“And what I would not part with
I have kept”
[“I Could Give All To Time”
by Robert Frost]
I seem to have lost my voice. Not in the way that Mr @StevenTuck has lost his voice, returning from his yearly jaunt up Snowdon sounding like an eccentric Barry White impersonator. No, not like that at all. My vocal chords are unafflicted. But life has suddenly chosen to wind me through its mangle again, and I’ve dropped out the other side feeling suitably flattened. It’s difficult to find words for the cause of it, so instead I’ll tell you about my typewriter.
My typewriter exists only as a memory – and it was never mine really. I saw it amongst the antique stalls somewhere (Leeds perhaps?) the summer before I went away to University. It was an old, green metal typewriter, with round buttons. And it unmistakably belonged with me. It was £38, and I asked to borrow the money from my mother so that I could buy it. And for the only time that I can remember, she said no.
Of course, I wasn’t very reasonable about it at the time. I wasn’t for taking ‘no’ for an answer. I would give the money straight back as soon as we’d been to a bank. I pleaded. I know that I must have looked crestfallen, because I was. (It’s those old bits of technology again, you see). It must have taken a lot for her to resist, but resist she did. Firmly.
What I didn’t appreciate at the time was that my mother was probably terrified about me moving away to London. When I think back, I’m not quite sure myself how I managed it. In her own way, she was trying to get me to think about the choice between paying the rent and buying an old, very heavy and probably unusable bit of equipment that would sit gathering dust. I understood, eventually. Maybe only after she and my brother had shifted me from pillar to post (backwards and forwards across London, with an ever-growing mountain of books packed away in orange boxes), umpteen times over the next few years.
To this day, I still look at all the old typewriters in the antiques fairs. They’re never quite the same. They’re not my typewriter, the one that I lost when I was 19 years old. That typewriter, in my life only as a guest, only for a few minutes perhaps, has stuck with me all these years. It’s probably had a bigger place in my life than it would have done if I’d actually bought it. I lost the typewriter, but I gained the knowledge that my mother would stop at nothing to keep me safe, whether I liked it or not.
I spent a few years working an almost full-time job to pay my way through University. I worked split shifts in a kitchen just near the college, spending the rest of the day in the studios. I found myself thinking this week about the time that I lost my earring (singular) in that kitchen.
Being an awkward bugger, I only have one ear pierced. On this particular day, I was wearing one of the venetian glass earrings that my mother had bought me. It had an irregular shaped glass bead, the colour of tiger-eye, with a little gold cross hanging underneath it. I think it was the only piece of gold jewellery that I’ve ever worn, and I’d already lost the other half of the pair of earrings late on an eventful evening, somewhere on a street in Kentish Town. But I digress…
Being a kitchen assistant, I took off any jewellery before starting work. Being a trusting person, I’d put it on the workbench in a little-used corner of the kitchen. On this day, I also had a bracelet and a necklace. I put the bracelet on the bench, with the necklace and the earring inside it. 4 hours later, no earring. The other items hadn’t moved. We turned the kitchen upside down, put up posters, worked out everyone’s movements, but no joy.
Having already lost the other earring somehow made the whole thing worse. The knowledge that it must have been taken by a colleague didn’t help much either. What I remember most though, is the way that Dave the chef steadfastly sifted all the flour that was in the flour bin underneath the worksurface, just on the off chance. I knew the earring wasn’t in there. He knew it too. But he ploughed on through the entire flour bin, just to try and make me feel a bit better.
Before I’d even met my typewriter, Sam surprised me in a similar way. This was around the time that I’d first unravelled (I don’t know what else to call it), and he turned up unexpectedly at my sixth form college one lunchtime. I couldn’t understand what he was doing there. He had to explain that he’d come to see if I was alright. He’d brought me a book about using nutrition to deal with the despair (although it might have been the wrong kind of despair, I think). It might have been almost as hopeless as sifting through the flour bin, but he tried. And I’ve never forgotten that.
Sam was mid-way through a painting at the time, which he said that he’d have to go back and rescue soon, because he’d made a mess of one half of the face. It was a portrait of his sister. I thought it was beautiful. By the time I saw it, he’d subtley shrouded one half of her face in shadows, whilst the other was brilliantly lit – like the instant when someone steps out of darkness. It probably said something about my state of mind at the time that I was utterly captivated by that painting. He put it up for sale for £50 in his Foundation show, and flatly refused to let me buy it. I sometimes wonder whether I’ll ever see that painting again.
Just before I left London, my mountain of books (still in the orange boxes) and all the rest of my paraphernalia was stacked up in a room above the kitchen, my last London abode. I had to rummage through the boxes to find the book for Karen. She was a manager there, and we’d recently been to her husband’s funeral. She’d been due to change jobs and was looking forward to a new start, when things changed in a very different way. I heard her singing brightly in a corridor one day, not long before it happened, when she didn’t know anyone was listening (“…don’t know when I’ll be back again…”).
There was a striking flower arrangement at the funeral. It was a square of greenery, with all kinds of wildflowers, moss, acorns and wood – like someone had scooped up part of a forest floor and planted a meadow in it. Karen had a strange sad smile on her face when Katie asked her where the flowers had come from. They were from a very close relative of her husband’s, who had to ask Karen what kind of thing he liked. I’d never met him, but you could tell from the look on her face that she knew him better than anyone ever had.
It took three of us standing helplessly in the florists to choose our flowers for her. It was the wrong time of year for irises, so we couldn’t even manage the one thing that we had decided on. “What would you like the card to say?” they asked. What could we possibly say? In the end we couldn’t really say anything, so we had to borrow from Robert Frost.
After the funeral, I went rooting through my orange boxes because Karen had asked to see the full poem. And that’s how I lost my slightly tatty but treasured copy of The Collected Works of Robert Frost. Except I didn’t really lose it. I chose to give it away. It was a parting gift, in every sense.
But I didn’t choose to give away my voice. So I think I’ll be having that back now.