Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Of dead mice and memories

I spent hours searching for it in every cupboard and corner I could possibly think of. An old cardboard box with "Box of Memories" written on it in green felt-tip pen. I hadn't seen it for at least eight years - and I knew I hadn't opened it in at least twice that time.

The box is full of sunshine - hot, blazing, tropical sunshine - and red earth, and miles of unsealed desert roads. It contains the smell of eucalyptus baking in the heat, and the feeling of "elsewhere" we experienced so strongly when we arrived in Sydney all those years ago. It's also full of love and a sense of overpowering need to be loved by the other. Which is, I suppose, why I had sealed it up and hidden it away somewhere where I wouldn't easily find it again.

It's amazing how many dark and hidden corners my house contains - and I must have looked in every one. Inside cupboards, on top of wardrobes, high and low on every shelf, under desks, inside window seats... but I could find no Box of Memories.

Part of me was being very grown-up about my search. Doggedly determined to find it - so much so that when I wasn't actually looking, I was thinking about possible locations - going through every room in my house in my mind, looking in every corner.

But there was also a part of me - the 21-year old me - who knew that the box, when opened, would drag me back to that place, that time long ago when I was a different person, when life stretched out before me and contained many more alternative futures than the one I now find myself living. However grown-up the reason for finding it, I knew it wouldn't matter once it was opened. "Now" would fade from view, and I would find myself transported back to "then" - whether I wanted to go there or not.

My reason for the search was pragmatic enough. Trying to get web development contract work in Australia is made difficult by the firewall of recruitment agents standing between me and my potential employers. Having an Australian Business Number might help me breach the wall - but in order to get one, I need my Tax File Number.

And in order to get that (because I cannot find any record of the number), I need to provide the Australian Taxation Service with the address I was using when I first got it. Then they can verify that I am who I say I am, and will tell me what my Tax File Number is, which I can then use to apply for my ABN.

Numbers, acronyms, employment. All very grown-up. All those years ago, when I wasn't quite as grown-up as I am now (ha!) it apparently didn't occur to me to keep official letters with official numbers on them. At least, they weren't in any of my travel diaries. Maybe there would be a useful bit of paper in the Box of Memories - or at the very least perhaps I could find the address I registered with.

Ah yes - the travel diaries. Lined up on the bookshelf in my bedroom, gathering dust, rarely visited these days. Open one at random and the memories pour out - flying halfway around the world and arriving in Bangkok in the middle of a tropical thunderstorm. Waves of homesickness washing over me from all directions. The fear of the unknown - and the security of having Andy by my side. Three months later (Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia) feeling like old pros we arrive in Sydney and walk along the harbour's edge in the cool of the evening.

If I concentrate I can almost feel the way I felt back then - the sense of excitement, the wonder at actually being there and seeing the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge for the first time, the smell of the air, the thrill of being the first to make the vast journey since my Grandpa (a ten-pound Pom) came here years before I was even born.

Exploring Sydney, finding a job for a while, then hitching down to Canberra (searching for redbacks in the garden) and Melbourne (a koala up a tree, fairy penguins on Phillip Island, a terrifying bicycle ride home in the dark), and on to Adelaide. A season picking grapes in the Barossa Valley - the heat so intense you had to go into a zen-like state in order to handle it - having day-long conversations in my head with all my friends back home, as my fingers automatically selected and cropped the endless bunches of grapes.

Finding two English travelling companions (with a big old station wagon - hooray!) and spending the next few months driving through the outback with them. Near-misses with road trains on deserted highways. The complete breakdown of the car in Coober Pedy after hours of driving at a snail's pace on dirt roads - if we'd turned the engine off during any of our photo-opportunity stops out there in the middle of nowhere we'd have been stranded for sure.

Alice Springs, Ayers Rock in the heat of the midday sun (we were mad dogs and Englishmen that day), the Olgas and the long straight road-that-goes-on-for-ever up to Katherine Gorge and Darwin. And then the long drive eastwards, back to the coast.

Diving on the Great Barrier Reef near Cairns, driving north through more dirt roads, fording swollen streams to reach Port Douglas and then further north to the magical rainforest campsite at Cape Tribulation. Riding horses through the surf, exploring the coastline and the tropical jungle. Andy always by my side. Mine, and yet never really mine.

I stop reading. The heat, the flies, the red dirt, the smells and sounds of the Lucky Country fade away, and I'm back in my bedroom, sitting on the floor, part of me still halfway there, reluctant to return to my everyday life once more.

Those months and years with Andy are so long ago now - I've lived so much life, done so many things since then, added so many more layers of experience (as we all do) to my multi-layered self. And yet, and yet - it takes so little to transport me instantly back to the girl I was then, standing together with the boy he used to be. I know he's no longer that boy, but in my mind, in my memories, in the fantasy of him that I have created and nurtured for all the years since we parted - he hasn't changed.

Late in the evening I finally locate the box - at the very top of a high stack of stuff in the furthest corner of the highest shelf at the very back of my wardrobe. I manage to get it down without falling off the stool on which I'm precariously balanced, and I gently place it on my bed and take a deep breath. Here goes.

Inside, carefully stacked in rows are dozens of letters, written to me from friends and family back home. Some are packed inside old paper bags, or held together in bundles by the remains of long-perished rubber bands. There are postcards bought but never sent, and even some half-finished letters I never got around to completing.

It feels so strange stepping back in time in an instant. It feels as though the very essence of Australia, and Andy, and how I felt at the time and who I was, is all packed up inside the box, just waiting to be released. I feel sad and nostalgic and happy and grateful all at the same time.

There's an old tissue or serviette or something on one side of the box, which seems to be all chewed up. "Weird," I think. "Maybe it was a bookworm. Hope it hasn't eaten anything else."

About three-quarters of the way through the stacks of letters I find the source of the chewed-up paper. A poor little dessicated baby mouse, lying all alone beneath a couple of envelopes. And then the rest of its little family - a whole nest of dried-up ex baby mice tucked within the curling pieces of old tissue paper, starved to death in my precious Box of Memories.

Oh god - it's like some desperate and tragic metaphor for my life with Andy. I have an overly-dramatic vision of young and hopeful love that accidentally got hidden away in a place where it could not sustain itself - and which died long before it was ever found. Preserved unchanged for years in a place remembered but never visited - preserved and yet gone, lost for ever.

I feel so sad, and so alone. I cry for the poor wee mice who got trapped in the box and who died there, worn out by hunger and thirst. I cry for what we had back then, and what I lost - what I still feel should have been mine, and which can never be. I cry for every comparison I ever made between some guy who liked me and the impossible perfect fantasy of The Love of My Life.

How can someone I knew so long ago still cause me so much pain?

At the very bottom of the box - under the old letters and the dear departed mice - I find a large brown envelope. Curious, I pull it out carefully and peep inside.

Here at last, after all this time, and as if I last saw it only yesterday, is the priceless set of my favourite photos I took of him - and for which I've been half-heartedly searching for years. The embodiment of the fantasy, the base on which I have carefully sculpted the dream of him. I recognise and remember every photo instantly. Where we were when it was taken, how I felt, what we said.

And at the bottom of the pile of photos, there are letters. Letters from him to me, written when we were apart for the summer holidays before we went travelling together. Letters which always contained a subtle reference to how he truly felt about me (in stark contrast to how he always said he felt about me) - but which I didn't fully comprehend at the time.

PS. I really miss not having anyone to kick out of bed to go and make the toast!
PPS I miss you a bit (well quite a lot actually) - look after yourself. This last bit is excessively wimpish but so what.
I miss you quite a lot but just think, soon we will be together for ages and ages (what a nice thought). See you Friday.

A lock of his hair tied up with ribbon, and old Valentines cards which he sent under protest but which always contained a million kisses ("please collect on these!")

The very last letter I open is the last letter he ever sent me. It's strange - a mixture of formal and informal, practical details ("can you look after my plant for me - it really will die in my cold house") and heartfelt pleas ("I'm sorry for the last couple of days, I've been behaving like a kid; I hope I haven't lost any of your respect and please don't judge me on it, you know it's not the real me.")

At the end of the letter is this:
Anyway all the best, I'd hate to think you'd never let me hug you again, and I really mean this:


[in green felt-tip pen, underlined thickly in red]

It was the first time he'd ever written those words to me, and only the second time I'd ever heard him say them - and it was too late.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

I found him a couple of years ago, after years of searching for him online. It took me 12 months to pluck up the courage to call him, and when I did, I was shaking like a leaf. We arranged to meet up for coffee later on in the year when I would be over in the UK visiting my sister - and I was so excited that I sent him a card with all my contact details on it, just to make sure we wouldn't lose touch again.

A couple of weeks later he called and cancelled our meeting. "The past is the past, and I think it should stay that way." I wondered (still wonder) if his wife (my ex-best friend) saw the card and made him cancel, or if he did it of his own accord. Perhaps it's best that way. Definitely best for him, I should think. Maybe not best for me. I still have the fantasy and the memory of the perfect boy, and it remains unsullied by the reality of the man he's become.

I know I'll never really get over him, and I know that by holding on to my memories of him I've allowed many other relationships to slip through my fingers since then. I know that - and yet somehow, even now, I can't let go. Perhaps I never will. Perhaps we never truly recover from the loss of our first love - or maybe it's just that for some people (like me) that love overshadows all others - and no-one else can ever quite match up.

All I know is - those feelings are all still there - in the diaries, in the Box of Memories, in my own head - and they have been strengthened and deepened over time, while at the same time they have been re-created and re-cast again and again until they have become something at once real and yet not real at all. They can be awakened in an instant, and they still cause me pain and deep sadness, even after all this time.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

I re-sealed the box and put it back on the high shelf, out of reach. The mice are still in there - I didn't have the heart to disturb them any further.

The envelope of letters and photos is no longer in the box - it's somewhere more easily accessible now. I know that's stupid, and that I should follow Andy's lead and let the past stay in the past, but I can't.

Maybe one day I will. Just not today.

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Anonymous said...

I was so amazed at the similarity of our pasts and the similarity of our responses. And.... I came across your blog as I was feverishly searching through a box for my misplaced Australian taxfile number where I no longer live. Incredible!!

webweaver said...

How funny! Perhaps we're doppelgangers :)

I'm sitting here having just re-read my blog post - which of course make me cry. Nope, still not over him :)