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Moving home and clearing out childhood belongings unlocked poignant memories

Words by Rob Chilton

Sorting through the loft in his father’s house was a deeply nostalgic experience for Rob Chilton

The time had come. After 14 years my father was moving house and he needed me to sift through my boxes of belongings to help him downsize. ‘Keep, chuck or recycle’ was the mantra that played in my head as I made the journey to England last month. It sounded easy on the plane as I tried to remember what was tucked away in my plastic crates in the loft. It wouldn’t be that hard, I convinced myself. Some stuff will be obviously treasured items that I would want to keep for sentimental reasons, but most of it will be things that I had forgotten I even had, trash that could be easily discarded without a second thought.

Pack up, clear out, and move on. It’ll be cleansing, I thought, as I arrived at my father’s house in the south of England on a sunny September day.

But I was wrong. I wasn’t prepared for the unlocking of emotions that came from opening those boxes. Dozens of times over the weekend I opened the lid and exclaimed, ‘No way!’ as a comic book or a childhood trinket resurfaced before my eyes after 14 years.

A Subbuteo table football set that my father and I played ad nauseam during my childhood brought back a flood of happy memories. A rugby ball signed by South Africa World Cup-winning captain Francois Pienaar took me back to the early days of my career in London in 1997. A toy telephone I played with as a kid when I went to visit my Aunty Una. A shopping bag of curled up football pennants from clubs like Anderlecht, Schalke 04, and Feyenoord that my father brought back for me from his European business trips. A Vietnamese wooden figure I bought on my travels during a career break in my 30s. Stacks of letters, school reports, birthday cards, posters, concert tickets and postcards from when I was a teenager were so nostalgic they put a lump in my throat.

Packing up is hard to do

But it was the photographs that stopped me in my tracks. Seeing both myself and my friends as fresh-faced 14-year-olds pulling faces at house parties in clothes I had long forgotten about (I wish I still had that Cure band t-shirt) made me feel simultaneously stupidly happy and depressingly old.

Almost as enjoyable as seeing these snapshots of my youth – and girls I had crushes on, like Regina from the German Exchange visit – was the pleasure of feeling the glossy paper. Flicking through piles of actual photographs takes a little longer than swiping through a gallery on a phone and forced me to take my time and really study each image.

One photo on a dancefloor of me and my mate Jake, with who I walked from home to school and back again for eight years, made me laugh out loud. I WhatsApped it to Jake and then called him. Both of us busy with young children and jobs, it had been six months since we had spoken. I asked him how he had been and he told me he was recovering from prostate cancer and was due for a check-up with his surgeon the following week. I gasped in shock. Jake described his nightmarish experience but was upbeat as always, making jokes and laughing at himself. How lucky and wonderful it was, I thought, that a silly photo of two mates moshing to what I imagine was Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit because it was on repeat at every house party in Reading, England in the mid 1990s, led two 43-year-olds now to a heartfelt conversation about a serious health matter. I was beyond happy to hear from Jake a week later that he got the green light.

I returned to the shrinking number of boxes in my dad’s back garden, and leafed through my Roy of the Rovers comics from the late 1980s that I had bought with my pocket money. I read and smiled at storylines that became increasingly ridiculous over the years, such as the time an exhibition match in the fictitious country of Basran was interrupted by tanks rolling on the pitch and sparking a revolution, or the time when an earthquake hit the Melchester Rovers stadium and stranded players on either side of a huge fissure in the grass.

Now a father of a young daughter, I wondered what comics she would become attached to and remember when she was 43 – do they even publish comics anymore?

Drama in Roy of the Rovers back in 1986

I held the comics one last time and decided I didn’t need to keep them. I kept some and recycled others. It was the same with programmes from Reading Football Club matches in the mid-1980s that my dad had taken me to. Putting them in the recycling bin and slamming the metal drawer shut was genuinely difficult and again sent a lump to my throat. I’ve never felt more like a grown-up. My dad let out a sigh and patted me on the back as he quoted that line, ‘But when I grew up, I put away childish things.’

I remembered that heartbreaking scene from the Mad Men episode ‘Carousel’ where Don Draper pitches an ad campaign for a Kodak slide projector and explains that ‘in Greek, nostalgia literally means the pain from an old wound, a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.’ Spot on, Don.

My parents moved to this home in 2005 after my dad retired. But now only one parent was leaving it, my mother having passed away a few years ago. Being in that house for the last time, sitting in the chair she used to sit in and do the crossword with a cup of tea and a biscuit, and visiting the old oak tree on the magnificent Highdown Hill nearby where we scattered some of her ashes were unbearably moving moments.

Life rushes past so fast these days that we rarely stop and think back to childhood days. Touching actual objects from that time submerged me in a dazed and sentimental fog of nostalgia that was so powerful and comforting I didn’t want to break out of it. Packing up, clearing out, that was the easy bit. But the moving on part – that hurts.

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