Remembering can be hard
21 December 1988
Remembering can be hard. Memories you cannot move, unwanted. No matter how you wish they were gone. And there are those memories you reach for, where there are shadows in the corners of your eyes, always there, just out of focus. And there are those that are not memories. Where a smell or a sound, an image or a thought transports you from now to then. Where the instant of recollection leaves you a time traveller, trapped in your body of years before, aware of then, aware of now, wanting to warn him, to speak, but as you open his mouth it is his words not yours that emerge, and he is trapped again, living it again, and you live it with him. Again. And again. And again.
And then there are the fragmented memories. Images. Moments. Where you become conscious of gaps, where you struggle to find a narrative.
And then there are the imprints of things past left occupying memory, occupying the present, long after they have gone. Like the phone, the phone that sat squat on a small table at the foot of the stairs, the phone that sat, snug as a cat, its cable curled round it, cream as the receiver. The phone that purred when you lifted it, that clicked when you dialled, as your finger nudged the dialer round, bumping into the small clip. And the slight delay before the ringing tone.
We had that phone for years. The number marked in the centre of the dialer. Four digits. The four digits you would give when someone called. Digits that stick now even though by then the number had changed after the calls. The silence when your mum answered. Hanging up as her voice raised.
In my head that was the phone that rang that night, the two piece phone, ringer, rotary dialer and receiver. Memory is odd though. Connections made and connections lost. Was it that phone? Was it the one after, cream too, but push button, the receiver angular not curved. Does it matter? Did it matter?
Just after seven that night the phone rang. My mum answered. My dad and I are in the living room. We hear her speak.
- What’s she dropped now?
My sisters were at my granny’s. They were there to keep her company. I should have been there. Wasn’t. I had revision. Exams after Christmas. That was what I said. An excuse maybe. Now it feels like an excuse. Not wanting to be with my sisters and my granny before Christmas. My grandfather had died that year. My granny was going to be alone. And so my sisters were there keeping her company until my uncle stopped for Christmas.
When my granny phoned she asked my mum if she had heard the bang.
- What’s she dropped now?
A joke at my sister’s expense. Clumsy. Broken ornaments. Broken toys. The child who strapped two Sindy doll cars to her feet and careered down a ramp before crashing into a garage door.
But it wasn’t my sister.
When my mum came back through she told us that there had been a plane crashed into the house at the end of my granny’s street, four doors, five doors away. A plane had crashed but they were all right. Everyone in the house was all right.
We switched on the news. Scoured the channels. Tried channel 4 because there was a news bulletin on. But nothing. Nothing for the early part of the bulletin. Nothing until the presenter said that a Boeing 747 had gone down over the Scottish borders.
The plane we had imagined was a small plane, a microlight maybe? You saw them sometimes. Not a big plane. Not a jumbo.
We flicked between channels.
And the newsflashes started. And on Border television the call for medical staff. Anyone medically trained to go. The call went out across the area, Cumberland, the borders, Dumfriesshire. Could everyone go.
My mum was a nurse. She got a lift up, was held up that night by a roadblock outside the town, caught in a queue of rubberneckers. She asked to be let through, told them that if she didn’t get through she would walk through the underpass beneath the railway line. Just as well she didn’t. An engine had landed there, the route was cratered with a pit of fire.
Meanwhile at home we flicked between channels. The rumours started. A petrol station ablaze.
When my mum got back that night she smelled of smoke. The stench combed the nostrils. She had gone. Lots of medical people had gone. No one was needed. There were no injuries. There was no one to treat.
The night after we watched the news bulletin from the park outside my granny’s, reporters in front of her house. The place where in summer holidays we had played, with the swings, the long green rocking horse, the wooden roundabout, was hosting television cameras and television lights.
The day after that I went up. My dad and I travelled to get my sisters. The bus stopped on the high street by the town hall, roads were blocked, the sky grey, the air heavy with the stink of smoke and fuel. Walking past the cinema and over the railway bridge was odd. Quiet.
Walking into Park Place was odd. There were road blocks. There were vans that passed. Regular vans. Soldiers around. Only a year or two older than me.
The hill behind Park Place was dotted with luminous sheets, orange in my head, but clear, visible through the gaps between the houses. And then we entered the square, cheese factory built in red brick to our right. And in the centre of the square the park. Where we had played. Filled. Row upon row. Luggage. Clothes. Packages. Christmas presents I guess. Row upon row. Every part of the park covered. Row upon row.
And the houses in the square, damaged. Broken windows. But not my granny’s. Unmarked. Even the green fence and gate at the front of the property are unaffected.
And we go in. To the back as normal. The front door is for the insurance man. The back door is always open. For family. We go into the kitchen. The curtains are shut. The curtains in the kitchen are usually open. My granny has usually been making something. But the curtains are shut.
And in the living room her Christmas tree, in front of the window as usual, but no fairy this year. The fairy is off. It has been taken down. I learn why a few days later when Time magazine publishes the picture of the bottom of my granny’s garden, the tree. An angel. Lost.
And vans pull up regularly. And they leave. Regularly. The people working in the vans, the people working in the neighbouring houses, are quiet. But what they find in the houses next door does not go in the park, does not join the rows in the park. What they find goes in the vans. More and more vans.
I keep going back to the kitchen. Why are the curtains shut?
I opened the curtains. I had to.
He has to. He has to open the curtains. He, I.
The curtains. Behind the curtains.
Behind the curtains in the houses at the back.
Behind the curtains I.
The chair is in the first floor window.
And I, and he.
He sees, I see.
Remembering can be hard.
But we must not forget.