Monday, 3 February 2014

Here and Gone

If I hadn’t seen the tree. If I hadn’t seen the tree and the plastic-coated wire fence clinging to it, I’d never have known. I’d never have known that this was where the house had stood. How our memories lie.

                        My granny takes my hand while my brother chases dreams a mile in front. The field is a prairie, the grass waves tall as my head, the sun beats down on my t-shirt and makes me squirm. I am a hunter, hunting the rare Dominic-beast leaping like an antelope before me. I squint through the heat. His hair flashes in the sun as he forages amongst the tall grass. My hunting hat is hot; I take it off and wipe off sweat with a dust streaked hand. I’ve been hunting all day in this sticky weather, I’m exhausted and hungry, will this Dominic-beast never tire? I must make it to the castle where they are expecting the beast’s head on a silver platter. If only I had a horse to chase him down. I can’t make it…I swoon.
            ‘Walk properly,’ my granny snaps as her arm tugs with my weight. She frowns down at me.
I am a princess stolen by a wicked witch. She is marching me across the wilderness to her castle where she will lock me in the dungeon leaving her devil boy to taunt me. The devil boy is turning; he’s running at me, look out!
‘Race you to the drawbridge!’ he cries and turns again the other way.
I am a horse galloping down the grass, my brother-horse races ahead, we are wild and free on the mountains… the playground looms ahead. My breath is in my head, my brother wins.

If I hadn’t spotted the plastic-coated chicken wire protruding from the tree trunk, I would have been sure I had stopped at the wrong layby. The evening had turned damp and cold, the light milky, and at first I blamed that for not recognising where I was. Then I realised -  this wasn’t the place. That place was ten years ago. This place was now.

My granny lives in a Lego-brick. A beige one. There are lots of them scattered around the Ministry of Defence. I crouch in the earth of the flowerbed and peek through the wire fence, I know I shouldn’t, I could be arrested - they might think I’m spy.  
‘Rosie, get out of the dust, come here.’ My mother calls me over; we are taking photos underneath the apple tree. We stand in a row next to Zakkie’s grave. (Zakkie was granny’s grey poodle. There’s a picture of him on top of the telly). Click, click, one more for luck. Someone approaches us from the other side of the fence.
‘That’s enough, no more please, this is a secure area’. I can’t see his face because a branch is in my way, but he wears a dark suit and has a walkie-talkie in his hand.
‘It’s a family photo!’ My dad protests, his grip on my hand is tight.
‘Please no more.’ The man stands watching us until the camera is put away. Next time I visit the apple tree is gone.
‘They didn’t want people climbing it,’ my granny explains as we crumble bread for the birds. She must mean they didn’t like me and my brother climbing it, we were the only ones.

I stared at the empty space. How could there have been houses here once? Jean and Bill with the Siamese cats, Lucy who had fingernails so long and clean they were like claws, the family with the slide in the back garden. Now there are only my memories that don’t match what I can see. How did all those lives fit in?

I stand in the doorway to Grandad’s shed. It’s dark and cobwebs pattern the window. I like to run my fingers in the dust of the workbench and play with the vice that bites into the edge. Outside the sun dazzles me; I scuttle into the shade and open the coal bin. It’s black and glittering and I know it’s an entrance to the Cave of Wonders that leads to the sea. Later it takes a long time to get the coal dust off my fingers.
My granny’s house is a world full of multicoloured carpets and green flowered wall paper. There’s a glass cabinet at the end of the hall where treasure is locked in with a grey twirly key. A silk-lined, musty shell purse is the greatest prize. I handle it softly; Mermaids gave it to my granny when she was younger. I lock it up, the key gives a satisfying click.
There’s a case of records in the freezer room. I flip through them, savouring the slap on slap of vinyl and cardboard. The record-player is in the living room and it’s the size of a cupboard. I dance around singing:
‘Brown girl in the ring sha-la-la-la
There’s a brown girl in the ring, sha-la-la-la-la-la’
            My granny dances with me, her velvet slippers scuffing up the orange rug. I’m fascinated with her feet. She has extra toes. They grow out the side of her feet by her big toe. Her slippers bulge with them.
‘They’re called bunions,’ she tells me when I dare ask. I stare hard at my own feet. I want bunion-toes. They must be useful when it comes to climbing trees. After my granny tucks me in I check my feet. Big toe, little toe…no bunion-toe, not today.

The ministry seemed bigger than ever. I’d forgotten how close it was. I don’t linger once I’ve found the wire. The ministry was always touchy.

            Me and Dominic are in the tree in the front garden, there are no trees left out the back. You have to climb onto the green wire fence and then into the fork of the tree, pinging out woodlice and spiders. We watch the sun go down and stay out until the light makes our eyes feel funny.
            ‘Look,’ Dominic says as he helps me down. His muddy finger is pointing at the fence. ‘It’s eating it.’
I look.  It’s true, the tree is slowly swallowing the fence into its greedy bark, we pull at it but it won’t budge.
            ‘That’ll be there forever,’ Dominic decides and he races me to the front door.

            They pulled her house down a few months after she moved into the home. One by one the houses were all pulled down. What was once a street of beige bungalows is now just a lay-by and an empty bit of lawn in front of the ministry.
 In years to come a passer-by may pause, finger that snatch of fence and wonder how it came there. Or when they dig the ground up for some new building people will puzzle over how a poodle got buried outside the MOD.

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