“Is it pigskin? How old is it? That would be perfect as my bedside table…”
I had been warned that this might happen. Within the first five minutes of carrying the case two people had already made admiring remarks about it – and we still hadn’t completed the short walk from the Cathedral to the coffee shop to complete the handover. As I left John, I deliberately took a shortcut through the backstreets of the Northern Quarter to Piccadilly train station: more for speed rather than any great desire to be inconspicuous. While I certainly gained time, the power of the case’s appeal was ultimately beyond my control. Having quietly negotiated the journey with only the curious and furtive gazes of a few silent passers-by, it only remained for me to slip on to the train and find a seat. But as soon as I entered the carriage, I was halted in my tracks: the mere sight of the large suitcase in my right hand had clearly transfixed the waiting ticket inspector and she was beaming a smile of surprise and admiration. She immediately stopped me to query its provenance and age. The suitcase was working its magic already.
Even though empty – except for the eggshells the previous borrower had left within it – one of the first things that struck me about the case was its weight and sturdy construction. It was clearly built to last, and so it has. What a contrast it is to carry something of such emotional and personal value rather than wheel a bland plastic case with in-built obsolescence included as part of the price. I quickly realised that carrying such a large case by hand imposes a certain physical relationship on the traveller. Its bulk obliges you to adjust your gait in order to accommodate its size, and perhaps this also encourages an emotional attachment with it too. Sliding your fingers round the handle and feeling the worn leather clearly connect you in a rather direct way with those who have previously held it. How wonderful it must be still to have this in your family: to hold such a cherished object held by both your father and grandfather, and for so long.
The train pulls away from Piccadilly and begins the short distance south to my home in the suburbs. As the city centre slips behind me, I pick out landmarks of the city upon the horizon and recognise areas that I know well from my childhood. I was born in Manchester and grew up in its inner city during my early years until we moved just beyond the borders of South Manchester when I was five. Relatives of mine have lived in and around the city for decades and the train ride in and out of Manchester has always been a very familiar one to me. Looking at the case alongside me as the city centre begins to recede, I begin to think about the major role migrants have played in making Manchester what it is today. How many people have arrived here over the years and carried their own cases through the city? I begin to imagine my own father carrying one when he arrived here as a 17-year old – his first journey abroad from Ireland, arriving in a city and region that is still his home today. But somehow I doubt that he would have had such a large and well-made case when he arrived.
Why had I agreed to participate in the project? It was my own initiative and something I had been contemplating for some time. The timing also seemed apposite: a week later I was due to travel to France for a week before spending eight days in Algeria, and later in the summer I was to go on family holidays in Italy and Ireland in August. This itinerary sounded less than relaxing but at least I would not have to worry about the plight of the case: its value far too great to risk the foibles of Parisian baggage handlers, we agreed to leave it safely at home. So it would travel with me mentally as I prepared to begin my journey, and a few Polaroids I took of it and placed within my own luggage provided a reminder as I travelled around France and later across the Mediterranean.’
Images and Text © Joseph McGonagle, 2009