I’ve just discovered there’s a book called The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, entirely about the items carried around by soldiers during the Vietnam War – photographs, letters, mosquito spray or, in one case, a lucky pair of tights. I haven’t read it. How did the tights become lucky, I wonder?
It made me think about the sheer amount of stuff I carry around all the time and what that stuff might be saying about me. People have even asked (my sister, particularly, who is always posing those sensible, awkward questions) – What on earth have you got in that bag? And I just can’t tell them. I mean, I know what’s in the bag – or in my case bags – the big one and the little one – but I can’t exactly say why. There’s no logic to it. Not sensible-sister-type logic anyway.
Carrying an awful lot of stuff around says something about you, doesn’t it? Insecurity, most people say. More like fear. It’s like you’ve got to be prepared for everything and for an indefinite amount of time since, just because you expect to be home by four, doesn’t mean something won’t happen – like a train crash or unexpected landing of Martians – in which case you will need supplies. Because you can’t be without something.
Perhaps it’s a legacy of my time in the Brownies. I was a Fairy. Then I was a Gnome. I much preferred being a Gnome. Our motto wasn’t Be Prepared, like for the Boy Scouts (it was Lend a Hand – stupid motto!) but we were still expected to be prepared. Brown Owl used to carry out random checks to ensure that our top pockets contained a folded piece of paper, a stub of pencil and a short length of string. I carried them religiously and used them absolutely never. Even our ties were supplies in disguise. We had this bright yellow square thing which had to be folded once diagonally, then folded in and in until it made a tie. You had to tie it behind your neck, under your collar, in a reef knot – never a granny. Why not just a tie? you may ask. Well, you see, if someone broke their arm in your presence then you would whip off the bright yellow tie, having first untied your reef knot, and voila – a bright yellow sling!
Nowadays in my handbag I carry – let’s think:
- two purses, one for cards and one for change (the card one has a special lining which is supposed to stop people – or machines – deducting money from your new-fangled contactless cards). I think;
- a comb – I nearly gave that to Mum the other week, but I would have felt most unsafe, driving home without it. I would have had to stop at a shop and buy one, most likely;
- travel pack of paper tissues or ancient, raggedy-edged bunch of paper tissues snatched from a box.
- two large bunches of keys, most of which, on either bunch, I have forgotten the purpose of;
- a small notebook;
- a biro – or sometimes seven – they breed when they get bored. Then they get separated from their plastic caps and die.
Then there’s the other bag. This is the size of a small suitcase and seems to follow me everywhere. It contains a range of supplies depending on where I am bound and how scared I am of Martian landings and train crashes that day. There will always be a bottle of water – a large one because I worry about dying of thirst – and a kind of medicine bag containing stuff for headaches, stuff for indigestion… You name it, I’ve got tablets for it. They tend to work loose after a while and float around – but if you’ve got a migraine, what’s a bit of fluff? Hand-cream, also. Never know when the hands are going to get that unbearable papery feeling.
There will always be a large A5 notepad – sometimes four in various stages of used-upness – and a little family, or tin of pencils. And a pencil-sharpener. They’re partly a hangover from having to write notes to Mum all the time instead of talking, but also in case I get any bright ideas for novels. J K Rowling got the idea for Harry Potter, so legend has it, in a train from London to…Birmingham or Glasgow or somewhere, and she didn’t have a pencil, pen or paper on her. How could she not? How could she have borne to have that brilliant idea in particular, and be forced to memorise it for hours?
Quite often there’s a scarf or gloves. There’s nearly always a paperback book. Sometimes three paperback books. Or a paperback book and an e-reader. I rarely actually feel safe enough when out to actually read anything. But I might. And if I needed to, well, I’d have the books.
Sometimes there are odd purchases – one of those seedy fat-balls for the birds, for example, or yet more unnecessary pencils. (My house is infested with pencils, all sharpened.) Or a copy of the Radio Times. Or a supermarket sandwich still in its cardboard triangle, being saved for later. Usually I eat it when I get home, having forgotten all about it whilst out. There might be a chocolate bar wrapper, forgotten from long ago, or a single paperclip. You never know, until you rummage – or tip it up on the carpet.
Over the years my right shoulder, which carries the bag(s), has sunk noticeably lower than the left. Occasionally I even have to stop for a minute and rest because my bag-burden has worn me out. What would it feel like, I wonder – just for a day – to be someone like the Queen or Kim Kardashian and carry no bag at all, secure in the knowledge that those silent Others behind you will have everything you need – will pay for your ice cream, hand you a tissue if you seem about to sneeze, or jot down your merest passing thought?