The room is so huge that exploring it will take hours. Luckily, there is no time limit. The rules are simple: I can take a maximum of three items and as much time as I need to make my decision, but once I leave this room, there is no changing my mind. I must choose carefully. A bad decision could lead to a second wave of regret, and that would defeat the object. I am here to undo regrets, not double down on them.
There are items in this room I haven’t thought about in years. Things I had forgotten I missed. Shelves full of toys I was never fond of, stacks of books that never spoke to me, piles of clothes that were never to my taste. I barely glance at them as I pass by. I am not here for them. They will continue to languish in whatever place they ended up. Gradually degrading in landfill or as ashes long scattered to the wind, never to be reclaimed or recalled.
Unless I choose to take them out of this room, none of these objects really exist. They are merely illusions, shadows of former belongings long since lost or else discarded, either accidentally or on purpose. Prior to my appointment, I made a mental list of the items I expected to find here. It wasn’t a particularly long list. A few dozen items maybe. Now I realise just how far off the mark I was. There are hundreds of items in this room. I could have spent an entire week carefully composing my list, and I would not have come up with half the things I now see before me.
Everything is here. My favourite floral dress from when I was four years old, complete with matching headband. I was heartbroken when Mom donated it to one of her friends whose daughter was younger than me. I didn’t care that I had outgrown it. It was my dress, and I did not want to part with it under any circumstances.
A great many of my childhood possessions are here. In a drawer I find my old cassette of classic children’s songs including Teddy Bear’s Picnic, Puff the Magic Dragon, and the lesser known You’ll Never See A Puffin Puffing. I still remember the words to this last song but have never heard it since. I’ve even tried typing the lyrics into Google, but to no avail. It’s like the song never existed, and yet I’m certain I’m not making it up.
My projector is here too, along with the accompanying cartridge of Noddy stories. I loved those nights, when instead of my usual bedtime storybook, Dad fired up the projector and we beamed tales of Noddy up onto my wardrobe doors. The golden beam of the projector slicing through the indigo twilight of my room. There was no magic quite like it. The projector is a contender. I make a mental note.
There are toys, and lots of them. A doll with glittery blue eyeshadow and a blond bouffant looks down on me from a shelf. This must be the famed Sparkle Eyes Barbie, or ‘Sparkle Arse Barbie,’ as I apparently used to call her. I don’t remember this particular doll, which tells you just how young I was. So young that two different vowel sounds proved too much of a challenge. Although I can’t pretend the idea of a Barbie with a glittery backside doesn’t make me titter.
She isn’t the only doll to have found her way to this room. Both of my Cool Colours Barbies are here. Christie with her long black hair and purple dungarees and the blonde one in green whose name I don’t recall. Seeing them brings back fond memories of my old bedroom and the many hours spent playing with them, but it’s a fleeting fondness and as nice as that is, I know they won’t be leaving with me. The same is true of my Barbie Motorhome and the dollhouse Nan bought me. Even if it does boast a lift with string attached, I simply can’t justify it. There are things in this room that I want more.
One of those things is round the very next corner. I have often wondered what happened to this book, but only as an adult did I begin to wish I still had it. I managed to track down my other old books, sometimes with very little information, but this one has continued to elude me. Until now.
The Wizard and the Cooking Pot was my favourite story. At least I think that’s what it was called. Other memorable tales include Hansel and Gretel and a tale about Saint Francis of Assisi, but it’s the wizard who is calling out to me. I snatch the book up, crack it open, and there he is.
With his blue star-spangled robes, crooked nose and kindly eyes, he reminds me of Albus Dumbledore. Or rather, Albus Dumbledore reminds me of him; I’ve just never realised it until now. He is holding the cooking pot under one arm. If memory serves me correctly, he steals it and as a result it doesn’t work properly. The details are sketchy, but what I do know is that I adored this book, and this story in particular. A quick flick through the rest of the pages shows me the witch’s gingerbread house, a delightful confection sure to entice even the most cautious of children. The witch herself is as terrifying as ever, with her glowering eyes and hard expression. She also had a remarkably large, oval face for some reason. I’ve come across a few women in real life who reminded me of the witch. Lovely as they were, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the unfortunate hand genetics had dealt them. The book is also a contender. I tuck it under my arm and move on.
Next comes a long line of clothes rails filled with items dating from my adolescence all the way up to the last few years. My fingers brush the sheer sleeves of the sparkly black top my stepmom bought me for my tenth birthday. That’s a blast from the past, as is the pair of beige bootcut jeans with faded white patches on the thighs. I loved those jeans, but seeing them now, it’s clear they were peak early noughties. Of course, the same can be said for many of the items here. It’s with a pang of sadness that I clock my original gold sequinned dress from my time at university.
‘What happened to you?’ I murmur, rubbing the fabric between my fingers and thumb. ‘Where did you go?’
Into a charity bag, in all likelihood. My best guess is it got mixed up in a pile I’d set aside to give to charity. If there is a God, and I ever find my way into his presence, I’m going to ask him what happened to my original gold dress. I say original because I did manage to replace it, or rather my best friend did, buying me the exact same dress for my birthday a couple of years later. I still have that one, which is why there is no question of me taking this one away with me. Nor will I be taking my pale yellow kimono top with the pink flowers, the one I left in the back of an ex-colleague’s car the day I moved from Oxfordshire back to the Midlands. As much as I love it and lamented its loss, I can’t claim to have any deep emotional attachment to it. Not like I had to the gold dress, and so I leave it where it is, sleeves billowing in the draft caused by my departure.
Now that I’ve practically decided on two of my items, I set about finding the third. The one I came here for, and the one that is sure to prove the most difficult to locate. I never did find out what happened to the gold ring with the three clear stones. I thought maybe it had fallen off the chest of drawers next to the bed and rolled into the wardrobe, coming to rest beneath the boiler. Or else it may have got knocked off the shelf at the top of the stairs where I last remember seeing it and lodged between the carpet and the skirting board. But all my searches proved fruitless, which led to a far less palatable conclusion: that someone stole it. Clocked it on the side and quietly slipped it into a pocket. It would have been easy to do, and while I cannot believe that any of our friends would have done such a thing, there has been the odd contractor in from time to time. I may be wrong. It might be that I just haven’t looked in the right place yet, that much like the One Ring it is waiting for me to find it. But it’s a slim chance, and one that I cannot rely on.
This search does not prove fruitless, although it does take the best part of an hour. During that time I come across a great many objects from all stages of my life. A stack of Pokémon cards from when I was a child. My old Polly Pockets from when I was an even smaller child. A teddy bear house that opened like a book and that little me found enchanting. My old wooden flower press, still containing the desiccated remains of daisies and buttercups. I rifle through all of it before finally alighting on the thing I have been searching for: Nan’s gold ring.
It’s not really Nan’s ring. She gave me the money for it after I passed my GCSE exams, but I was the one who picked it out and handed over the cash. It never belonged to her. If it had I would have been far more upset by its loss. Even so, its origins are inextricably bound to her, and its sentimental value is huge. As easy as it would be to replace-to find something similar or even identical-I would forever know that it wasn’t the ring.
This is the ring. Here, in this room, where all the things I’ve ever lost end up. All the items that left my possession through anything other than my own volition. Three clear stones wink down at me from a shelf just above my head. My breath slows as I reach up and gently pluck the gold band from its spot. Holding it carefully so as not to drop it, I turn the ring this way and that, marvelling at the way the stones split the sunlight into chinks and scatter them around the room.
Decision made, I slide the band onto my right ring finger where I traditionally wore it. The book is still clutched under my left arm, and I am about to go back for the projector when I spot something else. An item that hadn’t crossed my mind prior to coming here but really should have. It’s actually a collection of items, bunched together in the same carrier bag as they were the last time I saw them all those years ago. My karate belts. This changes everything.
It’s been so long. So long since I allowed them to be thrown away for reasons I have never been able to justify. It wasn’t my stepsister’s fault. She was young herself. She didn’t realise just how important they were to me, and I, being a painfully shy ten-year-old, did not have the confidence to speak up for myself. So when she asked if I needed them, I said no, and I watched wordlessly as some of my proudest achievements made their way into the rubbish. Years later, I can say with absolute certainty that I could have said yes and there would not have been a problem. To other people they were just strips of coloured fabric that I no longer needed, but to me they were symbols of grit, hard work and determination. I had earned them, and I did not want to see them tossed aside.
I can’t walk out of here without them. That much I know. So what am I sacrificing? The ring, the book or the projector? It’s not a difficult decision. The projector is out. I snatch up the bag and peer into it. They’re all there: white, red, yellow, orange, green, blue and purple, all tightly coiled like a nest of multicoloured vipers. If I had to lose any, at least it was these ones-the lower belts. I still have all three of my brown belts, and my black belt is one of the first things I’d grab if there was a fire. Those I guard the way a dragon guards treasure. I just wish I could say the same for these.
But I can say the same for these. This is it: the bag of belts is my third item, no question about it. Everything else I can let go. The clothes, the toys, the books that never spoke to me, the Pokémon cards and the old wooden flower press. I can consign them all to the past with only a fleeting sense of regret. But I know that if I walk out of this room without any of the three items in my hands, then I will mourn them forever. My grief will be multiplied by failing to save them a second time round. At least this way I get to assuage that grief by rescuing these lost relics of my past from obscurity.
The rules are clear: three items only. My mind is made up: the book, the bag of belts, the ring. My decision is final. Once I leave this room, there is no chopping and changing. I can come back here as often as I like but only to peruse. I cannot remove anything else. Those items I did not choose will languish here until I die, at which point they will pass out of all existence and someone else’s lost things will take their place. Perhaps I’ll come back here often, or perhaps I won’t come back at all. We always think we know which way we’ll go when it comes time to make a decision, but as today has proved, our instincts are often wrong. Last minute spanners in the works can change everything. All we need to be sure of is that our final pick is the right one, and as I walk out clutching my three items to my chest, I know for certain that mine is.