It’s a hot July day in 1985. Myself and five of my friends – my five only friends – are sharing a rare moment of serenity. I’m lying on my back thoughtfully chewing a piece of long grass because I’ve convinced most of the group that long grass is where sugar comes from. Everyone else has given up and spat theirs out; even though I know it is untrue, and I swear I have a faint tang of iron on my tongue which means some animal has probably pissed on it, I continue to chew away just to irritate the others. Not that they seem bothered.
We’re taking it in turns to look at the sun, allowing it’s light to scorch our retinas with an image. A vague shape that we will see when we close our eyes quickly and then open them again, a definable blob caused by the sun burning into our memories and giving us our future. We describe the shapes we see and then work out what we are going to be when we grow up. We’re between nine and fourteen years old.
We all go to different schools where we are all loners. And yet the only thing we have in common is our neighbourhood. Irene, Clancy, Olga, Warren and Beatrix. The hippy, the daredevil, the mother, the bully, the academic. As for me – perhaps this is what I will figure out one day.
I remember Irene’s shape. She thought she saw a cat, and thus hoped for a career in veterinary surgery.
The first time I met Irene, she was naked from the waist down. Wearing a full length summer frock and no underwear, she’d hooked her legs around a tree branch and hung upside down, the dress falling over her like a badminton shuttlecock. Olga, arms folded, cleared her throat and a cheerful smile appeared from behind the mud-stained hem.
Swinging down from the branch inelegantly, her bare feet crunched into a small pile of sharp twigs. If they hurt her, she didn’t let it show. Her long blonde hair hung lank to her hips. Olga introduced us with the resignation of someone whose fears had been met out.
‘What are you doing!? Where are your shoes?’
‘I’unno.’ Irene shrugged and grabbed our wrists, sprinting across the disused wasteland, weaving in between old cookers and washing machines, her exposed ankles and knees sending nettles and brambles recoiling in futile dismay. I kept looking over to Olga to see what was happening but she seemed just as confused, even as we beat a steady path towards a tall oak with a single length of rope hanging from the green canopy.
We screeched to a halt breathless and itching at the bottom of the trunk. She hadn’t even asked my name yet.
‘Isn’t it great!?’ she beamed to us both. She grabbed the rope, which was knotted along its length. ‘My dad did it for me. Now we can finally climb…’
‘I don’t want to climb today, I’m tired’ sighed Olga. I stood impotently by, hoping that Olga would get her way but knowing that, before I slept that evening, I would end up in that tree scared out of my wits.
Irene tilted her head slightly, like a puppy confused at all the shouting about the puddle on the kitchen floor. I watched her face as a midge landed on one of her thick eyebrows and began gorging on her feverish blood.
As soon as the twins were born, Olga began smoking. I’ve never had the heart to point out that she does everything – holds a cigarette, drinks coffee, offers a handshake – with her left despite being right handed. The right hand shakes, and never stops. Even as we sit in this coffee shop, caught between the nicotine and the belch of exhausts from the street, her right hand remains jammed deep in her jeans pocket.
‘Sure, I remember’, she says flicking ash into her saucer. ‘I saw an elephant. Reenie already had the vet, so I thought I’d be a zoo keeper.’ She looks into the middle distance and her face hardens, her throat contracting an empty swallow of air. ‘Sometimes, I think it came true.’
I remind her about the tree, the first meeting, how we both climbed around halfway up before Olga said she wasn’t going any higher and that she was scared (I’d already been scared a lot lower than we currently were.) Irene made it all the way to the top, her head poking out from the leaves to take in the hazy summer evening.
‘Yeah, I always had to take care of Reenie’ she smiles. ‘Or, I tried. I dunno how she didn’t kill herself twenty times over. I was probably a better mother to her, as a twelve year old, than I am now.’ She shakes her head and exhales a plume of smoke through thin, cracked lips. I look down at the table, sip my tea, and I feel guilty at my silence.
‘Do you still see her?’ I eventually ask.
Olga snorts and looks deriserly to one side. ‘I’ve got enough problems without inviting the church in.’ She looks at her watch and elegantly gets up out of her seat, her hand still in one pocket, and throws the strap of her handbag around her.
‘Look, I’ve got to go. You don’t mind settling the bill do you?’ She tucks a lock of her hair behind one ear, and is already tiptoeing away before I can answer.
‘Sure Olga’ I smile. ‘See you again soon.’ But her back is turned away as she jogs for a gap in the heavy traffic.
I pull up to the forecourt, taking care not to scratch any of the cars that are worth ten years of my salary. I always feel underdressed when visiting Clancy, although not nearly as out of place as my beaten up car probably feels. I give the steering wheel a squeeze and whisper that I won’t be long. Clancy is already striding across to me, beaming. When he smiles, the creases near his eyes expose the jagged dent that became his trademark.
Danger sometimes found Irene but she would remain blissfully unaware, even as she stood higher, balanced precariously on two thin forks of a branch so her arms could enjoy that hazy summer sun in the oak tree. Clancy looked for things that could, and usually did, hurt him. The scar, although his famous calling card, was undefinable in that no one could remember – least of all him – in which accident it occurred. It didn’t help that, in his stoicism, he never went to a hospital with any of his lacerations.
Clancy never cried. I once walked him home laughing at a six inch nail that had pierced his index finger all the way through, like a Halloween prank only real. ‘Ah fuck that’s bad’ he’d say nonchalantly as blood would run and flow in tributaries down his leg or along a forearm. To avoid awkward questions from his parents, he’d climb on top of his fence and go into his bedroom through the window, putting sellotape on his wounds. I watched him fall out of trees into thorn bushes and come out plucking the thorns from his flesh as though dusting a suit jacket for lint. He delighted in showing me his broken nose, even pushing the tip back so he could proudly show me a long tentacle of mucus striped red with blood like a diseased barber’s pole. The only time I ever saw Clancy even close to tears, he destroyed his beloved BMX bike attempting a jump. The jump was a success but the landing disintegrated the rusted old thing from underneath him and he was left to bounce and roll surrounded by tinkling metal and loose wheels. He walked home sullenly and in silence, still holding the remains of the handlebars.
There are two things about Clancy now that I both like and yet find unsettling. Firstly, whenever I visit he takes me into his plush office – a room which none of his staff are allowed near – and pours me (and himself) a whiskey so large I have serious anxieties about driving home. Secondly, whenever we bring up the old days it is as though he is being reminded about them for the first time. He laughs heartily, slaps his thigh at remembering some adventure we’d discussed a couple of months before, and looks at me with the intensity of a small child told a bedroom story about monsters under the bed.
Clancy always asks me about Irene. He confessed long ago, and usually does every time we talk since, that most of his stunt work was for the benefit of Irene. I hate talking about Irene with him because the conversation always goes the same way, to the point where I seriously doubt his chronic amnesia. He will stir the last mouthful of whiskey in the bottom of the glass, looking down at the light brown whirlpool in his tumbler, and ask me…
What Happened With Me And Irene
This is difficult but bear with me. I need to explain a few things first.
Experience has taught me that everyone changes like the incoming tides. Some are predictable and can be anticipated, and you have the chance to get to dry land and follow its path safely, hovering just at the point where the foam breaks and recedes. Others seem distant and safely far away, and yet silently gather around the rock you are standing on and before you realise, that causeway back to the beach is now underwater and you are stranded, helpless and alone.
Perhaps it started when Irene’s beloved grandfather died, although Olga refutes this. She insists it came along much earlier. Whatever the change, at some point in her mid-to-late teens Irene became unbearable to be around. The tree climbing free spirit withdrew into a dogmatic, bitter and judgemental distance. It wasn’t enough for her to simply stop hanging out with us; she insisted on being as insufferable as she could possibly be, flaring up like a candle in a gas oven at the most mundane of things.
I remember our last meeting as clearly as our first – it is everything between that is something of a blur and that saddens me. Even though I can barely remember it, I just remember a feeling of happiness, of infinite possibilities, of being able to climb the highest tree, then the highest building, then the highest mountain. I wish I could remember all those chats under the stars when we discovered alcohol and the Universe. I wish I could remember the dance we had at the school leaving ceremony. I wish I could remember how she smelled when we hugged. They’ve all gone now, replaced with a bland colouring of warm ochre, a smear of paint that muddies the details. And yet, there are some details I cannot forget. We began our friendship with me in a state of anxiety and we ended it with us both close to furious tears, our throats painful trying to swallow and destroy our mutual memories.
The last thing she said to me, after all the screaming that had come before, was deadpan and flat and thus probably the one thing in that horrible final exchange she truly meant.
She said ‘The trouble with you is you have no soul.’
I gritted my teeth and blinked away the moisture on my eyelashes.
‘I still have my soul. You gave yours to God.’
I spat out the word most cherished to her. I never saw her again.
I’m aware that I’m slurring slightly as Clancy puts a big arm around me and breathes his fumes into mine. I worry for a moment that his breath inhaled may tip me over the legal edge. The air outside hits me like a cold pillow on a sleepless summer night.
‘You know, I honestly can’t remember what I saw’ he says reflectively, almost dramatically pinching his chin and looking up into the sky. He’s already told me on our previous four encounters what he saw, which is how I know now.
‘You saw a car’ I lie, smiling, tipsy. ‘Which is why you do what you do now…do’
Clancy’s face lights up, and the scar grimaces at me. Where did you get that? He squeezes my shoulder once more and holds on for just long enough for me to wonder if he’ll let go. He does. ‘I guess you’re right! Talk soon I hope! Drive safely now!’
He’s still waving mechanically at me from the window of his office as I drive away.
Sometimes, I think Warren still recognises me. When I look into his blank face and he begs for a few coins, I stare into those bloodshot eyes and see a movement in his pupils that seems to fight against the chemicals inside him, a struggle to remember a present and a past connected. Warren’s mind may well be a badly corroded and partially destroyed railway line between two pristine stations that one day could be connected again. Warren was hard to like, to the point where we often wondered why he hung out with us. But he was a loner. And he was also older, larger and a bully. So I guess we provided him with reassurance both passively and aggressively.
Warren had just celebrated his sixth birthday when his father was killed at the factory. His mother went a year later without telling anyone how it happened, but Warren remembered that he and his sister weren’t allowed to view his dad in the coffin at the funeral. So it was left to his sister, who was only seventeen at the time, to look after them. The occasional aunt and uncle would stop by to keep the authorities clueless but in reality it was just those two, plus whatever random boyfriend his sister would try to keep around. As soon as they saw Warren, they all left.
She worked as a waitress but I suspected that they mostly lived from the money won – if that’s the right word to use after the loss of a father – in the court case following his negligent death. In between the bouts of thick cloud and heavy thunder that made up Warren’s moods, there were brief glimpses of sunshine. In these moments, and only if we were on our own with no one else to show off around, he’d invite me into his house to play video games.
The house itself you could tell had once been beautifully decorated, but everything now clung desperately to the walls rather than displayed itself proudly. The bathroom walls were a jigsaw of damp mould, held in place by slivers of white tile peeking out. His parent’s room remained shut off, and I never saw it opened or even spoken about when I stayed. Flies buzzed around the base of the door so I was glad to never go in.
I guess the closest myself and Warren ever got to bonding was over video games. He obsessed over fighting games and we’d sit side by side as he destroyed me over the latest title, watching gleefully as my energy bar slowly depleted towards the flashing KO. During these long afternoons, he’d provide running commentary as if we were actually the fighters on screen performing a dress rehearsal. He’d say this is what I’m gonna do to you as his character summoned a ball of fire or a lightning storm to burn my character to death. His far fingers would punch the buttons as he spoke under his breath. Oh yeah, I’m gonna fuck you up. If I ever fluked a win, he’d accuse me of cheating and that hair trigger temper would get dangerous. If I ever started to show any kind of talent for a game, he’d stop playing it and relentlessly practise at a new one, giving himself a month’s headstart knowing that I never played them at home.
Whether the money ran out, or his sister ended up with the wrong boyfriend, Warren never let on. I remember running scared as he pursued us, hurling stones and waving an iron bar around and we scattered; all except Clancy either being brave or looking for another scar to add to his collection, trying to calm him down. Whatever Clancy said to him, whatever blows he had to take, it worked. It was years later when he told me that Warren had finally snapped after coming home to find his sister with yet another client, robotically fucking on the dust of his parent’s bed. He moved out not long afterwards.
‘Of course I can’t remember’.
Take a photo of Beatrix on that hot day staring at the sun, then add a pair of glasses and some rouge lipstick and you’ll have the Beatrix of now. Still timeless and still obstinate. If Olga was the eye-rolling mother to our adventures, Beatrix played the school mistress. I never saw her climb a tree, or even get muddy knees. Beatrix was always happiest when we calmed down and played ‘House’ or sat around talking about The Big Things. Whenever we wanted to go off on some big idea – building a den, turning our road into a race track for our bikes – she would be the organiser, putting together the plans and instructing us on how best to do it without ever getting involved. I remember playing hide-and-seek and I can still smell the damp mud floor and the alkaline scent of wet leaves as I crouched down in a place that I thought was unbeatable. Beatrix too had obviously found a good place because, long after everyone else had been caught, I could hear our names being yelled out by the others as they searched fruitlessly for us, their voices raising in frustration. After an hour, Beatrix gave herself up and marched straight over to where I was. I asked her afterwards, how did she know? She gave me her best look of distain, as though such a question was beneath me, and told me that I’d hidden in her favourite place.
‘You’re smart like me’ she said. It was the first time I received a compliment that wasn’t delivered to be one.
‘Why would I remember what Warren saw? Isn’t he a junkie now?’
Having coffee with Beatrix is like attending a job interview where you know they’ve already decided not to hire you. Perhaps you’ve turned up in a Hawaiian shirt and flip flops, or you’ve walked in drunk enough for it to be noticeable but not drunk enough for it to be disruptive.
‘Do you remember what you saw?’ I ask her, impishly.
She sighs. ‘I’m not really interested in what I thought back then. It was a long time ago.’
‘Not long enough for some.’ I sip my coffee and think back to seeing Warren earlier in the morning, reaching deep into a waste bin in the park.
‘It’d be nice if we could have a meeting in which you don’t bring up our childish games’ she says, trying to soften her voice, to blunt the sharp edges. ‘What are you doing anyway? Why do you dwell on these things?’
I shrug. ‘I’m just looking for answers I suppose. I can’t remember what I saw, and I don’t know what to do now. When you’re confused about your future, you look to your past. Like looking up a word in a dictionary or a doctor going back to their textbooks.’
‘I don’t think you’re going to find answers about your life as a thirteen year old’
‘Maybe not. But I was happy. So maybe it’s worth looking back at what I was happy about.’
Beatrix raises an eyebrow and addresses me like the child she undoubtedly thinks I am. ‘You were happy because you had no responsibilities and you climbed trees all day. Are you telling me you want to be a forester?’
I regret taking a mouthful of coffee as she says this, and I splutter undignified.
‘The past is the past’ she asserts. ‘I don’t think back to then. I don’t think back to last week. It’s pointless.’
‘No. It might be futile, and it might even be damaging. But it’s never pointless. Besides, there’s more to it than just trees and responsibilities. Have you ever wondered about how your reactions to people’s thoughts change over time? For example, you might tolerate something you never would have before, or on the flip side you now reject something that you were previously open to. Don’t you wonder at what point that change happened, and why?’
‘I haven’t changed….’
‘I know you haven’t’ I smile from behind my cup. ‘Which is why you don’t look back. Time is a straight road for you and you can see the answers for miles. For some of us, time is a meandering track that needs to be re-explored every now and then so we can get our bearings.’
Beatrix stares into nothing. When I glance over, I can see her eye line leads to a small dog lying on the ground, its paws tucked under its chin. I sit and wait in silence until she suddenly breaks herself, with a judder, from whatever trance she had been in.
‘No… I can’t remember’ she says firmly.
‘I can’t remember what you said you saw. It was a long time ago.’ She stands up quickly. ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you. You’ll have to figure it out for yourself.’
Beatrix walks around the table but then stands over me, as if caught in an unexpected spider web. ‘Call me again when you’re in the present. Or better yet, when you’re looking at the road ahead.’ She adjusts her glasses and mutters a goodbye. I’m aware that people are staring at me, assuming we are a couple who’ve just had an argument.
‘Goodbye Beatrix’ I smile.
It’d been hard to make out the address. The screaming kids in the background were overlapped by the screaming voice of Olga in the foreground. Somewhere in between all this carnage, a flapping husband desperately tried to find South. Eventually, I’d worked it out of her, between the Will You Put That Down and the How Many Times Have I Told You; some of the rhetorical questions asked when raising a family. I’d expected an argument about how it was a bad idea, but she just put the phone down after a terse goodbye and returned to her happy home.
I pulled up outside the drive. The lawn was carefully manicured, broken only by a small tree that climbed as high as the first storey windows. From its lower branches hung a forlorn rope; a piece of wood jammed in the bottom for a swing. I turned the engine off and smiled; yet again feeling anxious at a first meeting.
Wish me luck, I whispered to my car, and got out.
As I walked up the path, I could see a figure standing by the ground floor window. As I approached, it darted away. My heart began to thump and I could feel another hard lump in my throat. My knuckles had barely rapped the door when it swung open. A head of long blonde hair tilted slightly at me, the eyes widening and narrowing in contractions that were hard to read.
I cleared my throat.
‘Hello Irene. I’ve come to apologise…
…I have a question I’d like to ask.’
So often my pictures, like my stories, are autobiographical. I look at the shots I’ve taken in the past of various places – in Whitby, York, my hometown Dunstable, London – and I see ghosts all the time. What looks like an empty frame is actually full of people; me and others laughing, crying, sometimes fucking. Sometimes I feel bad about taking photos of these places, knowing that others will recognise them for what they are – more than just geography and a pretty space to fill a frame.
When I walk home late at night, there is a particular view that is amongst my very favourites. To the point that, regardless of what day I’ve had, regardless of how heavy the rain is pissing on the back of my neck, I stop and take stock of it for a few moments. I’ve often thought about taking a photo of it and sharing. But something stops me. A desire to keep something back, something secret that only I can enjoy.
The photos, the stories are all there for everyone to see. My stupid little affectation – this one view that only occurs on certain hours of certain days – will always remain mine.