This story appeared in print in issue 27 of Dreamcatcher magazine and is available to buy from Dreamcatchermagazine.co.uk . It’s a short story about the way we remember our loved ones.
The Box in the Attic
The fluffy white dog in the Trilsby Herald caught Johns eye. Closing the paper he wondered if it would ever stop. Seeing Jake, Clara’s Westie, under the caption ‘Elisha wins Trilsby Dog Trials’ suggested that moving out of the city hadn’t helped at all. He knew the dog in the picture was Jake (an owner always knows) and he no longer tried to convince himself otherwise. He used to be able to dismiss it all as a series of coincidences. Now and again their favourite song would play on the radio or he’d be channel-hopping and stumble on something, a tv show or a movie, that would remind him of her. He’d tell himself its a natural part of the grieving process, but after four years he’d started to question his sanity. When these little coincidences became daily occurrences he left their home in L.A and move out to Trilsby in the hope of finding peace. Unfortunately for John, the further he ran, the more things seemed to pull him back. And it was no longer just songs on the radio, or a passerby wearing her perfume, these daily tributes were becoming more vivid, intense and disturbing.
He put the paper down, walked over to his lounge window and looked out onto a cloudy February morning. Trilsby was a small town with some basic stores, a church, a gas station and very little else. Kinda like the small towns in the movies, although in the two months he’d been here he hadn’t seen any serial killers, vampires or too much evidence of inbreeding. There was a mountain range just beyond the town which had been oddly omitted from the sales pitch. It was no doubt a big draw for city folk looking to get a taste of the great outdoors. Clara would have loved living by the mountains, he thought, as he stepped over the piles of clothes on the floor and picked up his black leather jacket, wincing as he put his arm in, his shoulders stiff from the awkward sleeping position imposed by his beat-up second hand sofa. He looked in the mirror, running his hand through his scruffy brown hair as if this small grooming gesture would detract from the dark circles around his eyes, four days of stubble and the seemingly unshakable expression on his face that simply said, ‘leave me alone.’
Tap, Tap, Tap.
He opened the door. “George?”.
“Hi John. Here’s your mail”, said the grey haired postman. He took out a large handful of white envelopes from his worn out blue mailbag and handed it to John. “Figured I’d just hand this bunch to you. Saves me putting ‘em all in one by one”.
John took the letters. “What are you doing out here? I thought you retired way back in L.A?”, he asked, although he knew the answer. He had attended Georges retirement party in St Saviour’s church hall back in ’03. The shock of seeing his old postman was quickly replaced by a need to file this away as just another coincidence. But that was getting harder to do.
“How’s that Little Lady of yours?”.
“Clara died. Cancer, George”. You know that. You were at the funeral. You carried her coffin for Christ’s sake.
“Jesus John, not Clara”. George rubbed the back of his neck and looked away, embarrassed at his faux pas. “The girl you were with at the store the other day, I just assumed you guys were….ya know”.
“I don’t know who you mean. I’m not with anyone right now.”
“My mistake. Anyway, can’t stand here babbling all day. People need their post”. George patted his mailbag twice with his left hand before walking along the hall. “Take care, John.”
“You too. Pop in anytime”, John said, despite knowing that he would never see George again. Or whoever that was he was talking to. Was he even talking to anyone? There was no way George could be in Trilsby, he thought, he retired, I was there, Clara made Banoffee pie and the roof leaked, little Scott ate pork pies till he puked and George. George vowed never to work a round again. That happened. So this didn’t.
He walked back inside the flat and splashed water on his face. The idea that Trillsby wasn’t far enough had just gained some weight. Just a few small tons. He looked in the mirror and noticed how much he’d aged. Anyone looking would guess thirty-six, thirty-eight, heck even forties, he thought.
Fresh air. Thats what all the armchair therapists suggest on those talk shows. Fresh air and exercise. He left his apartment and walked towards the town square. He had an urge to just be around people. Normal people. A club he no longer seemed to be a member of.
The wind blew and he zipped his jacket up. The sun was high and didn’t provide much warmth. He put his hands in his jacket pockets as he turned the corner onto the main road through the town. A few cars drove past, some classic models, but mostly pick ups and the like. John hardly noticed. He had his head down and marched more than walked. They found him in his apartment and he knew damn well they’d find him out here. They know exactly where to look. The memories. Waiting. Following. He didn’t know where he was walking to, but he was not about to stop. He walked through crowds and over roads without checking both ways like his mother had taught him. He walked into parts of town he didn’t know were there and when it occurred to him to stop, he just kept going.
A girl caught his attention in Memorial Park. On a bench by the Sycamore trees sat a small blonde girl in a long white dress. She looked at the mountains in the distance and hadn’t noticed John gazing at her with an intensity that would cause a persons head to turn instinctively, without knowing why. But not hers. She didn’t look his way, just peered eagerly at the mountains, her eyes smiling as wide as her mouth with an expression of exhilaration that stretched from the tips of her curly blonde hair to her feet as they swung underneath the chair in anticipation of something that had caught her hearts attention. John sat down opposite her even if to do so was to welcome his insanity. He cried. His tears filtered out her imperfections leaving an image of purified beauty, both intolerable and captivating.
She turned her head and looked across the table. She was completely familiar and an absolute stranger. He looked away, only able to hold her glance for an instant. Her bright blue eyes made him feel self conscious, like a kid approaching his first crush at a Valentines disco.
Johns rational mind, which had been battered and beaten since her death, told him that it couldn’t be, told him Clara was dead and not coming back. Not now, not ever and certainly not in this small town with its small people and their small lives. His heart whispered otherwise. It’s her. She’s sitting right here and don’t you do a damn thing to screw it up.
“John! Look out there”, she said pointing over to the mountains like a child seeing her home town from an airplane for the first time. “It’s so beautiful”, she said. Her vibrant smile released a row of straight brilliant white teeth, like an actress on a toothpaste commercial advertising results impossible to create at home. And in the same way, Clara wasn’t Clara, but she was the way John remembered her. Or at least how he wanted to.
“How comes you’re out here, John?”, Clara said, still grinning. She reached out and tapped the back of his hand, long enough for a warm feeling to linger on his skin and the hairs on his neck stand up. He’d already stopped trusting his eyes and ears, was his own skin betraying him too?
He didn’t answer, just trembled with frustration at the thought that his grief had evolved to madness and that he wasn’t here at all and was sat crossed legged on the floor in the park, rocking back and forth, waiting for a lift to the madhouse.
Clara sat forward, put her elbows on the table and perched her head in her hands. He noticed her wedding ring and, had he not known her, he’d have put her at 17, 19 at a push, far younger than when they’d met.
“Well?”, she said, still waiting for an answer. She shook her head and raised her left eyebrow, still smiling. Always smiling.
He slammed both hands on the table making a noise like a shotgun.
“I don’t know who you are, or what’s going on here, or who’s pulling all this bullshit, but I’m not taking part anymore. You hear?”, he stood up and shouted, thrusting his right index finger in her face, venting his frustrations and partly to try to get a reaction out of her.
Clara remained calm. He sat back down and put his head in his hands. He wanted to pick her up and shake her till she disappeared, but it wouldn’t have done any good. Instead, he chewed through the past four years in his head, knowing that seeing his wife, feeling her touch, must be where this all ends.
“I didn’t know how to deal with it”, he said. “I thought the funeral would help and I’d be able to get on with life without you. But it didn’t work out that way. The best thing I thought to do was to try to forget. Box up all your stuff, everything about you and leave it in a corner somewhere, like that old snowboard and just forget. I buried myself in my work and tried to keep busy. Stop living in the past as Dr Phil would say. But I just couldn’t, wherever I looked, whatever I did, something was there to remind me”.
Her voice sounded different somehow, different enough for him to peek through his fingers, then take his hands away. His gritted teeth relaxed. Her glow had gone. Her hair was a dull blonde and the dark roots complimented the dark bags under her dim blue eyes. Her skin was pale and drawn. Her sparkling white dress was replaced with one of Johns old baggy jumpers. He felt a short tug on his heartstrings and his anger seeped away. This was Clara. The woman he loved. And she was beautiful.
“You tried so hard to forget me that you could do nothing but remember”, she said and smiled which made her crows feet more pronounced. Now he’d give her 39. 37 on a sunny day.
At that moment he understood everything. Things weren’t ‘just appearing’, he’d been willing them all along as the distress of seeing aspects of our loved ones everyday doesn’t compare to the thought of not being able to recall them at all. It’s the hearts way of staying in touch with our memories and it seems the further you run, the harder it tries to bring you back.
When John raised his head again she was gone.
John stood in his lounge and looked out of the window onto the familiar city. He’d returned to work and the move to Trilsby was laughed off by his colleagues as the early onset of a midlife crisis. He put his black with two sugars down on the window sill next to a framed photo of Clara, the one from their trip to Disneyland in the spring of ’04, one of those shots she wasn’t ready for which always turn out to be the best pictures of all.