The power of sentimentality held by objects

APRIL 14 03 – Drawn here to record a heartbreaking sentence. Speaking to my mother on the phone, she mentioned going through cupboards and coming across things she'd never used. One, a fancy China tea set she got before she married, had never been used in 48 years of marriage. I asked why haven't you used them, she replied: 'The last time I got them out was for your dad's funeral, then nobody came to the house so I put them away again.'

I remember the gilt-edged teacups sitting in their saucers on a tray. I had tea in a mug that day. I don't think we expected anyone to come back, although maybe my mother hoped for it nonetheless, certainly she wished to take account of the eventuality. Only a couple of people at the service besides us, people I vaguely recognised from when I was a child. A sterile crematorium farce. I don't think I expected it to be anything else. Those dainty teacups to start off a married life, for entertaining, hold a lifetime of sadness, unstained by use. I don't think it could it have been any other way.

And as I stared at today's date, suddenly I realised that yesterday would have been dad's birthday. I couldn't even remember how long he'd been dead. I put two and two together, something that had been unspoken in our otherwise surface habitual conversation, and rang back: 'Wasn't yesterday dad's birthday? Is that why you had the tea set out?'

I learnt how before marriage she had put a little by each week to buy the tea set, they called it 'saving for the bottom drawer'. She'd only got the crocks out once, ever, for the funeral: 'I thought people might come back, but it was no skin off my nose if they didn't.'

I have an ingrained sense of having learnt to have few expectations of other people, because they will let you down. I had always thought I had learnt that from my own experience. There is no sense in getting disappointed that life does not live up to our hopes for it. Mum hadn't remembered at first that it was his birthday, but woke up down in the dumps for some inexplicable reason. Later she was shifting boxes, including the tea set, and it had reminded her and plunged her into maudlin thoughts: 'Fancy living in this mausoleum all this time.'

Dad will have been dead five years in August, I've written the date in my diary now. Doubtless I will encounter that tea set once again. 'I'll keep them,' she said, 'you never know when they may come in handy.' Probably I'll not think about it, and a few people will come back this time, and I'll find them in the cupboard, ready and waiting. Waiting for the only use that in retrospect they were bought for.

I have always thought the line in Chinese poetry, 'my sleeves are wet', was overdone and formulaic. It usually crops up in poems where a man returns to his home village, which he left long ago, his family and everyone he ever knew are in the graveyard.

I am beyond all this, or so I like to think. Salt tears on my lips. Objects too have their destinies, I think I realised this when I decided to possess nothing that was too dear to me. My life has been a continual blanking out of anything that might intrude upon a certain self-contained steadfastness I do value, but finding the occasional chink in the armour lets out stale air.


Later, washing up. A fine bone-china mug Andra gave me, just before she went back to Romania. I remember the way she pronounced 'Vîlcea' like 'Vulture'. Rîmnicu Vîlcea was the epicentre of the total solar eclipse of August 11 1999, it was near her home town. We were going to watch the eclipse there together and then get married at a local monastery on the Saturday. Instead I watched the eclipse's partial light from my garden in London on my own, unavoidably thinking of what might have been.

How different my life would have been had we simply married. Most of what we do doesn't make a great deal of difference, and 'what might have been' is usually just a vain hope and waste of mental energy, but some things come so close to our grasp, and would have resulted in things being so different, that we can only hope that fate did not favour it and all is fated, or that we acted wisely at the time for all in retrospect we're not sure, because the alternative, that we just let it fade away for no good reason, doesn't bear thinking about. Sometimes things are decided on no more than a momentary tone of voice, a telling hesitation, and there's nothing you can do to change anything any more and bring back what was.

Some things seem too good, all that life was ever heading towards, and then they are taken away. Circumstance can be corrosive. A tide of seeming inevitability cannot be turned, the challenge left to us is entirely one of acceptance of fate. Yes, I tire of learning to forget, so much so it is a form of release to be reminded, now and again. So, I have an object too. By contrast I use it all the time, but rarely dwell on what it contains besides water.

'Even with slender means, the sentiment of the heart can be expressed.' – Hexagram 41.