Memory cruelly flashes the very distant past back at me. Moments and scenes from then resonate with meaning so loudly just now. I hardly had an idea of how beautiful that life was. I fret that I chose just to exist in too much of it; and to live, truly, in too little. I can’t decide whether these current glimpses haunt because of this. I can’t decide if I’m remembering or romanticizing or retouching. Maybe it’s the poverty that was there, in each day, that warps my thinking; that continues to transport things which were felt so keenly back then forever onwards to the present day. The present commiserating the past. Maybe it’s the loss of a simplicity that haunts me: the simplicity of childhood, of having others make decisions for you, of not having to agonise over choice, because there was so little choice. Maybe this noise of the past is here again because it must carry from the past to the present and be there in my future too: the inevitable ‘forever’ destination of something never quite resolved.
Back then. The kitchen wall. Huge swathes of orange and green and blue and white and yellow chalk. Sticks that scratched and glided across that half-polished, half-porous surface. That large wall which took your gaze towards the semi-glazed back door, and out to the shed into which coal was delivered fortnightly, and to the cherry tree, opposite, where pools of amber sap spilled from the trunk, hardened, hanging like jewels. An unloved garden beyond, where grass grew wild, up as tall as the shoulders of the children who played and trampled and hid there.
It’s always when struggling with the present that the past returns to distract, but then the present is only that most forward point of the past’s continual accumulation of itself. The present is forever being made sense of via recourse to the past.
And on my mind goes, dissecting and recalibrating – procrastinating. The past offers me all these return glimpses of the only person I feel I might comprehensively know. I ask questions of that person – of that past self – already knowing the answers. How would he act? How would he respond? I know what he would do, and it’s like a steer from someone I trust. An affinity which guides the actions of this present struggling self.
Fogs of purple dust on the wall. Yellow lines streaking through the polished areas and the divets of broken plaster. Through that doorway – that glass top panel with its thick, cracked putty edges. Outside, a small rickety stone step up to a square patch of lawn. The ground there uneven, the grass unkempt: Pete and I would sometimes trim it with nail scissors and sometimes we’d just bunch and tear it with our hands. In the top-left corner of the lawn: the cherry tree. In summer, we pulled fruit from the lower-hanging branches, rarely to eat it, but often merely for something to do – for the pleasure of that snap as the branch yielded to the twist and pull of our fingers. We pulled them when they were yellow and green too; toughened fruits which we would throw to the top of the garden where they would hit the lap-panel fencing with bullet-like dinks. Ricochet sounds were a particular pleasure of that garden. We would torpedo stones at the steel washing-line posts. For every twenty that flew past their target, the one which made contact would bring us intense pleasure. We used the same posts to play football: one of us attacking the post at the top of the garden path, the other attacking the post at the bottom. Each slap of leather against those posts brought the same joy as the hardened cherries and the stones and pebbles. When the football disappeared into a neighbour’s garden, we would endeavour to carry on with any other ball. And when there was no other ball, it felt like the sudden death of a small joy.
It all returns. I see the same scene from the garden, from the back door and from the double window of the upstairs back bedroom. I can hear the rebounding balls and stones. I can see Pete crawling near the neighbour’s fence, lowering, onto his stomach, extending an arm through the wooden railings and brambles, prodding at the ball with a garden hoe or rake, desperately trying to reclaim our happiness.
Through that back door, through the vertical ribs of that frosted glass panel, where my brothers and friends would press their faces, refracting into scores of mouths and eyes and nostrils, through which multiple faces revealed the simple pleasures of life outside of that house. On the wall, all those bright colours. On the lip of the skirting, below, a million particles of brightly coloured chalk dust. When Mum cooked, with the door and windows closed, the wall become one great shining wet surface. The colours would begin to run into one another. Drawings would lose their definition; a boy would lose his drawings.
Outside. We spent time clearing the lawn of the cherry stones and the half-rotting fruit that the birds had dropped. We set up two deckchairs, keeping them in their folded-flat state, stood lengthways on the grass, parallel, with about four or five feet in between, and with their frames half-opened and perpendicular at one end to create a ‘U’ shape. We draped sheets and blankets across the top, folding them into the frame. We lay inside the den, cushions and quilts on the floor. We lay back and looked up at the orange squares, picked out through the weave of the fabric as the sun came through the double canopy of the tree branches and the blankets. I remember those constellations of daylight so well. Those shimmering squares are one of my earliest recollections of a world that wasn’t people, but was warmth and light, was sensation; was contentment that came at no cost.
The past. Those simple pleasures.
There was a cloth which we would dunk into the stagnant water of the bowl in the sink, or run under the tap. With it, we wiped the wall clean and removed the pictures. We erased the lines and the colours, ready to start afresh, ready to create new images with the sticks and stubs of the various coloured chalks, the dust collecting on the lip of skirting below, as we marked the plaster.