I left Lily in a box, at a café I once visited in my early twenties. Returning now, after so many years, is not so much an indication that I would like her back, but a sign that I no longer consider her to be something I need to run away from.
The café is in Bristol Temple Meads railway station, to the left of the entrance arch if you were to view it from Platform One, and I might be mistaken, but the woman behind the long glass counter looks familiar. Of course, back then she was a girl who spilt my tea in the saucer and didn’t have the courage to apologise, and now she’s carrying weight on her stomach and thighs and when the tea slops over the cup she’s happy to offer a ‘sorry, love’ in a wearied voice that knows such words of regret intimately. It can’t be the same woman. That would be ridiculous.
I take the tea, walk to the table next to the window, and look out into the car park. My Golf is there, squeezed into a bay next to a skip bulging with bricks, wire and some rather smart wicker armchairs, the legs poking upwards as if signalling for rescue. I would help them out, but my car is already filled with my luggage. John helped me pack. He said it might be goodbye, but it didn’t have to be unpleasant. I don’t think he realises that goodbyes are always unpleasant, whether you’re polite to each other or not. There’s so much to blame myself for, and his determination not to pile on the guilt only makes it worse.
Still, over now. I left him on a bench next to an ornamental pond in a hot tub centre outside Reading.
‘You all right, my darling?’ says a rough voice, scratched by cheap alcohol and cigarette butts. It’s the station tramp, I’d guess, with that ancient three-quarter length raincoat and long grey hair sprouting from his face.
‘Leave the lady alone,’ warns the woman behind the counter.
‘Just asking, aren’t I?’ he says, but he doesn’t wait for my reply. What would I say, anyway?
This is the first time I’ve returned for someone, and it’s only just occurred to me that she might not be there. You see, I’ve left many people behind. I sip my tea and make a list.
In the middle of the school play. I was a fairy in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, played in the round, and I could feel my sequinned wings slipping from my back, the stitches in my leotard ripping, until they fell to the floor and Titania had to step over them. The audience – parents and siblings looking for something other than the script to find stimulating – laughed at the unexpected slapstick, and I heard Juliet’s titter, higher than the boom of the crowd, unmistakable, unforgivable.
Who said my nose was too big, my hair too curly, my fashion sense a little too weird for him to be seen in public with me, and yet that was not enough to consign him to a box. It took
To help me pack him away, and I can still see them in the back seat of my Citroen, scrunched up together like a mess of clothes and hair, the curve of her back and his hands inside her bra, her tight tee shirt pulled up to her neck and every one of her ribs visible under that pale brown skin.
She used to work in the Peterborough office with me, and she was good company, never grated, eight hours together every day and nothing less than smiles all the way. But I was young and she was old back then, and I was too aware of that to be able to call her a friend. So when I got married the first time, and left the typing pool to be a lady of leisure as was the habit back then, I packed her up and left her. I don’t think I even regretted it. It’s hard to tell now. And then, of course, we get to:
One and Two
And I find I don’t want to reminiscence any more.
Time has passed, hasn’t it? The electric lights are on and the window shows a reflection of my face against the night. I finish my cold tea. The café is empty.
‘Closing up soon,’ says the woman behind the counter, and I get the feeling she has been watching me, waiting for me to break my reverie so that she can speak. ‘I can do you a cake for nothing. It’d only go in the bin.’
‘Thanks,’ I say, and get up from the table to take a seat at the glass-topped counter. She serves me a fruit scone with a plastic knife and a sachet of butter substitute in a metallic yellow wrapper. I slice the scone in two and apply all the butter to one half. I’ve never been good at pacing myself.
‘You been here before?’
‘You’re not going to believe this, but I remember you,’ the woman behind the counter says. She looks at me with half-closed eyes, and raises her chin. ‘Thirty years ago? Not that I’ve been here all this time. I did stuff, got married, you know, but the old places start to call you back, don’t they?’
I nod. ‘I remember you too,’ I say.
‘It was a big day for me. I’d just found out I was pregnant. Not married. It was scary back then. I’d just come back from the doctors. I spilt your tea on the table and you looked so sad, like it mattered, like it was a sign of something. I always wondered why spilling the tea was so important to you.’
‘It wasn’t. Really, it wasn’t. It was something else. A funeral. I was going to a funeral.’
She looks around the empty café, reaches behind her and flips a switch. The overhead lights flicker and fade; we’re left in the orange glow of the counter lights. It’s intimate, and when she speaks again her voice is lower, warmer. ‘Someone close to you?’
‘Not really. But things like that – have an impact first time around.’
‘Yeah,’ she says. ‘I remember my first funeral. See, I can understand remembering that. It’s the odd days that confuse me. The days where nothing happened. Why are the moments where nothing happened so clear now? My daughter spilt orange juice on my new sofa twenty years ago and I went mad at her. But I can’t remember her first Christmas. Can’t think what I gave her. She works in an employment agency now, up north.’
I could have told her about the box, my reason for being so sad in this café so long ago, but she’s lost in her own story and maybe it’s for the best.
‘We never really got on, you know. If I didn’t phone her, I’m sure she wouldn’t make the effort. But what can you do? You can’t just be proud, stay silent. You have to keep fighting for them, trying to tell them not to make the same mistakes. If she got pregnant I’d kill her, the amount of times I’ve told her to use something, took her down the doctors and got her on the pill myself…’ She sighs, and rests her meaty elbows on the counter. ‘Have you got any kids?’
‘No. I…’ I can’t finish.
She nods and purses her lips. I can see her thinking there’s something wrong with me, something that doesn’t work inside. It feels like pity rather than sympathy.
‘I should get going,’ I say. I slide down from the stool and she puts out one hand, covering my own, her grasp firm. She leans forward.
‘Don’t you want it? You came back for it, didn’t you? I kept it. It seemed important. I kept it for you.’
My eyes are on hers, the way she scans my face as if trying to read my mind.
‘The box. I kept it. You wrote “Lily” on the side. Was that the person who died? The funeral you went to?’
‘I never went,’ I say. ‘I was meant to catch the train down to Exeter. I never took it. I don’t know why. There was going to be a wake. We were all meant to bring objects that reminded us of that person. Say a little speech about what they meant to us. My family are like that. Big on emotion.’
‘That’s tough if you’re not,’ she says, and lets go of my hand. She doesn’t need to keep me here now. I have to say it all.
‘I had my things in the box. The things that reminded me of her.’
‘She was a relative?’
‘My grandmother.’ I lay my fingers on the cool glass of the counter. ‘We weren’t close. Did you look in the box?’
‘Just to see if I could find you. At first I thought you forgot it, being upset and all. It took me a couple of years to decide you left it on purpose.’
I know we’re both thinking about what was in the box:
A packet of Bourbons
A postcard from Eastbourne
A bottle of Tramp perfume
A Mills and Boon paperback, well thumbed
A long letter on expensive blue paper, written in a rounded script
A photograph of Christmas party, late in the evening, with paper hats at jaunty angles
And I realise that I never did manage to leave those six items behind. It’s the same every time I’ve ever packed up a person: every letter, note and photograph I’ve tidied away and left on a bench, in a restaurant, on a station platform. I can recall the contents of every box.
‘So you want it back, right? It’s at home. You can come back with me. Just hang on while I shut up here. It’ll only take ten minutes.’
‘You’d give it back to me? After keeping it all this time?’
She takes my untouched scone and my cup away. She returns with her coat on. Its long and shapeless. ‘It belongs to you,’ she says. ‘I’ve been waiting a long time. It’ll be weird to be without it under the bed, to be honest. I’m not sure why I held on to it.’
‘I think…’ I get up from the counter, and think about my cases in the car. Maybe I’ll throw them out and take the chairs from the skip instead.
She scratches her stomach through her coat. ‘I don’t get it, love.’
‘You may have kept it under your bed, but I’m the one who’s been carrying it about. But I’m going to put it down now. Make a new start, if that’s possible. I’m not sure yet if it is.’
‘So what do you want me to do with it?’
‘Keep it. Chuck it out. I don’t mind. Thanks for the talk and the scone.’ I walk to the door, thinking about the new places I can go, the new people I can meet.
No more boxes.
She shouts after me as I open the door. She sounds desperate. ‘Maybe I’ll keep it for a while. Just in case.’
I give her a nod and a smile. This time its my turn to pity her.
Then I walk out of the station, get into my car, and drive away. The night is long and by the morning I’m very far away.
Aliya Whiteley was born in Ilfracombe, North Devon. Her comic mystery novel, ‘Light Reading’ was published by Macmillan this year. She has a website at www.aliyawhiteley.com.
© 2009, Aliya Whiteley