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.

 

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96. Ex-Directory

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I’m browsing the many tiny, gorgeous shops in one of my favourite places in London, St Pancras International Railway Station. I don’t mind that my husband has just texted me to say that his meeting ran late so he will be at least another hour. I texted back “I want my time with you” as a joke.

People watching is utterly fascinating. So many untold stories around me. I can always pop next door to the British Library for a bit if I get bored. I might even jump on the Thameslink to Blackfriars. It’s only three stops to The Tate. But I like it here for now. People can be who they want to be in a terminal. Passing through from one life to another. Some wait all week for Friday night, so they can wear their own skin for a few hours. I feel like I could disappear in plain sight in this very building.

On nights when I can’t sleep, I pretend I have been dropped off here with plenty of money, my passport and a ticket for Eurostar or a flight from Heathrow. I have to get everything I could possibly need for a week away. I only have a couple of hours or so, so I can’t mess about. I pick out a Cath Kidston travel bag and run across to Kings Cross to grab a Harry Potter t-shirt, Kiehl’s shampoo and conditioner, then walk up the hill behind the big swing for a pair of Sweaty Betty leggings for lounging, a hoodie and pair of Nikes. A handbag or skirt from Jigsaw. Trousers or jacket from Carhartts. There isn’t time to linger in Space NK. Eve Lom. Tweezerman. I can get the rest of my toiletries from Boots. I can even buy a laptop if I need to. Fat Face do a nice line in a budget capsule wardrobe so with a bit of Joules, Oliver Bonas and some M&S knickers, I’m done. My usual Mac makeup and some Jo Malone and I think I can manage very well thank you very much.

I do want time for treats, so pick up paprika almonds and Godiva chocolate from one of the boutique food shops. Maybe a pretty notebook and pen from Paperchase or that new shop whose name begins with K. A couple of novels definitely. Oh, and a smoked cheese, jambon and cornichon on sourdough for the journey. Artisan raspberry lemonade, only for the bottle really, and two packets of lemon chewing gum. I can only imagine what the new designer boutiques will be like.

I’m quietly enjoying the free, spontaneous concert with a growing crowd, (which includes a couple of British Transport Police officers) as an elderly man plays Chopin quite beautifully, so delicately, on the battered, brightly painted school upright piano. Then, I hear my name.

“Ellie? Ellie? Is that you?”

I turn and smile automatically to a woman beaming at me. I don’t recognise her, but she clearly knows me. She’s wearing one of those navy shift dresses favoured by professional businesswomen, Queen Mum low heels and a small string of freshwater grey pearls. She’s around my age and her beautiful salon-blonde hair is overdue for a cut. A bright red Radley laptop bag hangs from the crook of her arm, and I notice she’s wearing a Brietling watch.

“It is you! It’s me, Sadie. From Leeds. God, you haven’t changed a bit. I’d recognise you anywhere.” He hand clutches her chest then she lightly touches my forearm. It’s a genuine smile, alright. But, I’m racking my brains to recall her. I don’t remember her at all but it must have been a while ago as I haven’t spent more than a weekend in Leeds for nearly ten years.

“It’s really good to see you again. Have you got time before your train for a quick drink so we can swap numbers and catch up a bit?”

“Yeah, sure. I’ve just arrived actually. What about that place on the left up the escalator? You know, that restaurant bar that does the great burgers and sometimes has a singer?” I say.

“Perfect.” She says. “Still only the best for you, I see.”

The rush-hour crowd prevented us from talking very much on our way up to the bar. I still couldn’t place her, but then again, I did smoke a lot of pot in college, so between that and the booze, it was hardly surprising.

Sadie ordered us both a gin and tonic, being very specific with her requirements.

“Hendrix or Sipsmith, please, with Fevertree tonic. Oh and a slice of cucumber or sprig of rosemary. No lemon or mint. And a bowl of green olives if you have them, please, if not, some peanuts.”

We were friendly and had a lot in common. It was pleasant enough, in the way that you are when you meet someone for the first time who you have no intention of ever seeing again. Like having a drink with a delegate. I was reminded of things I’d totally forgotten about, so it was a nice nostalga trip.

Forty five minutes later, we ‘mwah mwah-ed’ our airkisses, hugged and did that “lets do lunch” thing of promising to keep in touch. I waved her goodbye and stayed to finish my drink. Because of our shared past, we had been able to keep the conversation going, but she still had no idea that I didn’t know who she was. I’d asked her lots of questions about her life but told her virtually nothing about my own. I could have told her anything as I had zero interest in actually pursuing a friendship. I was just killing time.

There had to be a reason why we didn’t carry on our University friendship. Through our mutual friends, she could have found me anytime. So why didn’t she then? Why now?

I googled her, looked at her old college facebook photos then texted my oldest friend to try to shed some light on who she was.

A few minutes later, I had my answer.

I’d completely and totally forgotten the reason why I moved halls in that second term. I must have believed my own story that the original block of rooms wasn’t a good fit for me, and I would be better off in a different block of flats a few streets away, where my friends were. The University accommodated my request quickly, as there was someone else who was waiting to swap into my block.

I do remember the boy though, but not his name or what he looked like. Just how I felt about him. One night, Sadie had convinced him that if I did fancy him, I would have made a move, so clearly I didn’t think of him in that way. I, however, thought that if he liked me, then he would have asked me out. Him sleeping with Sadie proved he didn’t like me how I wanted him to. How clear cut everything seems to be in youth. Our assumptions and opinions as fact.

When I found out, my immediate reaction was that they could have each other. Alpha status proven to me and the other girls, she got bored and ditched him. This what what she did, apparently. I wanted nothing more to do with either of them ever again, unless I had to, hence the move to another block of halls.

Here she was. Oblivious. Chatting away as if we were old friends.

In the dimly lit bar, I listened to a young woman sing jazzy folk songs, accompanied by an older man on an acoustic guitar. She reminded me a little of the lounge singer from ‘Lost In Translation’. It’s always twilight or the other side of midnight in their world.

I sipped my drink and pondered on how different things might be this time round. I’d have to keep her completely separate from everyone else in my life, of course. Should I? Can I even be bothered? No, I couldn’t risk it. Again. I went with my gut feeling. I knew what I had to do.

A couple of swipes on my phone. Block. Delete.

78. Before Sunrise

“We need grapes, celery, olives, honey, crackers and three, maybe four types of cheese. A strong cheddar, something gooey, like a Brie or Camembert, a Cheshire or goats cheese and something unusual. I read they sell their own chutney here. See what they’ve got in.”

The boyfriend knows me so well. He knows I love cheese but the smell sometimes makes me nauseous. It’s a memory from the time I got food poisoning from one or a combination of shellfish and unpasteurised cheese. The whole experience made me so nervous I didn’t eat cheese for years afterwards. From eating cheese every day, to giving up dairy overnight. Thinking logically, it was probably the mussels that gave me food poisoning, rather than a few slices of cheese. Oysters are my favourite food these days and I’m back to eating cheese every day. You can get over anything with enough time and the right mindset.

I used to wonder what it would be like to run into you again. Would everything that happened between us be all water under the bridge? Would we pick up where we left off? The polite awkwardness of two people who’d seen each other at their most vulnerable but it all ending in a devastating, shattering, messy breakup? If we had met for the first time when we were older, would things have been different? Was it all bad timing?

I’d long-since forgotten about that summer until today. I’ve lived my whole life again since then. My name isn’t even the same.

To think I nearly gave up my University place to stay with you. You were the most important thing in my life and it now seems ridiculous that I would even comprehend missing such an opportunity. Even though I was absolutely sure we were forever, I couldn’t imagine three years apart. It was your mum who convinced me to go in the end. She said that if we were meant to be together then we would find a way. That if I didn’t go, I might resent you later. I did feel bitterness towards you, but not about college. I do regret though, not thanking her for being so kind to me, before she passed.

I think you must have recognised me before I noticed you. Something made me look over towards the back of the shop and there you were, holding a box. You were stood absolutely still. Frozen with fear. It was if you didn’t move, then you might be invisible. But I did see you, and although you had lowered you eyes, to avoid mine, I could see that you were more than frightened. Red-cheeked, shoulders hunched over, cowering, submissive. You were literally petrified. Terrified. Of me. Like a deer.

I didn’t feel awkward. I didn’t hate you. I felt nothing. How could I? I didn’t even know you. For a micro-second I thought about saying hello, but it seemed pointless. “Great shop. Sorry about your mum.” It all seemed so wrong somehow. You looked so scared that I didn’t want to put you through that. You might not have any control over me anymore but I wasn’t going to be mean about it. I’d had plenty of your anxiety and anger dressed up in teenage bravado the first time round. You’d lived in my head for far too long, and I wasn’t going to invite you back in. I’d rather not know anything about who you are now. The only cheese I ever saw you eat was Dairylea cheese spread. From that to this. We are strangers. I just want to remember us as we were. First loves. You broke my heart. We went to the same school and that’s as much as I’d ever admit out loud. What good would it do to muddy the waters now?

I walked over to the counter and placed the two boxes of cracker biscuits I’d chosen, next to the jar of olives. I said to the boyfriend,

“I’ll wait for you outside.” Then I left, without looking back.

A few minutes later, he came out of the shop, jute bag in one hand, sunglasses in the other and wandered over to the gift shop whose window I was looking into.

“Too cheesy for you? ” he asked.

“Something like that.” I replied.