts are with me as a constant, an unshakable curse, and I do not need to be pricked by material things to remember. And yet all of these things, all of these tangible objects, lie in the box before me as testimony to my life, proof, if you like, that I had been here. I am looking at the box neither with a sense of loss or nostalgia or grief, nor with any sense of sympathy for those whom I know who will be bequeathed the task of having to look through it. Rather I am looking more with a deep feeling of disappointment and regret. No, not regret, rather a sense of a lack of fulfilment and a sudden appreciation of being unable to truly communicate, of being inarticulate. And all of this from someone whose entire existence has been built around communication, someone who has striven to explain life through the written word. There is a stillness as I allow these thoughts to penetrate my mind and I acutely aware of a sense of acceptance swelling over me, swamping emotional thought.
Someone, I know, will look through the box, consigning its contents one by one to either memory or waste – but it is not the knowledge of this that disturbs my mind. I visualise hands moving through the collection of items within the box – the bow that holds all that was closest to my life. I can see their eyes searching, scanning each object as they first touch it and then remove it from the box. My heart sinks as I wonder whether or not they could possibly understand or appreciate the significance of what it is they hold.
The first item to be removed is a book of poetry, a collected anthology, containing some (but by no means all) of the poems which I found inspirational during my life. As the cover is turned back, and the contents exposed to view, I feel a sudden shudder run the length of my spine and disappear into my legs. Which of the multitude of poets who are represented within the book will the reader’s eyes alight on? And, of these poets, which individual poems will they read? I long since abandoned any hope of finding the definitive collection of poetry, one in which each and every poem was both inspirational to me and reflective of me. I realised that, even if I had published my own personal anthology of favourite poets, it would never be a complete, authoritative volume, that I would constantly feel the urge to update and edit my choices. There were poets whose writing had drifted away from me with age, and others whom I had abandoned in my youth yet whose words had rung true with me in later life. I had tried, too, to locate the perfect poet, the poet whose every line resonated within me leaving scars around which to build my thoughts, but wisdom or age had closed this door too. So I watched as the pages of the imperfect book were turned, wondering if the reader would settle for a poet whose words had meant nothing to me, rest upon each stanza and think that it was me.
The book was closed and placed adjacent to its box as the hands that loosed it returned to their search. Now I was filled with renewed hope as they began to lift the small selection of books – a token from my expansive library – and started to study them. Kafka, Camus, Schultz; Calvino, Murakami, Banks – surely, I felt, these would leave more obvious clues as to who I was. The invader of my box turned each book slowly and deliberately in their hands, reading the blurb, studying the cover, skimming through selections of the text. Every now and again they would hold a page and read in greater detail as if trying to glean something more from the passage about me, although I knew that this was far from the truth; it was far more likely that a phrase or sentence had captured their imagination dragging them into the story. And, after all, how could a story written by a third party reveal anything of who I really was, how I thought or the reasons behind my actions? As each book was finished with and placed onto the cold table I felt a part of my being fade and the opaque become translucent.
The next items to be removed from the cardboard were a collection of compact discs, along with an i-pod. The discs were placed almost immediately alongside the books whilst the i-pod received much greater attention, as if the solidity of the discs was a reflection of me, and that a more accurate representation of my current state lay in the transience of an electronic machine. It was switched on, the battery still showing it to have a full life. The menu was scrolled down; passing over the names of the groups whose music had evoked in me emotions that were indefinable. Here were contained lyrics which had fallen on me like poetry and which had run through my veins like blood, infusing me with more life than my own mere mortal words could ever express. There were songs which had opened up new doors to me, which illustrated new ideas and approaches – political, social and emotional.
I could tell that the figure which was now bent over the player was making mental notes – music to listen to in the future, or music to dismiss immediately; I doubted, however, whether either thought would ever trouble them again though. Music had always been of great importance to me in allowing me to develop my ideas, thoughts and words, but I was suddenly aware of a thought that was new to me – if so little of myself was reflected in what I had selected for the box, then how could I profess to be able to read so much into the work of others? What was it that had made me so certain, so sure of what others had meant when they had written? Had I been that arrogant as to assume that it was I who was the only one who was able to truly understand the writings of other people, the only one who possessed the ability to understand emotion on a higher plain? The machine would be switched on, a track selected and then played. The words and music would fail to reach the listener and, like me, would be gone.
If all of this then were true, as I felt sure that it was, then my only saviour had to be my own writings, lain flat and packed neatly and with great care at the base of my box. Unpublished manuscripts were lifted up from the bottom of the container in which they rested. I noticed, with relief, that they were being afforded the greatest reverence of all my possessions. The cardboard folder in which they slept was placed onto the table and the box slid away to the left in order to allow the folder to be opened fully. I watched as each page was turned and read with what I could only hope was genuine enthusiasm. My reader seemed to follow each sentence, each paragraph and each page with enormous care, trying to understand the meaning that I had intended it to impart. When they reached the conclusion of each story the pages were collected neatly together and placed carefully next to where the box now stood. The figure leaned back in the chair, stretching their back and folding their arms behind their head. After a few deep breaths they returned to the pages and began to read the next story on the pile. But these I thought, with unexpected clarity, were merely words, words that had been used myriad times, words that made sentences that had been written and read by countless thousands of eyes before mine. it was true that I had always known that my words were not unique and that my thoughts had all been envisaged many times before, but I had always worked tirelessly on my work. I had spent many endless hours writing and rewriting sentences, phrases and passages, desperate to give true words to my thoughts. I had strained with every fibre of my body to locate the exact word and then create the perfect phrase in order to explain how each character in every story had felt. Entire paragraphs had been dismissed or disposed of if I considered that they failed to meet my exacting, self-imposed standards. Editors had thought me difficult, obtuse or impossible to work with as I argued against any changes to my work – everything had its reason and meaning. Circulation and popularity might suffer but, to me at least, the power behind the words was paramount. Now, as I witnessed them being read, I wondered how much of me was being transmitted to the reader. Did my words reach them, or were they simply a collection of recognisable symbols arranged sympathetically across a piece of paper? I wondered whether the stories themselves were enough, or whether my writing had always been about a deeper meaning, and the need to convey it. Within my own head I began a monologue about whether or not the reader – or, in fact, any of my readers, both past and future – understood how much meaning I had tried to impart through my writing. And what, anyway, was my ‘meaning’ supposed to signify? Was it something that I thought to be true, a universal truth that those around me were unable to comprehend? Or was it, rather, something that they actually already knew and understood, and did not need to be reminded of? Perhaps my books were read because I reflected the thoughts of those around me rather than presenting them with new philosophies or doorways in their lives? Perhaps I was really nothing more than a mirror. So what then did this make me – a plagiarist or a weak imitation of something more honest and more real? Suspicion rose like fire within me that there was nothing of myself that could now be revealed, and that the box, now hollow and defunct, showed all that there was to show.
I watched as the figure began slowly to return each one of my belongings, my most personal possessions, to the box. They were laid flat and precisely, exactly as I had once positioned them myself. I saw the figure rise from the table, slide the chair from under them self and then return it carefully to its home beneath the desk. With an air of resignation they lifted the box – the remaining fragments of the person I once had been – and turned from the room. I realised that all of these possessions, all of these things that I had collected around me, the things that I had selected with such pain and care, said nothing of who I had actually been. Each individual item might just as well have been a random selection from the lives of strangers, gathered together for no apparent reason. I could leave nothing of myself here; nothing that could not be misconstrued or misinterpreted. As I watched the box being removed from the room I saw something fall, silently, to the floor, melting as it met the ground like a snowflake.