She said it was the rain falling on the dusty leaves of the hedges all along the avenue where she lived and the damp heat the paving stones gave up after the shower that turned her thoughts to what had been. When she asked would I not drive her to the place where we had lived when we were young and very much in love with each other, I could not tell her no.
“Tomorrow,” she said. “Tomorrow before you forget or say that you’ve forgotten.”
“Tomorrow,” I said, knowing that I would have to rearrange my day. “Tomorrow before I forget or say that I’ve forgotten.”
It was only 90 minutes in the car to the town that we had at different times abandoned for what we thought were better places, better lives. I thought we would set off early, see what she wanted to see, have lunch somewhere and drive back. I would leave Lucy to her door and be in my own place again by late afternoon. I was wrong. We had agreed a time—9:30—but when I got to Lucy’s she was still in her dressing gown.
“Did you change your mind?” I said, after she opened the door and I’d caught the smell of sleep from her, that and the other odor mixed inextricably with it, the one I know I must carry myself, which is old age, the body’s slow decay.
“I couldn’t get up,” she said.
“You never could,” I answered. “Do you remember the Whit Monday we were to go to Warwick?”
“Yes,” she said. “But go into the kitchen and put the kettle on while I get ready.”
It was nearly midday before I saw her again. I’d boiled water for her tea and made a cup of decaf espresso for myself in the clever little pot I’d given her as a birthday present before I knew she no longer drank coffee. I called up the stairs when her tea was ready but got no reply. She had been washing her hair she said when she came back down and I set about reheating the tea in the microwave.
“Should we have a sandwich before we go?”
“A sandwich?” I said. “I thought you were possessed of this burning desire to revisit the past. Now you want to have a sandwich? We’ll never get there.”
“Well, it won’t go away, will it?” she said. “The past.”
I’d thought we might drive into what people like Lucy and me used to call “the town,” meaning the city center. The first time I went out with Lucy I waited for her by the fountain in Town Hall Square. It was a Saturday evening and I was wearing my best suit with a collar and tie—a tab collar and a narrow tie. My hair had been washed and cut into a style called a Long Mod Parting that was probably already out of date by the time I got round to getting it. My shoes were polished. I had five pounds in my pocket, half my wages at the time, and I was holding a corsage I’d bought for Lucy, a single orchid dressed with feathery ferns. I’ll never forget the sight of her as she crossed the square towards me. She had on a little red Chanel-style suit her mother had made and red, high-heeled shoes. She was carrying a red clutch handbag and I thought she was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen.
“Should we park somewhere near the town hall?” I said, pulling into the exit lane ready to come off the ring road. “We could walk along the Ride to Victoria Park. You know, the way we used to. I’ll buy you a cream tea in the pavilion café.”
“They shut the pavilion café 25 years ago, Peter,” she said. She had her head turned away from me. Watching the traffic, I supposed. She’s never been happy with my driving, though she refuses to drive herself now.
“Well, where do you want to go then? What do you want to do? Only I had to completely rearrange my day for this: cancel appointments and so on.”
“Including one with the “attractive understanding Scandinavian lady” you visit in London no doubt?”
I didn’t rise to the bait. I didn’t want a scene. There’d been enough of those over the years, particularly at the end of our first dance around the mulberry bush and then in the early months after we met up again. Quite by chance that was. My mother died and I found an address book in one of her handbags when I was clearing out her house. The address book was new and had only one name in it, which was Lucy’s. The address and telephone number were not the ones I’d known. I phoned, but Lucy wasn’t there. Sold up and moved on. So that was the end of that, I thought, and then the woman I was speaking to said she might have a number. She did. I dialed it and Lucy answered. I couldn’t believe it. Hearing her voice again after so many years.
“I want to go home,” Lucy said, startling me. “And you’ve missed your turn-off, so you’ll have to go round again.”
I was confused. I said, “You mean where you and Martha lived?” Lucy said no. “Home. Before the home I had with Martha.” I knew then. When I got off the ring road I drove straight to Amblestone.
When I was young Amblestone had seemed another world and not one I was ever likely to visit. My world was made up of tight terraces of houses without bathrooms, a cold tap over the kitchen sink and the lavatory in the backyard next to what we called the coalhouse. But I did see Amblestone. I was 15. My father had died just before my 11th birthday, my brother and sisters were all married and living far away—America, Australia, Singapore—so it was just Mam and me at home. Money was tight. Mam had been a seamstress before she married and she tried for something similar but times had changed and there was no call for hand-finishers any more. Everything was done by machine. The best she could manage by way of a job was a bit of cleaning in a small hosiery factory round the corner from where we lived.
Being the sort of a woman she was, it wasn’t very long before—to hear her tell it—she was more or less running the place. The hands all adored her and the bosses often came to her for advice. I used to sit at the supper table with her each weeknight and try to look interested in the non-stop stream of anecdotes she fashioned from what had gone on during the day. It would be an exaggeration to say I didn’t believe a word of it, but not much of one.
Then, one Friday not long before Easter, she said she’d been asked to look after the house and kids of one of the bosses because he and his wife were going to Austria on a skiing holiday. I said I’d sooner stop at home, which led to a row and the inevitable silence afterwards. I went in the end. I had no choice.
The kids turned out to be all right. Posh, of course, educated at some private school in the county. The firm’s chauffeur picked them up in the morning and brought them back in the late afternoon. It was the house that got to me, and the district, Amblestone.
The house was like nothing I’d ever seen: the living room, the lounge as my mother kept calling it so as not to confuse the kiddies, was bigger than everything encompassed by our four walls. It had deep carpets, a pair of sofas, four easy chairs, and a fireplace halfway up one of the walls. Why anybody thought a fireplace was needed halfway up the wall or anywhere else when the whole place had central heating was beyond me. There were three bathrooms: one that we weren’t supposed to use, one for guests that we were supposed to use, and one for the children. That fortnight was the first time as well as the last until I was living on my own that I had a bath every night. This was not my idea. My mother made me, she being freer with the boss’s hot water than she ever was with her own. To be fair, it wasn’t just a matter of money: at home she had to get the table-top off the old zinc bath we had in our kitchen, clear the dirty washing out of it, clean it, heat enough water to fill the thing from the old gas “copper” that stood in the yard and then lug the water by the bucketful from the copper to the tub. I used to help, of course, but it took a long, long time. Then, when we were finished, the whole process had to be reversed. At that Ambleside house it was just a matter of putting the bathplug in place and turning on the tap. It made no difference to me: I hated having a bath at home because I worried somebody would come knocking on the back door as I sat naked in the six inches of water we could manage to get into the tub. At the boss’s house I just felt uncomfortable sitting naked on that white porcelain with the hot water up to my chin. It wasn’t my fear that someone would knock at the door. It was more the thought that somehow or other my skin would mar all that gleaming porcelain just by coming into contact with it.
I had to catch the number 29 bus to get to school that fortnight. The corporation ran these brand new diesel Routemasters in their cream livery on what we used to call the nobs’ routes. I longed for the old maroon petrol-engined bangers that were covered in dust and never washed from one week to the next. I wrote my name on the side of one once and it was still there three months later. I sat on what I thought of as the bosses’ bus the way I sat in the boss’s bath: feeling I had no right to be there. And that feeling was diminished only a little bit the day I met Steve Kustelan on the same bus.
He was a Polish lad—well, his dad was Polish—and he was in my year at school. We weren’t friends, so I didn’t know much about him. Still, I’d nod when I saw him and he’d nod back. The day I met him on the bus I couldn’t do anything else but sit next to him and, naturally, we started talking. We met regularly after that and one afternoon when we had a half-holiday from school, he asked me round to his house.
Steve’s house wasn’t up to the same standard as where I was staying then, but it was still what I thought of as posh: front garden, privet hedge, gravel and grass, a bird bath, stained glass in the front door, a bell and a brass knocker. At home, we didn’t even have a knocker. Open the front door and you were into a hallway. Open our front door and you were in the front parlor.
Steve took me up to his room, which was light and warm. There was a table for him to work on, books on shelves, posters on the walls, carpets and rugs on the floor. I felt awkward, but this was a different sort of awkward. I didn’t know where to sit. There was only one chair and a sort of big cushion on the floor. Steve took the chair and said for me to sit on the cushion. A beanbag he called it. I thought of the beanbags we’d used in PE at my junior school, which were nothing at all like this thing. “Is it all right if I perch on the edge of the bed?” I said and didn’t wait for a yes or a no.
We sat like that for a few minutes and I was thinking of some way I could get back down the stairs and outside again without coming over as rude when the door opened and this girl stuck her head around it. That was my first sight of Lucy. “I’m making coffee for Mum and me,” she said. Do you two want any?”
I was smitten. I’d have said yes if she’d offered to heat up a mug of poison.
After she brought our drinks upstairs—a pot and two cups on a tray with sugar and hot milk—I didn’t see her again until that evening in May when she came walking across Town Hall Square, which was nearly three years later. I was 19 then and working in a warehouse because I’d made a mess of my entrance exams for Cambridge and so had eight months to kill before taking up a place somewhere else. Lucy was still at school. She sent me messages through Steve once or twice. Daft little notes on pink paper that I shoved in my pocket until I got home and could read them at my leisure. Read them, re-read them, and keep them. Those notes have been halfway round the world with me and back again.
There was a pub we used to go to sometimes not far from where she lived. “Do you remember The Cricketers, Lucy?” I said.
“I do. You used to like sitting near the fireplace. It was made of brick, wasn’t it?”
It was made of brick and, yes, I had liked sitting near it. I liked sitting near it with her. I’d dreamed of having a house with a fireplace just like it one day, a house where I would live with Lucy.
“Why did you ask?” she said. “We haven’t come all this way to sit in a pub, have we?”
I said no but that we would need to park the car somewhere if she wanted to walk around her old district. “I thought we might be able use the pub car park. Of course, we should have to have a drink first. We couldn’t just—“
“The pubs will be shut,” she said.
“Join the rest of us in the 21st century, Luce. Pubs don’t shut like they used to.”
I was right. She was wrong. So was the pub. No longer the Cricketers, it had been taken over by some chain and turned into… well, what it had no business being. There was still plenty of room to park but the fireplace was gone. Ripped out, I suppose. Ripped out, smashed up, and dumped. We didn’t stay long.
I asked her whether we should make straight for the old house—her old house—or walk about for a bit first.
“No, I want to go straight to 98, if you don’t mind. I just want look at the house I grew up in for a little while.”
“Not long,” I said. “Stand in the street looking at a house these days and Neighborhood Watch will phone the police.”
“Do we look like housebreakers or…?”
There was a sudden clap of thunder before she could finish speaking and then within a moment the first spits of rain. We heard them before we felt them, the swift tap-tap of summer rain falling on broad green leaves. I put up the umbrella I’d brought with me from the car and took Lucy’s arm to draw her under it. “Flanagan and Allen,” I said.
“Flanagan and Allen,” I said again. “The umbrella song. Uncle Mac’s Favorites?”
“I never had an Uncle Max,” Lucy said. I let it go. It was going to be one of her bad days.
The falling rain worked its familiar magic and the smell, that particular smell of summer in a city, the concoction of hot bricks and paving stones, of dust and leaves, the smell that had brought us back here, came again. I gave Lucy’s arm a squeeze.
“They didn’t say anything about rain on the television this morning,” she said. “If they had, I’d have brought my own umbrella.”
“It rained the day we went to Warwick,” I said. “There was a storm that chased us all the way home, if you remember.”
“I do,” Lucy said. “I remember sitting between Len Roper and our Martha on the back seat of that Midland Red bus. Len was buttering rounds of bread from what was left of the loaf we’d brought with us and Martha was slathering pâté over the butter. They made quite a team.”
“And what were you doing?” I said. Lucy’s voice had a warmth to it I hadn’t heard in months.
“Me? I was wondering why I wasn’t sitting next to you.”
“We laughed so much that day,” I said. And we did. “Len Roper was a lovely chap. And Martha—“
“Martha was beautiful,” Lucy said.
“She was. You both were. I couldn’t tell you apart at times.”
“I know,” Lucy said. “Sometimes it was Martha you went out with, not me. You never realized, did you?”
I was shaken and I said so. I was also angry. I asked her if she was telling me the truth and when she said that she was, I blushed because I had kissed Martha as I had learned to kiss Lucy and, I supposed, I had made free with my hands upon Martha’s body as I had become used to doing—as I was allowed to do—with Lucy’s.
“Why wait all this time to tell me that?” I said.
Lucy shrugged, the fat that had accumulated with the years about her neck rising up to cushion her chin. “It was a joke, a lark, a laugh.“
“A joke,” I said. “A joke between you and Martha. And I was the butt of it. I was the dupe.”
“It wasn’t like that. It was just something that happened once when I wasn’t feeling very well, and besides, Martha liked you. She didn’t have a boyfriend of her own and we shared so much—we were twins, after all. We didn’t see what was wrong with it. Did you really not know? Really?”
“No,” I said. Inside my head the past—my past— had suddenly been rearranged and everything I had thought was settled and true about it no longer was.
We came up to the house and the first thing I thought of was that whoever lived in it now had let the place go. The gate wasn’t actually hanging off its hinges but it needed a coat or three of paint. The hedge, where it wasn’t dying, had been left untrimmed for so long that it had run wild. The little square of grass that once had been bordered with lavender bushes and roses was a patch of weeds. The slabs of the path I used to skip along were cracked or else raised up like miniature versions of the spans on Tower Bridge. The birdbath was gone. It broke my heart; God knows what it was doing to Lucy’s. “Let’s get on, Luce,” I said. “We made a mistake coming here. I should have told you it would be. It always is.”
“It was what I wanted,” Lucy said. “Let me stand here for a little while. It doesn’t matter what the place looks like now. I just want to—you know.”
Remember. She just wanted to remember. I was put in mind of a visit to a cemetery. Not a thing many people do these days, is it? Visit a cemetery, I mean. Not with cremation. You can’t stand and remember a pile of dust, can you? You need objects: a grave, a headstone, something the eye can concentrate on even as the mind wanders to and fro across the years. I had my mother cremated and her ashes were scattered in the Garden of Remembrance. I remember my mother every day, but I’ve never stood in that Garden to do so. I suppose the house was like a grave for Lucy, filled with the bones of her past. She wanted to stand there to look at it and remember. Who was I to say that she shouldn’t?
Waiting there with her, I found myself remembering as well. The difference between us lay in the fact that she had a third of a lifetime to think about, whereas I had known that house and the people in it for—what?—18 months, perhaps less. There was as well the little bomb Lucy had put into my hand and watched as it blew my fingers off because my memories of that house had much to do with kissing Lucy, touching Lucy, having her kiss and touch me. Now I was left to wonder how often the girl I kissed and touched—the girl who kissed and touched me—was Lucy and how often it was Martha.
The second summer Lucy and I had been a couple our relationship became, well, particularly intense. Lucy’s parents went away on holiday leaving the twins and Steven at home. Steve was never in that summer because he was working shifts in a clothing factory. I was working as well but it was at the warehouse and I finished around five o’clock. My own mother was away, visiting one of my sisters in the States, and I soon fell into the habit of going to Lucy’s straight from work. There was this period of ten days or so when it felt as if we were married.
What I mean is that I would get to Lucy’s and she would run a bath for me straight away, so I would bathe and change into the set of clothes she’d suggested I leave at the house, clothes she washed and ironed for me every day. Once I was, as she used to say, “decent,” we’d eat the dinner she had cooked, we did the washing up, and then we made love. Oh, I don’t mean to say that we went the whole hog. Kids like us didn’t, couldn’t, not then. But we went as far as we thought we could. We knew that by 10:30 or so the kissing and everything else we used to get up to had to stop because Steve and Martha would be coming back. Martha, if she was at home when I got there, would be gone before I picked up the tea towel to dry the dishes Lucy had washed. At least, I thought it was Martha. Standing next to Lucy in front of the house in which all of these things had happened I was no longer sure. I know it shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. To me it did.
I don’t know how long we stood there. Ten minutes? Fifteen? It was long enough for me to do a lot of remembering and a lot of thinking, which are two different activities: one is like reading a book; the other is closer, perhaps, to writing one. The Kustelan’s telephone was, like most other people’s at the time, in the hall. We spent a lot of time talking on the telephone, Lucy and me. I would phone her from public phone boxes every Saturday evening when I was away at university. The nights I was back at home and was not seeing her, I would take my mother’s dog for a walk so that I could stop at one near to where we lived.
One Saturday night—it was at the end of April and I was busy revising for my exams—I ‘phoned Lucy as usual. I thought it was her who answered—she usually did—but it was Martha. I was embarrassed because I’d used the word darling as part of my greeting and it took me a couple of seconds to realize she was crying. I asked what was wrong and between sobs Martha managed to say that Lucy didn’t want to speak to me, that, so far as she was concerned, we were finished.
I was dumbstruck. I knew that Lucy was unhappy about the time we spent apart but other than that—the separation, I mean—I thought we were all right. I asked Martha if Lucy was there and she started sobbing again. “She is, Peter, she is, but she won’t speak to you. The bloody cow won’t speak to you.”
They were the last words I ever heard from Martha. By the time I found that all but unused address book of my mother’s and made contact with Lucy again, Martha was dead. Cancer. Lucy nursed her through the last months of the thing. A lot of years had passed by then. I’d been married and divorced, remarried and divorced. I was back in the UK from America, where I’d spent much of my working life. I suppose I decided to get back in touch with Lucy because I thought—hoped perhaps—we could somehow pick things up. It never even occurred to me that she might have married, be married, have kids.
She wasn’t; she hadn’t; she didn’t. And we didn’t, as I’d thought, “pick things up”. What we did was start again and what we started was something different from what we’d had for those few months when we were young. I bought a house in the town where she was living and I had a life of sorts there that included but did not center upon Lucy, as she had a life of sorts there that included but did not center upon me. We were friends; old friends in a way, despite the fact that we had not been friends for such a very long time. Lucy is three years younger than me and yet I think of her now as being so very much older. Which is why I put up with… well, what I put up with: the cross words, the sarcasm, the vindictiveness.
I wonder why she is the way she is with me. I’ve asked her and been told for my trouble that I ruined her life. “But you dropped me, Lucy,” I say. It makes no matter; her store of bitterness seems inexhaustible.
The rain was falling steadily now: the paving stones shone, puddles formed in the potholes, the gutters sang. I held on to the umbrella as I held on to Lucy. “We should get back to the car,” I said.
“There’s something else I want to see.”
“What?” I said, trying to keep the annoyance I was beginning to feel out of my voice.
“The bus stop.”
“The bus stop? What bus stop?” I knew very well what bus stop. She didn’t have to say “our” bus stop, although she did.
And so we made our way there, following the road as if we were in a dream—and it was gone.
The stop had been the terminus for the 29 bus: anyone traveling out from the city center had to get off there; anyone intending to travel into the city centre got on there. The stop had been positioned at the edge of one of those verdant little suburban islands composed of concrete and green metal railings and greener bushes—box and privet and holly—that usually flourished about a public convenience accessed along leafy tunnels. I had never had occasion to use the place but the dimly lit signs indicating the entrances for Ladies and Gents had kept me company on winter and spring, summer and autumn nights. Now the bushes and the lavatories they had disguised were gone, swept away along with the raised pavement and the bus stop, our bus stop. There was not even a ghostly variance in the color of the road surface left behind to mark where they had been.
Lucy became quite emotional, saying, “Oh, the kisses you gave me there.”
I almost told her I supposed the same could have been said of Martha but managed not to, and was glad of that.
She said, “There’s a poem by Thomas Hardy, ‘Where the Picnic Was.’ Do you by any chance?”
I told her no.
“He wrote it after his first wife died. He’d treated her badly while she was alive and, well, it was his way of making amends. Or that’s what I remember being told. Reading it used to make me cry and I could never understand why. Now I do.”
“Now you do,” I said.
I didn’t see Lucy for a while after we got back. I didn’t want to. I needed a rest from her. But I found the poem she had talked about and I read it and, although I’m not a sentimental man, I cried myself.
Image of British pub by Lilla Czesznak, courtesy Shutterstock.