In a wooden box in my flat, with the birth, marriage and death certificates of my Nana’s parents, plus assorted ration books and the like, is a leaflet on the benefits of tripe. I haven’t investigated it thoroughly, as a long-term vegetarian frankly I don’t want to know, but I’ve left it there on the basis that it’s where my Nana put it and there must have been a reason.
I thought about that last week when I was searching through a tin of brooches. Mostly cheap trinkets from my childhood – a leather elephant, an enamel cat, a fimo Christmas pudding a friend made me – but there are a few I inherited from my Nana. Most of them are cheap trinkets too, but I guess she kept them for sentimental reasons so in the twenty-two years since her death they’ve been in my tin. Some of them may have been made by my mum, she did make jewellery before I was born, and I’m guessing the thistle emblem’s from a holiday in Scotland but I don’t know or at least can’t remember if Nana told me. And now there’s no-one to ask, my mum’s dementia having made her an even more unreliable witness than she used to be.
The tripe leaflet looks like it was distributed to post-war housewives. It was probably on the kitchen table when Nana last had the rest of the paperwork out of the box and got shuffled into the pile by accident, stowed away for forty years until I unpacked it and wondered at its significance. But because I don’t know (will never know), I keep it. Just in case. If I was curious enough I could research its origins, see if it was indeed released the month that Nana’s mum died, but I’m not so I haven’t. It just sits there, along with a pencil that presumably suffered a similar fate.
As a person who lives in a smallish flat with belongings stretching back five generations – and thank heavens my 3xgreat grandma only left one book that was a prize from the temperance society, unlike my great-uncle’s bungalow-filling library that’s split between my dad and I – I curse these accidental inheritances of unknown provenance. I’d love to be able to clear out with a clean conscience. As a writer, on the other hand, they’re great inspiration.
The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick, which I reviewed at the Bookbag when it came out, is all about researching the history behind a mysterious object that is unexplainable after someone’s death. In this case it’s a charm bracelet belonging to Arthur’s wife, and through it he makes connections with people, and finds out about parts of his wife’s life that he never knew about. There’s so much scope for stories in that kind of situation: an incongruous object that you can’t quite marry up with your memory of its owner; an object you feel you ought to have seen but never have; an object that could change your opinion of them. Certainly an object you wish you could question them about.
While Phaedra Patrick got a whole novel out of it due to each charm on the bracelet having a separate history, short stories might be easier to sustain. Flash fiction lends itself particularly to focus on a single object, its significance and maybe a dance of dialogue around it. Think about who a character might ask about this object – could it help bridge a longstanding rift or reconnect them to a distant cousin? Does the character immediately know what the object is? Is it the object itself or where it appears to have come from (maybe where your character assumes it has come from)? Is there a deeper secret behind it like a relative that’s never mentioned, or is it more face-value like the dead person was once a member of an orchestra and your character never knew? Is the truth of the object uncovered or does it remain a mystery but allow your character to do something/meet someone in the meantime? Do they decide that after all, the leaflet about tripe was just a leaflet about tripe?
I wrote a short story a few years ago called Letters From the Past (which you can still read online for free) which used a similar idea, but discovering letters hands a bit more of the story to you – it’s usually much more about the secret and the fallout, the re-evaluation of the past, rather than working out what the discovery is or means. I think it’s a much more interesting and original exercise to use an object that tells you nothing, so go away and try that and see what you come up with. Not tripe, I hope.