I walk with my eyes on the hedgerows and edges. I’m a scavenger, a mudlarker, a bottledigger and a hedgewitch. My eyes dart to anything that shines, a habit that’s filled my house with the detritus of many lives.
But one day – the third-best day of my life! – I discovered the village dump. Just across the road, right under my nose, an acre of household trash dating back a hundred and fifty years. Older than my house, older than my grandparents, older than anyone alive.
There it was: the glint. My eye caught, I plunged into the thicket. And as I walked, I saw glass. Glass everywhere. Any way I turned, the glitter of glass.
I picked up bottle after bottle, stunned and elated. This was my Sutton Hoo, my hoard, my grail.
Over the next days, I climbed further and further in, through thorns and brambles. On hands and knees sometimes, scrambling through bracken tunnels and over gnarled roots. I came across caches of treasure, the bottles changing as I went back in time. Bubbles bloomed where previously all had been smooth and perfect. When I began to dig, I could date the depth by flaws in the glass, manufacturer marks.
It’s amazing to think that little more than a hundred years ago, we simply didn’t have the technology to keep bottles closed. Screw tops weren’t common until the early twentieth century. Before that, manufacturers tried rubber, pottery lids held on with wire – and the bizarrely ingenious Codd bottle that had a glass marble in its throat, suctioned tight and then pushed in for drinking. Kids would smash the bottle to retrieve the marble, so I have yet to find one whole.
Poisons and tinctures. Pills, cordials, honey. Perfume. Brylcream, milk of magensia, Horlick’s Malted Milk Lunch Tablets. Forgotten things, once vital.
And the colours: clear, aqua, green, cobalt, amber. Ridged to show poison in darkness. Embossed with men’s names, men’s lineages. I see Chichester, Petersfield, Midhurst. Surrounding villages, filled with people both employed and supplied by these men. How galling, to see the name of your master in your cupboard.
Such workmanship, to be thrown away. But when I look inside my fridge, I see echoes of this need we have, to make the mundane beautiful. To stand out among the jam jars. Lineages are still marching in our cupboards, but few will march to the grave. We’ll melt them, turn them into new bottles. They won’t be buried for some bold ghoul to find in the next century.
Graves, always in my mind. If I stop for a moment, branches closing above me, the silence is oppressive. The feeling of digging up bodies can reach up with its damp embrace, threatening to pull me in.
All these lives. Messages in bottles, a story from the dead. A hand fumbling for the right bottle as a baby cried in the night, a cough that was soothed. This art deco uranium glass in a lady’s toilette, her precious ration of perfume small because it was the most she could afford.
I bring them home, empty out the grave dirt. My house is a mausoleum to the commonplace because that’s life itself. The things we touch every day and the problems we choose to treat with someone else’s solution. We buy answers. Perhaps that’s what I’m really looking for.
So, I dig.