Scuffed skirting boards

‘I hate the smell of other people’s lives,’ says Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout’s creation, when faced with the prospect of moving into someone else’s house to escape New York into Maine during the Covid pandemic.

Instantly my nose twitches. Not so much at the thought of other people’s lives – by which Lucy means the smell of their lives as it radiates through their houses – but at the smell of my own house, over one hundred years old and tired.

It can give off the dank smell of mildew and decay. Especially now that autumn’s cold is setting in and I’m too mean to use our ancient gas central heating for fear of the unspeakable costs every quarter. 

It’s not just the life of me and mine that seeps through the bones of this house, but the lives of our predecessors, those who lived here during the first half of the 1900s, when this area was more industrial, and miners’ cottages flanked the side streets.

This house, large by comparison, was occupied at one time by a doctor who used our front room as his surgery. After he sold the house they split it, one flat on either side of the corridor, to create homes for two families.

The back of the house when we bought it in 1980, consisted of two separate lean two kitchens and bathrooms. We pulled them both down to make room for one proper bathroom and kitchen. 

If I do not die here I will be sad to say goodbye. For all its foibles this house has served us well.

Death tricks my mind into thoughts of my father.

If I could meet him, now long dead, and had courage enough, the courage of my age and understanding today, I might ask him, 

‘What were you thinking to treat us the way you did?’ And in my impossible meeting into the future, he might say. 

‘I wasn’t thinking. I was compelled. Driven by dark forces within me that hark back to a time when I felt as helpless as a kitten and could only fend for myself by scratching or lashing out.’

My imaginary father of the future is poetic. My actual father was not. 

The paint peels on the walls of my memory and the skirting boards are scuffed with the marks of too many feet in shoes bashed against them as people walk by.

Funny how memories like this eclipse all others. They cast a shadow over your life and like rising damp bring out a mould of black, to which some can be allergic.

My body bears such scars, and my mind is streaked with the mud of memories as they throw up more mud. I cannot get a foothold on dry land.

You find yourself thinking, I must not speak about this. It might be contagious, like a virus, or it might lie like a damp dishcloth over your heart exuding such a stink it stays on your fingers for hours. 

All the metaphors I can find do not do justice to the dull ache of memory as it thrums its way into my vision. 

All the words evade me, only the smell remains.

Chaperones, memory and imagination

The past is like a chaperone. It travels beside you wherever you go. It might hide from view or stand in the shadows, but it’s always there. And like a chaperone, it keeps an eye on you, whether you want it or not. 

It’s a pity. This metaphor holds patriarchal overtones. Chaperones once accompanied young women in the absence of parents or guardians to keep an eye on them and protect them from their own or anyone else’s mischief. 

The word chaperone speaks of possession and leaves me cold. Still to think about the past in this way, as the person in charge, who’s there to make sure you don’t get up to mischief, seems a reasonable analogy. All for the sake of propriety. 

Chaperones in literature usually take the form of older women, past their prime, who have no interest themselves in getting up to no good and certainly have a vested interest in keeping their young charges pure.

They kept you from that secret night tryst with your forbidden friend, kept you away from anything of which your parents might not approve.

That’s about where the analogy ends. Therapists are not chaperones.

When people front up for therapy they have an opportunity to tell their life story to an interested listener who offers prompts and observations about the way events from your past might coincide with the present. 

When we write our story however and put the details of a life onto the page, there is no therapist other than the one in our minds to guide us along, to help us decide what bears mention and what gets left behind. 

Far more is left behind than enters the space of a memoir, as any one life could fill multiple volumes depending on the approach each writer takes in deciding what bears reflection.

It’s like plucking a rock from the ground, scraping off any surface dirt to reveal what’s hidden beneath. It might turn out to be a diamond, or a sapphire. It might be an opal or a simple lump of quartz. Fool’s gold or simply a splodge of clay. Whatever. In the writer’s hands, the story takes shape. 

And the shape of our past is coloured by the present, by the way we see our experiences today building in the opposite direction. Once we have reached the bedrock, the point of our story, the core of any memory, we begin to dress it with meaning.

We find layers of clothing with which to drape our memory so that it morphs and twists, now this way, from this angle. Now that. The story refuses to stay still. It wants to find new forms of expression. And it wants other eyes to look upon it.

The imagination of the writer kicks in, whether from their child perspective or an adolescent self, right though the various stages of adulthood into old age if the writer is lucky enough. And always the perspective alters. It refuses to sit still, and the writer, if willing and able, might then put on the shoes of another and flick their memory into that other mind, to try it out from their perspective. 

The pin oak in our garden in spring in its first dress for the season

To imagine what this memory looks like from someone other than the central character of what once was the writer’s memoir. This memory also keeps shifting.

Academics undertake reams of research into the nature of memory: how fickle it is, how much it changes shape over time, always with the addition of fresh clues. As through repeatedly examining a photograph. The way we felt when the photograph was taken, if indeed we are present in the photo. Or even if not in the photograph we can begin to imagine ourselves nearby. 

Memory and imagination overlap, close cousins of the mind. They poke and prod one another. Memory pulses with emotions from the past and stirs up hidden aspects of our histories, while imagination busies itself in filling the gaps. And imagination tends to draw on other memories from nearby to add colour to our re-shaping of the past. So that the past is no longer a chaperone. One who constrains us.

The past becomes our servant. One we take hold of. One we examine again and again, if we are fortunate enough to take an interest. And so, memory is ours to accompany as we walk through time with every instant of times past passing into the territory of what once was. The present only a fast-moving speck on the radar of our life and the future stretching ahead of us unknown and seemingly imagined in ever decreasing circles as we age. 

The past gets bigger and bigger with each passing year, and it becomes a heaviness we must carry unless we compartmentalise and divide it up in our experience and no longer give it the power of the chaperone the one who wants to contain and constrain us, but let it run free, in the contained spaces of our imaginations. We will only bring it out if it suits some calling from our need to put it into words, whether written or spoken. When it serves the purpose of adding colour and meaning to our lives. No longer a controlling chaperone but a curious companion.