The train pulled into Kilburn station. She was on her way home to a London ‘burb’ nearly 30 years later. The tannoy message was still the same, ‘mind the gap.’
It had been somewhere between Kilburn and Paddington in a tall, mean sort of tenement building. As she mounted the stairs, she was aware, rather than saw, the dingy wallpaper, so dingy it didn’t even have a colour she could remember. Well, yes, there was a colour – a sort of sepia yellow/brown. Was there carpet on the stairs? Was there a smell? If there was it was probably a musty, mouldy mixture of neglect. It was all a blur then and even more of a blur now.
How had she got there? She really couldn’t remember to this day. Yes, she had got on the boat in Dun Laoire and caught a train from Holyhead to Euston where she had been met by a relative and housed for a few weeks before she had got a job and a room of her own.
She could remember a doctor in Dublin before she left prescribing some tablets because she had had a lump in her throat for weeks and was finding it hard to swallow. He had wished her well and she remembered now how comforting the wish was because it had a ring of sincerity about it and comfort and sincerity and the care of someone with integrity was very comforting. The tablets were great! She could swallow again and not feel anything very much.
She had known that her father was living somewhere in London. He had, after all, written to say so a couple of months after just disappearing into thin air. She remembered the journey home in the van with her mother after reading a little note from him saying he would not be coming home with them. She had no memory of any conversation between them.
There was a silence filled with clanging feelings of humiliation and doubt and fear.
Her mother drove into a sort of Celtic twilight full of all the bad sinister leprechauns who lurked in dark places.
Agonising weeks of tears and no money and the shame with friends and neighbours hitting them in places they never knew existed – in places even ‘too deep for tears’.
It was the shame and secrecy of the years all compacted into one deep volcano seething and boiling and threatening to explode anywhere, anytime at the most inappropriate and unexpected time and place.
It was the fear of a great chasm opening up into which she and her mother and their lives might fall at any moment. Selling their home and business for a laughable pittance and the shame and fear of that. Her mother’s pride and joy of a baby-grand piano being sold again for a laughable pittance to a priest who should have known better than to indulge in a ‘bargain’. Her own huge need to be rid of it all at any cost even if it did mean leaping into the unknown chasm. At least it would be different there and somewhere where scandal mongers and prying eyes couldn’t reach.
As she sat on the train now she couldn’t remember how she had got to the place between Kilburn and Paddington and she certainly could not have foreseen a future where a half minute’s explosion would devastate and change and ruin all their lives. Maybe they could all be reborn in a different setting?
But somehow she had made it to this awful house and had walked up the stairs in the dimness. God, what would her snobbish relatives and some acquaintances have thought, she wondered now? Then, no such thoughts entered her feelings, not her head, it wasn’t involved in the climb up the stairs. Even now, on this warm London tube train, her breathing was shallow and her heart was pounding, her hands were cold, and a deep humiliation enshrouded her. This must have been how she felt on the stairs because if the memory evoked these physical sensations now, she certainly must have been feeling them then. But she couldn’t remember them then. Just as she couldn’t remember how she had found this address, how she had made first contact, what bus, train, walk she had taken to get here. The memory to her now seemed really weird. Why could she not remember? Maybe one day she would!
Did she knock on the door? It was on the left, she remembered. Or did he sense she was outside and open it? Had she told him she was coming? Until now, when she had really started remembering, she didn’t realise she didn’t remember all these things! But her heart was still racing and her hands were still cold.
Somehow, she was inside the room and they were sitting on either side of an old gas fire. She and her father. How many years? Three? Four? One? The amount of time didn’t seem to matter now and it probably didn’t then. The memory was like some Dutch still life painting – the dimness, the fire and she and her father on either side. They were like flowers in a vase.
There probably hadn’t been a kiss or embrace – there never had – maybe a handshake.
Even in an old oil painting someone poses for the artist and the someone is human and has feelings. She did remember a sense of peace, unpredictably, he was still sober from years ago when he had had a cure. That was peaceful. Never mind anyone else out there with their opinions and judgments and how far anyone might have fallen from grace like a Shakespearean tragedy and how wide the gap between then and now and the gap in affection, the love was there alright. It always had been but just wouldn’t lie down and die. The fire fizzed and glowed between them.
The only bit of conversation she remembered across the gas fire was him saying that he ‘thought he was finished’, implying, until now, when I had been somehow transmuted to this room.
It was the only acknowledgment she had ever heard from anyone of the years of drink and drunkenness, loss of money, loss of home, loss of affection, loss of precious time and the build up in her of anger, resentment and, she realised now, a huge jealousy and envy of others who had all these things.
It was quite shocking to realise that she was jealous of the drink. It had been like another woman who had taken her father away from her and left her and her mother penniless.
It would have been comforting now if she could have remembered him saying how sorry he was that all this had happened and for the hurt that had been caused.
But she couldn’t. Her train was nearly at her home station and she walked home wondering about all the things she had swept under her carpet. It had only been the memory of the place that had stirred something and she had allowed the stirring to bring something to the surface. She would do it again.
In the meantime she would think about jealousy, nowadays considered shameful and sad. But, it was probably a necessity and a strong thing to be in past times in order to protect loved ones from danger. A lot of thinking for a lot of journeys!