Things disappear without a trace, you search everywhere to no avail, and then they turn up again unexpectedly and in odd places. We’ve all experienced it — but what’s really behind such events? Just poor memory? Or something more exotic?
One of my favourite magazines, Fortean Times, often carries letters from readers who’ve experienced that very strange phenomenon of things disappearing, often for weeks, months or years at a time, only to have them turn up again out of the blue. What makes this an even stranger experience for those afflicted by it is that asking out loud for the thing to be returned often does the trick — the ‘lost’ item is found moments later, most likely in a place that’s been carefully searched several times beforehand.
This month’s edition — FT235, May 2008 — contains two such reports. In the first, Oliver Rogers from Northampton writes about a friend of his who, while visiting his home, bemoaned the fact that about a week previously she’d ‘mislaid’ a flash drive containing some important information and she was fretting about it falling into the wrong hands. She idly flicked through the new Fortean Times (issue 230) lying on his coffee table, only to find that the column It Happened To Me was devoted entirely to the subject of lost items and “pixilation” (pixies being the little people many hold responsible for mischieviously hiding things).
They laughed about the odd coincidence and decided to do what other readers had done when in this situation: politely ask ‘them’ to return the item. With his friend about to leave, Oliver then left the room to find a warmer jumper; less than a minute later, his friend approached him, speechless, her mouth open and her eyes wide with shock. In the palm of her hand was the missing flash drive. She had opened her handbag — the one she carried with her every day, and which she’d turned out several times during her search — and the flash drive had been in there, large as life.
In the second report, David Soltesz from New Jersey in the USA writes about how, on 9th February, he travelled to Pennsylvania and bought, amongst other things, a set of plastic vampire fangs for a fancy-dress party later that evening. He couldn’t find them when he got home, so he made the trip again to purchase another pair. Two days later, he was walking his dog through a nearby wood — somewhere he hadn’t visited in the previous two days — and on the footpath he chanced across a pair of plastic vampire fangs identical to the ones he’d lost. He hadn’t asked for them back, but it seems the pixies love to play with our minds in any way they can …
It’s by no means a new notion. Mary Norton‘s 1952 novel The Borrowers popularised a belief that’s been around for millennia, dressing the timeless pixies in attire and characteristics appropriate for a mid-twentieth-century setting so her audience would find them more credible.
Earlier last century, photographs of the Cottingley Fairies caused uproar. At the time of their publication in 1917, photography was a relatively new area and some of the best minds of the day — including author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and physicist Sir Oliver Lodge — proclaimed them to portray real Little People. Sir Oliver and his friend had conducted experiments designed to contact the dead through the use of radio (which was, at the time, a new and little understood phenomenon). Dabblers, as they were, in fringe science, their minds were primed to at least countenance the co-existence of the apparently irrational alongside us in our otherwise rational world, whereas many of their peers demanded more in the way of hard evidence before being prepared to change their world view — for that’s what lies further along the path less travelled for those prepared to take such an imaginative journey: eventually, the world bounded by the true gives way to the infinite world of the real, and the undiscovered country becomes our backyard.
I have three recent personal examples of ‘pixilation’. The first occurred at New Year 2008. Marcy had mislaid a pair of her glasses. After searching all the obvious places in our little bungalow by herself and turning up empty, she enlisted my help. I, too, searched the obvious places — and many not-so-obvious ones too, including the fridge, washing machine and, in desperation, the dustbin. No joy. Eventually, standing alone in the bedroom — where we had each separately investigated every drawer, cupboard, nook and cranny — and casting my gaze around fruitlessly, I remembered what I’d read in FT about asking ‘them’ politely for missing items to be returned. Feeling a little foolish, facing the window with the wardrobe behind me, I spoke aloud in the general direction of the ceiling: “OK, thank you, you’ve had your fun — but we’d really appreciate having them back now.” I smiled ruefully. What an idiot, I thought, as I turned round to survey the room once again. How could that possibly –
– and there, immediately obvious to me at the bottom of a clear plastic full-length clothes bag hanging from one of the wardrobe’s handles and containing one of Marcy’s dresses, were the missing glasses.
I was elated. Bursting out laughing, I called Marcy and showed her my discovery. When I told her how I’d gone about finding them, she was understandably both confused and amazed in equal measure. We’d both searched the room, top to bottom, at least twice. Seeing them there then, in plain sight, it was hard to understand how we could both have passed over them before.
Then came the keys. Sometime in February, Marcy was preparing to go out for a while in the car. Having put her coat on, I could see she was looking for something. “I had my keys here a moment ago,” she said, “and now they’re gone. I had them right here in my hand — they were in my pocket, I took them out, and now …” she shrugged her shoulders.
We did the search thing again. All over the house. Nothing. After fifteen minutes or so, I remembered how we’d found the glasses a couple of months before. Once again, I politely asked out loud for the keys to be returned. Then, a curious thing: as soon as the words left my lips, it occurred to me there was one place neither of us had yet checked. I popped out the front door — and there they were, in the ignition of the locked car. Marcy was adamant that she’d had them in her hand just twenty minutes ago. She was absolutely certain of it.
Both events can be explained prosaically, I know — but do the most rational explanations always have to be the real ones? Perhaps the glasses, balanced on Marcy’s head, fell into the plastic clothing bag’s slightly open flap at the bottom, having slipped off unnoticed. It’s also possible that she may have thought she’d felt the keys in her hand when in fact she’d been holding something else and, distracted, assumed it had to be the keys. She’d driven the car the evening before, so she may have got out of the car — which doesn’t have central locking — and locked the door using the manual lock, accidentally leaving the keys inside. Because that information wasn’t registered in her brain, whatever it was in her pocket that she handled became, in the perceptual part of her brain, the set of keys, because that’s what she expected it to be. Both of these could be true explanations. But their mere existence doesn’t crowd out all other possibilities.
After I found the cigarette in the fridge last week, I began looking for tiny footprints in the butter. I know that neither of us put it in there, so who else has been leaving weird stuff in our fridge?
The photo is a reconstruction. I was so thrown, I never thought to take one at the time. It greeted me one evening when I opened the fridge door to grab the milk while making some tea. Marcy smokes the ready-made variety while I favour roll-ups, but the delicate resting-place of the cigarette, with its filter-tip wedged between two fridge items just-so, giving it a jaunty angle — you couldn’t make it up. No, well, actually, you could — I did, for this photo, but it took me several tries to make it stay there without falling over — but you know what I mean. We couldn’t imagine any scenario whereby either of us would have been holding that cigarette in their hand while, say, unloading the shopping into the fridge, or, similarly, reaching into the fridge to grab something without first putting down any cigarette in the hand. It just doesn’t add up, and it’s amazing to live in a universe where such a thing is possible. It got there somehow, and if it wasn’t either of us, then how else did it get there?
I’m convinced the evidence of my senses is 100% true while, paradoxically, I also know that this is actually far from the case. I’m sure I would’ve seen those glasses nestling in that plastic clothes bag if they’d been there when I made my previous sweeps of the room — but the truth is, I frequently find myself looking for something that’s actually right in front of my eyes and when it’s finally made visible to me I laugh quietly and mutter, “Huh — couldn’t see it for looking.” Maybe the pixies are responsible for all those little incidents too.
I’m aware that different eye-witness accounts of incidents such as traffic accidents or robberies have been shown to be wildly variable in their detail. The same is often said of eye-witness accounts of UFOs — some reckon that 90% to 95% of UFO reports can be put down to misperceptions of man-made aircraft or natural phenomena. Others dispute this, as do I. Which probably helps to explain why I’m also more inclined than some to leave certain things open to question.
My head tells me it’s reasonable to suppose that the glasses were there all the time in the clothes bag and I just didn’t see them, and that the keys were accidentally locked in the car the night before.
My heart, though, much prefers the possibility of there being such exotic entities as mischievous pixies living alongside us and messing with our sense of reality, so I think, in my world, that’ll suffice for now as the explanation for the cigarette in the fridge.