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.

94. Hydrophobic

We run into the old bus shelter, giggling like schoolgirls who have just seen someone they fancy. Within a few seconds, we are mere inches away from a curtain of rain. Not the famous grey British drizzle that makes pavements slippy, but a stop/start torrent where gardens get battered with a side order of flash flooding.

The man who was earlier repeatedly throwing a ball to a soaking wet joyous dog, runs by, led by his bounding Labrador. They are followed by a drenched youth, dressed in a thin t-shirt and jeans. He’s walking quickly, head down, shoulders hunched, hands thrust deep inside his pockets, but he’s too far gone to consider trying to save face by seeking shelter. Fate accepted. This is a moment to remember, like when I got dropped off at the supermarket, still wearing my slippers.

We’ve all been there. Stripping off in the kitchen, today’s clothes thrown into the washing machine, running upstairs in wet underwear, stepping straight into a hot shower. Bragging rights come later. Newspapers stuffed inside shoes for a day or so, with no guarantee that they would survive.

We were reliably informed by the lady in the chippy, that the local premier-league football team who we saw training on the beach, had left this very chip shop just minutes before we went in. She didn’t ask for any selfies. Their anonymous steamy minibus is parked near to our bench. I suppose this weather gives them a rare moment of normality, away from the spotlight.

“I really do need to re-wax this jacket. It’s no good to no-one in this state. I might send it off, and get this hole fixed as well.” I say, waggling my index finger through the pocket at him.

“Or you could just get a proper jacket.” He replies. “Don’t you get hot in that? It’s really heavy. You’re dressed like Scott of the Antarctic and I’m, I dunno, Bear Grylls.”

“Would you drink your own pee though?”

“If it was filtered I would. Why not? If it was that or die.” He admits, unashamedly.

He unwraps the steaming damp paper parcel, to reveal “one fish, half chips and scraps please.” I take off my sodden coat, and drape it onto the wooden bench next to me. I run my finger over the ‘DS x GT 4 eva’ engraving and wonder if they still are.

We take turns to jab our tiny wooden forks into award-winning chips, then pant like we’re in labour, to try to cool our mouths. Fortunately, nostalgia also bought me a small bottle of bubblegum-flavoured pop.

“Look, see how the water forms little balls and runs right off? The seams are taped. No leaks.” He says, demonstrating the technical properties of his Italian-designed jacket, a favourite brand of football terraces. It really is water off a duck’s back.

I’m the opposite. I’m hydrophilic. I live to soak in the bath, revitalised by twice-daily showers. I’m the “aahh” after a drink, who deliberately splashes in puddles, washes up dishes, is queen water bomber and dominatrix of nerf gun fights. I swim every week and dream of dissolving my worries in a good sauna. That first cold shower is incredible.

We holiday in the UK, out of season, enjoying a run out in the car to the seaside on glorious autumn days. I call it ‘VIP’ because sometimes we are lucky and get the beach to ourselves. Returning to our holiday cottage with a pocketful of pebbles or shells, a handmade bowl or seaglass pendant and a selection of cards from a craft shop (to support local artists). Future memories for other people’s birthdays.

It’s the little things, like sharing a cone of chips on the wooden boardwalk on Lake Windermere, Cumbria. He stood, deliberately blocking the low winter sun from my eyes, one hand shielding me with his open coat from the icy wind.

That time I spilt hot vinegar on my only pair of jeans in Padstow, Cornwall. I love tangy, soggy chips from the bottom of the polystyrene tray, but I’m so clumsy. Someone should really invent a powdered version of salt and vinegar. Like a wet finger final dab at the end of a packet of crisps, but sold in a little tub in the herbs and spices aisle. I would keep it in my bag, like some people do with little bottles of Tabasco, to sprinkle whenever needed. Redistribution of flavour, then the first few chips wouldn’t have to be so salty, and the last few, so dangerous.

A toddler squatting to investigate every piece of driftwood and seaweed, apparently equally repelled yet delighted by the gentle waves that chase, cover then retreat from her yellow wellingtons.

We once stood up, mid meal, to let a small child continue their busy, important business of trying to walk unimpeded, the whole length of a low brick wall in Cromer, Norfolk, whilst we simultaneously shoed away aggressive seagulls, who were not used to tourists finishing their chips.

There’s a time and place for peeling chili prawns bigger than my thumb, sucking their heads, then dabbling my fingers in the water bowl. Lemon halves wrapped in muslin, white napkins, matchstick frites and elegant sips of chilled Pouilly-Fume. As there are for Jenga-stacked, thrice-fried chips, minted peas, local IPA beer battered cod, and their faux-hipster, gastro-equivalents (the basket/bucket slate-not-plate arrangement) of proudly sustainable pollock, gurnard or lemon sole goujons. Sometimes, they just cannot compete with the traditional northern chippy cafe’s plastic checked tablecloth, white buttered bread cakes, scraps, mushy peas or curry sauce. Oval plates, with crunchy haddock hanging over the edges. Utilitarian turquoise tea cups and saucers reminiscent of school crockery, non-brewed condiment, shaken granular (not flaked) salt and generic ketchup from a huge plastic tomato.

Fish and chips are on almost every restaurant menu in England, but no two meals are ever the same.

89. Sunset

I’ve had chance to think about it and it wasn’t the infidelity that upset me more. I am from an bohemian family after all. It was the secrecy and deceit. The lying. No one can ever know. There was absolutely no need for it. I think I handled it quite well really.

“That’s a nice mug.” Alison had said, as I carefully washed my cup in the sink. “I saw one of those in that craft shop in The Lanes. Don’t you work there on weekends?” The way she had said it sounded weird, like this was her best shot from 100 Instagram rehearsals. We both knew where she’d seen a mug like this one before because there was only one other of them in existence.

I instantly felt as if I’d been injected with some drug that made my body speed up but my mind slow down at the same time, like something in ‘The Matrix.’ My soupy fog brain felt completely separate and was lagging behind the electric energy racing through my body. I was upside-down. Not wanting to unravel in front of this person who had so calmly attempted to manipulate a reaction, I carefully unpicked what I knew to be true.

Monday night was Michael’s gig. A few people went from the office, including Alison. I could only stay for a quick drink, to say hello, show support. He never needed me when he was surrounded by his people.

Was this her way of letting me know that she didn’t actually “miss the last bus home so stayed on a friend’s sofa?”

Just how do adults navigate relationships in the real world? I barely knew. My experiences with men had been so unsatisfactory. I have no idea how I managed to get through the rest of the afternoon. I suppose, once you’ve decided, or rather, the decision has been made for you, the hard work is done.

When I said I needed to see him after work, he didn’t make an excuse. My patience had worn thin. I had already decided that if he was going to try to continue to ignore and avoid me, then I would just let him. I too would pretend he no longer existed. But, there would never be a good time for “the talk” so we might as well do the decent thing and get it over and done with. Although he refused to come clean and admit it, he knew that I knew what he’d done. Yeah he might very well have had “a hangover from hell” but that shouldn’t stop someone from sending a text to their girlfriend for almost a day after their gig, so was this behaviour sulky revenge? I had believed him when he said he was watching the Tour de France, the World Cup, Wimbledon, having a band practice or whatever it was, every night this week.

No. I knew I was being gently and politely pushed away in favour of the shiny new toy, but of course, he was far too cowardly to do it himself. I had to be the one who officially ended it, although he actually finished us on Monday night. He just never told me. Even someone else had to do that for him.

There wasn’t enough time to do the things I wanted to do, let alone waste it on stuff I didn’t. I’d barely sipped my coke and was playing with one of the few plastic bendy straws still in existence, when the conversation was over.

I had no idea how to break up with someone, because I’d never done it before, so I just said “This isn’t fun for me any more and it’s not really working out, so I think we should call it quits.” It was the second time in a week that I’d left him with a full pint but I didn’t care. He might play guitar hero in a local band but he was nothing to me. The pub was slowly filling up with the Friday night after-work crowd, so it would appear like he was just waiting for someone and they were running late. He looked genuinely shocked when I stood up, shook his hand, and said “There we are then. Good luck mate” then left.

My parents consoled and spoiled me all weekend. My father reminded me that “as an emerging artist” I should “use this experience as an opportunity to not resist what I’m feeling and to channel those emotions into my work”, and “that if we just stayed in our studios, where would we get our inspiration from?” He was right though. I had 72 bowls and mugs to glaze and fire this weekend, and I was already bursting with new ideas for the next batch.

A massive binge of ‘The XX’, ‘The Twilight Sad’ and ‘Arab Strap’ got me through the night, along with a whole family bag of Doritos, a jar of hot salsa, almost a whole sharing pack of Maltesers, and a bottle of Pinot Noir all to myself. I wallowed and grieved for what could have been until I realised I felt relief for getting out at the beginning of something before it got messy. My new sketches slowly got sloppier that night. By 2am Saturday morning , I was jumping up and down, swinging my arms, hair flailing, punching the air, cheerfully singing about how much I didn’t want to be around him any longer. Music therapy indeed. I still felt humiliated, but without shame.

On Monday, I went out for coffee with June, the receptionist from the office, purely, so by the end of the week, everyone would pretty much know I was single again, and why. It was a good deal. June got a juicy story straight from the horse’s mouth, and, with my blessing, everyone got to know some true office gossip. I got sympathy. Alison got, well, whatever.

I just kept my head down, and stayed busy, planning the window display and imagining how I’d feel if/when someone bought something I’d made. After my craft stall I was taking the rest of the stock to the shop on Sunday. Things I’d made! In an actual shop! Not my online etsy shop. A proper shop with a bell on the door. A till and real people browsing. If they sold well, then who knew what would happen?

I brought half a dozen pieces into work the next day and left them on the reception desk with a few flyers, business cards and a bowl of Werther’s Originals to encourage people to get closer. June, told me later that they’d caused quite a talking point, and that Alison had taken a special interest, probably to try to talk to her, the resident sage. June then told me that she’d said to Alison, that yes they were “beautifully made, so quite expensive, but that I would probably have some seconds on my stall if she was interested.” I nearly spat out my coffee with glee when she told me that she’d said, “Seconds are cheaper because they are imperfect.” The icing on the cake was that she advised Alison to get tested for an STD because I was going to.  “These things happen” when you get together drunk with a cheater who thinks he’s a rock star.

That disgusting, greasy kitchen in his shared house. Bicycles and amps in the hallway. Piles of post for previous residents. Pizza boxes and PS4. Record covers used as skinning-up boards. Torn rizla packets and magazines about guitars. Tacit agreements to never mention the (less often than they’d like) sight of a strange girl wandering round the kitchen at 4am in her knickers and a sweaty band t-shirt. Mismatched charity shop hand-me-down plates, chipped mugs with their fading logos. Those cloned vessels reminding the user of one-off, unmemorable events. Temporary items of no value with the expectation of being discarded after use. I only brought one of my own porcelain mugs round so I’d have something decent to drink out of. Well, he can keep it. I don’t want it back.

“I can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible.” Thank you so much DS & DD, for ruining two amazing friendships. If I could go back and never experience the anguish, I would, but because I can’t, I write about how I feel instead, and look where I am now! I wouldn’t wish a panic attack or ghosting on anyone. Nx p.s. fuck both of you.