A Body Of Work
I’ve been sitting for a while in the half-lit space when the rustling starts. Morbid shapes sit, reassuringly familiar, in the shadows around me. Shelves full of memories.
There hasn’t been much noise here for months. I come out here diligently for two hours every day. Switch the laptop on. And listen.
I try to stay focused on the task at hand – that apparently being not bloody writing – but sometimes I’ll get up, switch on the light, examine my treasures in the glare of the bare bulb. So many jars, of varying sizes. Cloudy fluid, shapes spinning slowly inside. Tupperware tubs full of hair, although I only ever keep a year’s worth at a time. Clippings.
My children and grandchildren have never been allowed in here. My wife doesn’t comment, comfortable in the certainty that I’m not mad, just nostalgic. Maybe a little superstitious, and for more than one reason.
I have a bad memory for faces. Primarily my own. A tenuous grip on my own self-image. At some point in my childhood I started finding it impossible to picture myself. Or maybe I never slipped past that point that we’re all supposed to hurdle as a baby, of seeing myself as separate from the world around me.
This deficiency never stopped me from functioning. I coped through my early years, as we all do eventually, although it is possible that the impact on my fashion sense was immense.
I went to university, met a girl and fell in love. I married that girl as soon as I could afford to, with money saved from my first real job at a local newspaper. At the time when our first-born son was conceived, my job was writing obituaries. The circle of life!
My collection began at around the same time as we set aside my first study, in a shed in the garden of the first house we owned. At the time it wasn’t so unusual after surgery to take a keepsake, and this is what I did, bringing home a gall-stone in a small plastic bag when I returned from the hospital where I had it removed.
I suspect most people don’t hang onto such things for very long. They aren’t pleasant to look at, and often conjure memories of an unpleasant time. Perhaps I would’ve disposed of the stone once the novelty wore off, had my wife not insisted that it not stay in the house.
Once it was on the shelf in the shed, it was unlikely that I’d ever have the heart to throw it out. I’d go out there and sit at my typewriter – a monstrous, clunky old antique – and when my mind wandered I’d look at the stone. It comforted me to have it there.
Superstition came about six months later, when I found myself selling the first thing I’d written out there to an international publisher. It was a creepy novel for children, and when it sold incredibly, the stone became more than a memory. It became a talisman.
One thing isn’t a collection but a keepsake. The collection started the following year, when a spill on a bicycle let to surgery. The surgeon asked jovially whether I’d like to take a bit of bone fragment that they’d removed from my knee home with me.
I did! During my recuperation, I wrote another two books, and sold my first short story to Playboy.
It was a few more years before I started collecting everything. Our children had left home, although by now our home was considerably larger, and my last few books had not sold so well. I was depressed, and since childhood, whenever I am depressed I find myself beset by small obsessions. That is when the harvesting of hair began.
The thought of these parts of me, however inconsequential, being removed and taken away forever was too much to take in my maudlin state.
Things improved with the birth of our first grandchild, and the first film based on one of my stories, but I continued the ritual of storing my hair and nail clippings as a reminder of worse times.
I’m an old man, now. I’ve been ill many times, and the shelves around me contain more things than most people ever think they can lose and still survive. And yet I persist.
The truth is, I don’t have to write. I have done well by my family, and my wife and I are content with our big house and the fine legacy we can leave for our children. But as much as the urgency has gone, I am still a writer, and the need to write outstrips my ability to do so.
Except tonight, I feel an energy in my head and in my fingertips. The rustling around me grows, and other sounds join in. A slow, low tapping of something against glass. Somewhere behind me, a bubbling fart of formaldehyde.
My fingers move, and the other sounds are joined by that of the keyboard as I begin to write.
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