It’s 4 am and I’m alone at a Dymon Storage facility in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Storage facilities like this have been springing up like mushrooms throughout the Western world for the last few decades. Dymon has eight locations in Ottawa alone, and that’s just one firm’s locations in one city. There must be hundreds of thousands of them throughout Europe and North America.
Indigenous people generally have few possessions, but consider the ones they have to be very valuable because they are mostly hand made and a great deal of time, skill and love goes into making them. We, on the other hand, have so many mass produced possessions that we don’t know what to do with them, so we put them into storage facilities like this one.
I’m on the third floor of the building and there are maybe a couple of hundred storage units on this floor. Same again on the floor below me. There’s a grid of corridors with hundreds of storage pods leading off them, protected by hundreds of identical metal shutters. The whole thing is bathed in soft, uniform white light, it’s very quiet, and the atmosphere reminds me of the back room of an undertaker’s parlour, the part the public never sees, where the bodies lie on identical metal shelves. Maybe this where our civilisation goes to die?
I’m not usually up and about at 4am, but I’m here trying to sort out our stuff, the stuff we put into storage in Canada before moving to the Isle of Man. We dithered for months trying to decide whether to give it away, dump it or ship it to the Isle of Man, and in the end we decided to do all three: give some of it away, dump some of it and ship the rest. So I’m here sorting it out.
Back home it’s 9am, but here it’s 4am, I’m still running on Isle of Man time, hence the unearthly hour. I’m the only human being in the building. In earlier times, there would probably have been a custodian or nightwatchman, but now with the march of progress, s/he has been replaced by a central computer which controls all the building’s functions. Being the only person in the building at 4am plays strange tricks with the computer’s algorithms. It is programmed to assume that if nobody presses any buttons anywhere in the building for half an hour, the building is empty and it should switch off the lights to save energy. So every half an hour, all the lights go off and I have to walk to the elevator in the dark and press an elevator button to signal to the computer that I’m still here and it should switch the lights back on again (there are no human-controlled light switches). A real custodian wouldn’t have made that mistake: he would know that human beings don’t just disappear.
So I’m sitting in my storage pod surrounded by the debris of nine wasted years in Ontario: photograph albums, a wedding dress, Christmas tree ornaments made at school by the kids, the obligatory six years of tax papers, you know the sort of thing. Then my mind starts to play strange tricks on me. Do the things in this storage facility know they have been abandoned by their owners? Are they, in some way, sentient? Do they have souls? Stupid questions I know, but that’s what you do when you’re three thousand miles from home, lonely and jet lagged to hell and in one of the world’s most unlikely buildings with only a dysfunctional computer for company. You think stupid thoughts.
I know a tax return doesn’t have a soul – that would be absurd – but how about something more personal like a wedding dress? And what happens if, over the years, the two people who got married drift apart, maybe separate, maybe find other people to be with? Does the wedding dress lose its soul and become just an ordinary piece of fabric again – does it stop being special?
My contract with the storage company says that if I stop paying the rental on the unit, after 30 days the company has the right to clear out the unit and dispose of the stuff. I expect that happens quite a lot. You can’t bear to part with your stuff, but you have nowhere else to put it, so you put it into storage intending to come back for it. But that time never comes, and you get busy with other things, lose interest in it, run out of money, get sick, maybe even die, and then the junk removal people come and take it away. If things have souls, that must be the biggest possible disappointment – being abandoned by your owner.
I wonder what is behind those hundreds of other steel shutters which line the corridors of the building. Drugs, guns, cash, stolen goods, dead bodies, God knows what all could be in there. But mostly I expect it’s just stuff like mine, of sentimental value to the owner but little use or interest to anyone else.
Slaynt vie, bea veayn, beeal fliugh as baase ayns Mannin