I have this old pencil case, it is denim and it has a label on it that says Junior Miss. I’ve had it, well, forever as far as I can remember. My dad brought it over for me on one of his visits, still full of the felt tip pens I remember from being 8 years old. It is like a sliver of my childhood that has jumped through a wormhole and landed on my table. Nothing has changed, the pens are the same colour that I remember (though they are old and dry, I presume, I haven’t tried them), they make me want to reach for a colouring book or a sketch pad.
When I look at my pencil case I am transported, it is a magical time machine that takes me back to somewhere around 7 or 8 years old. The amazing feeling of excitement still turns my tummy as I recall my Mum coming into the living room and telling me we were going to see E.T. She put on some seriously sensible shoes because it was snowing outside and I knew there had been queues around the block to see it (it had been on the news) but we went. Mum had a plan, a theory, that the weather would keep people away and it did. We walked straight in, it was like magic. We both cried at the end, we always cried at the sad bits, both of us joyfully abandoning ourselves to the sorrow. And I remember the pride I felt after christmas when I showed my friends my E.T. pencil, rubber and pencil sharpener. I was quite the star on my table that day I can tell you.
I remember learning to throw balls against the wall and practising so hard to earn my own set. And I remember sitting on the stairs in the darkness watching Mum ice my 7th birthday cake late into the night, her face totally focused and not showing any signs of the fatigue she must have felt. The cake was always a suprise and this one was the best yet. Pink and white icing, the top as smooth as an ice rink, in pride of place a model horse. It sat on a silver board and there were silver balls around the edge, sitting inside the piped icing that curled the circumference in perfect symmetry. It shone. Of course no one ever bought a birthday cake, if someone had told me their cake had been bought I would have thought them a) a fantasist/rich person or b) a creature to be pitied. I mean did their Mum not love them? To simply buy a cake? Suspicious behaviour in my book.
I remember Kids From Fame and my friends sitting on the front garden while we sang the songs from the previous episode. I remember wanting to marry Bruno. I remember pedal pushers and Mum curling the ends of my hair in Farrah Fawcett flicks that I adored. I remember the nightdress she made for me and a matching one for my sister; when she made me and Haitch stand at the ends of our beds for messing about and Dad making us screech with laughter with his ‘alternate endings’ for all of our stories. Taking the bus into town and my parents telling us endless stories to keep us entertained. And the mornings when Mum would come in from her job as a cleaner at the nearby school and she would put her cold hands on our backs as we pretended to sleep. We would scream and we would all laugh.
I remember how her hands felt, I remember her skin and the smell of her. I remember her smile and the frown of concentration when she was working on something, knitting, sewing, making a teddy bear or planning out crafts for Brownies. When I look at this pencil case I see my Mum, clearly standing in the kitchen, looking at the counter working on something. Maybe washing up, maybe cooking. Then she looks up, she looks up and smiles. And I know that she isn’t smiling at me then, she is smiling at me now. She is looking across the years, younger than I am now. Her hair curled and falling to her collar, her face fresh and full of life. She looks at me and her smile says “I know baby. I know it hurts.”
So that’s the thing I’m stuck with you see. This pencil case, full of felt tips that no one can use. Pens that have multiple tips with many colours that you can select as you see fit, my one time pride and joy; frozen in time, ink dried long ago. I can’t throw the pens away, as I probably should, give the case new life as I once would have done. I can’t throw away this link to such vivid memories, this trigger of the sights and smells of childhood. Today Neirin scattered all the pens and contents on the floor, I didn’t realise until Huwyl brought me a ‘treasure’ he had found. It was a picture hook, the kind that holds a picture to a picture rail, a moment of my past reaching out to brush my face like a cobweb. I held it like he had handed me a diamond, I rubbed my fingers on it as if a genie might pop out. Or, more likely, as if something of my Mum would rub off on me, that it would bring her closer for a moment.
Because that’s what this is all about, isn’t it? Perhaps if she were still here, alive and on the end of the phone, I would select a few of the pens for old times sake and chuck the rest. For the same reason I have a jumper of Mum’s in my cupboard, unworn, the collar unravelled and me without the skills to fix it. Another cardigan, now taking up a hanger because the zip is broken and it is really too small but it was Mum’s so I keep it. It is silly, I tell myself, Mum wasn’t sentimental about things. She would have said ‘Get rid of them, get yourself something new’. But that’s the point, she isn’t here and so I can’t bring myself to abandon even one of the threads that links me to her. And I wonder.
If she was so unsentimental how is it that my pencil case is here, untouched, as it was when I presumably cast it aside some years ago and forgot about it? How is it that the bag of my Brownie and Guide badges sits upstairs waiting for me to find a way to use them? Little mementos of my childhood, keep tucked away despite the clear outs, the moves, overseas and back again. The march outs, the march ins, the departures of children into the adult world. So I’ll put it away for another day, perhaps I’ll get round to it this week, maybe next. On this Imbolc day when I should be planning for the future but find myself caught in the past, contemplating who I was and how it made me who I am. Looking at my children and seeing the echoes of my childhood in them. Maybe I should seize the day and clear out old clutter, old memories. But not today; for now I’ll keep it in my cupboard, my own Aladdin’s lamp but instead of wishes is holds only memories. And instead of a lamp I have my old pencil case.