Martin Chambers

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The decimal system for cataloguing memories


When my father died and after the funeral and then a couple more weeks we gathered in his library at the back of the house to sort through all of his stuff. His books, papers, files, collections. He was a journalist and his life had been the collection or noting of things. Clippings, photos, ideas written on anything from a theatre ticket to foolscap notebooks. He was always going to write a book.

Perhaps there had been some order at the start, in the early days, but a lifetime and then a dotage, and then after the diagnosis while there was still the desire for some order, well, if there was some order to the room we searched for how his mind worked, sharp at first then less so, did not find it.

Worse than sorting through your own memories is to rummage in someone else’s, and if that someone has memories that intersect, frequently, with your own, nostalgia fills the room like dust and tears and sneezes later not much has been done.

‘We must be more systematic,’ said my sister.

‘Why? I asked. ‘What are we trying to do?’

‘To sort it out,’ she replied, as if that was obvious and that then the task would end.

His old typewriter was still on the desk and next to it a file, a book he had been working on and I remembered a childhood of tapping. His distinctive hard typing, the ching of the carriage return, silence for a while, then repeat. While we sat at the kitchen table doing our homework he worked each evening at his novel.

The stacks of books. Signed first editions, from friends, from someone he might have interviewed, from total strangers, we would never know the difference. Did he read each of their novels and add their stories to the memory that was his life? Did he confuse then those stories with the newspaper truth, the collection of clippings and the whole yellowed papers, some that were important and others just there to line the shelves? What was real and not? What was important and what was not? Perhaps there was an order, perhaps the more important things were collected in the better places, like you’d just throw some things on the shelf but carefully put others away.

The file cabinet was full to overflowing. My brother pulled out the top drawer and began to sort, to read, the yellow pages throwing swirls of dust into the fragile air as he turned each page. Stories, memories, articles, notes, some true and some not, but all of it now gone.

How do you catalogue such things? The Dewey system? Alphabetical? Do the forgotten dreams of my father fall under fiction and non-fiction? Is the hollow left by him just the same as the hollow left on the shelf by taking away a handful of books?

The house was empty now. Hollow too. It must be sold to satisfy some financial reality, and all this stuff must go. The three of us sat for a whole day, then a second, reading papers and opening files, sorting, what to keep, what to not, but later, we just sat. We talked. Ashes to ashes, we said.

On Sunday evening we carried everything to the backyard. Books, files, boxes filled with papers, but also the typewriter, some brass journalism awards, things who knows what. We made a stack and set fire to it, and we sat around and watched it burn, not talking much. We each had our own memories to sort and while the fire burned all night we sat and I was thinking about how my father and his memories would now be reunited by the flame. Catalogued as ‘In the past’.