A couple of years ago my stepfather, Martin, passed away in his sleep. While he had been ill for quite a while, his death was sudden and unexpected. It came as a shock to us all and it meant that I was never able to properly say goodbye.
For years Martin had been suffering from Multiple System Atrophy (MSA), a terrifying, debilitating and incurable illness caused by the degeneration of the nerve cells in his brain. At first the symptoms were mild but by the end they had robbed him of his ability to move unaided. He struggled to talk in anything but a whisper, and even lifting a cup to his mouth to take a drink cost him a huge amount of physical effort and pain. It was a tragic end for a kind, quiet and generous man who didn’t deserve any of it.
In the following days we pulled together as a family to sort out everything from the funeral arrangements to registering Martin’s death. One task assigned to me during this time was to gather his personal effects from storage in the loft at my mum’s house so we could pass them on to his children.
The roof space at my family home is a little cramped to say the least. The ceiling hangs very low and there’s a load of awkwardly placed beams to crawl under. That distinctive, musty attic smell hangs in the air and it’s well insulated so scrabbling around in there quickly becomes hot and stuffy.
Once Martin’s things had been sorted and passed down to my mum below, I was able to get a closer look at the rest of the loft’s contents. Opening a few boxes I suddenly started finding things I hadn’t seen for years. There were old computer magazines like Your Sinclair and Amiga Power, their covers slightly curled at the edges from years stored in less than perfect conditions. Star Wars and Transformers toys were found loose in boxes, jumbled together with Micro Machines and M.A.S.K vehicles. All were covered in thin layers of that fine, almost greasy dust that only seems to exist in attics.
Every little thing I touched triggered a flood of memories. Old school projects, a My Pet Monster, an ice cream tub full of battered Matchbox cars; they all unlocked windows to a life I had long forgotten about. One minute I was fishing a broken Zoid out of an old plastic bag, the next I was eight years old, building it on rough brown carpet at Christmas time. In my head I could see the tinsel on the tree clear as day, I could smell the food and hear the rustle of wrapping paper. So strange, the incredible power of your memory and the odd little things that can trigger it.
In amongst everything I found a box containing my ZX Spectrum games. These cassette tapes were from my first ever computer and they triggered the biggest wave of nostalgia yet. Spurred on by this, I quickly decided to rescue as much stuff as possible and bring it home with me. Once back I picked up an old Spectrum +2 from eBay and began replaying all my old childhood video games, something I even started doing on live streams for other, like-minded nostalgia fans.
Then, a couple of months ago, I decided to sort through a box of old, unlabelled tapes that I’d also pulled from the loft that day. These were tapes with no boxes, and no identifying logos. I’d left them alone until now because I figured most of them were just old copies of games that wouldn’t even work and I was right, most of them were.
But then I picked up a simple white cassette tape. There was old, yellowing sellotape covering the write-protection holes and on the front, a plain yellow sticker with the word ‘anything’ written on it in blue ballpoint pen. The handwriting was mine, from when I was around Primary School age.
As soon as I played the tape I knew it was different to the others. Instead of the screeching of Spectrum game data I heard voices, garbled and mangled by the passing of time and the poor quality of the tape. Still, I was able to make out myself and then my brother, our voices, pre-pubescent and high-pitched. We were recording ourselves acting out some kind of wrestling match between our stuffed toys.
Suddenly my mum’s voice appeared on the tape. “Say bye-bye to Martin!”, she shouted. “Bye Martin!”, one of us shouted back. Then faintly, in amongst all the static I heard a familiar voice. “Yeah, bye. Bye, Ian!” It was Martin.
I couldn’t quite believe it. What an incredible thing to find! This random old tape contained a voice from the past that had given me the goodbye I thought I’d lost. I sat in silence for a little while after that.
I wrote this piece hoping to inspire anyone who reads it to go on their own nostalgic journey. If you’ve lived away from home for a long time but know you have a load of old toys and games stored in your parents loft, go have a dig around next time you visit! Maybe you’ll find something that’ll spark off your own trip down memory lane. Maybe you’ll stumble across a collectible toy or video game rarity that’s worth a bit of cash nowadays. Or maybe, like me, you’ll be lucky enough to find a little bit of closure.
To learn more about MSA or to donate to the Multiple System Atrophy Trust, you can visit their website here. The MSA trust is a charity that does amazing work, providing invaluable support services for those who are suffering, as well as performing vital research into the cause and cure for MSA.