Everything I have ever loved fits inside an old shoe box that I keep under my bed.
I haven’t looked at its contents for years, but tonight I find myself reaching for the box. With some difficulty, I pull it out from under the bed. Then I brush off the dust and open the lid to reveal a hoard of memories, glittering like gems. There’s rust too, and flaking paint and faded ink. I lift the items out one by one and set them on my desk. The carefully arranged row of knickknacks and trinkets mocks me.
The oldest item is a paper airplane. It’s yellow and brittle with age. My mother helped me make it. It’s the only memory I have of her. I remember sitting at the kitchen table, with the rain thrumming on the window, while she showed me how to make neat folds so that the wings would come out symmetrical. We sent the airplane soaring around the living room while I pretended to be a pilot. My mother had brown hair that swung forward no matter how often she tucked it behind her ears. I can’t remember the colour of her eyes, and the photographs I have seen of her are all black and white.
Next to the airplane is a toy car. It’s the kind that you pull back and then release to send it crashing into someone’s ankles. My first year at school, I was so nervous I could hardly speak. I sat as far back as I could and stared at my hands when the teacher spoke, hoping she wouldn’t ask me a question. One day she put me next to a boy called Ali, who was as shy as I was and small for his age. We became friends by racing our toy cars. Then Ali’s father got a job in another city, and they moved away. That was that. I never saw him again.
When I was eleven, I was allowed to go the cinema unaccompanied by an adult for the first time. The ink on the ticket stub has faded so much I can’t see now what movie I watched. I probably spent more time talking to my friends than watching the screen. I still know my seat number. Row seven, seat fourteen. Funny the things you remember. We had seats eleven to fifteen in that row, and we felt like grownups because we had our own tickets. Where are they now, those kids who went with me? Paul died a few years ago. Heart attack. Carla got married, divorced, married again, and moved to Peru. Not so much as a postcard for the last decade. Jennifer turned out to be one of those people who are friendly until someone cooler comes along. And then there was Stuart. He was the leader of our little gang, the one who designed our treehouse and broke his wrist when he tried to climb out of his bedroom window and down the drainpipe. I lost touch with him ages ago. The last I heard, he’d become an accountant and settled down in suburbia with a wife, two children and a golden retriever. He’s probably taken up golf by now.
I sit at my desk and stare at what’s left of my childhood. An airplane, a car, a ticket stub. One has crumbled to dust, one is a hunk of rust, and one is torn. My mother, my first friend, and my gang.
The next memory belongs to my adolescence. It’s a guitar pick, made from whatever passed for plastic in those days. I was fourteen and my head was full of ridiculous dreams. I imagined concerts and records. Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, me. I taught myself some chords and wrote a number of truly awful songs. Thankfully, I never wrote them down and put them inside my box of memories. There’s more than enough rust in there without my singer-songwriter aspirations. But I was happy, with my guitar and my dreams of fame and changing the world. I run my fingertips along the smooth edges of the guitar pick and try to remember how it felt to sit there and coax music from the strings. All I feel is emptiness.
There’s a gap of nearly seven years between the guitar pick and the next item, a single dried flower. Those seven years were a whirlwind of exams and shifting friendships, while the guitar slowly fell silent. I was in my early twenties when I took the flower, a memory of the first date with the first person I ever considered marrying. The memory is hazy. I can’t remember where we went, what we did, or even why we drifted apart three months later. All that remains is a single rose. It’s black and shrivelled and looks like it will crumble to dust at the slightest gust of wind. Perhaps I should have pressed it and put it behind glass. I might have preserved something of its love. It’s too late now.
There’s one memory left, from the year I turned forty-two. The item is nothing special, just a tattered old postcard with a photograph of the Milky Way above a mountain landscape, printed in fading ink. Over the years, I’ve come to realise that most people have remarkably similar dreams. To find true love. To own a library with bookshelves so tall you need one of those wheeled ladders to reach the top shelf. To travel. To be an astronaut. How many people can say that they have followed their dreams? I tried, that year. I visited an observatory and peered up at the stars through the telescopes. Then I spent an autumn seeking out dark places in the countryside. I learned the names of stars and which faint smudge was the Andromeda Galaxy. There was a certain peace to be had in the darkness. The city lights are getting brighter every year. I can’t remember the last time I saw the Milky Way.
I sit at my desk and stare at my six treasured memories. These are all the things I’ve ever loved. My family, my friends, my hobbies, my hopes of having a family of my own. What strikes me is how little I have collected. There’s nothing since the postcard. There is still so much empty space in the box, but the things that could have filled it are lost.