February 13th means it’s time to go out to the back yard and dig up my time capsule. Twenty years since I wrapped a shoebox in a plastic bag and buried it three feet down in the back garden. Well, Dad buried it for me. At seven I was unable to dig three feet unaided.
And it turns out I’m still unable. The winter has turned the soil of the flowerbed to something more like rock, and I begin to wonder if maybe it is rock and I’ve forgotten where we put the thing. But I was never the man for a spade so I go inside and get my brother.
He starts working through the earth like it’s cheesecake. I’d like to think it’s technique but I know it’s not. “Spaghetti-arms” my dad always calls me. That fuck. That fucker. No way I’m asking him for help digging.
“Careful there,” I tell my brother. “It’s only cardboard, you’ll cut it in two.” He huffs and slows for the last few inches. The soil is softer below where the cold couldn’t reach so we stop and scrape with our fingers when we think it’s getting close.
I clear away a few spindly tree-roots and find the edge of the bag. It’s out of the hole in a second and looks intact. Twenty years ago I tied three knots in the top of the thick plastic and wrapped a dozen elastic bands between them to be sure. It takes me five minutes to get it open but when I reach inside there’s no damp or rotting cardboard.
“What did you put in it?” my brother asks, panting. I can’t really recall. Assorted trinkets I think.
We sit on the cold grass and I open the box on my knees. On the top is a pile of little plastic toys, the kind that would come free with sweets and chocolates. I recognise a couple of pieces of a half-assembled board game collected from cereal packets, but can’t remember what the game was called.
There’s a book beneath the toys. How Thomas Learned to Fly. I don’t know why I put this book in here since half the children’s books we read are still inside on the shelves.
Underneath that is a sturdy brown envelope with a metal clasp I must have gotten from Mam. I open it as my brother sorts through the toys. There are half a dozen photos inside. Mostly unremarkable. I probably took them myself. One is of the front garden, looking much less lush than it does now. The evergreens in the corner, now twice the height of the house, were weak little saplings at the time. I find a shot of Granny’s kitchen. My uncle Toby fixing the television. Which is still going, by the way, but Toby isn’t.
The last photo is myself and brother playing with a red-haired kid aged somewhere between us. We’re splashing around a tub in the side garden. “Who’s that?” I ask my brother.
“Mark,” he says.
“Mark! From next door?” I’ve no idea who he’s talking about. “Mark,” he says again. “Lived in the house next door till I was nine. You would have been eleven. You know Mark.”
It’s making me a little uncomfortable that I don’t know Mark, so I put the photos aside and reach for the last thing in the box. A small red velvet bag like newly bought jewellery comes in. Reaching inside I pull out a wooden man with string for joints. It doesn’t look familiar.
“Is that Mercutio?” asks my brother. “I can’t believe you buried him.”
“I don’t remember this.”
“Come one, even I remember Mercutio. You never put that guy down.” He picks the doll up by a leg, dangling him in the space between us. “What would make you abandon your favourite thing in the world?” I sit looking at the box and the photos and my brother’s big grinning face. Things feel hazy. Out of nowhere I find myself wondering if he’s actually my brother at all.