I wrote this piece some years ago. I don’t remember why. It was filed, un-used until I stumbled across it many months ago when I was trawling through pieces I had saved on an old computer and never moved. I read it through, and almost immediately it confirmed for me the direction my planned blog should take: the journey we all must make as years pass by. Despite providing the inspiration for the general shape of the blog, I have never actually posted this piece. It’s a little long and the style is rather different to that which I have allowed myself to develop of late. I felt that it never quite fitted in, but I now realise that it is entirely what I’m doing here. It has all the themes and all the fears contained in most of what I do. So, as it is one year today and 124 posts since I started the blog, and it is kind of what the whole thing is about, I thought that you might like to read it anyway.
I hope you like it.
Things were not quite as Gerald had expected. Trouble was, Gerald didn’t really know what he had expected. The coach was lovely. Real luxury job: air-conditioning, on-board video, tea making facilities, proper flushing loo….. Looked almost brand new too. He had to admit that he hadn’t really taken it in as he got on. He didn’t know what colour it was. Somehow he couldn’t even remember seeing it from the outside at all. He remembered climbing up the steps and being surprised by all the happy faces. He had been the last person to get on and all but one of the seats were already occupied. He had walked the length of the coach to reach the seat, the other half of which was occupied by an angular-looking elderly lady. He had taken in the welcoming smiles of everyone aboard as he had made his way along, but he had paid particular attention to the face of the person with whom he would be sharing a seat.
The face was angular, but not hard. Its lines were softened by an almost permanent smile. They had hit it off almost at once. She giggled and laughed throughout their conversation, her face occasionally breaking into an almost childish grin. She clearly enjoyed every aspect of her life. She spoke lovingly of her family; of her children, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She spoke too of her mother and father, and it seemed strange to him that she made no distinction between those who came before and those who came after her. She pronounced upon them all with obvious affection, but with a curious distance which he did not quite understand. She became reticent only when he asked about her own life. “You must ask others about me,” she had said and would be drawn no further. Still she smiled. He became intrigued, wanting to ask questions and expecting to receive the kind of answers he knew he had no right to expect from so new an acquaintance. The close proximity of fellow travellers always engendered such curiosity within him. She spoke quietly, warmly, but carefully, refusing to become irritated by what he knew was his over-persistence. He felt ashamed at his ignorance yet angered by his own shame. She listened attentively, answered quietly, speaking with an aura of certain knowledge, and the smile, an expression of pure serenity, lingered.
And then silence fell between them. Not suddenly, but softly, like the dying leaves of autumn. Like a gossamer blanket, it smothered confrontation and quelled exasperation. It did not put a space between them, but drew them somehow closer together, like an invisible thread, yielding, but unbroken. It was a silence unburdened by guilt or envy. A silence without rancour. A silence between friends.
Gerald gazed through the window as the countryside sped by. He was unable to remember when he had become aware that the coach was moving. It seemed always to have been so. He did not recognise any of the landscape through which they were travelling, but he was not troubled. He tried to focus his mind, to envision his destination, but he could not. He tried, in vain, to recollect his reasons for being there, heading… where? And where was he travelling from? How could he not know? How could he not care? Strange, but his mind had always been so acute before… before?
Some strange Mystery Tour this, when, having driven for hours through an alien and indistinct landscape, he found himself being toured around the streets of his youth. He was amazed at how much he remembered: every house, every street corner, every face. He was intrigued to find that everyone else felt the same. How little things had changed.
Children played in streets, curiously devoid of traffic. The coach travelled quickly, but the children seemed almost unaware of its presence. They rode antiquated bicycles with asymmetrical wheels, wooden scooters with nailed-on pram wheels, and shared roller skates, two to a pair. They played cricket with a scrap of wood and a ball of newspaper bound with sellotape. They played football with a bald and punctured tennis ball. They played Hare-and-hounds, chasing around the streets, in and out of high-walled back yards, over part-demolished houses and derelict factories. It looked like a bomb site.
Familiar smells assailed his senses. Smells that brought back fragments of memory. Displaced and disjointed, but with a clarity that startled. The morning must of a used gazunder, damp clothes drying by a smouldering coal fire, bacon fat and beef dripping. Boiled cabbage. The warm, almost sweet, odour of damp walls and carpets, dark coal-houses, cool rain on hot concrete. Boiled cabbage. Oft-worn, unwashed woollen socks, the wooden floors of school house, school meals. And cabbage, cabbage, cabbage. Each fragrance carried a picture, like a photograph; sharply focused, brightly coloured, a moment frozen in time. The images over-laden with emotion; pleasure, pain and heart-ache, so that it seeped from them and overwhelmed him more acutely than the present. Yet with it all came a sense of warmth and well-being, a feeling that, come what may, all would be well. And cabbage.
Around him his fellow passengers stared into the middle distance, each caught in their own reverie, dreaming their own dreams, recalling their own past-lives. How could such a disparate bunch share such common memories? What was it about coach travel that encouraged such nostalgia and introversion? How strange that the general hum of conversation that had filled the bus throughout the opening miles of the journey, should have died so suddenly. It was as if a switch had been thrown. Conversation on/ conversation off. All communication drowned in a sea of remembrance and boiled cabbage.
Beside him the old lady (Why hadn’t he asked her name whilst she was still awake?) breathed softly and slowly. He could see the peace behind her eyes and he envied such tranquillity. He surveyed her features as if for the first time. They no longer seemed angular. They were strong; calm and assured. Reassuring in a way, but not angular. He closed his eyes and tried to remember her as he had first seen her, how long ago? He tried to assemble her face, like a police ‘photo-fit’, but she would not form. He kept seeing his own mother, his own grandmother, his wife and he could not tell them one from another. The features mingled, softened and became as one with his fellow passenger, so that he had to shake his head to try and clear the image from his mind. He felt nervous. Hair rose on the back of his neck, his cheeks flushed, heat prickled along his back. Why could he not remember? He concentrated his mind, attempting to create a mental picture of somebody, anybody, from his life, but all he could see was a single conglomeration of everyone he had ever known. When he opened his eyes and looked into those of his sleeping neighbour he saw the same face and he knew that behind her darkling eyelids, the face that she was seeing was his.
His mind whirled with bewilderment and he began to feel panic welling inside him. Why did he feel so confused? Why did he find it so difficult to remember his reasons for being aboard this coach? Where was he going, where was he coming from? How could a normal, well adjusted person forget such fundamentals? Perhaps he was dreaming. This journey had all the ingredients of a dream, but somehow he knew that it was real.
All his life had been like this. Lurching from one uncertainty to another. Never knew whether he was coming or going, his mum had said. God, she’d be rubbing her hands together if she was here with him today. He could almost hear her, “I told you so.”
The old lady stirred beside him, sighed deeply and stretched her creaking limbs. She saw him staring at her and smiled. “What’s your name?” he asked. He was aware that he should have given her time to collect her thoughts, to wake peacefully and gather her senses, but he had to know. He had to know now.
“Is it really so important to you?”
“At the moment, yes, I think it is.”
“Do you know why?”
He shook his head sadly and gazed beyond her and through the window to the trees and fields and buildings that flew past in a hazy blur. He could see nothing, yet he could see it all. “Why am I so confused?”
“Sssh,” she said. “Watch the video.”
He raised his eyes to the screen above his head, it was alive with colours. They swirled and twisted, forming convoluted patterns of light and texture. Familiar sounds surrounded him, overlaid and entwined; a cacophony of noise, overwhelming and enveloping. Slowly, but slowly, both sight and sound resolved, reformed and coalesced into something recognizable. The pictures were of the streets through which they had passed earlier in the day. The sounds were the same. It was as if the journey had been filmed and was now being shown on the bright video screen. Only the pictures were brighter, even clearer. He was certain he could detect the smells. Cabbage. And he could see faces. He could see his own face in amongst the children, hear his own voice. The pictures overwhelmed his senses, the sounds reverberated inside his head. His whole life was there before him.
With a huge effort of will he dragged his eyes away from the screen and looked at those around him. Each of them was watching the ‘movie’ with the same mixture of fascination and bewilderment etched upon their faces. He knew that what they were seeing were scenes from their own lives’ and that they too were just beginning to understand the full implications of this journey. He was overwhelmed with the realisation, and yet he was at peace. He knew that soon this transition would be ending, the expedition over. He could not comprehend the nature of his destination, but he knew it was a place from which he would never leave.
He turned to the old lady and she saw understanding in his eyes. She smiled, as she had smiled when they first met, minutes, hours, a life-time ago.
“Muriel,” she said. “My name is Muriel.”
Thank you for joining me on my journey so far.