‘..he said that while it was true that time heals bereavement it does so only at the cost of the slow extinction of those loved ones from the heart’s memory which is the sole place of their abode then or now. Faces fade, voices dim. Seize them back…Speak with them. Call their names. Do this and do not let sorrow die for it is the sweetening of every gift.’ Cormac McCarthy ‘The Crossing.’
Beth’s letters to Patrick:
I remember that day because Zoe asked to sit by the big window. She liked to sit there in her wheel chair because the view was busy and alive with people passing, and cars zipping by or stopping at the front of the hospital to drop off, or collect someone. Opposite there was the big red Victorian building with its row upon of row of dark windows. Do you remember how she made up stories about what happened behind each window, along the dimly lit corridors, in the cellars and roof spaces? The boy who liked to hide; the old woman who read tarot cards by the large stained glass window; the three kittens that lived in the rafters, running along the old rotting joists of the building, ambushing big rats. And those kittens not only survived, they thrived, she said. Then as time went on she began to alter the endings, and I tried to keep quiet because they were her stories, after all.
One time she said ‘I think each kitten becomes lost,’ her small oval face concentrating, her dark eyes watching people come and go.
‘Not all at once. But one at a time and no one can find them and they can’t find each other. And they can’t sleep together ever again.’
I said to her that we could save them, that we wanted them to be happy. ‘We can take them home and they can live with you, me and Daddy,’ I said and I looked down at her hands because I couldn’t look at her face. The weight of my lie crushing me.
‘No, that wouldn’t be true.’ she said.
And as it was autumn, there was a rush of crisp brown and yellow leaves, and umbrellas battling the wind and I remember most of all her face watching the hustle and bustle as she sat very, very still.
Zoe’s stories – The three lost kittens
There were once three kittens who found themselves abandoned, flung into a dirty old cardboard box and left in the doorway of a large sinister looking redbrick building which was so tall it cast long shadows over the whole town.
The kittens remembered that as new-borns they had spent their days suckling creamy milk from their mother’s tummy, and pawing at each other with their soft pads, their tiny unretracting claws catching on their silken ears as they all tumbled together, a tangle of warm, soft fur and downy, milk-filled tummies. These were special memories a time before the dirty old cardboard box.
Something about the shop’s exterior attracted Beth’s attention; an unabashed shabbiness with its rain-washed splintering grey wood and grimy arched windows. The place looked like it might’ve closed down but a dirty light emanated from inside like dawn on a grey winter’s day. There was a sign hanging on the inside of the shop door that announced cheerily ‘Please come in, we are open’ so she did. As she stepped inside the coiled doorbell sprang above her in sharp peals and she experienced a sensation of déjà vu. The thought immediately came to her that it was in this very shop – although it most definitely wasn’t – where Patrick had bought her the ormolu trinket box.
‘It’s cracked. Do you really want it? Buy it if you really want it,’ he’d said as he examined the chip in the bevelled glass, then lifted the lid to test the hinges; the light from the glass flashing into his blue eyes. She knew this sensation was caused by a glitch in the brain – a neuron firing when it shouldn’t, an electro-chemical mishap. And at that moment she realised that this wasn’t the first time she’d visited this shop; she recalled being here and looking through boxes of photographs a few months before.
Now standing in the shop doorway she could smell Palma violets mixed with camphor wood, like sweet cinnamon and menthol, coming from the shop’s interior. Tiny specks of dust swirled in shafts of window light reminding her of a shaken snow globe. As she picked her way carefully through the labyrinth of old furniture, battered card board boxes and piles of books that cluttered the floor she felt she might’ve entered a hoarder’s cave where nothing was ever looked at, just stored. She couldn’t imagine many people taking the time to pick their way through the clutter; the few that did, perhaps, hoping to find some small treasure, some connection to the past.
A large rack of shabby vintage coats with a theatrical rather than second hand appeal caught her attention and she stopped to run her fingers over the soft fur trim on the collars. They were cold to the touch and worn flat so she could feel the cracked suede, like grainy card, underneath. A chalky, fungal smell filled the air around her and she was thrown back to a memory of the towering wardrobe that dominated her parents’ bedroom when she was a child, its walnut patterning like a dark angel opening up its fiery wings to envelop her. The door’s slender brass barrel key with its large circular bow that felt magical to the touch. She remembered the gentle tumbling sound and faint internal click of the lock as the key turned and the door swung slowly open, the squeak on the hinges like the squashed note on a trumpet, the scent of a mothballed interior released like some tainted spirit. In times of retreat she would clamber into this cavernous space, kicking the shoes to one side. She’d pull on the sleeve of her mother’s beaver lamb fur coat so it fell off its hanger, enveloping her in its black satin lining, the weight of the fur like a small avalanche. Her mother always felt guilty for possessing the coat so it hung in the wardrobe, out of sight.
‘Hello?’ called a voice from somewhere inside the shop. Beth peered towards the sound and could make out a man sitting in a small alcove. He was leaning forward across a square card table; on it she could make out an ashtray, a mug and an opened book.
‘You ok? Need any help?’
She couldn’t see his face clearly in the subdued lighting. Dreary domes of light seemed to intensify the dark surrounding spaces. His outline was fuzzy as if someone had tried to rub him out.
‘No, no, it’s fine; I’m just having a look.’
Over the preceding months she had flitted through many shops like this, with no real aim as such. The search had become both the source and fulfilment of a craving. The box she came across looked similar to other cardboard boxes she’d rummaged through over that time. It was taped together at the sides but the tape had long since lost its stickiness, appearing darkly translucent. When she disturbed the contents a dry powdery smell of pine tar filled her nostrils. The sight of an old cine camera unspooled a childhood memory of one of her dad’s cine-film evenings, all the neighbourhood children sitting cross legged on the floor at the local village hall, eyes looking up at the projector screen in anticipation of the grainy technicolour film which chronicled fragments of the summer holidays, Halloween, bonfire and Christmas. Images of her and her friends doing cartwheels on the Johnson’s expansive lawn as Auntie Jean waved her secateurs at the camera in mock annoyance, or groups of neighbourhood children swirling sparklers in the darkness, bright circles festooning the air like neon bunting. Every now and then her dad’s round, bespectacled face would fill the projector screen, smiling, taking frequent puffs on his pipe, and talking into the lens in an animated way, acting as obtrusive segue to each slightly speeded up montage, everyone waving and looking towards the camera, laughing awkwardly. As they sat watching this they would laugh out loud whenever they saw themselves; and this during a time when they knew nothing of history, of time passing, the moment forever reliving itself in the Kodak brightness.
Beth became aware of some movement behind her.
‘I think the camera still works. It’s an old super 8 Kodak. Bit like listening to vinyl records. Popular again.’
The man was leaning back against an old book case, resting his hands on one of the shelves like he was resting against a sport’s car. She could see tattoos curling up his lower arms, like something living; scaly and intimate she thought with surprise.
‘I remember my dad using one, following us round at birthdays. Film nights were good fun. I’ve never used one though,’ she said knowing this wasn’t true; not long after Patrick and Beth were married, and Zoe was a baby, her sister gave them a camcorder. They spent long periods of time filming Zoe; zooming in on her while she slept, monitoring each rise and fall of her tiny chest, recording the slightest reflex. Then later when Zoe was older and sitting in her high chair she would take a mouth full of food, pucker up her lips, and flare her tiny nostrils all for the love of the camera pointed in her direction; they would delight in the tiny green peas Zoe chose to store in the notch of her ear.
Beth remained hunkered over the box, hands immersed inside.
‘Do you know anything about who this belonged to?’ she asked.
‘I think it came from a house clearance. There’s some sealed unused film; and the camera works,’ he said again.
‘Are you into cameras?’ he asked, his vowels suggesting the soft curve of a Cornish accent.
‘No, not really.’
Underneath the camera and boxes of unused cartridges and wrapped in brown hessian, she found a stack of used film tied together with twine, each reel neatly catalogued with faded hand written labels. From the titles it looked like a collection of holiday films taken in Cornwall, dating back to the mid-seventies, and to the memories of her own childhood that had just been so vividly aroused. She wondered why anyone might discard the used film. It looked like it had been preserved with care, that someone had taken time to chronicle the events of those summers many years before with a loving neat hand. She imagined a woman’s delicate fingers tying the twine around the film like she was wrapping some precious parcel, asking her daughter to place a tiny index finger on the knot so she could create a bow that would keep the films together, hold each memory next to one another.
‘You can take your finger away now, my darling. That’s it. Now I pull the two loops tight and we have our bow.’
In her head it was Zoe’s finger holding down the knot, and it was her voice, as warm and encouraging as she could make it.
It had grown dark outside and the man had returned to his alcove. He was absentmindedly stroking his beard when Beth approached him. She could smell sweet exhaled smoke and saw stubbed out cigarettes in the ashtray. The air was a pale bluey grey.
‘How much do you want for the box of film?’ she asked.
‘Let me have a look. Was there a price on the box?’ He looked up now with keener interest. His face was broad, with a high forehead, his hair shaved very short.
‘No, well I don’t think so.’
‘I’ll let you have it cheaper for cash. Have you got a projector screen?’ he asked.
‘What?’ No, no, she hadn’t.
The box of film was heavy and awkward to carry so the man said someone would drop it off on the following Wednesday as that was their day out in the van.
‘I’ll dig out a projector screen for you, I’ve got one in the back,’ he said as he held up the camera and looked through the lens at Beth. Beth scribbled her address onto a scrap of paper.
‘You live out there?’
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘you know it?’
‘Yeah, yes, I know it; around four in the afternoon?’
Beth left the shop several minutes later; she wasn’t even sure if the camera would work properly. It was raining and she was thinking that it would take her a while to get home. Earlier that day she had taken the bus from her village at the end of the peninsula along the coastal road into town. The view was in turn both secretive and bountiful — glimpses of spumy grey ocean flashed between lines of tall fir trees then suddenly expanses of flecked yellow gorse rolled down to the sea. The low winter sun cast a haloed light over everything as long shadows covered the land. There would be no view on the return journey she thought as she approached the bus stop, and she felt annoyed with herself that she’d lingered so long in the shop; there was a wait for the next bus.
In a former life Beth rarely travelled by bus. When she and Patrick went on long journeys they would always share the driving and on journeys down to Cornwall they would sometimes drive through the night, the amber light pulsing through the car, Zoe cocooned in travel blankets on the back seat. They would have the radio on low listening to the news and late night talk shows, the hushed tones of the talk show hosts making them lower their voices as if they were on some secret mission. And then Patrick would make a joke and the sound of her laugh would be too loud against the darkness.
‘God, you’ve got a dirty laugh,’ he would say.
The bus was nearly empty on the drive back. Two elderly women sat at the front chatting. One leant forward in the seat and held onto a vertical metal hand rail for support. Beth couldn’t help noticing that the woman’s skirt had ridden up so the pale flesh above her knee high stay ups was visible. She could hear some of their conversation.
‘He used this great big sword,’ one woman said ‘to hold his family hostage for more than two hours.’ Then she added, after a moment’s reflection, ‘people like that need locking up.’
A young couple got on part way through the journey; they were both laughing and his hands held loosely onto her waist as they rushed to the back of the bus. It was very dark outside and the glaring overhead lighting made the windows into black mirrors; Beth imagined they might be travelling through a long tunnel except that every now and then the faint speckled light of a farmhouse could be seen against the blackness of the landscape.
There was a short walk from the bus stop to her cottage which was on the edge of a small hamlet that trailed off into a dirt track leading to a farm. She knew the village. She had stayed there with Patrick about twenty five years ago when they were first together, before marriage, before Zoe, when all they wanted to do was touch each other. They’d found the cheapest two-up two-down cottage to rent for the week, and even though it was the middle of summer, it rained every day.
When she finally got home, the ends of her fingers were numbed white. The cottage was dark. She let herself in and saw the flashing red light on the answer machine. Still flashing from this morning when she’d left for town.
Ryan locked the door and went over to the till. He’d hardly taken anything all day, the majority of that from the sale of the box of cine-film. He opened a packet of cigarettes and lit one, inhaling as if he was taking in fresh air after sitting in a smoke filled room all day. He heard a door close at the back of the shop and stubbed his cigarette out in the ashtray.
‘Ryan, you there?’
‘Where the fuck else would I be?’ he said quietly. There would be the groundhog daily post mortem as his dad would ask the same questions whilst checking over the contents of the shop.
‘You been smoking in here again?’ His dad stood in the doorway looking round, as if he was gathering evidence. He looked unkempt, his checked shirt was open and untucked, a smeared grey vest underneath.
‘You look rough today, Dad, need to take more care of yourself,’ Ryan said without looking up. He moved over to the table to gather his things. ‘Sold that cine-film.’
His dad pursed his lips and made a whistling sound. ‘I knew that would go. How much?’
‘Thirty,’ Ryan pulled on his jacket.
‘Thirty? Giss on! I said fifty.’
‘No, really?’ Ryan was at the shop door now. ‘You here to lock up then?’
His dad looked as if he was about to speak but, instead, just ran his fingers through a mop of thick silvery hair that flopped around his shirt collar unevenly. Ryan didn’t wait for an answer.
Outside he pulled his woollen hat down over his forehead and lit another cigarette. He walked with his head down. He liked the feel of the rain on the back of his neck after the day’s confinement. As he approached the bus stop he recognised the woman who’d bought the box of cine-film. She was perched on a wall at the back of the bus shelter, looking down the hill, away from him; small and skinny like a boy, he thought.
The pub smelt of sweet air freshener and the tarry sulphate of aged nicotine. It was about five-thirty and the place was quiet. He looked round and saw Pete waving at him from a table in the corner, his slight frame like a wind-up toy waiting to be released. Ryan moved over to him.
‘How you doin’ Pete? What you drinking?’
Pete finished off his pint.
‘Pint of Ratler, mate.’ He held up his empty
glass and asked ‘you finished? How’s the antique business
‘How should I know? Anyone else out?’
‘No money on a week night, mate. Unless you’re a fucking tourist,’ Pete smiled to reveal a row of beleaguered jittery teeth, the eroded gums a translucent dark pink. Like someone’s taken pliers to them, Ryan thought.
‘What about you?’ Ryan asked.
‘You know me, I have my sources.’ Pete looked up at Ryan, eyes glinting in the pub lighting. ‘Speaking of which, have you got that tenner you owe me?’ Ryan dug in his pocket and took out a note and tossed it onto the table.
‘Are we meeting him here?’ Ryan asked looking round.
There were a couple of regulars at the bar chatting with the barman. One man had the local newspaper open on the bar and was commenting on one of the headlines.
‘The Premiership? Is he in cloud cuckoo land? It’s a nice looking stadium, mind.’
The barman leant forward with his head slightly on one side to read the paper from upside down.
‘Meeting him here? What do you think this is? Avon fucking calling?’ Pete said absentmindedly picking at the edge of a beermat.
‘Back of his car, he said. Down at the snooker hall.’
‘That shithole. Jesus Pete, keep still, can’t you? It’s like sitting with a fucking toddler.’
‘It’s my ADHD,’ then after a silence as if he was following a train of thought, ‘I don’t mind the label. Never did me any harm.’
Ryan laughed and went to the bar. The barman came over to him.
‘Alright Ryan, How you doin’? Not seen you for a while. How’s your dad?’ He mopped round the bar with a damp cloth as he spoke.
‘Two pints of Ratler. He’s ok, thanks.’ Ryan placed a note onto the bar.
‘Ah, that’s good, say hello from me will you? Are you still at the shop? What about Sandra and the lads?’
‘I do a bit for my dad… They’re alright, thanks.’
‘Not going back in the army then?’
‘Too old for all that now.’ Ryan nodded at the barman and took the drinks back to the table. Pete drank greedily then launched into a story about someone they both knew. Ryan wasn’t listening, though. For some reason he was thinking about the woman who’d bought the film.
She’d been in the shop ages, like she was sheltering from the cold. Let’s face it, why else would anyone come in? He’d noticed her address. She was living in Danny’s parents’ old cottage. It was a place he thought he’d never go back to, but now he was curious. He’d been to a party there when he was younger. He’d taken Jaimie with him. Jaimie was probably only about twelve and he’d got really drunk, ended up pissing in a flower bed and up onto the kitchen window by the back door, then vomited everywhere. Ryan had been with a girl upstairs. He remembered someone shouting him to come down and his anger when he saw the state of Jaimie.
‘Are you listening?’ Pete asked with annoyance.
‘Not really. Another round?’ Ryan asked. ‘Yours this time.’
He was in no hurry to get home. His days were so fucking boring he spent his time thinking about the wastes that ended up in the shop; then he would go home and play house with his brother’s girlfriend and their two boys.
‘…He brandished a frigging sword. Can you believe it? Swung it about his head like he was tossing a fucking caber. He’d nicked it from some stately home apparently. Straight off the wall. I mean he’s done some daft shit in the past.’ Pete wiped his eyes and sniffed. Then as an afterthought he added ‘no one was hurt. Just a few smashed ornaments. And they broke his arm restraining him. Anyway when he gets out he can’t go anywhere near them or they’ll chuck him straight back inside.’
Ryan smiled bleakly, imagining this ‘father of two’ swinging a medieval sword around in a small semi-detached on a sinking estate near town, the wife and children huddled quietly together on the couch, arms round each other, staring at the floor until the invasion was quelled. Not for the first time.
‘They should’ve tasered him and he probably would’ve pissed himself. That would’ve made for a better story,’ Pete said and then after a brief pause, ‘anyway, I want to go to New York. Did you know the city has more nesting peregrines than any other part of the world? How fucking brilliant is that? It’s like crossing an imaginary line and being in another world that looks exactly the same as ours but is different. That’s what I think, anyway.’
Sport’s Cue Leisure was a sports bar above an Indian restaurant. The building had originally been an Odeon cinema. Ryan wondered why people called it a snooker hall. There had been several full sized snooker tables at one time but they’d long since gone, just like the cinema screens before them. Now there were a few pool tables, stained with beer and sick, which were used more as podiums for rowdy singers than for potting balls.
‘Don’t use the bogs here,’ Pete said, ‘I saw someone doing something in one of the sinks last time I was here and it was fucking disgusting.’ He winked at Ryan, ‘another pint?’
‘Is he here?’
‘Hold your horses. Yes, he’s there, havin’ a game. Let’s sit down.’
They both looked over to one of the pool tables. Two men were playing a game of pool. Ryan was thinking how young they both looked; how suddenly he found himself looking back rather than forward.
When they were sitting Pete said, ‘I know why you hang out with me now, Ryan, I mean you never gave me the time of day when we were younger. You used me as target practice when I came round, do you remember? I was your brother’s friend. Now Jaimie’s not here and you are.’
For some reason this made Ryan think about a fight he’d had with Jaimie a few days before he’d left for the army for the first time, Dad trying to separate them using a frying pan, still dripping hot bacon fat from breakfast. The kitchen smashed to pieces.
‘I was a fucking idiot, Pete. Everyone knew it. Except me.’
‘Was?’ Pete asked, and they both laughed.
The three of them stood together looking into the boot of a battered old Ford Capri. It was very cold and late and an icy drizzle was falling.
‘How much?’ Ryan asked, as he examined the phone under a grainy damp streetlamp at the back of the Snooker Hall.
‘Fifty,’ the young man said, his hands pushed down into his pockets as far as they would go. He wasn’t wearing a coat, just jeans that clung to skinny hips and a T-Shirt with the Logo ‘Guilty for being Black’ on it. Pete had made the most of this.
‘You’re not fucking black, mate. That’s fuckin’ racist, innit?’
‘It’s ironic,’ the young man said, ‘Cornish people might as well be black.’
‘How’d you make that out? Have you ever seen a black person round here? Why the fuck would they come here when it’s full of tossers like you?’
‘Fuck off! I’m a rapper, as well. I’m appearing here a week on Friday, no door charge,’ he nodded his head towards the Snooker Hall.
‘Is that right, 2Pac? I’ll be sure to put it in my diary.’ Pete was quiet for a moment then said suddenly, ’fuck me, you’re Corndog,’ and he laughed.
‘Shut the fuck up Pete. Have you got any games for the play station 3?’ Ryan asked the young man. He was thinking if he got a birthday present for Simon he wanted to get Billy something. When he thought of the boys they were always together. The young man bent over into the boot of his car and opened the zip on a large black holdall.
‘Go on then, share your flocabulary, Corndog,’ Pete said.
‘I don’t give it away for free, mate,’ the young man said, rubbing his hands up and down his arms in an effort to get warm.
‘You are next Friday. Anyway hiphop don’t sleep, man.’ Pete laughed again.
‘How old are you?’ the young man asked with incredulity, then he turned to Ryan. ‘Come on man, its freezin’, do you want anything?’
Ryan rifled through the bag for a few moments.
‘I’ll take the phone if you let me have this,’ he said, holding up a game.
‘Good choice,’ Pete said, ‘a fucked up violent combat game. Sandra’ll love that. Billy’s fucking mental as it is.’
He decided to sleep at the shop that night. He phoned Sandra to say he wouldn’t be dropping by.
‘Are you drunk?’ she asked.
‘No, I’m just staying in town.’ He could hear the boys arguing in the background, ‘why aren’t they in bed?’
‘What’s it got to do with you? They’re not your boys.’ And with that she hung up.
He let himself into the front of the shop as he couldn’t be bothered to go round the back. The torch on his phone shone a small pool of light immediately in front of him.
‘Fucking useless,’ he said and he could smell the pungent sweet air rising within him, ‘fucking junk’ and as he said this he knocked over a small book case.
‘Ryan, is that you?’ A light went on at the back of the shop. His dad appeared in the doorway, a darkened silhouette. Ryan shone the phone torch into his dad’s face.
‘Busted,’ he said and started laughing.
‘You’re drunk again. What about Sandra and the boys?’
‘They’re not my boys,’ he said dryly.
‘Christ, I’m too old for this. Gogglebox is on. Come and watch it with me. I’ll make you a coffee in the adverts.’
Ryan placed his arm round his dad’s shoulders, pulling him closer, he leaned into his dad’s ear and said quietly ‘you know you can just pause it Dad, don’t you,’ then laughed.
‘You daft buggar,’ his dad said as they turned to go back upstairs.