He must have lived in the village, but nobody knew where and nobody much cared. I used to imagine him in one of those final, tumbledown cottages with fields beyond, at the point where nature takes over; where men sit out on their front steps in shirtsleeves to read the newspaper and their women sit on kitchen chairs and shell peas into chipped enamel bowls.
He was rarely seen. As dusk fell, just occasionally, you might spot him. He’d usually be wheeling the bike because he couldn’t get onto it for “stuff” insecurely lashed to either side and dangling from the handlebars. Anything people had left out for him – spades, lawnmowers, brooms – contraptions their owners had lost interest in or forgotten how to use. Occasionally he would be riding – and then he would be wobbling. He was the slowest old-man-bicycle-rider I have ever seen. People were grateful to him insofar as they noticed him at all. And what he did with his gleanings? Maybe made fantastical sculptures out of them. More likely he sold them to the gypsies.
We have gypsies here too. They may not be gypsies at all, of course, but whatever they are and wherever they come from, they collect scrap metal that people have left out for them. They have a pickup truck, a white one. They are polite. If they see you they’ll ask, “All right if I take this, darlin’?’ Otherwise they just fling it in the back of the pick-up and reverse.
This morning I put some stuff out for the neighbours. My brother-in-law, now slowly dying in Canada, was a generous man. Whenever he and my sister came over and stayed with me he would go out and buy a mountain of stuff – nearly always stuff I couldn’t use. Sometimes it was food – giant bags of rice, five years’ supply of spaghetti – but since he loved DIY superstores anyway, it would often be stuff for my little, ancient car. Engine oil. Car wax. Screen wash. Filters. Over the years the hefty plastic bottles have accumulated on the giant workbench left behind by the house’s previous owner (complete with monster vice). They have remained unopened and gathering a film of garage-grime because I can’t use them. When I get my car serviced, the mechanics include all that. Sometimes I can’t even remember where the handle is to open the bonnet. It used to worry me. Which would peeve him more on his annual visit – the same Aladdin’s Cave of car supplies, unopened, or the infeasible disappearance of the whole lot in twelve months?
Brother-in-law won’t be coming to England again, I fear, and I’ll be moving house – exactly when I don’t know yet – but to a smaller place, probably lacking a garage or even a driveway. It’s possible the car will be the next casualty of my personal financial squeeze in any case. So today I put all the bottles outside the front wall, with a handwritten FREE sign . I don’t expect them to vanish today – unless I take the car out for an unnecessary couple of hours leaving the coast clear for my thrifty, but invisible, neighbours. But most of them will have vanished by morning.
I was thinking about travelling light, and how people give me things, and how I tend to accumulate stuff and yet more stuff in spite of regular throwing-out sessions and trips to the tip. How insecure it makes me feel, to give away anything that might conceivably come in useful. Poverty does that, and it’s a hard habit to break – you find yourself sticking the remaining sliver of soap to the new bar, upending the washing-up liquid bottle in a mug to drain the last few drops, hoarding supplies of ancient underwear in case you miraculous lose weight! But how heavy all this “stuff” is, and how it drags at me.
Ultimately, it must all go. Everything we own will one day end up in a junk shop or somebody else’s living room – or mangled into new shapes. We own nothing, really. Nothing but our birthday suits.
And I was thinking about that story I wrote, Lafferty’s Last Swan. My little (well, littler than me) sister proof-read it for me some years ago, along with a lot of other stories. She’s not much into my writing, I think, but she specifically mentioned that one. She thought it had something. Reading it back, I think it has something too – a message for it’s author.
Excess baggage is a symptom of something we are missing on the inside – a fear that we won’t be accepted for what we are, as if our selves are not enough. We bring too much of our past experience, the clutter of our emotions. These things get in the way and keep us from getting close to others. Then we are left with the task of having to find someone else to carry it, whether it is our luggage or our loneliness.