:: Article

Unboxing My Father’s Suitcase

By Stephanie Bishop.

‘A novel is never anything but a philosophy put into images’ – Albert Camus, Lyrical and Critical

I.
I have seen that Angry Birds unboxing video—the close-up of the first egg and the satisfying crunch of the thin plastic covering being peeled away, before the yellow egg is opened and its contents slowly removed and inspected, all of this commented on by an anonymous woman with a hypnotic voice. In this first egg there are stick-on tattoos, in the second a green figurine, in the third a mass of pink candy. The woman unwrapping these items has painted her nails metallic blue, her fingers are a little stubby. I feel like I am watching a slow motion version of Play School, and I want to know what is inside each plastic egg, even if I don’t really care, and although I stop the video before all the plastic eggs have been unwrapped, part of me still wants to know how it ends. What is this desire? Simple curiosity perhaps; the narrative urge to know what happens next, no matter how banal the event. There are endless YouTube videos of children unwrapping Christmas presents and birthday presents and Boxing Day presents, dressed in their flannel pajamas, clips of adults unboxing phones, televisions, household appliances. These are domestic pleasures: unboxing of any kind being an activity that one is strictly cautioned against in public—the ubiquitous recorded voice relaying the warning: “If you see any unattended baggage do not touch it but inform staff immediately”. While a relatively new YouTube phenomenon and contemporary public threat, unboxing has long been part of the stock trade of novelists: for how many centuries have characters been given a box, or a trunk, or a package, then equivocate before deciding to open it—whereupon their life takes a new and dramatic turn.

Not long ago I introduced just such a device into a draft of a novel: I wrote a scene in which the daughter was given a suitcase that contained her father’s papers. I scratched this out almost immediately, because it seemed too contrived, and too worn—only to receive a phone call from my stepmother a few weeks later saying that she had a suitcase which contained my father’s papers, and she thought I should have them. If you want it, my stepmother said, the suitcase is yours.

The real suitcase was heavier than I expected. It dates from the 1960’s; it is dark brown and made from a material that looks like pressed metal, with lighter brown pin stripes carved into it. The clasps are rusted, and only one closes properly. There would have once been a leather handle, but this broke long ago, replaced by a temporary wire handle, now snapped at one end. My father’s name is there, beneath the handle: white printing on a strip of black plastic, the label made by one of those old handheld lettering devices that allowed you to stamp out a word in embossed capitals.

It was autumn when I went to collect it. In the garden there were plums on the tree that I’d planted as a child. I ate a few, and drove home with the suitcase in the back of the car. I carried it to my study and pushed it behind the armchair. But even out of sight, its presence bothered me. I felt as though I had my father in the room and I kept stopping what I was doing in order to get up and go and look at it: I would stand over the suitcase with my arms folded and watch it as if it were an animal about to leap at me—only when I could be sure that it hadn’t moved, and was just as it was the day before, would I go back to my work.

Another person’s instincts might have been to open it immediately—to set out to make a discovery, to revel in the pleasures of unboxing. And I did think, at first, when I went to collect it, that this was what I would do:  I would be such a brave and reckless person. But I had never been allowed to open the suitcase, scarcely to touch it, in all my life. I did not know it as something openable. Before the suitcase came into my possession I could only remember it as a closed and hidden object. My father, in general, had never been one to open things, or encourage opening: he did not open birthday gifts on his birthday, nor Christmas gifts at Christmas, nor his mouth to smile for a photograph. He had in fact been known to keep a Christmas gift for a whole year, until the following Christmas, before he would decide to unwrap it.

I found myself thinking similarly: I too was not obliged to unfasten the rusty clasp, simply because the case had been given to me. I could, if I so wished, leave it closed my whole life. It was, at the point when I inherited it, one of the few things that had been left unobserved, unremembered, not repossessed or passed on, and because of this it had managed to avoid being touched, contaminated, reduced, or diluted by any conscious knowledge of, or contact with, its owner’s passing. It had not yet been altered in this way because it was an object I had completely forgotten about. To lift the lid would be to discharge the suitcase of this living, unchanged force—this residue. It would mean transforming it into an open case.

And perhaps I would have left it closed were it not for the fact that the novel I was working on—one which centered around a series of fictional encounters within my family—had reached a hiatus. I was stuck and looking for clues. If I opened the suitcase, I told myself, I might find not an answer exactly, but something that might allow me to imagine this.

So I pulled the suitcase from its hiding place, sat down before it on the carpet and pressed the small button on the side of the rusted clasp. Papers spilled out. There were his school reports from high school, poems he’d written at university, rejection letters from literary journals, love letters from my mother, letters from friends addressed to his dead brother, a set of appointment slips from the university listing his brother’s appointment times with the counseling service, and so on. I rifled through these, looking for I don’t know what: a diary perhaps, a confession. I dug my hands deeper into the case, there were objects at the bottom, beneath the papers, and there, in the corner of the case lay a small pink velvet box, of the kind you might keep a ring in.

The box hinged open, and I let go of it as if it were a hot coal: inside lay a swatch of dark hair. Removing the pink box revealed something else, too—a bread bag containing a stack of envelopes. The bag was made of clear plastic, with ‘Ben’s Bread Bakery’ printed across it in plain red lettering. There were cracks in the red, where the bag had been twisted closed for decades. Inside, the bag smelled of my father’s papers; a dusty mix of mustard, vanilla, tobacco smoke. The envelopes were the carriers of this scent; long, thin, slightly glossy envelopes either off white or tan, the flap at the ends not gummed down, the blueish sticking strip still visible, some unused, but other envelopes were torn and recycled; on the top right hand corner the imprint of The Department of Education On Her Majesty’s Service, The Department of Motor Transport, The University of Sydney, Leach and Grinter Solicitors.

The glossy tan ones were the same envelopes he used throughout his working life, tied up with pink cotton legal tape; the eternal marker of official secrecy. I emptied the bread bag, untied the string, opened one envelope at random and peeked inside: contained within were a set of meticulously wrapped photographic negatives. I checked another envelope: the same. One after another and another. On the outside of each envelope was a set of numbers, the first number was printed in red text: a single or double digit ranging from one to eighty-six. Next to this number was the date when the photographs were taken, the month and year ranging between August 1975 and November 1979, all written in blue or black ball-point, scrawled in my father’s angular and almost indecipherable script. Then, beneath this appeared a list of code – what I understood to be a detailed description of camera, lens type, aperture.

Envelope Number 46, January 1977: 400ml – 6.3 :35ml – 3.5 (1) (5.6) 1/100 (2) (4) 1/100 (3) (5.6) (4) 6.3, 1/100 (5) (6) 6.3. 1/100 (7,8) S 6.3, 1/100 (9,10) S 6.3 1/200 (11,12) S 6.3, 1/100 (13-16) S6.3, 1/200 (17) (8), 1/500 (18) (8), 1/200 (19,21) S 6.3, 1/200 (22) S 3.5, 1/200 (23) S 3.5, 1/25 (24) S 3.5, 1/100 (25) (11), 1/100 (26) (5.6), 1/100 (27) (11)1/100 (28) (16), 1/100 (29) (16), 1/500 (30) (11), 1/500 (31) (8), 1/200 (32) (16), 1/500 (33) (11) 1/100 (34) (8), 1/200 (35) (8), 1/200 (36) S3.5, 1/500 (37) (11), 1/500 (38) (11), 1/100 TRiX (400) Envelope Number 65 February 1977 Transfer with police – 6th – 4/100 or 4/50 Police station – 6th 2.8/50 – W 3.5/100 Footway S16/3-4 W Mother and Child 2.8/50 W Traffic (–) 4/50 ASA 400.

The negatives were wrapped in toilet paper, kitchen paper towels, tissues, old thin Christmas wrapping, thin sheets of foolscap covered in my mother’s handwriting. I unwrapped a set very carefully and held the black and white strip up to the light: the ocean perhaps, a rocky headland, the dark shape of a young man. I returned the negatives to their wrapping, transferred the envelopes to a shoebox, and the next day delivered them to a camera shop for developing.

II.
Close to five hundred photographs came back: seagulls, abandoned buildings, skyscrapers, street lights. There were holiday snaps mixed in with abstract photos, images concerned with shapes and the arrangement of shapes, taken in the late 1970’s, many taken in the dark and in the rain. My father is not present in any of the photographs because he is always behind the camera: this is his eye onto the world, only I don’t know why he wanted to remember and preserve these sights, what he was doing in these places, so late at night, why he kept these photographs. They are images that are supersaturated with biographical experience that I can’t decode. To paraphrase Freud, biographical truth as I wanted it was not to be had, and what I did have I could not seem to use.

I was tentative at first, handling the photos slowly, inspecting one after another before carefully putting them back in place. So much about the images felt familiar: the coastline we lived near when I was a small child, Hyde Park in the city, the ferry terminal. But after examining only a handful of photographs I felt exhausted, and turned away.

What I thought I wanted was to discover a real thing, a verifiable fact. I was looking, without question, for something that would generate and support the understanding of motive, make clear an invented chain of cause and effect. I was looking, in short, for something that would allow me to sidestep the particular challenge of constructing a narrative around repeated breakdown, given that in such a scenario the breakdown of narrative is often, itself, a prominent symptom.

But I could neither find nor invent the missing piece: not in the suitcase, nor in the photographs. And in the ongoing failure of discovery I slowly realized that I was looking for a fact that would potentially falsify the very experience I was trying to explore: the book I was writing was neither a case study, nor a crime investigation, nor a history. To the contrary, it was the sustained condition of uncertainty that galvanized the project from the beginning, and the challenge lay in resisting the impulse to close this down. Yet the desire for discovery persisted.

*

My father was never a traveller. He was, instead, a briefcase man, much to his own frustration. If he travelled anywhere it was at the insistence of others—shifting between England and Australia as a child, or travelling to Rome decades later in order to rescue his second wife. But to my knowledge this was the only suitcase he ever acquired and the only journeys it took were from one house to another as we moved about, my father hunting out the cheapest and most derelict of houses, places that were in such bad condition they were never formally put on the market, never advertised, and he’d buy these for a song and we’d live in them while he fixed them up in his spare time. Most of these houses were filled with abandoned debris left behind by the last tenants: cassettes, magazines, cutlery and china, paper and pens, old clothes. The back garden always full of weeds and rubbish. For fun, my sister and I used to take our plastic spades and see what we could unearth: green glass bottles, a teapot, broken willow-patterned plates. He could just as well have put his papers in a box, for all the use of the suitcase, and while other things were lost in these moves—the ashes of his mother and brother—the suitcase remained, dusty and shut tight.

Not long after I had the photographs developed I moved overseas. In the hurry to pack I transferred the envelopes of photographs from the brown suitcase to a second box. At the same time, I pushed the envelopes of negatives back into their plastic bread bag. As soon as I did this I realized my error: some last negatives had been overlooked and not developed, and the numbers from the original manila envelopes had not been transferred to the envelopes with the photographs. Within seconds all order had been lost: I didn’t know which negatives had been left undeveloped, I could no longer be certain which envelope of photographs related to which envelope of negatives, and therefore could not be sure of the date of any of the photographs at all: in one fell swoop the possibility of using the images as a factual record was removed.

But the horror at my error slowly shifted to relief. I put the photographs aside and continued with the project, finding, as I did so, that I was writing about the images without having them before me, without knowing anything about their motive or origin. The attempt to anchor the flight of fiction by proving its relationship to fact only demonstrated to me the potential resistance and mutability of verifiable material. Instead, it slowly became clear that writing—when it is steering its own clear path—comes as side-effect or aftereffect of seeing things in the mind, that it occurs as a sublimated visual process of responding to and transforming observed phenomena that have lodged themselves in the mind—the mental image always preceding, by a slight margin, the accompanying words.

With this thought in the background I took the disordered photographs out once more. On each of the twenty or thirty odd envelopes was printed the uncomfortable injunction: Enjoy Your Memories! And so I did, but perhaps not in the way they meant. I did not use my father’s photographs by looking at them as such, rather, I took a glance at one then turned away not least because I found I couldn’t look at them anymore. In this interim period of stepping back, something happened, something that had probably always been happening but which I’d not properly attended to before, because I was so intent on finding a nugget of fact to justify a fiction. But in the dull space of turning away and staring out the window, secondary, associative images slowly moved towards the visual memory of the photograph, creating, bit by bit, a narrative by image clusters. At first, this had seemed an accident. Then, very slowly I came to recognize it as a habit, a practice: not so much a set of actions gone about deliberately, but a psychic process, a tendency.

It works like this: I look at a photograph then wait for another image, scanning the internal landscape for visual phenomena that weigh anchor, that stand out, that shock, that have got stuck, that seem extra saturated or magnetic, that have some aura of intensity to them. These internally preserved images impress themselves upon and snag the writing mind, startling it, and calling it to attention. When an internal image emerges in the far hollow of the mind, the responding, recording voice—the writing voice—is always nearby, not so unlike the filmic voice that saturates an image, speaking over and through it, from the wings of the mind. But these internal, associative images are not random, or caught ad-hoc. Rather, during the period when I wrote against the photographs, I came to find that two particular laws signaled the creative force, or potential of such internal images, allowing for translation.

LAW 1: The associating internal image is either moving or suggests potential movement: Grass in the wind. A woman walking through a field. A man seated beside a sleeping baby. So I started with a trio of photographs taken in the dark of an abandoned building, looking out through a broken window into the bright day. There are signs of habitation: broken chairs, graffiti on the wall. From somewhere a secondary involuntary and internal image presents itself—a composite memory of two women seen on different trains in different countries—the image transplanted now, into the nascent fictional world.

In this internal image the woman is sleeping. Her skirt has risen up her thigh. On her leg, just above her knee is a tattoo that reads: Protect me from what I want. Seeing her in the derelict building, waking up and tugging her skirt down to cover the tattoo, the man in the novel asks her this: “What is it that you should not have, must not do?” This potential or manifest movement of an image (the woman tugging at her skirt down) is important not just in itself, but because of its overall effect: to watch an image moving is to see something unfolding in time, to be drawn into the movement and perception of time, and therefore such images galvanise and insist upon the internal development of narrative.

LAW 2: The images always work in threes. A test of their creative potential—whether they can be used, whether I can trust them, whether they will work—is partly dependent on their close arrival in triplicate, on their associative capacity and the force of these links. But again, there is a caveat: these are not just any three images, but, by and large, three opposing images, three images that suggest contradiction, change, ambivalence, that move—literally—in differing directions, and thus compel a new narrative state. It is a visual chord, internal, digital. Without physical trace. This new state is not one of synthesis achieved through dialectics, but a pronounced state of irresolution, and in this way the images urge the story on.

And so the composition of narrative emerges as a consequence, or aftereffect, of the linking together and constellating tendency of three discrete but individually mobile images. Added to this is the complex sense of possibility that overlays the whole, and which is suggested by the particular motion of each image in relation to the collective. Image one, a truck is driving at high speed. Image two, a strong wind blows debris across a road. Image three, a woman runs over the cobblestones in high heels, carrying a bunch of flowers: she falls.

So to call fiction a thing of invention, or fancy, seems, in this sense, misleading. As a reaction to lived experience it is part of lived experience. It is, in itself, a true thing that happens to me, although the signs and traces that mark out this happening are ultimately invisible in the finished work. I might at this point, defer to Geoff Dyer who aptly said: ‘Everything in this book really happened, but some of the things that happened only happened in my head…’, or perhaps to Goethe, who wrote ‘There is nothing in this work that I have not experienced, and nothing occurs as I experienced it’.

But perhaps it would be better if I tell you a story.

III.
Not long ago two water buffalo stampeded through the main street of a Sydney neighbourhood. There was a crew filming a Korean add for Samsung TV and the buffalo were part of this. At some point they escaped the set and charged more than two kilometres through the inner city, running in and out of traffic. They ran on and on, until they were rounded up by firefighters and corralled in a garden at the end of a laneway, where they were lassoed by a man dressed as a cowboy. One newspaper article quoted a woman complaining that they ruined her azaleas. There are photographs on the internet: two dark heads peering in opposite directions from the corner of a shady garden. Their huge horns look like wings. And they reminded me, for some reason, of the horses that pull the chariot in Plato’s Phaedrus, the poor charioteer struggling against the will of the wild beasts.

Time passed. The rampaging water buffalo eventually fused with a yellow handbag a friend bought. Perhaps this was because the bag was furry, made from hide, but dyed the colour of a canary. In the accidental space of the writing mind, a woman watching the rampaging buffalos is holding this bag. Another moment of composition and the pimply neck of a girl I find myself standing behind in a slow moving queue later links up with, and is given to, a man watching a busker breakdance on a city street. While I am writing I am waiting for the man to turn around so I can glimpse his face. I think of a book I saw recently that contained only photographs of peoples’ necks, the backs of their necks, and the photographs were accompanied by an essay on this unlooked at part of the body and its secret history in relation to acts of beheading.

I know the man with the pimply neck is about to do something terrible, because just then I have a sudden memory of lying down on a cliff and hanging my head over the edge and watching the ocean churn and heave far below. I did this with a friend in those first weeks after my father died, and it made me feel like I, too, was about to topple head first over the cliff. The man watching the break-dancer has left his family and come away to the sea. I studied a poem once in which the moves of a break-dancer were compared to the raptures of a Bernini sculpture and while I write I think of this.

In such a way, images react with other images and in so doing, create a new and moving picture in the mind. This is not simply montage but an ambivalent process of image-making that depends upon the fusion of two kinds of opposing images, the moving and the still (or: the continuous and the isolated), and two kinds of accompanying time; the instant and the duration. It is, above all else, a particular form of lying. As I write I am conscious of moving between three specific dimensions: the true events, the real feelings and pure fabrication. As the work progresses, these three dimensions shift and overlap; the impulse to invent adapts the true events, the real feelings are made more real when housed within an imaginary set of images. They interfere with one another, these three dimensions, and in doing so create a kind of dissonance: the resonant texture of fiction.

In this process, where something real is accidentally transformed into something that we might, for want of a better word, call fiction, the mind experiments, in real time, with the experience of its own life. One summer, a long time ago, my husband and I went out for lunch. We ate a delicious meal in a beautiful restaurant perched at the edge of a different cliff, with no sea underneath it. We had a table by the window so that it felt like we are eating in the sky. We were very happy. In my memory it is a hot day, terribly bright, and outside in the garden the lavender border has turned grey. The garden is parched, uncared for, everything brittle and windswept. As we talk, part of my mind drifts off into this landscape: a double starts to form. We are not wholly ourselves; a fictional version starts to collect like a viscous film at the edge of my vision. In this periphery we are replaced by a sad couple, their inner lives connected to the dry little garden at the edge of a cliff. While my husband and I eat, a red wasp finds its way to the window at our table. It knocks about, flicking its stingy tail. I try sweeping it away, but it stays, banging at the glass, trying to get out, its legs whisking, distressed. My husband and I pay it little attention, but in the blurring at the edge of my vision, in the aura of an impending fiction, the wife hopes that her husband will be stung by this wasp. She sits there, watching her husband’s hairy forearm resting on the clean white cloth and actively wishes for the wasp to land on it. I wonder what this unhappy couple might say to each other. Or what they can’t say, which might be why they are unhappy. Whether it matters if he really does get stung, or just that she wants him to.

I don’t know where this fiction might belong, it is just an image that stays. The restaurant was not new to us. And I dined here as a child, because this was where my father and his second wife held their wedding reception. I wore a beige linen dress suit that my stepmother picked out and I felt very posh. I gave my father a chisel as a wedding gift, at his request mind you, not understanding the humour of this gift, which he made much of, brandishing the chisel like a weapon as he gave his speech.

During the celebration I developed a crush on an older boy in a waistcoat and we went for a walk into some nearby woodland. There was a large flat rock with a hole in it, a kind of tunnel into a small cave. I climbed down into this and took a photograph looking up—unless it was he who took the photograph. Either way, I remember the two of us, and the rock, very clearly. I don’t think that photograph exists any more, but there is still the one on the mantelpiece of we three children, myself, my sister and my stepbrother, standing next to our respective parents at the cliff’s edge as they said their vows, at the completion of which we walked up to the restaurant.

I suspect that part of what I just said was a lie, a fiction. My mother often corrects my memories and in turn I’m sure she is the one in the wrong. What is true is that my father is dead now. My husband’s mother is dead too. Although I don’t think any of this will matter to the fictional woman who wishes the wasp to bite her husband. But it is, somehow, part of their history all the same; part of the reason this couple were brought into existence, hovering at the edge of my vision, at the edge of the cliff, overlooking the decimated garden—like fellow diners enjoying their three course meal.

When an animal is frightened or shying from contact one approaches it slowly, from the side. In a similar way I circumnavigate these images, images I cannot bring myself to look at for any extended period of time—do not wish to stare down. It is a way of using what I don’t really want to see, but am glad to have glanced at, encountered and internalized sufficiently in order to let such images loose. Nor, on their own, do these photographs move me, and I remain conscious of the fact that what I am touched by is a quality of aesthetic distance, of time captured and passed, stirred by the knowledge that the images predate my own existence and so function as a kind of portal, back into the midst of my father’s life, into something I must imagine and did not know. They are passages more than things, and because of this their transportational force is somehow lessened by my looking at them, the aura reduced by familiarity. And looking was perhaps never the point, anyway, not part of my original intention. Perhaps not part of my father’s either—part of why they were left as negatives, undeveloped, wrapped in tissue paper, placed in envelopes, in a bread bag, in a suitcase, in a cupboard.

When I was a child you could hire a VHS camera to take home-video footage. We did this for the novelty, narrating our everyday actions and receiving a thrill from knowing them to be reproduced—strange to think how rare a thing that was, and so we did little more than catalogue and narrate our domestic life and the objects that populated it. In the footage that remains I am inside the house, walking out into the bright yard: this is the back door, this is the trampoline, this is the swimming pool. This is my father. He hates the camera. Hates being seen by it. I pursue him, laughing, just to annoy. An eight year old child. At one point a piece of used red cellophane is found on the ground—had there been a birthday?—the camera swings down to the grass, then up again, and the cellophane is pulled over the lens. All that can be heard is the crackling of plastic, a child’s voice feint behind this as I follow my father around the back yard, recording him through a pinkish haze. He won’t look at the camera, and keeps his face averted. My incessant commentary, at least I think it is mine, continues as I follow him. The day looks hot, bright. Eventually he turns around, and says sternly: Get away with that shit.

The camera spins off into the shade of a jasmine bush. There is a sudden close up of flowers and greenery, then one long plunge into dark.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephanie Bishop is the author of three novels, The Singing, The Other Side of the World and Man Out of Time. She teaches in the School of Arts and Media at the University of New South Wales.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 20th, 2019.