“But you said there was no such thing as the one.” Said Ruth.
“Yeah, I know, and I still don’t think there is just the one person for everyone. My Nan said that you’d have to be really lucky to find that certain someone who was not only born around the same time as you, but close enough to where you live so you’d find each other.” Said Jean. “I think it’s true. That there’s lots of people for everyone. Even more if you’re beautiful or funny. People just need to be as open-minded as they say they are, and not over think things.”
“Do you mean, like when you find out that someone fancies you, then you sometimes start liking them back, even though before that moment, you’d never even thought of them in that way?” Said Ruth.
“That’s exactly what I mean.” Said Jean. “My Gramp told me that he saw my Nan on a bus and so he got a job delivering the milk round where she lived, in the hope that he’d see her again, and she was so impressed that he’d gone to all that trouble to find her that she went out with him, even though she said she didn’t fancy him for ages.”
“Didn’t they call it stalking back then?” Said Ruth. Just then her phone pings. “It’s my mum asking us if we want a drink.”
“I can’t believe she texts you. My mum would shout up the stairs.” Said Jean.
A few minutes later, Ruth and Jean are sat on a couple of bar stools at the counter in the kitchen, sipping cloudy lemonade and nibbling on home-made cheese straws. Ruth’s mum says, “Do you girls want to help me on Saturday? I’m making a start on your Nan’s house. Just for a couple of hours? I could really do with some young opinions. There’s pizza in it for you.”
When Saturday comes, the teenagers are bemused and baffled by so much in the house that they’ve never seen before. They’ve made up this game where they hold up their phone if the item they’ve got in their hand can “fit into de fone.” So far this includes, a set of Encyclopedia Britannica, a cassette player and box of tapes, another box of vhs tapes but no video player, a really old HMV 102 suitcase gramophone player and some heavy records, a radio, an alarm clock, a calendar, six albums of photographs, a box of letters, an old Polaroid camera but no film, flash bulbs for an even older camera, a whole wall of books, a telephone with its own little stool and table, complete with Yellow Pages, address book and Thompson Directory, a bank book, torch, compass and a pile of newspapers.
By the end of the afternoon, both girls, who are not much younger than the couple in the wedding photo, have acquired a selection of costume jewellery, mirror compacts and nail varnishes. Who’d have thought that old lady peach and coral were now the latest shades? But then, everything always comes full circle.
One day, there might even be a whole industry dedicated to tracking down the descendants of our discarded phones, to fill in family tree gaps. Hopefully, there’ll at least be a universal charging lead with an in-built adaptor to capture the contents of people’s mobile phones for posterity.
“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.
Morphine suits me. I’m dopey, happy, sleepy. I thought I’d be more grumpy from lack of food, but after eight hours, I’d gone past wanting it. I was definitely not bashful. A dozen strangers saw me naked, bleeding onto clean sheets.
Tea. Toast. Jam. Water. Co-codamol. Ibuprofen. Sofa. Film. Bed. Repeat every six hours for three days. Jet lag. Nausea. Period pains. Hangover.
Room number four. My nurse is called Ivy Rose and she’s my kind Irish mother for the day. I think she knows she has a beautiful name and pretends I’ve never said it before, every time I tell her. I thank everyone in a uniform for looking after me. I’ll be on my own soon. Independent. Just me and Siri. She can remind me to take my meds, ring people for me, and change the channel on the TV, but she can’t loosen bottle tops, or lift a kettle.