I have never met Joe Bennett but he is a regular columnist in our local newspaper and he often writes whimsical articles about himself and his ageing frailties. The article quoted below struck an accord with me as I began clearing some of the ‘stuff’ I had collected over the years.
WE spent more than 10,000 nights side by side and it was plugugly for every one of them. It was a dung-coloured bedroom cabinet.
Unattached lady (any age) wanted by lonely elderly gent.
It dated from when I had no money at all and a mortgage the size of the rest of my life, so I expect I got it for nothing. It may have come from the magnificent dump that used to occupy one of the more scenic bays in Lyttelton harbour, where men towed trailers down a cart track, reversed them up to a cliff and forked their unwanteds over the edge. On windy days dust blinded you and plastic bags slapped your face and the gulls screamed and it was great. Though often you came back with more than you took there. Because one man’s rubbish is someone else’s rubbish in waiting.
The cabinet had a single drawer. I lined it with newspaper and laid within it things I thought of as treasures. Poignant things. Tokens of love or records of living.
But last week I bought a new bedside cabinet whose top is not yet littered with half-read books and half-full bottles of pills or stained by wine glasses, coffee cups and time. Before dumping the old one I went through its drawer.
There were cheap bracelets, rings and necklaces from the days when I thought my flesh worth adorning. One or two had been bought to commemorate events that mattered, but I’d forgotten which and I’d forgotten the events. I threw the lot out.
There were notebooks from when I thought keeping notebooks lay at the heart of writing stuff, and expired passports whose customs stamps had once excited me with the romance of elsewhere, and a couple of pebbles that presumably had significance once but were now just pebbles. All these I binned.
There were also a few letters — remember letters? —some halfhearted dishonest diaries from the years of self deception , and several short stories typed on a portable Olivetti when I was 20 something, stories so callow and derivative they are unreadable. I didn’t throw these things out.I should have but I couldn’t .
And that was that, except for the drawer lining, which was 20 pages of The Press dated Saturday, August 27, 1988. Twenty pages of classified ads. In those days papers made money.
Those pages told the story of 1988 far better than anything I wrote at the time. Those 27 years ago, televisions were small and expensive, cars were large and expensive and computers barely existed. Rambo and Crocodile Dundee were on at Hoyts and if you wanted to watch Two A Penny,starring Cliff Richard, at the Christchurch Assembly of God, the price of admission was nothing, which was a bit steep. The town hall was hosting a dance troupe of Siberian Cossacks ‘‘ from the USSR’’ , an empire that had only another year or two to live.
The personal ads included the usual offers of palmistry, tarot reading and a ‘‘ Christ centred way out of homosexuality’ . The mad are always with us. But almost all the other ads, and there were hundreds, were from people on their own who didn’t want to be. Such songs of frustration and loneliness.
‘‘ Attractive male looking for fun times with slim female 1724 ’’. Do you think he found them? No, nor do I. Ah well, 27 years should have cured the ache, or at least seen it pass to the next generation that I hope he got round to contributing to.
‘‘ Unattached lady (any age) wanted by lonely elderly gent. . .Must be a licensed driver, nonsmoker and lover of the outdoors. Nationality unimportant. Large quantity new clothing, fur coats etc available free for lady approx 5ft tall and around 8 stone weight.’’
It’s a mystery story in miniature. Had a first wife died? If so, why was the clothing new? Or had it been bought in hope only for the small woman to dash that hope? And did some diminutive foreign lady tramp into his life and step into the fur coats? And are they now lodged at the back of some Christchurch wardrobe?
Women are so different. ‘‘ Caring woman, aged 40, with integrity, interested in literature and the arts and not fitting in.’’ That’s the entire ad, apart from an address to write to. Did she find someone else who didn’t fit in, and do they read literature to each other of an outcast evening?
The personal column from a quarter of a century ago was the most poignant thing in my drawer of poignant things. I sat on my bed reading expressions of heartache till the light faded. Then I lined my new bedside drawer with it.
Joe Bennett is a Lyttelton writer.