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.

 

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.