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.

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91. Stand Down, Soldier

She’s still sat in the same position as she was when I let myself in three hours ago, but at least she’s drunk her tea. I know she only tried to eat that sandwich so she could take her tablet. Gently moving the ornaments closer together, I make room on the mantelpiece for the cards that arrived today. She’s been stroking his sweater all day, trying to remember when she knew the people whose thoughts she’s in. I put the picture of him in uniform holding his son, onto the coffee table.

“Joan?” I pause, whilst the word registers. She slowly turns her head to look up at me, and smiles weakly with recognition. Reaching for my hand, her grip is feeble and grateful. Tomorrow, she won’t let me go.

“I wrote down everything I did whilst I was here. I’ll come back tomorrow at 8 o’clock to dry your hair and make you some breakfast. Ring me if you want me and I’ll come straight round. I’ve got a key.”

I kiss the top of her head and manage to hold in the tears until I’m out of earshot half way down the street.

Buried deep within the walls, air in the pipes make them shudder, and they give out a desperate, low shriek, as I hold my fingers under the slowly warming water. I inhale through a hot wrung-out flannel pressed over my nose and mouth, count in for four and silently scream out for seven. I wonder if he still cries in the shower.

This mirror has seen so much.

Too busy living his own life to visit, never travelling the thousands of miles to say goodbye to his own father. She’s lived off scarce letters for years. He smiles in photographs with people we don’t know, on beaches we will never see. It’s unjust and I’m not ashamed to feel bitter that he is the one who will get the sympathy tomorrow, but this isn’t my battle to fight. I have to disengage. Become detached. No-one dare say it, but we all know why he’s come back. She won’t be living round here much longer.

I just hope time has rubbed his raw edges smooth.

89. Sunset

I’ve had chance to think about it and it wasn’t the infidelity that upset me more. I am from an bohemian family after all. It was the secrecy and deceit. The lying. No one can ever know. There was absolutely no need for it. I think I handled it quite well really.

“That’s a nice mug.” Alison had said, as I carefully washed my cup in the sink. “I saw one of those in that craft shop in The Lanes. Don’t you work there on weekends?” The way she had said it sounded weird, like this was her best shot from 100 Instagram rehearsals. We both knew where she’d seen a mug like this one before because there was only one other of them in existence.

I instantly felt as if I’d been injected with some drug that made my body speed up but my mind slow down at the same time, like something in ‘The Matrix.’ My soupy fog brain felt completely separate and was lagging behind the electric energy racing through my body. I was upside-down. Not wanting to unravel in front of this person who had so calmly attempted to manipulate a reaction, I carefully unpicked what I knew to be true.

Monday night was Michael’s gig. A few people went from the office, including Alison. I could only stay for a quick drink, to say hello, show support. He never needed me when he was surrounded by his people.

Was this her way of letting me know that she didn’t actually “miss the last bus home so stayed on a friend’s sofa?”

Just how do adults navigate relationships in the real world? I barely knew. My experiences with men had been so unsatisfactory. I have no idea how I managed to get through the rest of the afternoon. I suppose, once you’ve decided, or rather, the decision has been made for you, the hard work is done.

When I said I needed to see him after work, he didn’t make an excuse. My patience had worn thin. I had already decided that if he was going to try to continue to ignore and avoid me, then I would just let him. I too would pretend he no longer existed. But, there would never be a good time for “the talk” so we might as well do the decent thing and get it over and done with. Although he refused to come clean and admit it, he knew that I knew what he’d done. Yeah he might very well have had “a hangover from hell” but that shouldn’t stop someone from sending a text to their girlfriend for almost a day after their gig, so was this behaviour sulky revenge? I had believed him when he said he was watching the Tour de France, the World Cup, Wimbledon, having a band practice or whatever it was, every night this week.

No. I knew I was being gently and politely pushed away in favour of the shiny new toy, but of course, he was far too cowardly to do it himself. I had to be the one who officially ended it, although he actually finished us on Monday night. He just never told me. Even someone else had to do that for him.

There wasn’t enough time to do the things I wanted to do, let alone waste it on stuff I didn’t. I’d barely sipped my coke and was playing with one of the few plastic bendy straws still in existence, when the conversation was over.

I had no idea how to break up with someone, because I’d never done it before, so I just said “This isn’t fun for me any more and it’s not really working out, so I think we should call it quits.” It was the second time in a week that I’d left him with a full pint but I didn’t care. He might play guitar hero in a local band but he was nothing to me. The pub was slowly filling up with the Friday night after-work crowd, so it would appear like he was just waiting for someone and they were running late. He looked genuinely shocked when I stood up, shook his hand, and said “There we are then. Good luck mate” then left.

My parents consoled and spoiled me all weekend. My father reminded me that “as an emerging artist” I should “use this experience as an opportunity to not resist what I’m feeling and to channel those emotions into my work”, and “that if we just stayed in our studios, where would we get our inspiration from?” He was right though. I had 72 bowls and mugs to glaze and fire this weekend, and I was already bursting with new ideas for the next batch.

A massive binge of ‘The XX’, ‘The Twilight Sad’ and ‘Arab Strap’ got me through the night, along with a whole family bag of Doritos, a jar of hot salsa, almost a whole sharing pack of Maltesers, and a bottle of Pinot Noir all to myself. I wallowed and grieved for what could have been until I realised I felt relief for getting out at the beginning of something before it got messy. My new sketches slowly got sloppier that night. By 2am Saturday morning , I was jumping up and down, swinging my arms, hair flailing, punching the air, cheerfully singing “I don’t want to be around you any more. I can’t stand to be around you any more.” Music therapy indeed. I still felt humiliated, but without shame.

On Monday, I went out for coffee with June, the receptionist from the office, purely, so by the end of the week, everyone would pretty much know I was single again, and why. It was a good deal. June got a juicy story straight from the horse’s mouth, and, with my blessing, everyone got to know some true office gossip. I got sympathy. Alison got, well, whatever.

I just kept my head down, and stayed busy, planning the window display and imagining how I’d feel if/when someone bought something I’d made. After my craft stall I was taking the rest of the stock to the shop on Sunday. Things I’d made! In an actual shop! Not my online etsy shop. A proper shop with a bell on the door. A till and real people browsing. If they sold well, then who knew what would happen?

I brought half a dozen pieces into work the next day and left them on the reception desk with a few flyers, business cards and a bowl of Werther’s Originals to encourage people to get closer. June, told me later that they’d caused quite a talking point, and that Alison had taken a special interest, probably to try to talk to her, the resident sage. June then told me that she’d said to Alison, that yes they were “beautifully made, so quite expensive, but that I would probably have some seconds on my stall if she was interested.” I nearly spat out my coffee with glee when she told me that she’d said, “Seconds are cheaper because they are imperfect.” The icing on the cake was that she advised Alison to get tested for an STD because I was going to.  “These things happen” when you get together drunk with a cheater who thinks he’s a rock star.

That disgusting, greasy kitchen in his shared house. Bicycles and amps in the hallway. Piles of post for previous residents. Pizza boxes and PS4. Record covers used as skinning-up boards. Torn rizla packets and magazines about guitars. Tacit agreements to never mention the (less often than they’d like) sight of a strange girl wandering round the kitchen at 4am in her knickers and a sweaty band t-shirt. Mismatched charity shop hand-me-down plates, chipped mugs with their fading logos. Those cloned vessels reminding the user of one-off, unmemorable events. Temporary items of no value with the expectation of being discarded after use. I only brought one of my own porcelain mugs round so I’d have something decent to drink out of. Well, he can keep it. I don’t want it back.