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.