119 Pens

Pens. Anybody need any pens? I’ve got 119, and that’s after the clear-out. That is also excluding the box in the other room, the ones in a pot at my new flat, and the ones that render me blotchy every day because they’re languishing broken in my handbag.

Some of you might ask if one person ever needs quite so many pens. The answer is of course no, not all at once. Some of you might ask how I came to have so many pens, and I would say “Good question, dear reader.” The truth is, I don’t remember where I got most of them. Some of them are helpful and tell you. Banyan Tree, Bangkok. Ah, yes. I went there once. I obviously availed myself of a complimentary biro. Others are lovely little mysteries. Like the BBC Radio 4 Drama quality roller ball – who on earth did I nick that from? Did I mug The Archers for all their stationery, perhaps while merry on their schnappsy namesake in a country pub once?

It is a shame of our age that we don’t use pens much anymore. I write thousands of words a week now with just the tips of my two index fingers. I write in one homogenised font, not in my own changeable shapes.

I have been very strict with myself. I have thrown away all those nibby squibs of nil nostalgic value that don’t work anymore. So, like, about four. But these pens remind me of things, so I want to keep them.

Like the Letter Net fountain pen (yellow, scratchy, leaky) from the worldwide pen pal club my Dad secretly signed me up to when I was about 13. I remember being very confused to receive a letter about David Hasselhoff and cats from a random German named Sybille Kambeck. I replied thrice very politely about my hobbies before I realised we had no future. A boy named Mustafa met a similar fate when his bad grammar brought me out in hives.
Then there’s the company pen from my first job in London after Uni, when I genuinely worried I might never get on in life without a Louis Vuitton bag. I never got the bag, but I kept the pen, and that was the better decision.

There’s a famous line in T S Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock – a poem I knew I loved even before I came to think I might understand it – about measuring a life out in coffee spoons. Maybe mine has been measured out by my pens – by my trans-global pen theft (I don’t think I paid for any of these little blighters you know). Maybe we diarise our days in the objects we most commonly use. They’re some of the most casually acquired notches of our time, pens. Even one humble biro with a chewed top has its own private memory of an afternoon where I was stressed or distracted enough to bite concentric hexagons instead of doing whatever I was supposed to be doing. And we hardly ever use them to their fullest potential. When was the last time you used one til it dried up before you moved on to the next?

I miss writing at length with a pen. I miss the satisfaction of looping the tails of Ys, the melodious swish of a smooth nib, the bursting of a new ink cartridge. I miss writing to people I like, people I love, I even miss the uncomfortable exchanges with strange Germans foisted upon me by a father who believed, rightly, that correspondence was an art. I wonder what happened to Sybille Kambeck. I wonder if she ever got to meet the Hoff. I wonder if I should write her a letter.