103. This Machine Prints Tickets to Anywhere

pile of envelopes

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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80. Pick n Mix

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I’m helping my friend pack up her house. I said I didn’t want to help her on the day of the actual move, because it’s too stressful, and everyone ends up arguing because they’re bone tired. It’s the same reason I gave when I didn’t want to go to Ikea with her. Everyone knows someone whose had an argument in Ikea. Someone I know had a theory that they sell you the dream and slowly draw you in. That’s why it’s so cheap. Before you realise it, you’re in a giant warehouse queue wondering if all of these boxes will fit in the car, and there’s the dread of knowing you still have to build your own furniture.

However, I am expert packer, even if I do say so myself. I’ve done it dozens of times. I know what I’m doing, so she’s left me to it, whilst she packs up her books. I’m on kitchen duty. Bubblewrap. Check. Sellotape. Check. Boxes. Check. Parcel tape. Check. Marker pen. Check. Spray kitchen cleaner. Check. Kitchen roll. Check. May as well clean as I go.

Headphones on. 80s pop. Sleeves rolled up. A bag of chocolate eclairs. A bottle on the go, well, some gin in a small bottle of Pepsi max. It’s what Scroobius Pip drinks, so we call it a ‘Pepe Pip’.

After an hour or so of mildly repetitive and strangely satisfying packing of glassware, plates and saucepans, my friend finds me. She’s carrying a few hardback notebooks. “Check these out.” she says excitedly. “These,” she says, holding up the books, “are my teenage diaries.” She hands me one.

“Oh wow!” I exclaim. “Can I open it?” Everyone knows you don’t read someone else’s diary, no matter how tempting it is or entitled or jealous you feel.

“Sure. It’s probably all bullshit anyway. Angst about why doesn’t he like me or how my life would be totally perfect if I was thin or had a nosejob or better tits. Comparing myself to other girls. That it’s so unfair that I have to have a part-time job. That kind of self-obsessed crap.”

Over the next hour, we forget we are supposed to be packing up her new life, whilst we unpick her old one. We laugh at forgotten fashions, sympathise with emotional problems that meant everything, and remember how easy and carefree everything seemed back then.

“Oh my god.” She says “This is too real. This is what I wrote when I was nineteen.

My ideal man.

  • Cannot be bald, short or fat.
  • Has to have good teeth and be very clean.
  • Must have a sister, so I’m not the first girl he’s ever met.
  • Cannot have gone to an all-boys school, because they’re all weirdos.
  • Cannot be allergic to cats or snore.
  • Has to live near to me and have his own car. (Not share his mum’s)
  • Cannot be on the dole.Must have a full-time job or be studying for a degree in something worthy, like Medicine or something with prospects like Law or Engineering. (Not a Micky Mouse degree like Media Studies)
  • Cannot smoke.
  • Cannot have a criminal record.
  • Must love children, but cannot already have any children.
  • Must have already had a girlfriend but she can’t be a psycho stalker.
  • Cannot have been married or have lived with anyone.
  • Cannot have a female flatmate that he has already had sex with.
  • Must play an instrument or be able to cook.
  • Must love his family but not be a mummy’s boy.
  • Not be racist, sexist, homophobic or posh.
  • Must play sport or be in a band but cannot be a rugby lad, football meathead or have groupies.
  • Must be generous. People who are tight with money are also stingy in bed.

I must have passed up on so many men over the years, because they didn’t match everything on that list. Why am I so picky?” she sighs, and closes the diary.

I put my arm around her shoulder and squeeze it.

“God. If my mum had read this at the time, then I would have probably left home and never spoken to her again, god rest her soul. It would have been such a betrayal. I would have been totally mortified. And now it’s just a pile of crap. Wishful thinking about how life was going to be. I had no fucking clue did I? When did we get this old?”

“We’re not that old.” I say. We’re no spring chickens, but who wants all that aggro? Anyway, we’ve had our time. You only think you’re old because you could be the new bloke at work’s mum. Remember, he didn’t even know who Noel Gallagher was!”

“True”

“Do you think kids these days keep paper diaries any more?” I ask. “You know. I reckon they do it all online now, with private blogs. Selfies and pictures of them semi-pornstar posing naked under the pretence of being hashtag body positive, you know, that clean eating bollocks. I read that there is no market for paid porn for female pornstars aged between 22 and 30, because the market is flooded with so much amateur stuff. You’re a schoolgirl then milf”

“That’s really sad.” She says. “They’re obsessed but it’s all so fucking fake.”

“Except hipsters, obvs.” I say. “I bet they go to open mike nights where people read out their own teenage diary entries, to feel deliberately awkward. They probably type their journals on old typewriters or do that bullet journalling. Ha. I’m saying it like I even know what it is.”

“I’ve no idea.” She says. “Did I tell you about that time we were clearing out my nan’s house after she died, and we found some photographs of her posing in her big pants when she was young? I reckon that’s the equivalent of sexting these days.”

“I wouldn’t be young again now, you know. Too much choice. It’s all swiping right and hooking up. Yolo. Fomo. Whatever. I reckon most of them have never even risked asking someone out face to face without being pissed, and are too scared to put in the effort into getting to know someone in case they miss out on their perfect person who is just around the corner. I bet there’s loads of men out there who have never even seen public hair or unshaved legs on a woman. God, I sound bitter. Do I sound bitter?”

“Nah. You’ve not been deprived. You make sense. Someone should tell the young uns that the perfect person doesn’t exist and to enjoy what they’ve got while it lasts. It ain’t gonna be me though. No-one wants an al woman telling them not to have fun.”

Just then the doorbell rings.

“That’ll be the pizza.”

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.