by Ian C. Smith
“Put down in your books as profit every new day
That fortune allows you to have.”—Horace, Odes i.9
I. The Past’s Pale Shadow
Fresh paint’s reek reminds me of our renovated London digs. Bedazzled by the idea of grotty survival, I expected roaches, not paint. I riffed, living my book, play, and film fantasies, on the artistic fringe and a song about leaving for the coast. Exploring, we made a brass rubbing in a nearby church, its stone smelling of silent centuries stilling me.
That paint just a façade, we saved coins for the meter, hobnobbing with the heartsore, shared a hairy bathroom and toilet down the hallway, heard through the thin wall next door’s TV droning late at night, and the soft tread of pale lodgers, some flung far from the colonies, like us, or fled from the provinces’ joblessness to their city of dreams where I tried out a cockney accent spoken by my forefathers.
In a vast undermanned post-office I noticed her lose sight of me, a tincture of alarm, bossy mask slipped. She seemed to believe I might do a runner, even without passport and funds she guarded, fraught, in a red zipped bag, releasing me from duty’s leash, her panicked expression tweaking a pang of what I fled from; responsibility, our house sold to finance this, my grand adventure. Emerging from the muggy patience of the queuing herd I registered her relief clutching that bag.
Moving on, crossing old borders, some redundant now, etched no succouring memories for her, just irritation at my playful Procol Harum jokes, their nonsensical hit seeming to follow us and her red bag around Old Europe. I wore a pea-jacket to ward off the icy wind scouring November fields blackened by slow drenching rain where battered poplars lay skittled, stripped of their splendour, one’s matted roots exposed, curling like wild sexual hair.
Back across the Channel a train’s horn keened in the gloaming near a derelict former Air Force base where my father was stationed in WW2, airwaves perhaps haunted by distant voices whispering on that wind, any brave truth we might have shared stuck in autumn’s red raw throat as I fingered her last note in a pocket of that pea-jacket doomed to exile now, sagged like shame in the silent dark of my wardrobe.
In this age of quick phones I think of letters turning up lonely years after long-dead servicemen posted them, the bereft softly kissing old handwriting. Our youthful folly, us, annulled, that note became a memento of my self-absorption’s end. My heart a cave, I wonder if that red bag exists somewhere. There are things we need no reminders of, yet smells—of fresh paint, old buildings, or cold rain—pierce me. Now this absurd urge to walk through those burnished days again.
II. Return Ticket
Blessed by a blackbird’s sweet old song in morning light I unthinkingly take down our coffee pot, immediately replacing it with the one that holds less. Through dusty glass I see the yellowed tips of tufty grass, remember springtime mowing, messing about with fuel, oil, necessary ways we squander our days. Sipping my reviver I muse over the year of my death. Calculating attrition, I arrive at a date resembling what was once science fiction. Then I summon memories I already knew I would retrieve now when they were being formed.
Survival’s editor weeding out memory’s dross, I reel in sight’s transaction with light’s throb and sway, and sounds: the yearning ache of harbour foghorns, distant voices I love hearing again, and scents: the evocation of hot pavements after sudden rain, or sweet mown hay. Morning mist hanging cool, I recall the web art of a tiny spider’s skein. All of these and more drift across this morning’s mind.
In my hippocampus archive lies the freefall shock of romantic love, that bright electric blindness, its bungee leap beauty, everything past superseded, utterly, and lying together watching for shooting stars across a rapture of sky, our forest breakfast’s echoes, a waterfall’s silver plunge, the quick pulse of silken skin. I also dwell on a different kind of love: babies’ chuckling wet kisses. This strong caffeine hit even triggers a strange night train journey through snow that quickens my breath as if I were aboard, toting my precious pack again.
The splendour of dawn in a great city after soft-footing from the youth hostel while others slept, gleeful flea market discoveries, thunder’s warlord fanfare of a looming storm outside a castle’s walls, all revisit me. One night we whispered in a stark abbey’s moon-shadowed ruin. Earlier, we had gazed on estuary boats tide-beached, admired a house with blue shutters and tiny donkeys I picture now amidst a haze of wildflowers. Back in those days at the old mill where we stayed the floor creaked like my old bones now as we approached winter hearth’s lambent blaze.
Photo Credit: João Cabral.
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