Iris Milton ~ Cartotecnica e varie

Here’s one thing about my mum.

She used to col­lect paper. She had an old grey-blue fold­er, tat­tered, giv­ing up at the edges. Written on it, in her pre­cise yet boun­cy red mark­er let­ters, it read: “Cartotecnica e varie”. Which implied both some­thing pro­fes­sion­al (tec­ni­ca) and some­thing total­ly hap­haz­ard (varie).

Since I was a child, every Christmas or birth­day, that is, every time paper wrap­ping was about to get dis­card­ed, I remem­ber the grey-blue fold­er com­ing out of its hid­ing spot in my mum’s wardrobe, under wool jumpers and the hems of her flower skirts.

Then my mum would take the paper, smooth it out with her palms, care­ful, like an arche­ol­o­gist deal­ing with an ancient piece of pot­tery. Looked at it lov­ing­ly, if it was pret­ty; mat­ter-of-fact­ly, if it could be reused. Placed it in the folder.

Cartotecnica e varie.

The fold­er was a trea­sure chest of paper we, as chil­dren, were not allowed to plun­der. Not like the but­ter-smooth crayons or the splen­did, infi­nite hues of the water­colour pen­cils. Those we reduced to stumps and snapped in two on the reg­u­lar. We threw around the pen­cils so much we could not sharp­en them any­more with­out the tip shattering.

Those expen­sive art sup­plies we were allowed to use straight out of their wood­en box sets to draw our scrib­bles — scrib­bles that always end­ed up framed on the kitchen walls.

But the blue-grey fold­er we could not touch.

Sometimes mum showed us the trea­sures it contained.

There were the clas­sic scraps of Christmas paper, with rein­deers and hol­lies and Santa’s sil­hou­ette, and the stan­dard birth­day ones with colour­ful bal­loons and ugly let­ter­ing, the signs of fold­ing still visible.

But then there were also the tis­sue papers, so thin we could see through them, the hand-made Venetian paper, the botan­i­cal and the mar­seil­lais­es tarot prints, the rice paper, the thick card­boards in earthy tones and the wall­pa­per sam­ples all pat­terned and pearly.

Sometimes scraps of fab­ric made their way into the fold­er too, or pages torn from mag­a­zines, beau­ti­ful adver­tise­ments from glossy pub­li­ca­tions, leaflets fold­ed in inven­tive ways, origa­mi box­es flat­tened out.

Every time my mum showed us, there was more, and more wonderful.

What are you going to do with it?” I asked once, starry-eyed.

She shrugged, with that defeat­ed smile of hers: “Oh, noth­ing, they are too good to be used. There’s nev­er an occa­sion spe­cial enough.”

Which sound­ed a lot like: “I am not good enough to use them. Nothing I could make with them would be spe­cial enough.”

Which sound­ed like non­sense to me, even as a child, because every time I gaped at a beau­ti­ful paint­ing or pho­to or sketch or print hang­ing on the walls of the house and asked “Who made that?”, the answer was always a demur: “Oh, I did.”

Really, mum? You did?!”

It’s noth­ing spe­cial. Just a sketch. I made it so long ago.”

I did­n’t believe her.

My mum must have been the great­est artist alive — she could do it all, and every­thing was beau­ti­ful, per­fect, some­thing I only felt more vivid­ly when I put pen­cil to paper and every­thing turned out mis­shapen and ugly.

Still, not even she dared to use the paper in the blue-grey fold­er. She just col­lect­ed it. So I start­ed to help — every Christmas and every birth­day, I saved the paper from the trash bins of dozens of par­ties (not even all mine), smoothed it out with care­ful hands and put it in my purse and brought it home, to the trea­sure chest of Cartotecnica and varie.

When I left home — uni­ver­si­ty brought me abroad, to a great city — I was still col­lect­ing papers, but they were strays, exiled, liv­ing at the back of sketch­books or under the cov­ers of nov­els read between one Tube stop and the next.

On video calls, I showed them to mum — glossy, Japanese, with metal­lic streaks of gold and sil­ver, wrap­ping some­one else’s Liberty’s expen­sive gifts — and she showed me hers.

Then one day, I received a box. One of those pro­vi­sion box­es with all the bis­cuits you are home-sick about and all the bread-goods you don’t even know how to describe to the clerks at Tesco — taral­luc­ci and grissi­ni and piad­i­na romana. Under the cans of Mutti’s pas­sa­ta and De Cecco’s penne, at the very bot­tom of the box, there it was.

The blue-grey folder.

Cartotecnica e varie.


Here’s one thing about me.

I don’t like chil­dren. I nev­er liked them and, while I gave myself the ben­e­fit of the doubt and the space and time to change, I don’t think I ever will. I am so focused on the here and now, on the glo­ri­ous today in the great city that I don’t care about pos­ter­i­ty. I am the alpha and the omega of the world and this too shall pass.

It is only when I look at the blue-grey fold­er that I have a pang of doubt.

Even if you have chil­dren, there is no guar­an­tee they will give two shits about a fold­er full of scraps of papers.” I tell myself. “They would not be you, like you are not your moth­er, and you should not assume they will care about what you care about.” I rationalise.

And I am right.

But still.

I can not bear the thoughts of Cartotecnica e varie thrown away with­out a sec­ond glance to the beau­ti­ful­ly gild­ed ridges and gran­u­lar tex­tures and translu­cent tis­sues. All the scraps and rare finds and odd­i­ties — abandoned.

And I think about my mum liv­ing with all her paint­ings on the wall, like dead hunt­ing tro­phies, my mum who I can’t remem­ber hav­ing seen draw­ing once in my life, my mum smooth­ing all those paper scraps with lov­ing hands.

Too good to be used.

Never an occa­sion spe­cial enough.

She is like that with every­thing, my mum.

Every Christmas I buy her expen­sive teas — the one that comes in taste­ful­ly dec­o­rat­ed tins, flower petals and rose buds clear­ly dis­tin­guish­able in the mix — and every Christmas I notice the pre­vi­ous tin, still unopened, on a high shelf in the kitchen.

Too good to be used,” my moth­er says.

And I want to scream: “Drink the tea, please, drink the tea — I’m rich, I’ve made it you know? You sent me to the great city and now I make 100k a year, so I will buy you all the tea you can drink. I’ll get you the same tea the Queen used to drink and every sin­gle colour­ful tin — so please, please, please drink the fuck­ing tea!”

But I say noth­ing, and keep bring­ing her tea, in the hope she will even­tu­al­ly drink it.

One time my moth­er received an invi­ta­tion to a wed­ding and in a rare act of extrav­a­gance bought her­self a new coat in a love­ly peri­win­kle blue shade. She loved it — I knew from the sparkle in her eyes as she tried it on for me, in front of the phone, dur­ing our dai­ly video call.

She wore it at the wed­ding, then placed it in her wardrobe where it has been ever since.

I’ve no occa­sion to wear it,” she explained when I asked about it, and then added: “Do you want it?”

No!” I exclaimed, hor­ri­fied, “It’s yours, you love it!

She shrugged, her eyes low: “But I nev­er wear it…”

Why? Why? Why not? You don’t need an occa­sion. You love your blue coat and you are alive — isn’t that spe­cial enough?” I want­ed to cry, but just mum­bled: “It’s not even my colour.”

Recently, cus­tom duties got more expen­sive recent­ly, and mum could not send me any more box­es. It has been a relief. Even if I miss the cook­ies and the taral­luc­ci and grissi­ni, I would have opened them in fear of find­ing at the very bot­tom, neat­ly fold­ed, nev­er used, the peri­win­kle blue coat.

Instead I only got the grey-blue fold­er, which now sits on my desk, full of trea­sures my mum nev­er dared to think her­self wor­thy to use.

And I know what to do.

When I am gone, there will be noth­ing left in the blue-grey fold­er. I will have used every sin­gle piece of paper in it — the sheer tis­sue paper to wrap gifts for my loved ones and the thick card­boards to make col­lages and the flo­ral prints to stick on my wall when I need a reminder that life is full of colour.

Not even the fold­er will be left: I will print on the blue-grey tat­tered paper with wood­blocks, make post­cards to send to my friends scat­tered at the four cor­ners of the world, cut it and repur­pose it and use it as con­fet­ti at my wedding.

And on the last piece, I will paint a por­trait of my moth­er, just above the pre­cise yet boun­cy red-mark­er let­ters: “Cartotecnica e varie.”


Iris Milton is the pen name of a writer born in Italy who has been liv­ing in London for the last decade. She has a back­ground in Classics and holds degrees from the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies. Her sto­ries have been pre­vi­ous­ly pub­lished in Moria, Emerge Literary Journal and the Hampstead Literary Society Journal.