Back to First Page|
By David Gardiner
This story is based on Rick Hayter's original song Memories of You. It tells of a man who walked out on his first love to go to the big city and make his fortune, and has always wondered if he made the right decision.
This story may be reproduced in whole or in part for any non-commercial purpose provided that authorship is acknowledged and credited.
The copyright remains the property of the author
Just seeing the name of the little town on the motorway sign brings on a wave of maudlin self-pity. It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d be passing right by it on this route. My concentration lost, I allow the car to slow down. A van blasts its horn and passes me angrily on the inside. I return my attention to my driving and pull back into the middle lane and then the slow inner lane, and, without ever having made a conscious decision, join the slip road to leave the motorway. I glance at the dashboard clock. It’s only six-twenty. There should be plenty of time.
My first impression is that it’s much smaller than I remember it and incredibly run-down. It wasn’t much when I lived here, but Christ! It wasn’t this bad. Big sheets of plywood are nailed across the windows of half the shops in the High Road, the wood almost hidden by tattered layers of fly-posted advertisements; shells of abandoned vehicles clutter-up the car park of what we used to call the ‘new flats’. Not much new about them now. Crude graffiti daubed on the concrete walls, grey washing slumped along improvised lines on the balconies and walkways, a few mean looking youths leaning on their motorcycles at the opening to the underpass, a stray cat rummaging for food around an overturned wheelie-bin by the line of plundered and doorless garages. I roll down my window and am assaulted by the smell of decay, and the acrid fumes left over from a recent bonfire.
I turn left into an old familiar network of narrow back streets and slow to a walking pace for a good look. It’s no better. Row upon row of two up, two down terraced workers’ houses from the turn of the twentieth century. Flaking paint, rubbish piled in most of the front yards, rusting cars held up on bricks, litter drifting gently along the pavements on the evening breeze. The chip shop is closed and shuttered, the sign over the front crudely painted out. Passing close to the toilets at the rear of the local pub I catch a whiff of urine and wind up my window. It’s hard to tell if the pub is still in business – at a glance it seems derelict. Did it ever look any better? It’s difficult to remember. I slow to a halt directly outside its door. This is where Laura and I used to meet. We considered it quite sophisticated, sipping lager in the dimly-lit snug of the Duke, listening to David Bowie and Gilbert O’Sullivan on the piped music system. Why does it make my heart ache just to think about it? Where is the contempt I used to feel for these dingy streets and that shabby inept teenager that was me, back then? Haven’t I risen above all this? What’s wrong with me? I seem to be feeling emotions that I don’t understand. I’m turning into the kind of person that I used to despise.
I move off gently and turn one more corner before parking-up in a big space across the street from Laura’s house. It’s silly to call it that, she must have left here decades ago. The house is still here of course, and looks much the same. I doubt if the woodwork has even been painted since I was last here. I carefully lock the car and make my way across to the building. The gate is missing from the front and the little yard is overgrown and choked with litter. There is no sound, light or movement from inside. I find it hard to believe that anybody still lives here. After a brief pause I gather sufficient courage to push my way through the weeds and rubbish to the window of the sitting room.
I wipe the dust from the pane with the side of my hand and stare in. It’s Laura’s old room. The net curtains make it difficult but I can see the shape of the scruffy sofa where we so often embraced, or one much the same, just where it used to be in front of the gas fire. I lost my virginity on that sofa, the very first time that Laura invited me back. I’ve never known anybody else who enjoyed sex so much, who was so relaxed about it. My heart seems to be racing, I don’t know why. I’m not that tensed-up teenager with his raging hormones any more, damn it! I remember all the times we sat there, listening to the rain, or the trains passing on the line behind the house. I remember her face, and her body. I feel a dull longing – for Laura, I suppose, and for my youth. I acknowledge how many times I’ve dreamed about that room, those days and nights, her face, her body, this town…
‘Can I help you, Mister?’ The voice is mild, but I am startled and embarrassed as I turn to the middle-aged woman standing by the front door.
‘I’m terribly sorry. I didn’t think anybody lived here. I was just passing through and I… well, I used to live in this town and I knew somebody who lived in this house. I just wondered if it had changed…’
‘You don’t sound like somebody from around here, Mister.’
I am doubly embarrassed. The years spent carefully cultivating a middle class Southern accent flash before me. I open my mouth to launch into some kind of explanation but abandon the idea. ‘I live in London now,’ I offer feebly.
‘That’s a right posh car you’ve got there, Mister. You want to be careful parking something like that around here.’
‘Oh well, I’m only stopping for a moment. I’d best be on my way.’ I move towards the door and the woman.
‘This friend who lived here,’ she enquires, ‘what was his name?’
‘It was a girl, actually. A woman I suppose I should say. She didn’t own the place, she just rented a room here.’
‘It must have been Laura then.’
I smile. ‘Yes. Do you remember her?’
‘Not really. I moved out when I was sixteen. It was Mum who took in the lodgers. I remember the name though. And Mum only ever had the one female lodger. The others were all men’
‘Oh. So… you moved out, and then you must have moved back again.’
‘That’s right. Mum needs me now. She’s not well.’
‘I’m truly sorry to hear that. I don’t remember her when Laura lived here. We always seemed to have the place to ourselves.’
She nods. ‘Mum went out a lot. She’s making up for it now.’ She pauses. ‘Look, Mister, I can tell you want to know about this Laura. I know a little bit, not very much. Would you like to come in and talk about it? If Mum was a bit better you could talk to her, but she’s too far gone now. It ain’t a nice thing to say but it’s the truth. She don’t see nobody no more.’
‘Oh, I wouldn’t want to bother you, or your mother…’
‘Ain’t no bother.’ She steps aside and I find myself guided firmly through to the hallway. ‘Kettle’s just boiled,’ she tells me, vanishing into the kitchen. The door of the living room is open and I stand in the entrance looking in at the sofa. I’m certain now that it’s the same one. I try to estimate its age. Even back then it was old. ‘Sit down,’ she shouts from the kitchen, ‘I'll be with you in a minute. Do you take sugar?’
‘No thank you.’ Soon we are sitting together on the ancient sofa with tea and biscuits on a tray between us.
‘Mum stays upstairs,’ she explains. ‘Makes it easier for the toilet.’ I nod. For a moment we sip our drinks and nibble our biscuits. ‘It looks like you did pretty good for yourself down in London,’ she ventures.
‘You’re right. My father worked on the railway. Our family was nothing special. I lived the cliché, I was the first one in my family to get into University. Then I went into politics.’
She seems excited. ‘Politics. Are you famous then?’
I smile. ‘Evidently not as famous as all that. No, I had quite a good career at the beginning. I was a junior minister in my early thirties. Then… I made a mistake. I was famous for a little while then.’ She doesn’t respond and I suspect that I’m being too indirect. ‘I… was accused of impropriety. Corruption. Brown envelopes changing hands. You know the kind of thing. I had to resign my seat. I was bloody lucky to keep out of jail. It was… a ten minute wonder at the time. That’s the way it is in public life.’
‘But you were innocent, right?’
‘Why do you think that? No, I wasn’t innocent. I haven’t been innocent for a long time. Not since the last time I sat on this sofa, I should say.’
She seems genuinely shocked. Most people when they hear about my past see it as incurring a penalty in a sort of game. Everybody does it – I just happened to be doing it when the referee was looking. But this woman actually cares. I had forgotten that people like that existed. I feel the need to justify myself. ‘I meant it when I said we were just an ordinary family,' I plead. 'In fact we were a lot worse than ordinary. My mother drank and my father worked like a madman to keep everything together. They fought about money all the time. When I got into University I saw a different kind of world, one where people had nice houses and holidays abroad and sent their children to private schools and talked seriously about art and science and ideas. I wanted that world. I was determined I would never turn into my father. Life would never get like that for me. I would be a success, somebody important, somebody with money and power. And for a long time that was all that mattered. The brown envelopes were just part of it. An easy way to get there, I thought. Maybe the only way. Whatever it took, that was my attitude. So don’t mistake me for a nice man. I’m not a nice man. I’m an appalling man. I saw the higher path and chose the lower. That’s who I am. I wasn’t always like this but it’s what I became. I’m not going to lie about it?’
She shakes her head. ‘I can tell, Mister, and you’re not a bad man. I’ve been with bad men. I know them when I see them. What’s wrong with you is something different. What’s wrong with you I think is that you don’t like yourself very much. ‘Least that’s how it seems to me.’
I shrug. ‘You ain’t old,’ she adds, ‘you can start again. Some other line. Anyway, you ain’t done so bad, have you? That’s no old banger you’ve got out there. That’s no C & A off-the-peg suit you’ve got on either.’
‘No, you’re right. I was able to find ways to make money. I had contacts. All I really lost… was my self respect, I suppose. And my wife. But that’s a different story. And maybe one or two other things. Like my direction in life.’
‘Bloody hell, most folk around here would give their right arm to have what you’ve got. Bet you got a nice house, and maids to do your cleaning, and money to go to fancy restaurants, and abroad, and a big plasma TV set…’
I nod. ‘Yes. You’re right. That was exactly the kind of thing I wanted when I left here. And it’s true, I’ve got them now. I’ve also got an ex-wife who won’t speak to me and a teenage daughter that I meet in some public place twice a month. And a father buried about half a mile from here whose funeral I was too busy to attend. And a few posh-sounding hard up friends who’ll tag along with me so long as I’m paying the bills. It’s a wonderful life. Rich and fulfilling. So what am I doing back here, I wonder. That’s what I ask myself.’
She smiles. ‘I like it. It’s romantic. You’ve come back to find the girl you left behind.’
I smile and chuckle for a moment. ‘No, nothing like that. I know the difference between fantasy and reality. The road forked back then, and I’ve walked much too far down this one. Probably the wrong one for me. It would be good to see her again though. Just once maybe. I could tell her that I’m sorry for disappearing with my stuck-up University friends, and for not writing when I said I would; and for being a shit, basically. She was a lot better off without me then and she still is now. I would just like to see her once, and ask her if she ever thinks about those days. Because I do, more and more it seems as they get further away. I think walking out on Laura was my first big mistake, bigger even than the brown envelopes. I’d like to be able to tell her that. Not give her a load of excuses because there aren’t any. I think I owe it to her. That’s all I want.’ I realise that I’m letting self pity get control of me again and pause to compose myself. ‘You said that you know a little bit about her. May I ask you what that is?’
She puts down her cup and looks me in the eye. ‘Hardly nothing really. She was hurt when you disappeared down to London. Took it bad. Then she moved out. Mum said she went to a town in Wales. I can’t remember the name of it, but there was something famous about it. Some kind of disaster.’
‘Yes. That’s right. I couldn’t remember what it was called. Did she have relations there?’
‘Not that I know of. Is that all you can remember?’
‘That’s about it. But it’s only a small place. You could ask around.’
‘I think I’ve given you the wrong impression. I’m not doing some kind of detective work to track her down. I only stopped here because I saw the name on the sign on the motorway.’
She is quiet for a moment. ‘I don’t know you very well. I can only judge by what I see, right?’ I nod. ‘Well, seems to me, Mister, that you’ve got unfinished business with that Laura and you won’t be content until you meet up with her again and get her forgiveness. That’s what you’re really after, isn’t it?’
‘Forgiveness? Is it?’ I begin to feel extremely foolish. Why am I spouting all this personal stuff to a complete stranger? I look down at my watch, making sure she sees me do it. ‘Good heavens! Look at the time. I won’t be back in London till midnight. You’ve been incredibly kind but I really must get going… ‘
‘Are you going to take my advice, Mister? Tell me the truth.’
I hesitate. ‘No, I’m sorry, I don’t think so. It would probably turn out to be a terrible mistake.’
SEND ME AN EMAIL