Posterity’s Sake

I wrote this piece on 17 January this year. My life had imploded spectacularly and I was looking for control over my existence. 

Now, I don’t believe for one second I’m in control of this life I’ve been gifted with. 

I don’t know about you, but that’s how I stay sane.

I am becoming obsessed with time. Not seconds or minutes or hours. Not planning and organising events around a certain tick of the clock. Not watch checking and re-checking, anxious to get this done, get that done, get that seen to, get to there by then with him and her and not a minute later. I am fixated on moments in time – epic events (and, sometimes, not so epic events) that crossed the path of my fate. I’m distracted by pinpointing the precise moments these events came to pass in relation to my one, solitary life. I am feeling an overwhelming desire to draw myself a timeline, plotting the major incidents of my life on its one long arm and labeling them clearly and neatly. Time is very important. I want precise years. I want exact ages.

I want, inexplicably, to know that in 1994 when I was eleven years old, my familiar, a tiny brown tabby called Trixie whom I loved and adored (and who loved and adored me in equal measure, I might add) didn’t come home, and my heart was cleaved in two for the second time in my short life. I want to know that in 1994 I sat on the narrow windowsill of my bedroom and I sobbed while I prayed. I begged that my soul mate be returned to me, unaware that while I was praying she was probably already gone. I want to know that one day, when I was eleven years old, I stopped looking for Trixie to appear. The first thing I did when I got out of bed was not to go to the glass door and see her sitting there, expectantly, in my mind’s eye, only to be broken all over again by my cruel and heartless physical eyes.

I want to know that in 2003 when I was twenty years old, I stood in an elevator late at night and time stood still. I want to know that at twenty years old, a man I had just met, who made me uncomfortable and whose interest I had been trying to escape, walked me to the elevator in a dark and deserted street despite my assurances that I would be fine by myself. As I stepped into the small stuffy cube of that elevator expecting the stranger to take the hint and leave me to my own devices, I felt him step in behind me. The air compressed. His energy pushed up against my back. A vacuum was created in the atmosphere and all of my independence and strength and dignity tumbled violently into it. I knew that if I allowed the elevator doors to close with both of us trapped alone inside I would never get them back. I would never get myself back. In 2003, at twenty years old, I rushed out of an elevator and I was spared.

I want to know that in 2008 when I was twenty-five years old, I made a decision to leave my family behind and take a job on a remote island. This move made me in some ways (I discovered that I really was capable of surviving by myself) and broke me in others (I learned that being independent is all fun and games until someone you love dies and you’re trapped on an island in 2008, at twenty-five years old, with no exit after the 7pm ferry has already departed).

But that’s just the problem – I don’t know that it was 1994 or 2003 or 2008 and I don’t, therefore, know that I was eleven or twenty or twenty-five years old. I am desperate to put the moments of my life into a context of year and age. Memories are flooding back to me in a torrent, and I can’t put my finger on what year it was that these memories were made. How old was I? I am so frustrated by this inability to pinpoint time. It gathers in my chest and adds to a sense of urgency, unease, anxiety. I feel an irrational yearning to hold my memories down by their throats and cross-examine them, beat the facts out of them with fists and feet and barking commands. For what purpose? To what end? Part of me is extremely concerned that I’m going to die soon. Why else would I feel this compulsive need to plot my life on a timeline – a series of unfortunate, and not so unfortunate events? I should start thinking seriously about that last will and testament.

The other part of me is laughing and shaking her head at the first part. She is reminding her that we don’t die until we’re in our early nineties. Stop being so dramatic! But this other part of me, the sensible, practical one, is still confused. How will wrapping my life events up in pretty wrapping paper – labeling them neatly and lavishly with dates, ages and descriptions, sitting them down in a row in chronological order – how will this make me feel any better? How will it satisfy this pre-occupation with time that I’m battling against? Am I sidetracked by this because somehow, in the act of organising events in order of their manifestation in my life, I can capture their essence, contain their effects, bottle the emotion and keep it from seeping out into the rest of the timeline, indiscriminately poisoning, medicating, or intoxicating future events? Am I trying to take back control of a life that I feel is out of control? Am I harbouring a secret desire to write a memoir?

I don’t know. I foolishly hoped that in pouring all of this out of my head and onto paper the truth would miraculously reveal itself, glistening like Excalibur in the morning sun. I thought all of this ink would lead me to its origins, give me the wisdom and the power to heave it from the wet earth, hold it up in the air triumphantly, and watch the answer drip slowly from the pointed end of the steel blade. I was wrong. I have no truth for this, but that which is already written. No cute decorative bow to stick haphazardly to the top of the wrapped parcel. Instead, I’m left none the wiser. All I have is what’s here – the way I feel, the way I think, the way I exist.

Could that be it? Could that be the point? Could this obsession with plotting my life in the context of time be about the absolute, unquestionable, stupidly simple fact that time is of no importance in this life? In anyone’s life? Is the lesson here that it doesn’t matter when memories were made? That it doesn’t matter what year it was that x happened or how old I was when y came to pass? All that matters is how I felt, what I thought, and that I existed in spite of it all? What is more, I am blessed with the ability to bring all of those thoughts and feelings with me through the years, down the timeline, and integrate them now, here, today, and grow and stretch and flourish. Is that it?

There’s a secret about me in here too, though. The lesson has just dawned on me and I still want the timeline for posterity’s sake. I’m grateful for the lesson, but I’m also grateful for this –

I had enough self-awareness and foresight to stamp this piece of writing with today’s date.

Memory Lines

grandadNostalgia 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.