C/W: Swearing, mention of gore and physical violence
If men would only do as they’re told, we’d all get along just fine. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case. Apart from my Albert, of course. Now there was a man who knew his place, God rest his soul.
My daughter, Marie, has not been as fortuitous, and I suspect my grand-daughter has much the same issue. I can hear them rumbling about upstairs, sorting through cardboard boxes, suitcases and black bin liners replete with fifty-three years’ worth of meticulous hoarding.
Wrapped in warm scents of peppermint tea, I studiously survey my street behind a veil of white laced curtains. And it is my street. I was born seventy-two years ago on the living-room carpet not five houses away. Came rocketing into the world so fast the midwife barely made it in time to cut the cord and slap my bottom. And I’m one of the few locals who remembers what Foxton village was like back then. Before the train station brought sharp-suited city commuters, chain restaurants and Brazilian coffee to our doorsteps. Bloating the village into a town and warping its rural charm to something more modern and streamlined. All the others are dead or senile or gone in some other way.
“Mum?” Marie descends the stairs and comes into the living room. In her hands is an old wooden heart-shaped box about the width and breadth of two hand spans. “I found this in the attic. Is it yours?”
I recognise it instantly, of course, but I tilt my head and furrow my brow. “Oh uh, I’m not sure. Let’s see.” I slowly place my tea on the little table to my right and hold out my hands.
Technically, the house is hers now. I’ve allowed her to transform it into a modern abode with flatpack “wood-effect” furniture, shiny chrome and a television thin as anything. What exactly is the modern obsession with everything being flat?
All of this was fine by me, but did she have to clear out the attic?
The box is heavier than I remember. I rest it on my lap and feel my own heart thrumming faster. It has been a very long time since I touched these grains of cedarwood, felt the curve and lip of the opening catch, holding secrets only I will ever know.
“It is mine,” I say, letting out a chuckle. “Ah, memories of my youth.”
Lucy comes down the stairs next, carrying a dusty cardboard box, the weight of which makes her lean backwards dramatically. She lets it drop on to the carpet with a loud thud.
“Hey!” Marie says.
“What?” Lucy pulls her hairband out, letting her chestnut hair drape over her shoulders before tying it back up again. Tighter, neater. She gives her mother the scornful look that teenage girls master early on. “It’s full of books. It’s not like they’re gunna break.”
Marie bites her tongue, glances at me with big lost eyes and I want to shake her. Lucy isn’t a child, she’s eighteen. By Christ, at her age I was married and settled into this house with Marie perched on my hip. Still, it can’t be easy for them so I keep my expression neutral and pour my disapproval into the tea.
I invited them to move in and take over the house six months ago after Marie found out her husband of 15 years, Steven, was cheating on her. Nasty business that. Their shared iPad had popped up damning messages to and from a ‘Katy’. And as if that wasn’t enough, he also met this woman at the Travelodge on the outskirts of town when he was supposedly at a business conference. Multiple times. A fact the iPad also evidenced in irrefutable detail. The swine.
I never liked him. Smelt rotten onions off him from the start, not that I ever said anything mind. Too smooth and easy that one; ready with a smile and a wink for anybody.
Abruptly, a dull banging noise pulls my attention across the road; a man in an orange fluorescent jacket is installing security cameras at number 19. I wonder if they’ll do the inside too. They wouldn’t be the first in this street to spy on their own.
You’ve got to be damn shrewd if you want to get away with anything nowadays.
It irritates me that Marie didn’t do anything even remotely dramatic to Steven. Like a sky-high bonfire in the front garden using his most cherished possessions as fuel, or moving his car (it’s one of those ridiculously impractical ones with a door that opens vertically and seats low enough to friction-burn your arse) out from the garage and into the sun… after having pissed on the driver’s seat, of course. Maybe it was Lucy’s presence that held her back, but I don’t think so. I know my daughter.
At least she didn’t forgive him. That would have really got my goat.
“Who gave it to you?” Marie asks. “Was it Da—” Her phone buzzes in her pocket and she answers, walking through the hallway to the kitchen as she does so. By her chirpy tone I reckon it’s one of her girl friends. They’ve rallied around her like threatened geese since the break-up, honking encouragement and hissing at any mention of “him”.
Lucy comes over and sits down, eyeing the box. “Did Granddad give it to you?”
I shake my head. “This was given to me before I met Granddad. I was sixteen. Even younger than you. A very long time ago indeed!”
“Why did you keep it?”
I shrug. “It was the first thing a boy ever gave me. To be honest, I’d forgotten it was there.”
She nods understanding. She is more like me than her mother, I think. I sense a hot black temper underneath all her teenage flutterings. Perhaps it skips a generation.
Marie reappears in the hallway, pulling on her brown jacket. “I’m going to meet the girls for lunch. I’ll be back in a bit.” She smiles at Lucy. “Is that alright? There’s stuff for sandwiches in the fridge and some—”
“I’ll be fine, Mum. Jake should be picking me up soon anyway.”
“Great. OK.” Marie quickly checks her hair and makeup in the hall mirror, waves at us both unnecessarily, and leaves.
Lucy watches her walk down the garden path and sighs.
“You can talk to me about it, dear,” I say. “You know that, don’t you?”
“I know.” She opens her mouth to say something else, then closes it again. I wait. The clock ticks heavy and slow on the living room wall. I pick up my tea, sip it and put it back down. Lucy shifts in her seat, dark-brown eyes on her hands, the window, back to her hands.
“What’s in the box?” she asks.
“Keepsakes,” I say, flicking the small bronze clasp. “Memories.” I remove the lid, place it upside-down on the table next to my tea and take it all in.
To me, it smells of the sixties. Of my Hermes Caleche perfume, which I was thoroughly obsessed with; those notes of citrus, orange blossom and ylang-ylang famously worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Of my own teenage angst and sizzling desire for anything and everything to happen right now and all at once.
A rustling of old cinema stubs for Darling, Alfie and Blow-Up amongst others dominates the box. I remember tapping my heels to Honky Tonk Woman while I shimmied into my flares and put my face on; stoked to have an actual date with a real man.
I snap back to the present and realise she’s asked me something. “Sorry, dear. Miles away. What did you say?”
“Who was he?”
“Ah. My first boyfriend: Edward Islington. He lived just down the road on the corner of Church Road and Old Mill Way. We went to school together.” From inside the box, I pick up a tightly folded piece of lined paper. Inside is a grey powdery substance which I remember to be the remains of a red rose petal. “We dated for about a year and then we broke up when he started working at his father’s firm in Taverton.”
“Did you ever see him again?”
“Oh yes,” I say, “People didn’t move away in those days. He bought the house next door to his parents just after he got married to Susanna Delamore. And me, well, I’d already married Albert and had your mother by then.”
Lucy frowned. “But you still kept the box?”
“I’ve always been quite sentimental,” I say, picking up my tea.
“Huh, I thought you said you’d forgotten about it.”
I pause with the cup at my lips, eyeing her over the rim. She grins and pushes herself up. “I’m going to make a sandwich, you want anything?”
“More tea, please.”
While she’s in the kitchen, I rummage in the box and find a plastic straw, a royal blue ribbon and a farthing. I almost giggle, remembering Edward producing the farthing coin from behind my earlobe as we slurped Coca-Cola in the front seat of his Ford Cortina. The blue ribbon took me ages to place in my smooth brown hair and merely seconds to ruin. Our first kiss.
Lucy returns with a glass of water and a cheese sandwich cut into triangles which she balances it on her knees.
“The thing I don’t get about Mum,” she says, “is that she doesn’t seem angry enough at Dad.”
“I couldn’t agree more, my dear.” I don’t point out her sudden change of topic. This is, after all, what I wanted. “But people deal with things in different ways. Mark my words, she definitely is angry, but she isn’t showing it. Maybe she’s worried about losing control or she might not want you to see her upset.” I shrug. “She might still be in shock. There’s lots of possibilities.”
“Dad keeps asking me about her,” she says quietly before biting into her sandwich.
“And what does he want to know?”
She mumbles through her sandwich with one hand covering her mouth. “How she is, where she’s been, what she’s been doing… If she’s seeing anyone new.”
My shoulders tighten and I snort like a dragon finding his treasure rudely disturbed. “That’s none of his damn business!” Lucy flinches and I check myself. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, but it’s not fair. He shouldn’t be putting you in that position. I hope you didn’t tell him too much.”
She swallows and puts the half-eaten sandwich back on the plate, looking for all the world like a frightened school girl waiting to see the Headmistress. Timid as a dormouse. That’s what I’m thinking before she looks me dead in the eye and says, “I told him to fuck off.”
The words hang in the air, vibrating my eardrums, silencing any possible response. On the front lawn, a wagtail has alighted, its long blue tail bobbing up and down. Lucy’s gaze follows my own, she’s taking deep breaths. I can practically hear her heart pounding away.
Then, I laugh.
After a stunned moment, she joins me and we quickly descend into witchlike hoots and cackles, tears streaming down reddened faces, bellies quivering. She coughs on a breadcrumb caught in her throat and drinks her water. I slap my armrest.
“And what did he say to that?” I ask.
Serves the bugger right. At least Lucy’s got some backbone on her. I’m probably being too harsh on Marie - she did leave him after all - but he shouldn’t get off so easy.
“I don’t know if Jake likes me anymore,” Lucy says suddenly.
“Oh?” I fight to hide my roar of excitement; she’s opening up to me about the boyfriend. Finally. “And why not?”
“I thought he did, but then I saw him in the town centre with another girl on Saturday. He didn’t see me. It might have been nothing, but he had his arm around her and she… she looked older.”
Bloody typical. Oldest story in the book.
“Men never know what’s good for them,” I say, “That’s why women have to show them.”
“So, what? I should make him see that he’s done something wrong?”
“You can always tell him to fuck off.” I’m pleased to see the profanity earn me a wide smile. “But if you’re certain he’s worth the trouble. Yes. Make him see.”
“You’ll have to work that bit out on your own, I’m afraid.”
Lucy slumps in her chair, long delicate fingers picking at her sandwich. “Does he still live in Foxton?”
“Who?” She makes eyes at my box. “Oh,” I say, “No. Terrible business that was. Very sad.”
“What do you mean?”
“He was killed by a burglar.” Lucy gasps and I nod solemnly. “His wife was round a friend’s house at the time; she came home and found him on the kitchen floor.”
“That’s awful. Did they catch the killer?”
“Yes, but he got acquitted. Lack of evidence or some such. His wife didn’t stick around long after that, moved back in with her parents, I think. It was all over the papers. Reporters pestered the poor woman for weeks.”
Lucy’s phone bleeps. She flicks the screen with her finger and her eyes widen. “He’s coming! Oh God. Five minutes. What do I do?”
“Just be yourself,” I say. “And don’t take any shit.”
She leans over, gives me an awkward standing-to-sitting cuddle and kisses my cheek. “Love you, Grandma. You’re the best.”
In the hallway, she puts on her shiny black jacket and checks herself in the hallway mirror, just like her mother. Just like I used to.
Jake pulls up outside and gets out. He’s handsome. A heartbreaker for sure; I can tell that from here. Broad shoulders, mop of unruly black hair and a square stubbly jawline. He reminds me vaguely of Edward.
I wait until the car disappears from sight before pressing my fingers into the sides of my heart-shaped box, dislodging the faux bottom. I tilt it up and peer inside; it’s still there.
My old sixties flick-knife. I fancied myself a real Bond girl back then. Even had a poster of Ursula Andress and Sean Connery on my bedroom wall. I slide it out and press the silver button. It snaps open. Edward’s blood still stains the weapon to this day, but it’s a faded brownish-grey colour now.
There had been so much blood, spurting from his neck as he lay there gargling away on his kitchen floor. We didn’t just break up; he dumped me. Tossed me aside like yesterday’s newspaper and didn’t even stay to watch me burn. And then he had the audacity - the nerve! - to come back one day with that blonde skank on his arm.
Well, I put up with it for almost two years before the opportunity arose. My Albert was out playing cards with the boys, Marie was sleeping safe in her cot and I knew Edward was alone. I'd seen the wife leave earlier with a basket of home-made cookies, on her way to Jane Philimore's. She went every Tuesday and always stayed late. The fact I got away with it only goes to show it was justified.
I run my fingernail along the blade.
Obviously, I should have gotten rid of it, but the investigation was tied up very quickly. Police arrested some man with a criminal record and without an alibi for the night in question – I remember hearing about it at the corner shop when I was buying milk. My legs went to jelly, I tell you!
And besides, I didn’t want to get rid of it. That blood was mine.
I tuck everything back in its place, returning the faux bottom and tidying the other items before fixing the lid back on top. I run my fingertips over it, tracing the grooves and whorls in the wood.
I stand and make my way up to my bedroom, wincing as my once-nimble joints creak in unison with the stairs. My room has not been updated; I put my foot down there. Even the wallpaper, curling in the corners, is the same flowery pattern it’s been for decades. It won’t be changed until after I’m dead and buried and not a second sooner.
Sitting on my bed, I muse on the new home for my heart-shaped box. It has to be somewhere they won’t think to look until after I’m gone. I won’t get rid of it. I can’t do that.
I’m just too damn sentimental.