Unanswered letters

A rectangular wooden box, the length of a football with a hinged lid that lifts and falls, and a small hole on top, which once housed a latch, long gone.

It belonged to his mother’s mother and sat in her kitchen in Mansfield. Inside he stores treasures collected over the years and hidden in this box which today sits on our mantel in the bedroom. 

Until now I have not spent long examining the box, but last night we went in search of lost euros, squirreled away in containers throughout this house from trips our children have made to Europe over the course of our married life. 

My youngest is off to Italy and Greece today for a holiday with her boyfriend and a few loose euros would not go astray, even as they have access to money enough for their trip. 

On the lid someone has engraved the words Many Happy Returns, as if the box was once a gift and below, two words on the diagonal, Unanswered Letters. The box could fit many unanswered letters and his mother might have used it as such. 

A strange concept, the unanswered letter. All those letters filed away for further work.

On one side of the box, our engraver has carved the words Three Little Rascals and beside them etched the image of three small dogs, two in a basket, the other tail wagging nearby. 

On the other side, there’s a horse’s head in the middle of an elaborate horseshoe and the words Remembrance. On the narrow end, our engraver has carved the picture of a kangaroo, on the other an emu.

An Australian example of pyrography which, until last night, I did not know existed. 

Pyrography, as the name implies, involves drawing and writing with heat. The person who created this box, a century ago, used a small, pointed soldering iron, held like a pen, it’s point heated repeatedly over a flame. Rather like a pen dipped in ink. Today woodburning wands are electric, so there’s no need to heat and reheat. The iron maintains a steady flow of heat to etch in the burn.

When I was a child I invented my own form of pyrography in secret. I retrieved the stubs of my father’s cigarettes almost used up to the orange butt with enough tobacco remaining to get a red glow sufficient to burn a pattern onto toilet paper.

In this way I etched my initials onto toilet roll sheets, secreted in the outside toilet so no one could detect the whiff of smoke. Though why should I have worried, when my father smoked in the toilet often and no one was to know it was me hidden behind the wooden door?

I’ve been tuning into a reading of Annie Ernaux’s The Years, enthralled by the way she travels across time from her birth in 1941 and her childhood memories through adolescence into adulthood. The way she maps the history of France across her lifetime from then into the mid 1980s. Through all the dramatic years, the crises, the 1968 year of revolutions when she was a young mother keen to get onto her childhood ambition of being a writer. She held off as her life as wife, mother and teacher demanded she put aside such desires until her children grew and she divorced. 

I’m intrigued by the effortless way Ernaux slips from first to second and third person in shifting from her own singular experience to that of her generation. The ‘we’ voice is prominent when she describes the politics of her day. How ‘we’ as a people, mainly middle class, though she sometimes alludes to the wealthy and even the poor, but always the ‘we’ of her generation: our taste in furniture, our inclination to watch television for the first time, then upgrade our sets, next learning about the new gadgets the CD’s and video tapes that keep us at home. The Walkman to pump music into our bodies as we travel. The ways in which a society kids itself that all is well, even though the arrival of the other, in the form of Arab and Muslim migrants, shatters the homogeneity. Thoughout, Ernaux harks back to conversations of past eras: World War Two, conflict in Algiers, their fight for independence, Vietnam war and the endless civil unrests that have sparked bright and dangerously throughout Ernaux’s life. 

It strikes me when we trawl through a life, as Ernaux does, you see how minuscule our individual lives are and how much as a people over time we learn little about the horrors of war, only to allow such conflicts to keep on in the name of some fantasy that one day peace will prevail.

There’s also the relentless march of progress. The way washing machines took over the back breaking work of hot tubs and scrubbing boards, and ovens took over from open fires. Electricity, hair dryers and the vacuum cleaner. Domesticity reduced in hours but not in its ability to bore us silly in its relentlessness.

And my husband’s wooden box throws me back to a time when we wrote letters on sheets of paper. Sealed them in envelopes and stamped the outside in the right hand corner above the address, and offered one another small gifts of words, sometimes etched on wood.