“The past is another country; they do things differently there.” In her affecting memoir, The Mahogany Pod, my old friend Jill Hopper revisits a past that feels so close and yet so distant, half a lifetime ago, when she was in her early twenties and she fell in love with a man who would die within the year. Her narrative fluidly switches from now to then and back again as she unravels her memories and realizes that she still has lingering questions and loose ends to be resolved from all that time ago.
Things were different back then because Jill was young, and life is always different for the young: more dramatic, more intense, more involved, more highly strung; more of everything. As Jill puts it: “What does a twenty-four-year-old want? To be young, to live to the tips of his fingers, and the ends of his toes, to have wild nights out with friends and wild nights in with lovers, to get crazily drunk, to sing and dance, to travel and see new places” (104). At the same time, Jill and her friends feel like they are in the limbo at the very end of what has been an extended youth. Done with university, but still living like students (sleeping on mattresses on the floor, a collage of postcards decorating the walls), they are waiting for their careers to begin or to take off, and perhaps to settle down with husbands and wives rather than flatmates and flings. Hopper knows in some ways that she is only treading water (“typing, filing and catching moths” ), waiting for something to happen, when into her life walks Arif, who, it turns out, will forever be young, will never grow old.
Arif and Jill would never have got together if it were not for his disease. It is only because he has already had a lymphoma, now in remission, that he returns to his hometown of Oxford for treatment and becomes Jill’s housemate. Then when the cancer returns, she compares the situation to seeing a friend drowning: “Everyone else was watching Arif from the shore. But for me it wasn’t enough to stay on dry land, to shout encouragement or throw him a line. I had to be in the experience with him. I couldn’t stand to watch him suffering and now suffer myself. I didn’t want him to be along. I got into the water” (87). In the weeks and months that follow–all in all, Jill knows Arif for nine months, and he dies on the eve of his twenty-fifth birthday–the two of them experience the highs and the lows, joy and grief, hope and desperation. They open themselves up to each other, gambling everything on the moment as every moment is precious, overshadowed by Arif’s diagnosis. As Jill puts it in the wake of his death: “The sense of immortality, invincibility, that had swept me along all through my teens and early twenties, had vanished, and I knew I would never get it back. [. . .] My greatest fear was that I’d never again feel so intensely alive as I had with Arif. I had spent months at the highest pitch of existence, when every note of every song dropped right into the center of my heart, when every smell, every touch, penetrated so deeply it could never be forgotten” (67). Of course, you can’t live like that forever. And when Arif dies, in more ways than one Jill ends up saying goodbye to something of herself.
Things were different back then, too, because it was the mid-1990s and we weren’t yet always online, with everything mediated through the Internet or the ether. Hopper is a would-be writer, but has a typewriter rather than a laptop in her room. Nobody ever Googles or texts. A mobile phone features only once, going off inappropriately during a wedding, which “wasn’t exactly an advert for their virtues” (149). Instead, there are letters, post-it notes, mixtapes, which end up as an archive (in a shoebox, of course), alongside the eponymous mahogany pod, a present from Arif, that Jill can consult in the present. It is thanks to these material traces that she can unwind and relive her memories, struck once again by the physical intricacy of handwriting, or by the atmospheric sense of the mixtape, to which she listens finally, for the very first time, and through which she ultimately feels Arif speaks to her once more, as briefly she is can no longer distinguish between then and now: “How have I got from that doorstep [. . .] to this one? The intervening decades have gone; I’m jumped straight from there to here. It’s too much” (211). Could a Spotify playlist have had the same effect? What if the relationship had had to be reconstructed through text messages? Ironically, it’s the almost old-fashioned, time-incrusted materiality of the surviving memory prompts that allow them to come to life once more in the present.
This is a story about then, but it is also a story about now. In the end, Jill decides she has to go see Arif’s mother, to work through a tension she feels has always come between them. And thanks to their conversation, she comes to see her younger self in new light, through someone else’s eyes, doubly distanced by this change of perspective. She also comes to realize that, for all the intense intimacy of her brief time with Arif, he had held something back, perhaps even told her a lie: his father was not, as she had thought, from Sri Lanka, but Pakistan. In fact, much that she thought she knew for sure turns out to be wrong. Even the mahogany pod that gives this book its title transpires (an expert from Kew Gardens reveals) to come not from a Mahogany tree. “Nothing is quite what it was,” muses Jill. “Perhaps the past is no more fixed than the present” (207). Arif comes into focus through her memories, but also shimmers slightly, as if in a mirage.
But it’s in that shimmering, as with the uncertainty that shadows any memoir, all autofiction, that they may get something wrong, that they are somehow untrue, that one person’s story can take on meaning that can be shared, can travel like a river. Jill Hopper’s beautifully-written account takes us all back to our various pasts, even as it reminds us that we can never go back, that the past is something we can only ever reinvent, never truly re-live.