110. My Little Poppet

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

 

I was always bored at my Nanna’s house. She didn’t have any good toys and her felt-tips were all dried up. I liked it when we baked. If I stood on a stool, I could reach the top shelf where she kept a tiny tub of silver balls to sprinkle on top of wet icing. It was only water and sugar, but it was important to get it just right. There was another little pot with lemon and orange slices that were small enough for a dolls house. When I used those for decorating my buns, I squeezed a drop of juice from a plastic lemon into the icing sugar instead of water. Mummy said the baking ingredients were “out of date” but Nanna said that people worried about far too much these days. She had seen a programme about someone eating honey from Egyptian times, and that sugar didn’t go off. I thought it was strange how when she wanted to read something she held it out at arm’s length. Surely it would be easier to read if you looked at it close up? One day, Mummy took out all of the tins and jars from Nanna’s cupboard, then put most of them back in again.

Nanna said her fingers were too old and stiff to play the piano anymore, but because I had just started to learn it, I was allowed to practice my scales and play some tunes. I liked listening to her telling me of her concerts, and her stiff, swishy dresses. People used to stand up and throw flowers at her and she was in the paper once.

Sometimes in the afternoons, she would fall asleep in her chair to “rest her eyes” but I heard her snoring. I only peeped in the drawers in her dressing table once, but then my face felt hot and I got a stomach ache. Nanna said my tummy hurt because I’d done something I shouldn’t have, and it was my body’s way of telling me not to do it again.

On day, Mummy and Nanna were having a cup of tea and talking. They were crying and holding hands and saying something about it being twenty five years ago today. I wanted to make them feel better, so I played my new song on the piano that Hannah Ruth had taught me. I tried to not make any mistakes and so I was a bit slow. They didn’t clap afterwards like they usually did. Mummy asked me if I had heard that tune at school, but when I told her, she put her hand over her mouth and stared at me, which scared me, so I went and cuddled up next to Nanna, who stroked my hair and kissed my head.

Mummy went into the spare bedroom and took down a dusty old suitcase from the top of the wardrobe. Inside were shoeboxes, a fur coat and some photograph albums. I had never seen those photos before. I pointed to a picture of Hannah Ruth and another girl, who were both were wearing yellow checked dresses and straw hats. Mummy said she didn’t know who the other girl was, and then started to cry again.

The next time I went to Nanna’s house, she gave me a gold necklace with a little cross on it from her jewellery box. She told me that Hannah Ruth said she wanted me to have it. I was pleased and felt grown-up, because Mummy wears a necklace just like it.

 

 

104. Worn Out

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Photo by Kevin Grieve on Unsplash

This is the first time I have seen myself nuddy in a full-length mirror for twelve weeks. I’m physically stronger, more toned, with my arms and legs dipped in honey. It might be the fatigue and jet lag talking but I don’t know who I am anymore, or where I belong.

“Get a grip, woman. You’ve had five coffees, a bottle of wine and no sleep. This is a totally normal comedown for a cot case. You know this. You got this” I tell myself.

My friend said that every hour of flying adds a year to a face and I believe all of those tired 22 extra years. I now have the body and life I always thought I wanted.

How can my top drawer have better knickers in it than the ones I brought back with me, when I took the best ones away with me? He knew exactly what I would want to wear today, so had folded it neatly on the bed. I put on his trackie-daks, with the frayed drawstrings,  and my old University t-shirt.

“You smell nice.” he says, drawing me close for a damp embrace.

“I used your shower gel. I missed it.” I say.

A text to his mum to let her know I got back ok will have to do for now.

He makes me tea, beans on toast, and there’s a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate and a box of jaffa cakes next to the breadbin. Celery and hummus in the fridge.

“Ooh, that’s a nice cup of tea. Thank you.” I do a Mr Wolf mug raise. Our eyes meet but I quickly look away. I really can’t do this now. I don’t want to. He knows.

He takes my picture, wet hair, mug poised.”

“Post it for me please? Then they’ll know I’m back. I can’t face anyone today. I’m too tired.” I say. At least I won’t be a travel bore. Everything is all there as it happened, on my blog and twitter. I’ll  never have to talk about it again if I don’t want to.

I have the house to myself for the rest of the day as he’s going into work. We’re having a chinese later.

Everything is so different but exactly the same; just muted with the colour turned down. I understand the language, but the money has changed. I don’t who these people are on TV and how can English newspapers can get away with what they print?

Utterly exhausted but totally wired, I try to lie down on the bed but it feels wrong. I can’t just put on my swimmers anymore, walk out there and take a dip. My aching bones sore from sitting still in limbo for too long. The sun on my legs would soften the ache, for sure. There’s never going to be a good time to unpack, so I may as well just get it over and done with. So much baggage.

Those Danish shoes I can’t get here are really popular in Australia. I even got mine resoled whilst I was there. Rebooted. The delicate rhythm of breaking in thick leather shoes. Gentle baby steps or they will bite back hard. With dubbin and time, they perfectly mould to my feet until they feel bespoke. I’d like to see the forensic results of how far I’ve gone in these.

My favourite cashmere, softer with every wash. Worn sparingly and stupidly saved for best. Then nibbles of tiny holes from invisible moths. Darned and patched. I did what I was supposed to do, and I refuse to let it go. What else could I have done to have looked after it better?

Beautifully faded, thinning denim. I can almost see my hand through some parts of these jeans. I could easily get exactly the same pair again, wear them everywhere for a couple of years and never notice the imperceptible changes.

Fabric rubbed threadbare from friction under the arms of my silk shirt. I’ve grown so much that it’s no longer a good fit.

This wasn’t how I’d planned to spend my time. I’d ‘banked’ two weeks of my holiday every year for five years with my employer. They’d agreed I could have three months off paid, but not now, next year. They’d get a temp. I’d get my salary and keep my job. Mortgage and bills covered. I’d researched it all. I even knew the exact dates to fly, and when was the best time to get the cheapest ticket. Then Mum took crook just as he had his big work thing. This wasn’t even my Plan B but the big talk couldn’t have gone better, even with timing beyond our control. Money, perspective, trust, love.  All boxes ticked. Agreed. We called it ‘Operation Apple Pie’ and we did the best we could. I called it ‘Operation Terminal’ in my head.

We facetimed every day at first but the 11 hour time difference made it difficult, so we settled into a daily email routine and a 10 am early morning on Saturday for you, 9pm Saturday night for me and again on Sunday, with the occasional early morning alarm call from me. I’m so paranoid right now, that if I knew facetime would let me listen into his life without him knowing, I would have been tempted into crossing that line.

No matter what I did, it felt like I was running away from something. From my family, my work or us. I know your job was, is, stressful. I know she’s only a friend, a really good friend, and that nothing would ever happen. If it did, there was no way I could deal with it, not now. I didn’t want to be a part of it and I don’t ever want to know. I’m an orphan now and I can’t be on my own. But I know I’m not going to be alone. I need to trust myself.

I used to think we needed a thunderstorm, a grenade, a tragedy, clean break, and then we’d be sure. There was potential to be kintsugi or broken crocks for drainage in a plant pot. We would agree that if we were meant to be together, we would find a way to make it work. It’s the little things, the everyday moments that make a life together. And now I’m back. Clean slate. There’s so much to do and all the time in the world to do it.

I promised myself over and over that I would never, ever ask him, even though I want to, because I can’t be sure I would believe the truth. It shouldn’t even matter whether he’s making an effort because he loves me or because he feels guilty. I will have to find a way of learning to accept that I won’t get any answers to questions that don’t need to be asked.

It’s too soon, but then it will be too late, yet neither of us dare make a move. We swore we would not argue or drop any bombshells unless we were in the same room. Now we are. I’m holding my breath. This is landmine territory, with the awkward, deliberately faltering tension. Someone has to be brave. Take charge. One foot wrong and everything will always be my fault. I have two homes, with people who love me in both, so why am I so terrified of being abandoned? I keep telling myself that I officially have ‘indefinite leave to remain’ and if he was going to ditch me, why wait until I got back?

“Get a grip woman. This is not who you are. It’s all in your head. No worries, remember. Breathe, Just breathe. You’ll feel better once you’ve had some zees.”

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.