Mushroom Cleaners and Other Stuff

by Michael Cragg

For longer than I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with stuff. The sort of stuff you keep because you think you might need it at some point down the line. I’ve got stuff in drawers, stuff shoved under the bed, stuff stuffed down the back of wardrobes. There’s stuff in bags; stuff collecting not just dust, but weird damp residue; stuff buried under more stuff.

To be clear, I’ve got loads of the stuff. I’ve got scraps of paper covered in random email addresses and unintelligible scrawl; magazines from 10 years ago featuring bands who aren’t together anymore; “journals” (multi-pack spiral notebooks from Tesco) chock-full of late teenage musings and “poetry” that would make Fiona Apple blush. Seriously, if Alanis Morissette needs lyrics for her next album, my 16-year-old self can help with that. And bank statements! So many ancient bank statements, stuffed in large envelopes and hidden out of sight, waiting to be shredded – using a shredder that’s stuck behind some pop-up tents under the stairs.

But I need to get rid of it – not just because I’m leaving the country, but holding on to it is weighing me down, like barnacles slowly eroding a ship. Recently I’ve been trying to get rid of the stuff, bagging up CDs from my ill-advised post-Britpop phase and selling them off to people who still, for some reason, treat CDs like gold bullion. For the last few weeks, I’ve dragged recycling bags, splitting under the weight of old Q magazines, to the front of my house, a twinge of sadness bubbling away in my stomach as one of Muse eyes me sorrowfully from beneath the green plastic.

“You’ll feel better for it” seems to be the rallying cry from friends who’ve done similar things as they rent-hop around London. And they’re right. The thought of carrying another muscle-shredding box marked “magazines” up another flight of stairs brings me out in hives. The threat of dying from dust inhalation haunts me every time I consider dragging another forgotten box of CD singles out from under my bed. So I’m being strong. Everything must go. Well, not everything – I’m not bloody Patrick Bateman. I now just have my top 100 albums on CD. The magazines I’ve kept have covers that still excite me, or feature tributes to Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse. In fact, a lot of the ones I’ve kept are tribute issues, which is quite weird when you think about.

My clothes are now limited to things I actually wear as opposed to piles of Topman sale items I didn’t even know I had buried at the back of a wardrobe so big I’m surprised it’s not listed on Spare Room. It’s such a waste, all this stuff. I know why I had it all – the spending sprees you go on when you’re feeling a bit shit; the albums you bought to try and be someone else; the DVDs you said you’d watch by people like Lars Von Trier that sit ignored behind Bridesmaids. The remnants of a projected life that never quite materialised.

There’s anxiety in there too: “If I throw away this scrap of paper with my bank details on it, then a cat who can read will walk past the bin bag and somehow communicate it to a stranger who will steal my money.” (As I said, the shredder is stuck under the stairs). There are memories locked within many silly things I own. And there are things I hope never to part with – bundles of letters and pictures from my childhood, a deer skull my auntie found and thought I’d like, a This is Your Life-style photo album I got for my 21st birthday – but the hoarder in me has to have boundaries, otherwise I’m only a couple of months away from a living room full of carrier bags.

Paradoxically, while this great purge is happening at home and things are being “de-cluttered” as they say, my beloved Nan’s house, sat silent and full of stuff since March, is slowly being emptied and I want to take every single thing. I want to fill my shelves with the soft toys sat facing the spare bed, the cluster of fridge magnets including a Sainsbury’s one that reads “Take an old bag shopping”, the small drawer full of neatly ordered, coloured thread, the ticking alarm clock I had to keep moving every time I stayed over, all eight of the watering cans that still line her formerly immaculate garden. I’d even find space for the fish happily bobbing about in the pond.

When you lose someone that’s been in your life ever since you were born, it takes time to realise they’ve actually, properly gone. At first, the immediate sadness is so all-consuming that you can’t really deal with it, and so you focus on stages: the funeral, the going back to work, the family get-together put in the diary to celebrate a life. Once those small milestones are out of the way, it suddenly begins to hit you in waves. The crest of the saddest, heaviest wave being that you will never ever see that person ever again. Fuck. Nothing winds you like that unchangeable fact. There are no ifs or buts; that’s absolutely it. You scrabble around for photos, try and remember the way their voice sounds, do your best to avoid songs that remind you of them. At least at first. Then, later on, you want to surround yourself with stuff that connects them to you. You want to play those songs they loved on a loop until the memories they evoke permanently dance about on your eyelids.

Two days previously, I’d chucked out piles of paper bearing spider-like scrawls of random addresses. Now I was contemplating scooping up all of Nan’s old shopping lists and important notes piled up in the kitchen near the takeaway menus. I wanted to keep those takeaway menus, even if a pizza delivery from Eastbourne to London is going to be quite pricey. Fuck it, maybe I’ll just buy the bloody house and leave it exactly as it is: a museum of childhood memories. But I can’t. That’s not the answer.

Ridiculously, one of the last conversations I had with Nan was about a mushroom cleaner I’d found in one of the drawers in her kitchen. I had no idea a mushroom cleaner was a thing that a) existed or b) was necessary. I’ve never cleaned a mushroom in my life. Are you supposed to? Are mushrooms really that filthy? Anyway, sat in her hospital room, surrounded by all the stuff we thought would make it feel as homely as possible, we had what was quite an in-depth chat about a small, ergonomically pleasing brush used to scrape dirt off a mushroom. It turned out that my mum has one too, so actually it might just be me that’s poorly versed on vegetable cleaning tools. While my ignorance was endured, Nan told me she’d had hers since the 80s, its box – yes it needs a box – was all worn and faded grey, but kept pride of place at the front of a drawer containing a transparent rolling pin, three different types of scissor and well-worn, hand-written recipes.

The conversation seems ludicrous now given the context, but chatting to my Nan about a mushroom cleaner – the quintessential example of stuff – somehow regressed me back to childhood, to Nan holding court and educating me with that little zip in her voice she always had when she was passing on wisdom. So, the other day, from among the glorious remnants of 80 years well lived, I came away with one more bit of stuff – my prized mushroom cleaner.


Photograph by Michael Cragg

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