July 4, 2012 by The Ascending Staircase
Okay, so this is a piece I wrote for a competition a few months back. The competition consisted of writing three pieces to be judged; two were relatively journalistic and factual, and one was supposed to be about an influence in your life, or personal experience, which is the one I’m posting.
To make it a bit more interesting, I tried to give the piece a modernist feel without being too abstract. After all, it still had to have some meaning.
I didn’t win the competition but I still really liked this entry.
I feel a hand on my skin. Then I feel the pain burning into my side. I shut my watering eyes, I almost choke. This moment is important. I need to remember the past, what has brought me to this point, to the mercy of this throbbing pain.
I was walking around Asda, sneaking treats into the trolley when her back was turned, running off to find this or that or the other or another. I ate crisps not yet paid for; empty cans of Coke would go on the conveyor belt, long after the sweet drink inside had been consumed. There was always a trip to the cafe afterwards. My Saturday morning routine. Unchanging for as long as I can remember.
I’d always see her in the afternoon of a Saturday, too. When I got a little older, I did odd jobs. I changed lightbulbs, fixed televisions, moved furniture. She used to give me £3 each week, though I never asked for it. We played card games; snap, happy families, rummy, new market. I made her cups of tea. I made her laugh.
“Do you want to go to your Nan’s for dinner this week?”
Yes, yes I do.
“Ok, you can go on Wednesday.”
Why is she called Nanny London if her last name isn’t London?
“Because she comes from London.”
(London!) When did she move to Liverpool?
”Oh, when you were a very little girl.”
Did I visit her in London?
”Yes, you were 2.”
What did we do there?
”We went to a park. And you spent most of the time talking to a wall.”
I grew up. She shrank down. Our Wednesday dinner was now rescheduled to Tuesday, as I had ’other commitments’. I wonder if she ever minded being pushed to the side like that. Yet at the time, learning to play the clarinet was important. It was life-affirming. Ironically, the things I learned from her were more important. They are prominent in my life; sewing, baking, multiplications.
“If you can remember that 7 times 7 is 49, you will be able to figure out all the other times tables.”
I’ve never forgotten, not once. However, I never could play the clarinet properly.
There was only one piece of advice that she gave me which I never understood. She told me I didn’t have to go to university, that I could get a job and take night classes. Instead of trying to comprehend, I told her I wanted to read English Literature at Oxford. She smiled delicately and told me to follow my dreams and never give up.
I hear a squeaking noise just outside the garden door. I turn around and there is some tiny animal clawing up the fence. I scream. It falls off the fence into next door’s garden. Next door laughs; she laughs. It is a kitten, just learning to climb, looking so bewildered and more than a little stressed.
She always had some neighbourhood cat in her living room in the summer.
God, I hate cats.
The last time I saw her was through a mirror. She looked… It was not a look of sadness, nor anxiety. Possibly empathy. For me. I knew what it meant instantly. I know my face betrayed my fear. Yet I shut the door just the same and walked home.
It happened on the Saturday of that same week. There was a pain in my chest at the time, though I did not yet know what it meant. Instead, I took some tablets and carried on with my day. This Saturday was not the routine I was used to. The tension in the air was stifling. When they told me, I didn’t cry for a month.
It was over four years later that I finally understood her most important advice; I was facing the stark truth that I may not have achieved the grades I needed to go to university. So I devised a plan; get a part-time job, move out, find an apprenticeship in journalism or something of the like, and save up enough to pay for night school. It was a strange feeling. The concept was not a daunting one. I was staring failure in the face, yet I felt no defeat. I now understand my Nan’s advice. And it was good advice too.
I got the grades. It’s not Oxford but there’s still time for that.
The pain stops. The tattooist is finished.
”Go and look in the mirror.”
I stand shakily and look. There on my side are two doves, linked together by the green stem of an Olive branch. My peace offering. It is the symbol that is imprinted on her gravestone, though different in colour. It is for memories, for learning.