my personal paper trail

Over the past few weeks I’ve been clearing out a lot of my old things to make some space.

My family are all terrible hoarders who can’t throw anything away, so our house is full of useless objects. I am less sentimental and quite happy to get rid of things I don’t use any more, but even so, the amount of stuff I have accumulated over the years is staggering.

The books were difficult. A few years ago I gave crates and crates of books to charity shops, but when I went through them a few weeks ago, my collection seemed to have grown again. Last time I had a clear out, I kept back most of the books I read when I was really tiny, for sentimental reasons. This time I looked at them appraisingly and decided that since I hadn’t looked at any of them since the last time I did this, it was time for them to go. But then my mum threw a spanner in the works.

“You can’t get rid of these! This was the one Grandma bought you when Steven was born! And this was the first one you read all by yourself. And this one… you used to love this one! You wanted to read it every night!”

Clearly, this wasn’t helping matters. I stood firm and said that if she wanted to keep them, that was fine, but I just didn’t have space any more.

Two days later, the doorbell rang. It was my mum’s hairdresser, Karen. She clearly hadn’t come to cut my mum’s hair, because she’d only just done it. She went into the kitchen with my mum, and then a few minutes later I heard her say, “Oooh, Polly will love these!”

After she’d gone, I said to my mum, “Do you feel better about getting rid of them knowing that they’re going to Karen’s granddaughter?”

“Yes,” she said. “It was the only way I could do it.”

Well done, Mum.

Yesterday I tackled the paperwork.

Oh. God.

I felt like I was drowning in pieces of paper, most of which I couldn’t just put in the bin because they were covered in personal data like my bank details and national insurance number. If only I had done this last week, I could have put the whole lot on Jim and Sarah’s bonfire, but it was too late for that. Sighing loudly, I borrowed my mum’s shredder. To make the ordeal less painful, I put a film on, but even with the volume turned up to maximum I needed the subtitles on due to the HORRIBLE NOISE of the shredder.

It was a painfully boring job, during which I had to stop frequently to remove bits of paper which had been mangled by the stupid machine and gouge bits out with a screwdriver when they got stuck, each time praying that I hadn’t broken the bloody thing permanently.

But it was also, in a weird sort of way, the story of my life. Or at least, my life since I got old enough to start leaving a paper trail.

As I shredded old payslips, I thought about all the jobs I’ve done. The payslips from the garden centre I worked in at the age of 16, which I received in a brown envelope with cash, because I didn’t have a proper bank account yet. The ones from the restaurant where I learned all about different types of fish, and how to open a bottle of champagne. The restaurant where I got fired because they found out I was under 18. My very first office job where I had a huge crush on that guy and everyone knew it. The gallery where I worked as a student. That seaside pub I worked in after graduation, where I had one of the best summers of my life.

Shredding old bank statements, I marvelled at how overdrawn I used to be all the time. Statements from October showing numerous cash withdrawals and card payments to bars clearly spelled “freshers’ week” and “new student loan instalment”. Statements from June showed desperate attempts to stretch out my last few pennies until I could start my summer job again.

Old travel insurance policies reminded me of the places I’ve been over the last few years. Ironically, I found a travel insurance policy for a holiday to Thailand and a phone insurance policy from the same year, neither of which paid out when my phone got stolen on my connecting flight and someone used it to make hundreds of pounds worth of calls in the middle east before I could get it blocked. I quickly shredded both documents and tried not to think about it.

Towards the end, I opened another folder and found my original offer letter for university, my application for a place in halls of residence, my student loan confirmation and all my other enrolment information. Smiling, I flicked through it, remembering my first term at university. I thought about the friends I made on my course in those first few overwhelming weeks, and where we all are now. Some of those friendships have faded and fizzled out, but others are still going strong.

Right on cue, my phone beeped. It was my friend Lizzie. She and I met right at the beginning of uni, and have seen each other through all manner of academic, professional and personal successes and failures. At the moment she’s seeing an Italian guy called Giovanni, so she’s trying to learn some of the language before visiting his family for the first time.


I don’t need to keep these ancient pieces of paper to remind me of my university years. The best things about that time of my life are still texting me nonsense every day.

And so I shredded the lot.


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