103. This Machine Prints Tickets to Anywhere

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Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Every family has secrets that slip through the cracks of time. Even those who get on with each other. I know I’m one of the lucky ones who genuinely is friends with their own parents and siblings.

It’s a thing we’ve always done. We make a time capsule or write a letter and put it under the floorboards for our future selves to find. Nothing fancy. Only the ordinary, everyday stuff that we would have thrown away anyway. Like a newspaper, ripped out magazine pages, a shopping list, a photograph of a room in the house at the time, or last year’s diary, all squashed inside a Christmas chocolates tin, so rats can’t get to it. I know that if I found any of those things from people who’d lived in my house years before I did, I’d be thrilled.

My parents are having underfloor heating put in and a new Oak floor. So I’m going out with them to look for a rug and then for lunch. I’m the adjudicator in case they bicker over colours or style. I’ve got a ‘modern view’ on home furnishings apparently. It also gives me a chance to take them to that new place that does the amazing salads. I just love their warm shredded duck, blood orange and chicory salad or that one with the crumbled feta, toasted pumpkin seeds and cavolo nero crisps.

After our mains, whilst I’m sipping the rest of my pinot noir and wondering whether it would be cheeky to ask if we could have only two desserts but three spoons, when mum suddenly does that index finger in the air thing, because she’s remembered something important. She rummages around into her bag and pulls out a clear, plastic freezer bag full of letters. She holds out the package to me and says,

“The workmen found these under the floor. I think they’re yours, love. They weren’t in the tin though. Don’t worry, we haven’t read them.”

I’m intrigued and take the package. It has the fragility of old sellotape. Inside are at least half a dozen opened fat letters, tied with string. The top one has a 22p franked stamp on it and is addressed to the boyfriend I had in sixth form, in neat, purple fountain pen ink. It’s not often these days that I see my own handwriting.

“Oh wow. Thanks mum. God, these are a blast from the past. I haven’t read that name for years. When did you last have your floor done?”

“1990, I think, love.” She says. “You were doing your A levels.”

“That’s when me and Richard broke up. Wow. So they’ve been under the floor all that time?” I say. “I’m not going to read them just yet though. There must have been a reason why I put them there, but I can’t even remember doing it. Anyway, funny you should give me these now because I’ve got this for you. Is it too late to put this in the tin?”

I hand her a sealed letter with my name and January 2019, written on it.

“No, the floor is only half-down. I’ll be glad when it’s all finished.” She says.

“Did you find anything else? What about your letters?” I ask.

“There was a receipt for Asda in your mum’s letter. Guess how much it was for a week’s shopping for five people, back in 1990?” Says Dad.

“Um, thirty-five quid?” I say.

“Not far off, love. Forty-six, and we must have been having a party or something because there was loads of beer on the receipt.” He says. “Anyway, you’ll never guess what else we found?”

Before I could answer, he says “Human teeth!”

I instantly clutch my stomach with one hand and smack my mouth with the other. My eyes are fixed on my Dad, who has a huge grin on his face. I’m confused. I don’t know how to respond to this. I look at Mum but she’s smiling too.

“Oh it’s nothing like that,” he chuckles. “Your brother told us what happened yesterday. He said that one day when Frankie was round, he went into your mum’s dressing table and found the box of the baby teeth from when you were all kids. He fell over and some of the teeth got lost through the gaps in the floorboards. Frankie said he didn’t know what to do so pushed the rest of the teeth though the gaps, then threw away the little box. He told his mum and dad because he was worried and children aren’t allowed to have secrets in their house, but your brother never mentioned it to us until yesterday. Apparently, Frankie was frightened that he was going to get told off and he was only about seven at the time, so couldn’t have known that adults might think there could be a more sinister explanation. Poor kid.”

“What a way to find out that the tooth fairy doesn’t exist.” I say.

“I think he was more scared because he’d been going through his grandma’s private things. The logic of kids eh?”

“What did the workmen say?” I ask.

“They weren’t fazed at all. They said they see all sorts under people’s floors. Teeth are a common thing, but, passports, money, teenager’s drug stashes, porn, the lot. They even found a well once on a remote property. They said the owners were lucky. If they’d have fallen in, they might not have ever been found in time.”

Our waitress appears and says, “Can I tempt you with any desserts or coffee?”

We order a slice of treacle tart with vanilla ice cream, an Eton mess and three spoons. A peppermint tea for me, earl grey for mum and a cappuccino for Dad.

My brother rings me later to admit that he was the one who put the letters under the floor, because I’d been so upset when I’d split up with my boyfriend. He said that Richard came round once to return my stuff (a cardigan, records, books, the letters) but I was out. When he saw the plastic bag of letters, he got really angry because he thought it was mean or spiteful to give back love letters, so he literally hid them from me because he didn’t want me to feel worse. Bless him. I want to hug him. He’s carried this guilt all those years. My little brother worshipped Richard, maybe more so than I did. He had an instant cool, big brother who wanted to be around him, played computer games, took him to the cinema and the football and didn’t treat him like a child. How do you explain to a kid why someone they looked up to has gone and won’t ever be back, when you don’t understand it yourself?

What would I have felt at the time if I’d found out? I know it wouldn’t have been ok, but those memories waiting patiently under the floor have definitely mellowed over the years. I can imagine the cover-up being a massive dealbreaker at the time, but now is not then. My brother knows that I don’t blame him, and that he was only trying to protect me. We never noticed that he was hurting too. He’s punished himself so much since then. Our lives could have turned out quite differently if I’d gone to University hating my own sibling. He’s still got to tell mum and dad what he did, but that’s a face-to-face conversation. I try to convince him that it’s not a big deal and there’s nothing to forgive, but I’m not sure he believes me.

Like father, like son. Things don’t stay buried forever.

A few days later, I decide to read the letters I sent to my then-boyfriend all those years ago. I put on ‘Reading, Writing and Arithmetic’ by The Sundays to transport me back to my Doc Marten, hennaed hair days, and wallow in chronological snobbery. When I was 18 and in love with the Brontës and Christina Rossetti. I want to luxuriate in that time before everything changed at University. I realise I’ve never even Googled Richard, probably because he enjoys the anonymity of a common name, so it would take a while, but I’d also like to remember my first-love how he was then.

I savour the first letter. It’s more cringeworthy and foolish than painful. Proper sixth form poetry where I am trying to emulate a style I admire, but don’t have a fraction of the talent. I can’t even remember myself feeling like this at all. It’s as if someone else wrote it. I might save them for my daughter to read, so she can get to know me a bit when I was her age.

Then I notice there’s one letter in the pile that’s unopened. It’s addressed to me, in Richard’s handwriting.

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102. Tony’s Theme

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Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash

“History, as they say, will always be written by the victors.” 

Anthony Bordain, Medium Raw

I knew I’d have to introduce myself and talk at some point. I’d planned what I wanted to say, written it down, tried to practice it. I didn’t want to wing it. That wouldn’t be right. He’d been gone for longer now than the for the whole time I ever knew him. There were people in there who’d lost a lot more than I had.

“I wish I’d told him how I felt. I thought there’d be the perfect opportunity, that I’d find the right words, then we’d look right into each other, and we’d know. But we didn’t, and now it’s too late. I’ve been over it a thousand times and changed the outcome but it’s still there all the time. The first thing I think about when I wake up, the last thing at night. I’m so stuck and I don’t want to live in my head any more. I can’t change what happened no matter how much I want to. We all get the same amount of time as each other every day and I want to make it matter. I try, I really do make the effort to look people in the eye. I give them my full attention. I smile at strangers, I hold a gaze, I’m affectionate and I share the moment. And it’s really fucking hard to be brave like that. It’s scary to give yourself like that. And I’ve never cried more in my life these last few months – with people I don’t even know. I’ve shared really private stuff with people I’ve just met. Held hands and hugged people and I don’t even know them. Just look at me now. Look at the state I’m in. It’s worse now than at the time. I need help. I can’t go on like this. This isn’t living. But it’s too fucking hard to do it on my own. Um… God.. I’m sorry for swearing”

I’m way too hot, what’s left of my heart is screaming. I want to get up and run out but can’t. This is the safest place for me right now. I lean forward in my chair, elbows on my knees, hands covering my face and sob. There’s a beat of silence then the group leader says,

“Thank you for sharing.”

Someone is rubbing my back. My breathing slows. I look up, sniff loudly, wipe my nose on the back of my hand and take the crumpled tissue from up my sleeve. Snivelling, I take a huge breath, purse my lips and let it out with a long, quiet “whooooo” that sounds just like the wind on a blustery night. There is no dignity in this rawness. I turn to smile at the woman who was rubbing my back and she opens her arms to me as an invitation to hug.

After the group, us two go to the wholefood cafe near the park. As I sip my thick acai smoothie and pick at a malted flapjack, Angie tells me bits of her story. How her life is either ‘before’ or ‘after’ her husband and child died in a car accident. That people she knew for years now treat her differently, how they avoid or pity her, how being a widow defines her. Some would rather not talk to her because they feel uncomfortable, and can’t stop saying how sorry they are and that they think they can’t talk about what happened because it might upset her. Consequently, none of the good times are ever spoken about either. That her life was full of children and now there are none. So she wants to meet new people who understand, and will get to know her as she is now, not then.

There’s so much they don’t tell you about loss. That time is fluid. You waste hours thinking about just one moment. That you have to make a real effort every single day to eat proper food.

Angie tells me that she can’t yet look at old photographs or videos because those images might record over the memories she has inside her own head. Those pictures of them as a family with so much promise for their future life together, make her feel bitter and resentful with hindsight. Then she feels guilty. That she cannot ever imagine meeting anyone new, and doesn’t want to, but still wants to find a way to live now. She used to refer to it as ‘her afterlife’ but realised that was morbid, so now calls it ‘Version 2.’ She says she’s writing letters that will never be read, and feels sorry for people whose entire lives are captured on social media, being replayed over and over again. How she’s had to change her online presence because their ghosts live on inside the machine. They pop up from time to time to remind her of ‘on this day two years ago…’ or ‘it’s Sam’s birthday soon’, and how an algorithm will never replace human interaction.

I say that after the initial shock, I felt like I craved human contact. That I’d deliberately go out of my way to attach myself to people who needed rescuing. I wanted to help, to feel needed. I was so vulnerable that I think I numbed myself with compassion fatigue, which is how I ended up in the group. It’s too soon to know whether it’s helping me through, but I’m prepared to put in the work to try. I don’t want to become lonely, but I also don’t want people to feel obliged to be in my life out of duty, guilt or pity.

Incredibly, as we swap numbers, we both realise that we each have two phones for the same reason. Our old lives and our afterlives. I didn’t have to explain it. She’s the first person I’ve met who not only gets why I’m still paying every month for a piece of outdated tech that I can’t bear to lose, but she’s also doing it too.

When ‘Life on Mars’ comes on in the cafe, I sense a prickle and her mood changes. I say, “Too soon for Bowie?” She nods.

I say, “I’m the same with Anthony Bordain. Tony and me used to watch his programme together every week. I hate that I can’t even do something I used to love anymore. I even went to Cambodia and Vietnam after… y’know, because we’d always planned to go and Bordain made them sound so beautiful. If someone who travels the world for a living finds a place they could live in forever, then it must be good. I think going there helped. The people have nothing there and they’re so peaceful and contented. I dunno. Sometimes, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just going round in circles.”

As we walk towards the park, we both stop at the same time to look in the window of the gift shop. There’s a display of bright plastic storage boxes that look like giant Lego pieces. “Sam would have loved those.” She says, and we link arms and stroll on.

 

101. Christmas Presence

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Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

The idea of Christmas in Hallmark rom-coms and Richard Curtis films. Coordinated, beautifully wrapped, perfect presents, on-time flights, a meetcute, the light dusting of pristine snow, plenty of parking, enough chairs around a generous dining table with a fabulous meal and a family who get on, are the ideals we enjoy over and over again.

Who wants reality when we’re trying to escape it?

So it’s 6am Christmas Day, and I’ve got period pains and a hangover. Fortunately, the kids didn’t see me just eat the mince pie that they left out for Santa. I tell them that he can’t drink at every house or he’ll need to pee and that will affect the logistics of his schedule. The turkey is still borderline frozen but it does fit into the oven, which is a major plus, and the children have already demolished their selection boxes. They’re whining about how rubbish their stockings were and it’s not fair that they have to wait until their teenage brother gets up and Grandma’s here before they are allowed to open their presents.

By 10am, Grandma has arrived and the first thing she tells me is that I should cut a cross in my sprouts. She says I’m brave for stopping dying my hair. I haven’t. The teenager thinks it’s ridiculous that he can’t play his new computer game on the big telly or in his bedroom, but has to stay in the living room all day with his own family. The little ones are struggling with the unboxing of their toys and all of those twisted wires wrapped around every single piece of plastic. I know we bought extra batteries, but just where did I put them?

No-one wants smoked salmon and scrambled eggs with bucks fizz because they’re all too full of Quality Streets and Miniature Heroes. I warn them that there won’t be any other food on offer until 3pm when we have lunch. If they’re really hungry they can have a couple of satsumas.

Noon. The nine-year-old has worked out the cost of the gifts and is upset because the teenager had more spent on his five small electronic gifts, than her twenty-five presents. She’s on a sugar crash from the breakfast chocolate and wants to start making things from her new craft kits. I make a few rounds of sandwiches and open a tub of Pringles. My head is pounding and I’m simultaneously glad I couldn’t find the batteries for the kids’ noisy toys but slightly concerned that I wasn’t supposed to have champagne and co-codamol together.

2pm. My husband’s brother and young niece arrive for lunch – without the elder one. She’s helping out in a homeless shelter today, mostly for the bragging rights and her college application. Our teenager is crestfallen. I put the nutroast back in the fridge. Apparently, shelters are turning away helpers on Christmas Day, but there too few volunteers to be found in the middle of snowy January. The cousins compare presents.

3pm. Lunch. The youngest has decided he doesn’t like turkey and wants some yorkshire puddings. So does everyone else, so I put a tray of Aunt Bessies in for five minutes. His plate now contains little spat-out blobs of food, (because Christmas Dinner is “skusting”) including cranberry sauce, brussels sprouts, red cabbage, stuffing and turkey. He eats six pigs in blankets, some carrots and gravy. Grandma isn’t impressed.

4pm. I get to sit down for the first time for more than 10 minutes all day. The men are in the kitchen washing up, playing with the new coffee machine and putting the world to rights. I’ve banned all talk of Brexit in the house, so they decide to go up to the teenager’s bedroom with him to check out his new computer game and chat about the state of the nation. Mum is gently snoring in the best armchair. The kids seem engrossed in some Pixar film on TV. I’d like nothing more than a hot bath and to get into my new pyjamas, but that’s not going to happen.

5pm. I put out some cold cuts and pickles, cheese, crackers a few bowls of crisps and mince pies onto the dining table. That’s all I’m doing for the rest of the day.

6pm. His brother is leaving to pick up the daughter and take mum home. I give them the untouched vegan nut roast to take with them. I reassure them that I didn’t go to any trouble finding it. They don’t need to know that I bought it online, paid a premium for next-day delivery and had to take a day off work to wait in for the non-time-specific refrigerated truck.

We decide to play the board game that the little one got from Santa. I don’t quite understand the rules but it has something to do with which animal can eat the most before it poops. I promise him that we will definitely find some batteries for his police car tomorrow.

7pm. The teenager tells me that his dad had four espressos “to test the machine” and that is why he’s got an upset stomach. Nothing whatsoever to do with drinking since 10am.

8pm. Unbelievably, the little one decides he’s tired and wants to go to bed. The teenager says he will make sure he brushes his teeth and will read him a story. That leaves me and the nine-year-old to have control of the TV and watch our favourite Christmas special. We make some hot chocolate with tiny marshmallows and have a lovely peaceful evening of mum and daughter time together.

10pm. Bedtime. I check the doors, the hob and turn off the Christmas tree lights. All three of my boys are in the teenager’s bedroom playing some unsuitable computer game. Fortunately, the little one is fast asleep. I scoop him up and put him in his own bed, and leave the other two to their game.

Soon, this perfect day will be a wonderful memory, which is the best gift I could ever wish for.

100 Things We Lost In The Fire

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  1. My teenage diaries.
  2. A battered copy (on loan) of Mrs Beeton.
  3. Those really good cooking tongs.
  4. A signed film poster of ‘The English Patient’.
  5. Your Duke of Edinburgh gold and my bronze.
  6. Our photograph album.
  7. My cashmere pashmina.
  8. My beanie babies collection.
  9. A set list from the Pixies ‘Doolittle’ tour.
  10. Our love letters from when you were working away.
  11. The vinyl has all gone.
  12. Tickets stubs from the final at Wembley.
  13. Your wedding suit.
  14. A box of phones with photos still on them.
  15. Our hiking kit.
  16. A flowerpress full of my childhood.
  17. Shoes that we never wore.
  18. Books. So many books.
  19. A Metrocard from our last NYC trip.
  20. A lock of her hair.
  21. A fridge freezer full of food from yesterday’s big shop.
  22. The 55″ big screen.
  23. My work laptop.
  24. The milk jug shaped like a cow.
  25. My Jo Malone that I was saving for best.
  26. The fancy shampoo.
  27. My slippers.
  28. Passports.
  29. Exam certificates.
  30. Birth certificates.
  31. Wedding certificate.
  32. Driving licence.
  33. The envelope of expense receipts.
  34. The warranties.
  35. The vintage handkerchiefs that I loved.
  36. Our really comfortable bed.
  37. My Mulberry handbag.
  38. Your IWC watch.
  39. My Tiffany ring.
  40. That vintage Welsh wool blanket.
  41. Our electric toothbrushes.
  42. The tickets for that concert next month. Can we still go?
  43. A vase full of small change.
  44. Those mid-century modern dining room chairs.
  45. The library books.
  46. That really useful travel bag.
  47. £400 cash for emergencies.
  48. The well-stocked cocktail trolley.
  49. The college notes.
  50. The chargers for the phone.
  51. That print by that artist from before he was famous.
  52. The spoon you always ate ice-cream with.
  53. The stained glass lamp from that auction.
  54. A box of photographs.
  55. The armchair that we just had re-covered.
  56. Your cacti that you were growing for 10 years.
  57. My capsule wardrobe.
  58. The mix-tapes.
  59. A patchwork quilt made by my aunt.
  60. My mother’s engagement ring.
  61. My father’s medals.
  62. Your favourite jeans imported from Japan.
  63. The little book of internet passwords.
  64. Those rare trainers that you queued up for hours to get.
  65. $5 Poker chips from the Las Vegas honeymoon.
  66. Those kitschy seaside ornaments.
  67. The best frying pan ever.
  68. The hand-made carved, wooden fruit bowl.
  69. The sofa we saved a year for.
  70. The shoe lasts of your grandad’s feet.
  71. The rug we brought home from Morocco.
  72. All our clothes except the ones we had on.
  73. My work-in-progress notebook.
  74. Your tools.
  75. That paint we had mixed for the hallway.
  76. The Christmas presents we bought in advance.
  77. The cat.
  78. Half a dozen steaks in the freezer.
  79. My desk.
  80. The framed review of your sister’s book.
  81. The softest, worn Irish linen sheets.
  82. Those two wine glasses from the 1920s.
  83. My make-up.
  84. The signed Neil Gaiman that we found in the airport bookshop.
  85. The vodka from our Iceland holiday that we were saving.
  86. The Polish glass turquoise vase from my childhood.
  87. The history of our old lives.
  88. Our obsession with collecting.
  89. Our sense of security.
  90. The ability to sleep.
  91. The reluctance to show emotion in public.
  92. My materialism.
  93. Your complacency.
  94. Our entitlement.
  95. Our privacy.
  96. Our future plans.
  97. Our attachments to ‘stuff’.
  98. Our fear.
  99. Our pride.
  100. Everything that wasn’t saved in the cloud.

99. Lemonade Sparkle

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

The Go-Between by LP Hartley.

Page 9

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Photo by George Hiles on Unsplash

I’m lying on my belly on a crocheted blanket on the grass, propped up by my elbows, wearing a found, floppy hat, reading a book without a dust cover. A book that’s older than me. That’s too old for me. One that I couldn’t borrow from the library for another two years. But, this is the summer holidays, and there’s an unspoken, earned freedom. People are more relaxed about everything. My bare feet are suntanned with the pattern from my jelly shoes.

We never realised just how few glorious summers we would actually have together as a family, before we went our separate ways to college, or that we even knew we were supposed to try and make the most of them. How could we? Barely a handful of years of endless summer days, making daisy chains, running through the sprinkler, eating ice cream, riding our bikes until our legs ached, searching for baby crabs in rock pools, regretting not putting on sun cream, building a den, wishing for a treehouse, reading every book in the house and deciding to write my own, making best friends with a girl from the caravan park down the road, who I would never see again after that fortnight, picking and gorging on wild fruit, wearing the same t-shirt or necklace for weeks on end, never ever mastering how to stand up on an old wooden surfboard, making our own ice lollies from flat pop, or truly knowing boredom. My older brother tried to convince me that was how board games got their name, but I never quite believed him.

The inaugural, world triathlon, board game championships were invented in the summer holidays sometime in the early 80s, in an old clifftop farmhouse in Mother Ivey’s Bay, Cornwall. The house is still there, you can Google it.

Weeks of training had led to that moment, which was a few days before the August Bank Holday. That date symbolised our summer was nearly over, and next week meant we would have to get haircuts, new shoes and start a proper bedtime routine again for school.

Draughts, ‘Connect Four’ and ‘Downfall’ made it to the finals. ‘Ker-plunk’, ‘Buckaroo’ and ‘Jenga’ were lost in the initial heats, due to their messiness, missing pieces and not complying with the new equality rule. Contestants could not be discriminated against for having dexterity issues (pre-schoolers and arthritic grandparents). Those games were far from relaxing as everyone had to be quiet and tensed up every time someone had their go. After a couple of drinks, the adults were rubbish at them anyway.

‘Sorry!’ too was removed in the semis. The nature of the game required a good easygoing, sportsmanlike temperament, and the ability to read. For the same reason, ‘Monopoly’ was also banned. It ended with too many slammed doors and furious arguments. ‘Cluedo’ never even stood a chance.

One summer, we were obsessed with card games. What do you do when you don’t know any except ‘Snap’? You create your own future classics such as ‘Scabby Knuckles’ and ‘Cheat’.

Rain stopped play for the ‘outdoor’ rounds of kite flying, frisby and non-stop cricket. The wind was so gusty once that it did actually lift me up off my feet.  Not a good idea when the house is on top of a cliff. My father took our kites off us after that. I don’t know where he put them, but it wasn’t the boxroom.  That oversized cupboard was too small for a bedroom but just perfect for all kinds of junk and the first place anyone ever looked for someone during our many games of hide and seek. It was where (almost) every toy and piece of sporting kit ever owned by the family for the last hundred years was stored. It had everything, and I mean everything. Flippers, prescription swimming goggles, skis, home-made body boards, a selection of life jackets from throughout the ages, hundreds of little green army men, one even hanging by his parachute from the ceiling lampshade, plastic toys from children’s TV shows, a repaired paper pinata, various Sindy dolls in 60s fashions, several mismatched china tea sets, still containing mummified Mr Kipling French Fancies, dried-up felt-tipped pens and cracked brown plasticine. New racquet sports were invented with a wooden, barely strung tennis racquet vs a child-sized, modern badminton racquet still in its plastic wrapping. Deflated footballs, non culturally appropriate, highly flammable dressing up clothes, headless dolls and an out-of tune electric guitar with, amazingly, two spare packets of strings, a heavy crackly amplifier and a whole book of sheet music of folk songs. My subsequent concerts consisted of the two songs I learnt. “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” and “Strawberry Fair.”

Tents that had been packed away wet, so reeked of wood smoke and damp when unravelled. Great clods of dried mud and spores from mould clouded the room as the heavy canvas was lifted heavily and dropped open. Not one useable tent-peg. Those tents were hauled out onto the lawn, scrubbed down with a broom and hot soapy water with bleach in it. Then left to dry and assembled. The best bit was sitting inside whilst someone else poured a watering can over it to search for leaks. Rewaxing a tent with a candle or vaseline required a lot of effort and didn’t seem worth it when it rained. Spraying it with reproofer was just too expensive. All that for a couple of nights under the stars.

After the great jigsaw fiasco of 1984, it was agreed, nay, ordered, that all pieces had to be carefully stored inside a plastic bag before they were put inside the box. Recent discoveries unearthed a plastic fruit crate stuffed with carrier bags from long-forgotton shops (Liptons, Presto, Bishops and even a few from Woolworths). Unfortunately, few bags survived. Even plastic bags left exposed to light disintegrate into a shredded mess of crumbs quicker than you realise.

A dented, wooden trunk from some great-grandmother’s schooldays contained old clothes people had left behind or grown out of, so there was always a swimming costume, a pair of sandals or waterproof coat to hand. That garment might not have been made in this decade or the last, but we didn’t care. I loved that trunk, not only because it looked like a pirate chest, and so could hold treasure, but this distant relative and I shared the same initials, which were still feintly visible in aged gold on the front.

This old house part-belonged to three relatives, cousins, I think. They were the children of the last farmers. It had long since stopped being an actual farm, and the adjoining land was the perfect endless lawn for croquet and afternoon tea. Old photos actually show a road with horse-drawn carts in front of the house, but coastal erosion put a stop to that a long time ago. So a football pitch sized piece of private land on top of a cliff, overlooking the sea was priceless for memories but virtually worthless as real estate. It was just a matter of time before it was gobbled back by the sea. In an area of the country where the majority were priced out of the housing market, it seemed baffling that nothing could be done to save what little land there was.

As was often the case with family heirlooms, each sibling had their own ideas of what should be done with it. As none could agree on whether the house should be sold, lived in or rented out for the holidays, it was left to the executor Aunt to mediate. She owned the five-roomed cosy cottage adjoining the house, which had once belonged to the farm staff, and earned a living from working in a local shop and illustrating children’s books. A gentle existence. It seemed a perfect life to me. The money left over from holiday rentals of the big house barely covered her expenses in advertising or maintenance, so as none of the siblings saw any return, they just dug in their heels or forgot about it, depending on your point of view. As time went on, and the value of the house increased significantly, their own confirmation biases about their own original opinions hardened. “Its a good job we didn’t sell it then because it’s worth a million quid now.” “If we had sold it back then, the new houses will have spoiled the view and they would be falling into the sea. Wouldn’t you feel guilty about people losing their homes?” “People should live in this house while they still can.” “I want my kids to spend their summers here just like we did, for their memories.” “I want to live here a few months of the year as my share, so you can’t sell it.”

With hindsight, perhaps the siblings should have left it six months or a year to live with their grief and for the anger to subside, so their recollections had time to marinate, before they discussed any future of the house. Its history was still too raw right then.

A more uncommon feature of rambling, tumbledown country cottages than British rom-coms would have you believe is the private beach. It was actually a right of way on public land but very few people ever discovered it, most likely due to the ‘Danger! Keep Out!’ signs that were dotted along the winding, sandy, road to the house. They were erected when the original cliff side road began to crumble, and were never removed. This was the house at the end of the lane. Cut off. We could actually scramble barefoot down a gently-sloping, cliff embankment to our own secret beach. Only once did my brother attempt to bounce down it on his space hopper. A trip to A&E served as a reminder to the rest of us how stupid of an idea that was, as was his tanned body and white right arm for months after the cast had come off. We were the Famous Five, having adventures, allowed to play out of sight for hours on end, only knowing the time due to our rumbling bellies. There was an actual gong in the hallway, which mum would bong twice at 5pm, so we knew how much time we had left to play outside. Last one in got a cold shower or a three-inch bath made barely tepid by a hot kettle.

Jealous of school friends who stayed in an apartment in Spain and went to organised kidsclubs, I also envied those closer to home to got to go to a water park at Butlin’s every day, and were entertained nightly by people who’d been on TV. It never once occurred to me that they would look back and wish they’d had an English bucket and spade holiday.

Once or twice we’d have an actual trip to the seafront, for 2p arcade games, and Dad would buy a tray of whelks in vinegar from a stall. I always hoped we could see the lifeboat going out. We’d come back with cheeky postcards to send to our friends and pockets of sugary treats which were supposed to last us the rest of the holiday. Sometimes, my mother would take us girls shopping, and we would meander down the cobbled streets away from the neon, and find little shops smelling of patchouli, that sold crystals and dream catchers. I might be lucky and get some joss sticks or a bracelet made from polished semi-precious stones. The real treat would be sniffing out a second-hand bookshop. My pocket-money stretched far in a place like that. I used to play a game whereby I’d guess the pencilled-in price on the top-right of the first page. Everything tumbled in together, coexisting. All genres muddled up, except for a curtained off ‘adults only’ section.

If I close my eyes and inhale, I can still smell it. My summers. The house. Old books. Woodsmoke. The sea. Hot sugar. Lavendar.

98. Thousand Yard Stare

“The way we act like strangers
After all that we had
We act like we had never met”

‘Sunset’ by The XX

sparker

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

I was hoping that you wouldn’t realise I’d gone, and that you would forget you ever knew me. People lose touch all of the time when they move house, change jobs, have a baby, get a new partner or phone, make the big announcement that they’re going travelling or coming off social media or simply just drop off the radar. This was none of the above. There was no drama, no shouting, no words to regret. But this situation was far from ok. I couldn’t take any more. Your contempt was exhausting. I was frustrated by being punished for something I didn’t do, for being adored, rejected or avoided on a whim, according to your moods.

After all the effort of hoping, looking for signs, wishing, trying, mourning for a future life lost, I realised it was pointless. You were never going to love or even comfort me again, so I gave in. You didn’t want me. I know that now.

I felt nothing. There was a hollow, new emptiness. It was as if all the hunger suddenly disappeared. My shoulders dropped. I slept again and had energy to think about other things. I was distraction-free, calm, serene.

I had quietly closed the door, locked it and walked away. I genuinely no longer cared about you or your life. Even knowing that I’d never look you in the eyes ever again, didn’t give me that twinge in my belly. You didn’t exist.

After a couple of months of absolute zero contact or any recognition from me, you began to make an effort to connect. If this is what the PUA’s are teaching, then they are way off, believe me. The one who is least invested holds the power.  Except that this is my life, not a game. I’m grateful to have got through this, and relieved to have dodged a bullet back there. I like who I am now, but unfortunately, so do you.

I’ve kept the good memories of how we were, in a little box, neatly on the shelf, because I might want to have a look in it from time to time, but not yet.

gift

 

97. Mid-Season Finale

pexels-photo-545058

At 12.01 precisely, I enter the staff room, hoping it will be empty. Referred to officially as the ‘Staff Lounge’, it implies it is a comfortable area where one could relax, which is far from the truth. More of a dumping ground for archive boxes, the ancient celebrity gossip magazines give any Drs waiting room a run for their money. Thank you cards from ex-colleagues who left years ago are still on the noticeboard, as well as a flyer for a theatre production from Halloween 2015. This room appears to get cleaned about once a year, but although it is grotty, at least we have somewhere to go.

I’m not an al-desko person because it doesn’t feel like I’ve had a break. My colleagues  will interrupt me, (breaks are unpaid) even though I’m clearly not working if I’m looking at clothes online or reading a book. That’s the culture there, so I always try to get away from my desk whenever I can. If I don’t, I know I’ll be climbing the walls or exhausted by 3pm, finding any excuse to go outside for a breath of fresh air, aka a cigarette.

So yes, an early lunch, before the crowd. If I can establish that I’m busy with my book, maybe no-one will disturb me. Annoyingly, I’m not the first one in here. Still, I’m hoping for a polite nod, an understanding. We’ve worked in the same building for fifteen years, so by now there should be no such thing as an awkward silence between us. Our reading materials, indicate (to me, anyway) that we would like to be left alone. She’s got a pile of holiday brochures, I’ve got the new Robert Galbraith, so I might be in luck.

It’s Tuesday, so I already know her sandwich will be ham, and that she will also be on her second packet of cheese and onion crisps of the day. A creature of habit. Monday is cheese. Tuesday is ham. Wednesday is cheese. Thursday is ham again. Friday is slim pickings because she goes to the supermarket straight from work, so she’s probably got dairylea or tuna mayo on white bread. Always white, plastic bread.

I say “Hi.” and sit diagonally across the long table from her. Far enough away for my personal space, but close enough to not be rude about wanting some room to myself.

Lunchbox out. Swig of pop. Not too much at once, even though I’m really thirsty. It’s fizzy and spicy so if the bubbles go up my nose, or I need to burp, it will draw unwanted attention to me. Hand sanitiser, napkin, fork, book.

The obligatory, usual fiddle with the phone. Press the screen a few times, double tap, swipe, double tap, quick index finger thumb combo tapping, chuckle to myself, swipe, swipe, double tap. Phone down. I really need to do something about my stiff fingers. I’m losing out more and more in this game of muscle memory vs arthritis.

There’s about ten pages left to go, which is always the crucial point of resolution in any detective story, so I crack the spine and put my train ticket bookmark on the table. It occurs to me that there’s a definitely a market for spiral bound books, and also why tablets could be so popular with older people for reading. They lie flat, so no aches from trying to hold the pages open, and you can change the size of the font.

Barely five sentences in and my colleague speaks.

“Have you ever been to Egypt?” she asks.

“No. Not really my thing. Too hot. My ankles swell up in the heat.” I reply.

“It’s just that we’re thinking of going there this year. It’s a bit different, isn’t it? The all-inclusive prices look good.”

“Mmmm.”

A beat of silence.

“Ooh, that looks nice. What have you got?”

I hold up my sandwich to show her, chew more quickly than I’d like to, swallow, clear my throat with an ahem, then say,

“Tuna and horseradish mayo with baby gem lettuce and a little tub of radish, celery, apple and cucumber salad. Rice pudding and a can of ginger beer.”

Then I take another bite of my overstuffed, slightly soggy but still crunchy sandwich. My sinuses will thank me today. More nose-tingling deliciousness.

“I had wafer thin ham salad. No horseradish though. That’s like mustard isn’t it? I don’t think I’d like horseradish. Don’t you have it with roast beef? I don’t like hot food. Gives me heartburn. I only like roast beef when it’s well done. I hate meat that’s not cooked.”

She didn’t pause between statements long enough for me to respond. I’m guessing she was just thinking aloud and wasn’t really expecting me to reply, so I hope she interprets my pause as the end of the conversation. Alas, it is not to be.

“Are you going on holiday this year?” She asks.

“Mmm.” I chew slowly, deliberately. Take another sip from my can and wipe my mouth on my napkin. I pretend thump and pat my chest, as a gesture that I’m waiting for my food to go down. Then, I sigh and slip the train ticket back in between the pages. The unveiling of the baddie can wait. I decide to give in and fully engage. That’s what mindfulness says to do. I don’t really have any choice, but I know she means well.

“Vegas” I say.

“You a bit of a gambler then?”

“No, we go for the food.”

“What? You go to Las Vegas for the food? Really? “Her brow furrows and she looks right at me, mouth slightly open. I think she’s trying to decide whether she believes me. “I’ve never heard of anyone going on holiday for the food before. Each to their own I suppose. Mind you my brother went to Las Vegas on a stag do, and he said that drinks were free and that everything was massive, so he went for a buffet every day. He had lobster and steak and everything. Have you been to a buffet there?”

“Nah. We thought about it, but the queue to the place we wanted to go to was too big. The food really is amazing there. I love going out for dinner to a different restaurant every night. There are some really good ones, you know, proper Michelin Starred restaurants just a taxi ride or walk from the hotel.”

“Oh yeah, I remember now when you said that you had to book a year in advance to go to that posh pub run by that big bloke off the telly.” She holds out the blue packet towards me. “Crisp?”

“No thanks. God, I love crisps you know. Every year for New Year, I have a resolution and try to ban myself from eating them because I’m so greedy. I can’t just have a few. I can eat a whole family pack in one day. I don’t even like knowing they’re in the house. I’ve got no willpower. Have you had those sweet chilli ones?”

“Yeah, they’re nice they are. That’s about the right amount of spicy for me.”

I can predict the next question and I was right. It’s always the next question. Guaranteed. I’d put money on it.

What’s the best restaurant you’ve ever been to?”

“Well, there was this one in Denmark. It’s closed down now, but it was voted best in the world once, and so to get a table you had to be online at exactly a certain time and date to book three months ahead. It used to sell out in minutes.”

I take another bite of my sandwich and take the plastic lid off my salad.

“I can’t believe you booked a restaurant before you booked your holiday. That’s crazy. Sorry! I didn’t mean you’re crazy. I meant that’s … er… dedication. Why was it so good?”

I pretend to think whilst I’m chewing, but really I just want to eat my lunch. I’ve said a version of this schpiel a few times before.

“I know what you mean. You’re not the first person to think it’s a bit weird actually. That restaurant in Copenhagen, well, I’ve thought about it, and, for me, it was the endless combinations of flavours and textures. Even though some of the ingredients separately seemed a bit strange, they all went together so well. I think the restaurant had loads of chefs from all over the world all working on their own unique little obsessive projects, so when the individual courses were put together the results were just amazing. Not like anything else I’ve ever had before. Rene sparked a whole new style of cooking. Nordic cuisine is really popular now, but it was confined to that part of Europe before. A lot of the food was wild or foraged or local to the area. So it was basically the same as your ancestors would have eaten but not exactly to that same recipe. So the chefs in this restaurant wouldn’t use lemon, for example because lemons don’t grow in Denmark.”

“What do they use instead?”

“You’re not going to believe me.”

“Go on.”

“Ants.”

“Ants? Like the insects?”

“Exactly like the insects.”

She puts her hand up to cover her mouth. I don’t think she quite believes what I’ve just said.

“No way. For real? Are they still alive?”

“Not usually. Ant paste tastes just like sharp citrus.”

“I’d never eat ants.” She shudders. “I feel all creepy now.”

I’m actually starting to enjoy this conversation.

“I thought that too, but then I’d gone all that way to the best restaurant in the world, so I thought I might as well try them.” I said

“Is all the food weird in Denmark? I thought it was all fish and pickles.”

“Well, I did eat bulls testicles and cod’s cheek at another restaurant there. It was one of those nose-to-tail places, where you pay a fixed amount for whatever chef cooks you. Everyone at each table gets something slightly different. They don’t waste anything”

“Testicles? Balls? You’re joking?”

“No. Seriously. I really didn’t want to try them, but they looked like chicken nuggets and I dared myself. I think we were into our second bottle of wine by then anyway. I couldn’t eat the fish eye though.”

She makes a fake vomit gesture.

I smile and stab my fork into my salad.

“Why would your eat bulls balls?” She’s baffled and a little disgusted.

“In some of those fine dining, white tablecloth places, where it’s like ten courses, you get served each course by the chef who cooked it. They bring it to your table, and explain all about it. Some of the chefs are so modest and sweet. All they think about is food twenty-four-seven. There must be dozens of incredible chefs in Copenhagen. I think they’re made to interact with customers though, because there are so many questions and compliments. Some of those chefs are definitely going places.  Like gonna be famous. Some of them are really anxious and worried whether you’ll like it. There was this one time, where he brought out a huge baked onion and cut it and served it right in front of us. There was no way that it could fail.”

“What, just like a massive onion?”

“Yeah, there was this beautiful, delicate broth with it. I’ll never forget it. In some restaurants, they treat the meal like it’s theatre, and there are amusing little jokes and gadgets from the chefs. Oh yeah, like, get this, you’ve definitely had pate as a starter before, right?”

“I haven’t because I don’t really like it, but yes, go on.”

“Well, in this one restaurant we went to, the pate was disguised to look like a little tangerine. This other time, the chef had made some little tiny balls of pops of flavour that looked like caviar. Another time at this Spanish restaurant, one course was tomato consomme poured from a teapot into little teacups. The waiter told us that there was a Spanish word for tomato that also meant ‘absent’ so the lack of colour in the consomme was a play on words”

“You’re braver than me. I bet you like all that sushi stuff too.”

“Now you’re talking. I love sushi, but it’s all about the rice really, not the fish.”

“What do you mean? The rice? How hard can it be to steam some rice? I don’t know how you can eat raw fish on purpose.”

I hope she’s enjoying these tales more than she’s letting on.

“Oh I really love it. Do you know it takes years to become a sushi master and for the first few years of training, you’re on cleaning up duties? If you prove yourself, then they might let you prepare the rice?”

I stab my fork into my salad and realise that I’m basically eating sushi but in a different format. Deconstructed sushi.

“I never know that. Really? Do you like raw fish then?”

“Sashimi? Yes, there’s some I don’t like much. Like we always trade – his mackerel for my tuna belly, but my favourite food is oysters. If they’re on the menu then I always order them. I can’t get enough. I went on an oyster shucking class once in this restaurant in London. They basically give you unlimited champagne and teach you how to open oysters. It was a great way to spend a couple of hours on a Saturday morning. The more we opened, the more we got to eat. It was brilliant. Dangerous though, with that little knife. You really have to go for it when you jam it into the side if the hinge of the shell. I’d love to go again. The Italian bloke who showed us how to open them was the champion of some contest in Galway. I forget which. He could do it really quickly. I forget how many he said he could shuck in an hour. I think I had about 20 of three different kinds. I’ve got a little oyster diary notebook to write down how each one tastes, you know, plumpness, size, rock, native, farmed, so I can learn which ones I like best.”

“Urgh. I don’t know how you can eat them. They look like snot.”

I ignore that comment. Everyone who never dares to eat shellfish always says that. Those who love oysters can’t quite put their finger on why they taste so good.

“I tell you what. One thing I have noticed over the years is how the cheap food that our grandparents would have eaten, has now become upmarket restaurant food. You know like oysters, rabbit, game. And food that used to be really expensive has now become everyday. Like chicken or ice-cream.”

“I get it now. I can see why you go on holiday for the food, like you say. If it’s your hobby and all. Bet you don’t eat Maccy Ds then?” She says.

“Course I do. I like a quarter pounder with cheese or a whopper or a KFC bucket as much as everyone else does. I pretty much love all food. I’m a bit of a snob about my fruit though. It’s gotta be ripe. I’d rather wait all year for two weeks of decent juicy peaches than have hard, sour ones.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.”

Her phone beeps and she plays with it for a minute. I finish my salad.

“So what’s the food like in Egypt then?” I ask.

I hold up my little pot of the childhood favourite rice pudding, to try to show her that I’m just like everyone else.

“Well, normal really. Like canteen or buffets. You know, fried breakfasts, pancakes. Soup, salads, pizzas, burgers, curry, roast dinners. What you get here really. They do have some Egyptian food like those sausages, so you can try them if you want to. It’s just great to be able to have an ice cream or a beer whoever you want and not have to worry about paying for it.”

“Tell me about it. I drink so much when I’m on holiday. At lunchtime I’ll have a glass of wine or a gin and tonic and then we’ll have a cocktail in the afternoon and then a bottle of wine at dinner. I dread to think how many units it is. Ice-cream every day. Pudding after every meal.”

“Yeah, but that’s why you go on holiday. To chillax. Everyone loses half a stone for their holidays and then puts it back on again while they’re there. And it’s not like you’re driving like you would be if you went to Florida.”

“Oh I’d love to go to Florida.” I say, wistfully. “I really want to go to Harry Potter world and I bet the aquarium is awesome. I’ve seen some pictures. it looks amazing.”

“Do you take photographs of your food for Instagram then?”

“I have done, but only to show people I know. I think it’s a bit rude to photograph everything you eat, especially if the restaurant is a bit posh. Like you’re trying to have a lovely birthday meal, that isn’t cheap, and someone is taking a photo every five minutes. A lot of those amateur bloggers are wankers in my opinion, and they don’t even know what they’re talking about. I read this one review about that wine bar in town and she kept saying how much she despised all red wines but loved rose, and never once said what the grape varieties were. She had no clue how rose is even made! They’re just chancers, playing at it for their “brand” and not doing it for the right reasons. I can’t see how someone can be impartial if the meal they’re reviewing is paid for by the restaurant.”

“I never even thought about that before.” She says.

“An don’t get me started about those who hashtag foodporn everything when it’s a flipping readymeal or a cake from the shop. I mean, how big must your ego be to call yourself an influencer? Isn’t that what other people call you, after the fact?”

I put my hands up and say “I’m gonna shut up now. You know what I’m like when I start ranting”

She does know me well enough to smile sympathetically and says “Good idea.”

“So.” I say after a few seconds. “Are you into Egyptian history then?”

Nah, not really. We thought it looked good value and people we know said it was lovely. The kids do love a pool. Guaranteed sun for a bonus. If we take them out of school, it’ll be cheaper and we won’t get fined because Egypt is educational. That’s what the headmaster agreed last year.”

“Sounds like a plan. Can’t fault you.” I say.