Brian Quinn

Dealing with Other Objects

I don’t know what you did last weekend. Perhaps you went for a bike ride with your kids. Perhaps you went for a long pub lunch with some friends. Perhaps you were in the Seychelles. What I did was tidy my office.

Whether you work at home full-time or part-time or elsewhere or not at all, and even if you operate all the grown-up things you have to do at various locations around the house wherever the wi-fi signal happens to be best and wherever the temperature is most suitable, it’s a fair bet you have a base, some room or area which is yours. This is where your stuff is kept.

Amongst the stuff  – and this is not a fair bet but a 30-1-on shot – will be the following:

• Several unopened letters, some of which may – or then again hopefully may not – be serious.
• At least one cardboard box filled with things relating to some aspect of your past which you can neither dispose of nor confront.
• At least one drawer so full that can be barely be opened or closed.
• A number of Other Objects.

Am I right or am I right?

Unopened letters. This was quite easy. I decided – sometimes by peeking inside, more often by what I hope will prove to be accurate guesswork – that the situations they had once described were now safely in the past. After checking for anything that looked as if it might be about a traffic violation or might contain a cheque, I threw the rest away.

The cardboard box. I have more than one. Others are safely out of sight in the attic. They contain various things. That’s all I’m prepared to say on the subject.

The drawer. I have two on my desk. The one on the right I haven’t been able to open more than three inches since I moved the desk about five years ago as it then became blocked by the upright of a shelf unit fixed to the nearby wall. It was easy to put things in it but almost impossible to get them out. It was like a post box that is never emptied and so the perfect place for stuff which I knew I shouldn’t throw away but also couldn’t face looking at. On Saturday afternoon I realised the drawer was fast approaching a point of singularity, like a black hole. The only solution was to borrow a jig-saw from Dave down the road and do something I should have done years ago: cut away a few inches of the shelf support to allow me to open the drawer.

I then took both drawers out and emptied them on the floor.

The result was a mixture of a rather uninteresting still-life and a confused summary of various aspects of the last five years of my life. Much of the paperwork had now been overtaken by events, as so much paperwork is, and was swiftly dealt with in much the same way as was the post. The rest proved to be mainly rubber bands, foreign coins, paper clips, incomprehensible post-it notes, pen caps (bot not the pens), outdated credit cards, drawing pins, pencils, fluff – and Other Objects.

Other Objects. They deserve their special section and their capital letters. It’s the Other Objects that make tidying jobs ultimately so impossible. The idea of tidying is to sort things – bank statements go here, pencils here, guitar plectrums here – but sorting Other Objects requires almost as many piles as there are items. Each one is different from, and unrelated to, any other. Each also seems, because of having been kept for this long, to be an essential part of your life. If you were to throw even one of them away you risk your world collapsing: this despite the fact that for the last five years you’ve been largely unaware of its existence. There’s also the lurking fear that the more mysterious ones might be vital and irreplaceable spares for something like the boiler or the Velux window. The problem is, where do you put it? In this brief new order, everything has its place. Bank statements go here; pencils here; plectrums here. Where do Other Objects go?

Of course, this only matters for about a week: after this time, the careful partitions in the drawers and elsewhere – rubber bands go here, USB sticks here – breaks down. There’s also the matter of whether or not you want to be seen as the kind of man who knows where all his rubber bands are.

There’s no point in my listing my Other Objects because it would make no sense to you. You would discover 40 of your own and were we to compare lists there would be no overlap. Where are mine now? I can’t tell you. They are Other Objects and have dispersed themselves around the room and the house in the way that Other Objects do. When I next repeat the exercise, some will have found a use or decayed into dust but other Other Objects will have risen to take their place. There’s no escape.

The only clue I’ll give you is that amongst the Other Objects I came across were several keys. No one has ever managed to throw away a key. Try it now. You can’t do it. Nor did I.

Somewhere, in this world or the next, there’s a long corridor lined with doors, each of which can be opened by the various old keys that all of us have hoarded. As for the rooms – well, you know what they’re filled with. Other Objects, including more keys. And so it goes on, and on; as does the sorting. What is it? Where do I put it? It was important once but is it now? Does it belong with this or with that? In the final analysis, eternity is perhaps nothing more than a never-ending problem of classification, sorting an infinity of objects according to ever-changing criteria. If so, then today, sitting in my tidy-ish office, I should be well prepared for it. If, however, eternity comes knocking a month, or even a week, from now then I wouldn’t feel so confident.

Brian Quinn
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  1. How did you know? Brilliant. I have lived with stuck drawers for many years, mostly in various NHS offices, which adds to the angst, as you can’t be sure that what’s contained within does not hold serious implications for someone else – a patient, or a staff member. That complaint letter that you responded to but you forgot to file. A crucial piece of clinical evidence needed for a clinical claim. Then low grade worry sets in – until you forget about it again. On leaving the NHS for good, my final ‘stuck’ drawer was forced open by the ‘estates guy’, to reveal little more than the list outlined above, including keys,except it also included a number of blue NHS lanyards ( that identifiable rope used for you to wear your name badge round your neck) or various defunct hand held devices used to capture clinical time for a week, before the NHS recognised they wouldn’t work. So I guess those are NHS Other Objects. My Speech and Language days would also include tongue depressors, a pot of bubbles with no soap left, and plastic farm animals.

    Throwing away a key feels terrifying, as though you are throwing away your access to part of your life.

    I don’t think I have ever left a letter unopened. Maybe I naively think that letters will bring good things. Hold on…… I don’t get letters any more, so I am not sure where good things come from now. Certainly not emails. Great piece!

    • Brian Quinn

      Perhaps, as Tolstoy didn’t say, ‘every untidy desk is alike; every tidy desk is tidy after its own fashion.’

  2. This is spot on in all respects! ‘Other Objects’ for me include four large bolts that go into the washing machine should we ever need to move it to another house. A vanishingly unlikely scenario. Or is it…?
    And I too have a box with my past in it. I think. I’ve looked at the top of it a few times in the past few years but can never bring myself to burrow deeper so I don’t really know if it’s desperately meaningful or just junk.
    Well done that man!

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