Monthly Archives: December 2014

The Memory Box

The Limpley Stoke valley slides slowly past the window. Seems the train’s as reluctant as I am to get to the next station. The knot inside me feels familiar as the faded greens and yellow-browns of the December countryside. Every hedge. Every curve of the river. The rabbits flicking their tails across the matted grass. It ought to have changed. But it hasn’t. No more has it missed me in all this time. Not even for a moment.

The train creaks and grumbles up alongside the neat stone ticket office. The woman standing next to me compliments my scarf.

“Nice to see a splash of colour.”

The door opens with a heavy sigh and we step down to the platform. Exchanging smiles. Suddenly I’m ten years ago. A lifetime away. A life I wrapped and boxed the day I left you. Promising myself I’d never come back.

You’re not here to meet me of course. Our son’s picking me up instead. Taking me to the house I once called home. For twenty-six years. I throw my bag onto the back seat of his car. Next to a sack of firewood. There are new buildings by the entrance to the car park. The derelict mill that once dominated the town centre has been renovated. There’s a supermarket on the ground floor now.

You wouldn’t drive up this hill. Not after the clutch exploded. Before that, you’d bang your foot down on the pedal just before the zebra crossing. I never understood why. One day the clutch decided it had had enough. I remember picking up rust-dusted nuts and springs out of the road. As if we’d somehow be able to put the whole thing back together again.

You can’t see the house any more. The hedge has grown up like the forest round Sleeping Beauty’s castle. You stuck those spindly twigs of privet in the ground one day while I was at work. Scuppered my long-cherished plan for a lavender hedge. For years they grew like weeds. Stealthy. Unkempt. Knowing they had no right to be there. Now they’ve taken over. Gleefully smothering anything in their path. Everything in the garden’s bigger now. Everything that’s survived. But the house itself has shrunk. Even inside it feels smaller. Darker. More claustrophobic than in the worst moments of that final year. The year I knew I wasn’t going to stay.

We’d fallen into a desperate routine by then. You’d pick me up at the station of an evening. Drive home the long way. To avoid the hill. I’d be exhausted. Peopled out. Maybe you had no idea how much I just needed to sit down for half an hour. With a cup of tea. In total silence. After all, you seldom asked how my day had been. And if you did, you never listened to the answer. You were working earlies. You’d been home six hours or so. You wanted to talk. So that’s what you did. You’d lead the way to the kitchen. Plonk yourself on a chair. Launch your monologue. You’d talk while I filled the kettle. Pontificate while I poured the tea. Hold forth while I peeled the spuds. Chatter while I chopped the vegetables. I’d lay the table round you. Perish the thought that I might interrupt. You never missed a syllable.

Sometimes you’d decide I wasn’t paying enough attention.

“You’re not listening, are you?”

“Of course I am.”

“What was the last thing I said?”

And it was always there. The last sentence. Word for word. You’d grunt. Unconvinced. Pick up where you’d left off. Of course you were right. I wasn’t listening. In thirty years and more I’d long learned how to look as if I was. It’s not a skill I’m proud of.

Today our son and I are picking up family photos. I’ve wanted to have some ever since I left. I’ve never had the courage to come here before. I phoned you a few days ago

“I promise I won’t take the furniture.”

“Take anything you want.”

I know better than to take you at your word.  Up in the smallest bedroom I begin to realise how much of the stuff here was once mine. A lifetime of books and trinkets gathering cobwebs. Some of it hasn’t moved since I left. The memory box is in the cupboard. He takes it down for me. A jumble of tattered wallets and envelopes. Loose pictures. Dog-eared albums. Framed school photos. Our family. Our common past. How can you not want a share in it? I blow the dust off a couple of books and balance them on top of the box. The Seven Storey Mountain. Borrowed from a friend. It’s too late to return it now. Black Beauty. From my Christmas stocking. Long before I even knew you existed.

Back in the kitchen we make coffee. More ghosts. The mugs. Even the cafetière. It’s the cooker breaks my heart though. That was the best cooker ever. Range size. Gas hob. Fan oven. It could turn out a perfect cake. Every time. The grill door gapes at me. Groaning under an inch of greasy grey dust. How could you leave me like this? I have to look away. What a waste. My son’s examining the dishwasher. You seldom use it, he says. I remember that night. The night I finally knew what I had to do.

It was indistinguishable from any other evening. My resentment boiled over during your monologue. I said something stupid. You blew a fuse. Predictable as clockwork. I was loading this very dishwasher. Head down. Tongue bitten. You were yelling. There’d be no stopping till you decided it was bedtime. Unless something good came on the telly. You know what? I’ve never missed being shouted at. Not once.  I slid the wok into the machine.

It’s always going to be like this.

The thought came through so clear, I was half afraid you might have heard it too. I needn’t have worried. You were full throttle. Engrossed in the heady symphony of your own voice.

It’s always going to be like this. If I don’t do something now, the next thirty years will be just like the last thirty. It’ll go on and on and on, until I’m exhausted. Or too senile to care. I’ll wake up one morning and find I’ve died of neglect. You won’t even notice I’m gone.

I sip my coffee. I’ve been a long journey from that day. It unnerves me so see how little has changed. There’s a photo of my successor on the shelf. She’s a thing of the past too. Saw the light. Moved on. Me, I overstayed my welcome by about twenty years. When I finally let go there was nothing left.

A clutch of posters for vintage rock bands has replaced our daughter’s cross-stitched cats on the hall wall. Echoes from another past. One that pre-dates me. I painted that wall when we first moved in. Bright orange. Very seventies. It’s yellow under the posters. Slightly grubby. The house has a feel of Miss Havisham about it. A dusty mausoleum. Festooned with broken dreams. A memorial to everything that might have been.

In a different life, I might have been a photographer. I love taking photos. Capturing moments. Pinning down memories like butterflies. Maybe that’s why I wanted the box so badly. Back home I root through the photos. Hungry for the past. For my version of it. So many of the pictures have faded. Fuzzy faces peer at me through pinkish-sepia fog. I’m heartbroken. Then furious. That’s what you get for ordering f***ing economy prints.

I make out a young girl in one of the pictures. She’s wearing a pink, nylon dressing gown. Her long, deep sepia-pink hair falls over one pink eye as she bends over a pink perspex hospital crib. The pink baby’s sleeping under a pink blanket. The whole thing’s wildly off-centre too. And it doesn’t matter. The look on that girl’s face. It’s never going to fade. The hospital clatter. The crisp white cot sheets. The smell of breast milk. The first outrageous tidal wave of maternal love. So intense it was almost unbearable. They’re as alive now as the moment I first felt them. They’ll never leave me. Photo or no. Grab at them? Pin them to a square of photographic paper? Preserve them for posterity? It can’t be done. Some things you can’t hold on to. No matter how much you might want to. Some things you just have to let go.

Memory Box

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Unforgettable make believe … a real life based on lies

If I live to be a-hundred-and-one, I’ll never understand …

Your words. They slip easily into my mouth when I think about your life. My bit part in it. You won’t see a-hundred-and-one now of course. It’s your birthday this week. You’d have been sixty-two. I like to think you were honest about that much at least. Although there’s still the smallest frisson of surprise when anything you told me turns out to have been the truth.

Once upon a time. That’s how all the best make believe begins, isn’t it? You sent me a CD. Falling in Love. God alone knows where you got it. Or why. Most of it’s crap. Your letter said. With all the flourish of a true romantic. You weren’t wrong. Just listen to track 7. I did as I was told. Nat King Cole. Unforgettable. That’s what you are.

Let me go back to that longest summer. Pick a day. Or maybe blend a few. They all roll into one anyhow. The bin men wake me. It’s too early for you. I’ve never quite grown used to the hours you choose to keep. To get up without you is more than my life’s worth. I lie in wait. Watching the rise and fall of your chest. I’ve got the formula. I roll over as you begin to stir. Greet you with a kiss. An enchanted prince. Thus I can at least postpone the moment when you turn into a frog.

The sun streams through the window. Breakfast in the garden. Kippers. Scrambled eggs. You actually make the best eggs ever. Me? I tread on eggs. One foot wrong, it all goes into free fall. Today the conversation bubbles. I feel peaceful. Safe. Grateful for the moment. You slather your toast with butter. All’s well with the world. The guy over the back’s out with his crossbow. The target hanging on that flimsy net above the wall. We speculate on what’ll happen when he misses.

It’s Thursday. Pay day. We head out to the Mall. You love shopping. Spending money makes you magical. In control. Even though you haven’t earned a penny of it. It’s that book that triggers you. In the middle of W H Smith. Last week you couldn’t wait to buy it. Now it unaccountably offends your sensibilities. We walk home in icy silence. Your fingers interlaced with mine. My fingertips turning blue. Once home, we dig in at opposite ends of the red corduroy sofa. I knit. You sulk. The atmosphere thickens. I count stitches. Recite verses in my head. You brood. Rumble.

Your prowess in verbal violence renders physical superfluous. After an hour or so you’re running out of steam though. It’s then I realise you’re ranting about breaking wind. My lip twitches. Even you must know that’s just absurd.

Would you fart in front of your friends?

That vein in your forehead throbs. I bite the errant lip. God knows what’ll happen if I laugh.

Would you fart in front of God?

You thunder. Cecil B DeMille. I lose it. Look straight at you. Pure disbelief. We collapse together in the middle of the sofa. Crying with laughter. Five years on, and you’re nearing the end of the final bender. Necking neat vodka. Three bottles a day. We still recall that afternoon and smile. On the days you can remember who I am.

We were well into our fifties when we met. You wrote me poems. Taught me how to draw. You were the only person ever to piggy-back me to the corner shop. Propose to me on one knee in Tesco’s. Run amok with me through fresh-fallen snow. With two carrier bags of shopping. We invented games. Created our own private bubble of make believe. The bipedical flying slug? The plummeting vole? Who on earth else could have come up with them? Your child touched the child in me, and she responded. For better. For worse. The bubble always burst.

A Friday night. A month on. Give or take. You disappear. A string of incoherent text messages later I find you on the pavement round the corner. Some students have called an ambulance. You’re refusing to get into it. My brother helps me carry you home in the end. You throw up on the red corduroy sofa. In the morning you’re dead to the world. I let myself out of the house. Walk to the corner shop. Blinking in the sunlight. Like a freed prisoner. When I get back you’ve wet yourself. And the sofa. A week later you lock me out of the house. Everything I own is in that house. For the next two months you trash the place with every drunk in town. When the landlord finally evicts you I clear the debris. The only things missing are a silver earring and a Nina Simone CD.

Seven years. I doubt we were together more than six months of it. You made up stories. Twisted words. Abused me without mercy. Accorded less respect to me than to a can of cheap lager. I made a lifestyle out of leaving. Fled half way across the country. Then invited you to join me. You delivered your final coup de grace three months before the end. I’d moved heaven and earth to get you talking to your sister. She came to see you. The story she related to me afterwards was strangely like the lies you used to tell about your ex. She banned me from your bedside in your final illness. Forgot to tell me. I’d been to see you twice before I found out.

She had the grace to phone me when you went. I knew already. How could I not? I walked into the night with headphones. The world all blurred with tears. From the crest of the flyover I looked out at the lights of the city where we first met. The songs you’d loved drowning the drone of the motorway below. I’d long ago accepted that we couldn’t be together. Now I’d never get to hear your growl again. Laugh with you. Talk endlessly on the phone. About everything. And nothing.

Your funeral would have been so different if they’d asked me. But they didn’t. After all, you’d charmed them all by then. Made believe I was the villain of the piece. Thus were you sanitised. Sanctified. Made respectable. Something you never quite achieved in life. You’d have been happy with that. It was what you’d always wanted.

Your drinking buddy stood up at the crematorium. Spoke about your loyalty. Pat, you used to call him. It’s not his name of course. He had more courage than I did in that crowd. Admittedly a bit of it was Dutch. I was chatting to him just this morning in the café where I work. He thinks a lot of you. Quite rightly so. And who am I to burst his bubble? To tell him that one of the things he respects about you most is pure make believe?

Sweet dreams. Sleep peacefully. I loved you. That wasn’t make believe. Even though you always thought it was.

And now just one last thing … Breast of lamb … I think I won that round.


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