Nostalgia has me in its grip lately. Memories often drift towards me, capturing my attention, demanding my focus. They are like nature spirits, enchanting, shiny, and distracting, and I can’t take my eyes off them. When the memories move on, having had their way with me, I have lost time out of my day. I really am off with the faeries.
I know people say we shouldn’t live in the past; we should live firmly in the now, in the present moment. But sometimes memories are all we have. Sometimes, remembering the past is the only way to get someone back.
I wrote this piece in May 2015. It’s called Memory Lines.
I hope you like it.
My Grandad passed away in an upstairs bedroom of a semi-detached terraced house in Nottingham, England. It was early in the morning on an August day in 2008. He’d seen his final birthday less than a month before, perched in a garden chair, soaking up the sun in his back yard – the same back yard he’d maintained for over forty years. He wasn’t alone when he took his last breath, but he had been in pain, measures of dignity already tied up with other dying grandfathers on other deathbeds that week.
Soon after my Grandad died, I found myself alone on an island. This is not a metaphor. The only way home was a 7am ferry or a 7pm ferry. I was impossibly early for one, and desperately late for the other. It was the middle of the night when the full force of my Grandad’s death hit me square in the seat of my soul. I was stuck and I was alone, and I felt every single one of my nerves exposed to the cold air as if I had been turned inside out, wrung out like an old musty dish towel and left in a twisted heap on the kitchen bench. My Grandad could do this to me because I loved him fiercely and he died on the other side of the world without me. He had all of my best and most cherished memories tracking through the veins that ran up his arms in ropey, blue map lines. They were directions to my happiness, those memory lines. The minute I found out he had died my memories began to fade, and it was this, more than anything, slowly crushing me that night. What was the last thing he had said to me? When was the last time I saw him? What was he wearing? What did his face look like? The memories were suddenly unreliable. He took them with him along with his veins, along with the directions to my happiness. I was lost.
Not long after my Grandad passed away, I discovered that the Google Maps image of the house he shared with my Nanna showed his car parked audaciously in the driveway of the property. It was perched, majestic and full of promise, on the incline to the front door, shining in the sun. It looked like my Grandad was home. It didn’t matter to me that the photo had been taken before his departure from the world. From my computer chair in Australia, for all intents and purposes, my Grandad was at home in Arnold, Nottingham. Risen from the dead. Never died in the first place.
He was banging around the kitchen with his characteristic display of clumsiness, knocking mugs together, spilling cornflakes all over the bench top, dripping sugary hot tea over the carpet as he made his way to the breakfast table where the daily newspaper greeted him.
He was busy in the coal shed, shovelling black lumps into a brass bucket that he would then bring inside the house and pour noisily into the fireplace, smiling mischievously at anyone in the room because he was loud and proud and he dared you to challenge him. He was kneeling on one knee, fire poker in his hand, stoking the flames until they cracked and popped, coal burning red in the centre of it all.
He was coming down the staircase in his jeans and a t-shirt, coins jangling loudly in one pocket, a handkerchief tucked safely away in the other.
He was in the garden mowing the lawn, pulling weeds, or sitting in his favourite deck chair with a warm cup of tea, enjoying the sunshine and his sandwiches.
He was sitting on the couch with another cuppa, watching football and the news, and then some more football. Possibly, later, Baywatch – a Saturday night favourite.
He was everywhere. He was all over the house. It was a certainty. I momentarily remembered the way to my happiest happy.
Very recently, Google Maps changed the image of my grandparents’ house. The car was gone. My Grandad was no longer there. All I could see was what wasn’t visible in the new image, which was my Nanna, alone and sad in a too-big house, remembering the husband who called her Bluebell. When the car disappeared I lost my Grandad all over again. For the second time, I was an exposed nerve, skin turned inside out, missing him through every pore of my body.
And then there was this – a joyful realisation. My Grandad may not have been at home any more, but he still had all of my favourite memories with him, and now I had them too, more vivid and solid than they had been before. The promise of his presence in the familiar house (even if it had been a short-lived delusion) gave me time to retrieve those memories that I feared I had lost. As well as the spontaneous memories of his character and the way he claimed space in his home, I remembered with ease that one of the last things he ever said to me was a joking offer to “sort out” a troubling friend. Protective to the end. I remembered the last time I saw him was at Heathrow Airport as I was leaving England to go home to the Lucky Country (which, incidentally, had momentarily run out of luck for me or I would have been able to see him again, one last time). My Grandad hugged me tight that day. That tall, heavy-footed, heavy-handed, clumsy man who made a joke out of absolutely every situation, and couldn’t say ‘I love you’, cried. His face crumpled as he took hold of me and he said goodbye. I don’t remember what else he said. It isn’t important. The moving pictures in my memory paint a thousand more words, words more eloquent than anything either of us could have ever uttered.
Today, I remember these things, and they are blessings. Google Maps may have taken my Grandad away from me again, but it also gifted me with the time to get my memories back. It gave me time to make a copy of the map lines on his arms, those precious and cherished memory lines. My Grandad is gone, but he is not lost. I am not lost.
I am the first granddaughter of Walter Bull, and I know the way to happy.
He showed me.