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6 April 2022

I lack most things in life, but have somehow acquired a third Swiss Army Knife

Of all the things the universe could have chosen to materialise on my bedside table, something I already have two of does not feature on the list of desirables.

By Nicholas Lezard

Right now, I wonder whether I am going mad, or have gone mad, and it is all because of a penknife. A nice red Swiss Army Knife. You know what they’re like, I don’t have to describe it. It’s got a decent number of blades and tools on it, it’s not one of the cheap or tiny ones. The problem is, it’s not mine. And I have no idea how I came by it. And it’s not as if I need one. I already have two.

The first is an item of great sentimental value. It was my children’s present to me on the first Christmas I spent having been ejected from the family home. I used to be slightly worse than average at losing items such as keys or penknives or Zippo lighters but ever since that exile, and my understanding that I shall be travelling light in the world for the rest of my life, I don’t lose things like that now. When one has very little one clings to it fiercely. When I mislay something valuable and then find it again I put it to my lips and kiss it, like a child.

Then, about three years ago, when I was living in Scotland, in the MacHovel, I lost the knife. I didn’t drop it down a Munro or anything, it just wasn’t there any more. As it happened, my daughter was staying with me at the time and she said not to worry, it’s only a penknife, let’s go into town and buy another one.

So I dried my tears and we went off to Blairgowrie, where they have two hunting, shooting and fishing shops right next to each other, one owned by the ex-husband of the other (I gather their rivalry is bitter). So I bought the exact same model of knife, only this time in black, for mourning, and when we got back I made us a cup of tea and plumped up the sofa cushions and of course the original knife was under one of them.

“So now you have two,” said my daughter.

But now I have three. How the hell does one acquire a knife without one’s knowledge? Especially a Swiss Army Knife? It’s not as if they grow on trees or something. I asked my children if they had lost a knife around Christmas, which is the last time I’ve been in anyone else’s home apart from my own, and my friend B—’s, since May of last year. Maybe one of them had a Swiss Army Knife, and I had pocketed it, assuming it was mine? No, they said.

I must say, that of all the things that the universe could have chosen to materialise on my bedside table one spring day, a Swiss Army Knife when I already have two of them does not feature on the list of ultra-desirables. (It’s actually a slightly better knife, in that it has a sort of saw/file thing the others do not, but as it is not an attachment I have ever felt a deep gaping need for, I do not feel enriched thereby.) I can’t give it away because not only would that be weird (“Hey, fancy a Swiss Army Knife? It’s red and has tweezers, and a saw/file thingy that I suppose you can also use for scaling fish”), but it also must belong to someone. I just haven’t found out who yet.

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Other things I have more than enough of: spectacles. I now have four pairs of them. One pair is utterly inaccessible, eaten by the mound of papers and books between the bed and the wardrobe, but it’s there, I know. I have always had a mild fear of losing my glasses but this is ridiculous.

Also: nutmegs. This is surely a problem everyone has. You buy a jar of nutmegs because you have moved somewhere new since fleeing devastation. And then that’s it, they’re with you forever, or until the next calamity. You know that fable about the little bird that sharpens its beak against a mountain once every thousand years, and when the mountain is worn down, a day of eternity will have gone by? Same deal with nutmegs. You scrape a few molecules of nutmeg into your spinach whenever you make spinach. Say, once a month. When you have finished one nutmeg, a day of eternity will etc.

And that’s it as far as abundance goes. If I was describing pretty much anything else I would have to use the abessive case, used in Uralic languages to describe the absence or lack of something. It suddenly occurs to me that today marks exactly 18 months of living somewhere without a teaspoon. And yet I drink a fair amount of tea. Explain that, so-called experts. I have also managed to live that long without a washing-up rack, a functioning vacuum cleaner, a dedicated tea strainer, a jumper, any art on the walls, a sofa of any description, a comfy chair unless you count a deckchair, lampshades, or even fitted sheets (they were all out of them in Debenhams and, well, you know what happened to Debenhams). Or a love life. Oh, wait, I did have one of those for a bit but I mislaid it.

As for my bank balance, that in itself is a whole exercise in the abessive case. I have, in the words of the Fugs, a whole lot of nothing. Apart from nutmegs, spectacles, and Swiss bloody Army Knives.

[See also: I make sure I never run out of phone charge, so why do I run out of money?]

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This article appears in the 06 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special