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The mystery of the decorated box

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

I bought it because I need to store old tax returns and receipts for the requisite six years. Since I do returns for a number of family members, there are quite a few fat envelopes of receipts to hold and keep safe. My desk had got so full of these envelopes that I couldn't work at it anymore.

Then I saw the box at a local auction sale. It was perfect: long, not too tall or too deep; just right for envelopes stored on edge. It was made of thin steel, with a tight-fitting lid and handles on the ends and the top and the front. It was not heavy and you could pick it up any which-way, which I decided was deep forethought of design.

I first saw it online, this being the Year of the Plague. The photos showed a box painted black, covered with parallel dark brown wavy lines highlighted with short swipes of dark red. For something of such good design, the decoration seemed haphazard and amateurish. I knew from the auction listing who had owned the box, and that intrigued me. So, despite the look of the thing, I decided I would bid.

I got it -- a cheap, one-bid wonder. When I got it home, it was obvious that the wavy decoration was the original finish. It was clean inside, and I soon had it neatly filled with tax returns and receipts. The decoration was still a puzzle, especially given the exclusive supplier and the prominent original owner. This had once been a costly box, meant for storing expensive clothing, the sort most of us never see, let alone own. What did the sloppy decoration mean?

Weeks passed, and one day, from across the room, I glanced at the box and realized I had been too close to see the pattern. It looked like a crocodile suitcase. That was it. A decoration never meant to convince, only to suggest, and probably only if you had been told by the salesperson in the shop: 'Oh, yes, sir. The box is impervious to moth, and given a finish imitant la peau de crocodile.' Understanding the decoration gave the box new meaning -- it told of a time and place and need.

The box has been owned by three notable persons, all of them writers. I don't think they'll mind if their box gets featured in a story. Just having it open, someone removing a uniform, will put a sliver of the past in focus, and reveal how and why it got from the first owner (one of my favourite writers of adventure stories) to the third (one of the heroes of Canadian arts and letters).

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