The thing about second hand, vintage, thrift stores, charity shops, jumble sales- is that stuff has a story. Some I might know, like the baby clothes and toys that once belonged to Oli and I that have found new lease of life with our boys. Some isn’t really very important: at the nearly new baby sales that are hugely popular round here, I don’t go round feeling all melancholic and thoughtful about some good condition boy’s trousers for 50p. But then there is history that you do wonder about. The antiques shop we went to at the weekend acquires much of its stock from house clearances. The job of clearing out the house of a relative who has passed away is overwhelming, sad, gritty and tiring. Once the family has taken what they want, the rest often falls into the hands of clearance folk and then into the dusty, crammed corners of various shops. And that story is lost. I might know from the label, or google, that the pretty inlaid box is an escritoire. But that dent? The replaced lock? The letters written, the journeys taken. ‘Wanted on Voyage.’ What voyage? These are up to the imagination now, and are often, I’m sure, more interesting than the reality. Thus many a novel has been born. But to me there is always a certain sadness in the deep patina of meaning that surrounds such a simple thing as a well-looked-after tea set or embroidered handkerchief.
A friend of mine lost her mum recently. She had been ill, but then she had been better; and so her death was sudden and shocking. Clearing out her belongings was made harder, my friend told me, by the fact that it had only been recently that her mother had come into some money. All of her life, she had worked hard and spent little. She had only just been able to buy herself nice, more expensive clothes, and my friend felt terrible giving these away to charity. When I mentioned I had taken up knitting, she asked if I would like her mum’s collection of patterns and some yarn. She would feel better knowing they were going to someone who would appreciate and use them, she said. I feel quite honoured. I never met her, and I will never know the full story behind the wool; what it was bought for, what she had planned for it. But I shall treasure them. And imagine.