It was ‘Break-fronted Aesthetic Movement ebonized mahogany etagere c1870’. It was in good condition and had obviously been used more recently as a chiffonier. The mirrored shelves were home to an eclectic collection of objects that sat together comfortably in virtue of their randomness and, possibly because they had been acquired on the basis of curiosity and whim rather than a collector’s avarice. The art deco decanter, model ship in a light bulb, garish novelty teapot in the form of a handbag and a model plane were all placed in a cardboard apple box along with other odds and ends to be sold as ‘sundry collectables’. The central cupboard contained a collection of around a dozen ‘non standard’ boxed light bulbs. They seemed to be unused, but the packaging looked out of date so, despite the fact that there were four Royal Ediswan 60-watt bulbs in the collection, they were put in another decrepit carboard box along with other things to be taken to the skip. The odd assortment of glasses on the upper shelves were gathered together (without much care) for another box ‘sundry glassware’. A rare glass powder box containing some rusty upholstery tacks and a few paperclips was also carelessly added to the sundry box along with the last surviving straw opal wine glass from a set that was bought at the same time as the etagere. The small central drawer was obviously used as the last resort for papers that could not be thrown away but had not real place. Beside some plastic hairclips, a .303 cartridge case, a metal comb, and unopened packets of veterinary medicine there were some papers including stray utility bills, instruction leaflets and a few postage stamps and a three colour postcard. The contents of this drawer, with the exception of the postcard, joined the light bulbs and the rest of the unloved objects in the cardboard halfway house to landfill.
The blush of the red brick in the image had faded somewhat over time but the postcard touched his memory of a girl he had spent some time with when he was still much younger. She had soft red hair of almost the same colour as the brickwork on the card. He had quite liked her and was sad for a while when she stopped taking any notice of him because ‘he worries about himself too much’ she said. The card was a print of a drawing of a large Edwardian building in what looked like a suburban street in some blissful past. It was set apart from the road by three double gates and some railings beyond which in a relatively narrow strip of garden were some half-grown trees and shrubs printed in a complimentary green. Among these there was a young Araucaria Araucana.1 Such a tree so close to the road suggests that this was an imaginary and aspirational vision of the building – quite possibly made at the planning stage for clients as a visualization of the finished project. This seemed to be confirmed by the point of view which was at about twenty degrees to the left of the front elevation. This angle, the soft lines and warm reds belied the authoritarian statement that the building was intended to make. Extending upwards for the full four stories of the building was a façade flanked by industrial grade chimney stacks that reached above the steep slate roof and seemed to have a mostly decorative function. The façade itself was decorated with non-structural arch motifs that drew eclectically on various tropes of classical architecture. Dividing the front elevation by a third there was a balcony with a low balustrade that extended across the full width of the entrance. It looked as though it was intended for important proclamations from the regional official. The shrubs, railings and indeed the confines of the sandy cloured narrow road outside meant that the balcony was too confined to accommodate a crowd below and, consequently, was also a non-functional decoration adding to the aspiration of the design to invoke some pageantry of a lost past. Notwithstanding the curious features of what was depicted, the age of the card and the sunny disposition of the drawing made it a warm and friendly object that was difficult for him to throw away immediately.
The back of the card was undivided and across the top printed in 14pt Goudy were the words ‘POST CARD’ underneath which was the instruction in 10pt Times ‘ADDRESSS ONLY TO BE WRITTEN ON THIS SIDE’.2 There was also a box to show where the stamp had to be fixed. It took a few moments for him to realize that the writing on the back of the card was not on the same orientation as the picture. The card had been turned through 90 degrees so that the portrait format could accommodate a list. There was a 24pt printed title which was possibly not an original part of the card since it was in German Black Letter and over printed something in Times he could not read. Underneath this heading five names were inscribed in blue-black ink in Sütterlin script. The Christian names were all aligned left, and the family name followed, after an identical space, which meant that the lines were of unequal length which made a gentle serpentine pattern down the right-hand side of the card. The names had been written with what could have been a ‘relief nib’ scratch pen but something about the distribution of the ink indicated that this was a dip pen and indeed, the deterioration of the colour and the acidic corrosion of the surface of the card suggested that this was probably written with the sort of ink used in schools and distributed to inkwells by the most amiable of the least intelligent students. It looked, at first glance, like a calligraphy exercise but there were inconsistencies in the letterforms which suggested that the penman was writing in an unfamiliar style. Clearly there was some attempt in the style and care to give the list of names the quality of a military role of honour. Below the five names in black there was a double space left and a sixth name had been added in red ink. The nib had not been properly cleaned so that the first two letters in red were a little contaminated but eventually the colour was pure but less opaque than the blue/black. This name was also different in that it comprised only initials and the family name and was inscribed in print script. This gave the whole card the appearance of a memorial that had been defaced. It puzzled and unnerved him, and he propped the card against a mirrored panel in the etagere and sat on a wooden chair to smoke a cigarette.
There was work to be done and he continued to catalogue the contents of the room. It was the task he enjoyed most in the monthly cycle of sales. It may have looked to the outsider to be repetitive and tedious but the joy for him was the economical precision of the descriptions that disavowed the life of the object as protagonist, antagonist, and indifferent player ‘strutting and fretting their hour’ in the domestic rough and tumble of dogs and children. The scratches, burns and scars of life were not recorded in his descriptions except where there was significant damage to the intended function. Even then, whether it was a minor break or almost complete destruction the single suffix ‘- a/f’ was sufficient to cover the traces of every drama. It was a job in which there are only articles adjectives and nouns. Verbs (in all their fickle conjugations) are almost unknown, but most of all, aside from the hyphen, there were none of the petty tyrannies of punctation: Not even the full stop that had plagued his quieter moments. With this minimalistic code a finished sale catalogue could become a single composite object that comprised the material and affective totality of every moveable object in the room. When he had listed and numbered everything (except the box for landfill) he sat and smoked another cigarette looking at the card again trying to read the names in the unfamiliar writing style. It was time to go; and he thought about throwing the card in with the rubbish but instead placed it, picture uppermost, in the drawer of: Lot 36 A Break-Fronted Aesthetic Movement ebonized mahogany etagere
On the way home he passed the building depicted in the drawing but did not recognize it. Today there was a lot of scaffolding around it and so he may have been excused, but in fact it was on a route he used several times a week and once had even remarked on the Monkey Puzzle tree to a colleague in the car. It is a measure of the aspiration of the civic commissioners and their architects that there was a difference between the idealized visualization on the postcard and the actual appearance of the building.3 He smoked another cigarette – the last of the day4 and thought about the girl with the red hair who he had almost forgotten. He said to himself, ‘If he met her, he would say, I have known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then’.5 He spoke these lines a few times in his head and then, because he was alone in the car, he spoke them out loud several times changing the emphasis. On this summer evening he wondered where they would be if it had been a different book in his pocket when he had spent time with her.
1 Commonly known as the Monkey Puzzle tree this is a slow growing and an unlikely choice to plant so close to the road. It was popularized in British gardens in the late nineteenth century, so it was both nostalgic for Victoria and modern. It was possibly by the architect because it tended to be symmetrical in its maturity.
2 Postcards were a special class of inland mail until they were subsumed into the two-tier post system in 1968. They attracted a cheap rate and were subject to strict regulations about how they could be used. This card was evidently not intended to carry a message beyond the image of the building.
3 The building was commissioned by London County Council and designed under the direction of William Edward Riley who was an accomplished painter. He served on the Royal British Society of Colonial Artists and was a member of the Royal Society of Artists.
4 He was not a furtive smoker but, for his family’s sake, he only smoked during the day and never in the house.
5 He was reciting a translation he had recently read of The Lover by Marguerite Duras. It is not clear if he thought he had just invented the two sentences or was aware that he was quoting.