(I often remember, old French)
A short story by M S Clements
The train is not full as faithful penitents delay their Midsummer jaunts for the solemnity of wooden pews. I intend to make the most of the glorious day. God and penance must wait. A day of rest, but in name only. I settle in my seat and log the travellers’ faces firmly in my head, every detail noted, every twitch assessed.
The woman hides behind her ‘Ladies’ Journal’, with romantic fantasies and the perfect gardens of every housewife’s dream. A girl on the cover smiles broadly beneath her white hat. There is something about that scarlet dress encouraging me to replace this floral one. I have the coupons already saved.
A man beside her reads his battered book, her husband I would say. The cloud of sweet aromatics fills the carriage as he puffs and chews on his pipe, reliving an imagined youth of adventure with ‘Sapper Bulldog Drummond’. He utters an occasional non-committal grunt in response to his wife’s whispered comments, acknowledging her presence but little else.
In the corner sleeps a soldier, his chin on his chest and his legs stretched out. The lady opposite shifts to one side to avoid disturbing the young man. He is probably no older than me, but exhaustion is written across his face. Already a captain, judging from his uniform. On the seat beside him lies his cap with a golden leek growing out from its peak. He starts to snore, and the lady lowers her magazine. She says nothing, but her hand seeks out her husband’s for a reassuring squeeze. I smile at her, but all I see is maternal grief. I cannot tell her it will be fine, all will be resolved. I know the truth, I hide the truth and walk those corridors of lies to bury the truth.
Embarrassed, I smooth out the dress over my legs, and examine my hand, young and naked, and ponder, for how much longer?
Age robs me of sleep. I lie in my own darkness listening to the changing of the nursing staff beyond my bedroom door. My fingers trace across the back of this aged hand. My skin is paper thin, translucent no doubt. Raised azure lines map my life. I follow those lines, those forks in the road, left one, right one. I have always taken the one that suits me best.
The door opens and heavy footsteps approach, ‘Morning, Joanie. Shall I open the curtains? It’s a lovely day. I might sit out for my coffee, get myself a tan. What do you think?’
Mandy won’t wait for my answer. There are other rooms to visit, curtains to be flung open to the same refrain. Mundane monotony dictating her life.
There is nothing left for these clouded eyes to view. Red bricks and mortar of the suburban Cambridge street. Beyond them, still stands that invisible sight for me to behold. Soft honey, gothic cloisters and the wedding cake, abandoned and untasted. Verdant grass left untouched by common feet. Beside the scarlet doors, blackboards with the ever-changing, neat white names. My silent footsteps walk the courts, unnoticed by the laughing young. This daily visitor waits upon a bridge, sighs, then strolls on.
Cobbles, hot beneath my shoes and a bright summer’s day to blind me. My clothes carrying the soot and cloying stench of the train that delivers me to you. Lady Margaret’s beasts halt me at the Great Gate. Her monastic fellows safely locked behind the impenetrable wooden gate. Black raven watchmen eye me, beaks ready to peck this temptress away dare I venture too close. The evangelist raises his fingers to bless me, a gilded eagle at his feet, beautiful, young and delicate, like the treasure you guard inside. My airman slaps the back of the ravened porter. I hear chatter of a year gone by, of Thompson, Fleet and Wittering. Memories shared with laughter to coat their fear.
Mandy’s coarse laughter from a predictable joke rises above the sound of the tea trolley, ‘That’s funny, isn’t it Joanie, love? What will it be today?’
A plastic cup is put in my hand and Mandy bends my fingers around the handle, ‘Betty had the last bourbon, what about a custard cream?’
I loathe custard creams as much as the milky sweet drink I’ll leave to go cold. Mandy’s imagination, tarnished by orders and rules, keeps her a prisoner of this aging present. She cannot go where I go. She cannot do what I do. I am free to escape at a moment’s notice; my mind always packed and ready to flee. There is nothing to take, save the cigarette tin foil heart.
You play with the cigarette foil, each crease removed by your finger and thumb. I sit on the wall and drink the beer. Your arm slips round my waist, bitter breath on my face. Who cares about the time? We drink because we can. His brothers unite at The Eagle, raucous, ebullient, indestructible. He did not want to share, there’ll be other times, but not on our sunny day in Mill Lane. There are only two cigarettes left in the box. I take one and rest it on my lip. The little flame shielded by your cupped hand from the non-existent breeze. I breathe in deeply as the end catches and glows with heat. Smoke rising from my mouth, disappearing into my auburn curls. I remind you of Rita Hayworth, with my hair and exotic brown eyes. We stand together in contented silence, observing the gathering crowd as they descend upon the little pub, eager for refreshment on this Midsummer’s Day.
You entrust the gift to me, it’s edges sharp and precise. A cigarette foil heart pressed purposefully onto my palm. I conceal it deep within the pocket of this old floral dress. Then, retrieving my hand, you kiss my fingers, one by one.
The sound of wooden knocking catches our attention. The punts wait in line to take this visitor away from a studious town, from bicycle bells and newspaper vendors calling out their incomprehensible chants, of battles won, or lost. Who knows? I know.
‘No visitors for you today, Joanie, dear? Perhaps, Sheryl will read the papers to you, you’d like that wouldn’t you?’ says Mandy.
Not really, what do I care of your world. It is not news, just banal words to entertain, to fox, to trick and bemuse. Would Mandy even know how to distinguish truth from lie? I lie, I live in my creation, falsehoods fleshed out and made real.
‘What did you do in the war, Miss Ansell?’
‘I made radios, Mary. That’s all, just radios.’
You know not to speak of yesterday, and we will not talk of tomorrow. Our words live only in the present. You do not ask me to fabricate, I do not need you to invent. We live for this second, this instant. A hand dragging through water. The cold Cam, numbing the past, freezing the future. I recline against scarlet velvet cushions; your Egyptian goddess has escaped that dusty museum. And you, shirtsleeves rolled high, arms glistening with a thousand diamonds, obediently descending, queueing to drop from your sharp pointed elbow, gems to honour me, laid down at my feet.
You hum songs to entertain me and describe the musicians, exotic and foreign. You tap out the syncopated rhythms and enthuse about the jazz you adore so much. My finger drums out your tune on the polished wood while the pole rises and falls in time to the music of your dreams. You are my dream, my creation, a symphony, that smoke filled jazz club of chance encounters. I am you, and you? You have become me.
‘Some youngsters from the local school are going to sing for you, aren’t we lucky?’ says Sheryl.
Those poor young voices, gagging as the stench of death wraps it’s gnarly fingers around their tender throats.
‘It must be lovely for you, Joanie, to hear school children again?’
Why? Why must it be ‘lovely’. I am a mere footnote in the girls’ lives. ‘Miss’ in the classroom, a series of never-ending tales of my pathetic and lonely life. My features unchanging in their storytelling as the years chip away at their youthful smiles. I do not grow old as they grow old. I am ‘Miss’, unmissed, unloved. I watched the skirts shorten and the paint upon their faces grow bolder, brighter. Excited chatter of opportunities to be had, an illusion of freedom keeping them compliant until society’s handcuffs chain them back to its dictated path.
My tea stained leg stretches out behind me, my face buried inside the blue tunic. Like the sky they say, but this is England, its sky hides the ominous truth beyond the horizon. Grey, like the invisible weft that weaves through the fabric of your uniform. I breathe in your musky odour, your masculinity filling my nostrils, my mouth, my brain.
We are hidden by the late June grass, while picnicking punters pass on by. There is honey awaiting them for tea. Grantchester’s frozen church clock keeps us imprisoned in the now. A future halted. Forever.
You pick a blade, it’s golden seed head kisses my kohl line, up, up, up. A shiver of ice runs down my spine. Brief, my ice melts and trickles away, rolling onto the baked hard ground to find its home back in the Cam.
Moist lips blurring the lines, smudged and broken. The series of dots and dashes, my secret message to decipher. You flip me over and remove the damp hair from across my blushing cheek. I am untidy, I am undone. You slip a cornflower into my auburn curls, its stalk tickling my scalp. Your black silhouette, hovering above me, shielding my face from the sun, while a delicate finger traces down from my hairline, beads of heat gathering beneath your touch. It slides over my forehead, and onto my nose, dripping onto my lips. Touching, but barely there. I lower my jaw and your salted finger draws across my sharp white teeth. My mouth unlocked by your tenderness.
Blackbirds shelter from the burning heat in the willows that line the bank. They sing out your unspoken question, courting my silent assent. I pull you in close, a tannic black stained mouth shares its bitterness with me. I am no longer that blue stockinged Newnham girl, arguing her point of view. My stockings and books billeted far away, not needed on this hot and sultry afternoon.
‘Would you like to watch a film, Joanie? Well not watch, but I bet you can remember all the lines. It’s Norman Wisdom, from your era. You’d like that, Joanie? I’ll switch it on?’
Sheryl doesn’t care what I do, I am the china doll in the corner, silent and unresponsive. This china doll remembers Norman in all his buffoonery, his inane squeaks and squeals. His lines, predictable from their lauded premiere to the Tuesday lunchtime stupor, all innocence and naivety, not like this china doll. I crave the words of temptation and lust, like the honey dripping from your chin. No one else can make me laugh, no one else will make me cry.
You wet my lips and rouge my cheeks with the flowing juice of a half-eaten strawberry. Your tongue, its own separate entity, reclaiming its lost sustenance. The evening sun dips, blushing at our pleasure. The shadow of twilight yearns to pass over us, a chuckling voyeur. Those night time Hollywood stars dim and fade, as the moon spies on the actors below, performing for its private pleasure. No censor to halt the scene.
With lusty lyrics to ease apart my pliant knees and couplets to remove the silk, your bawdy song filters through me, strengthening my resolve.
I once met a girl by sheer luck
Fine hair on my arms rise to attention with your lascivious voice while pin like stubble scratches its indelible mark onto this girl’s tender flesh.
Who did charm this devilish young buck
Eternal heat to ward off the night-time chill, your welcome weight catching my breath. The intoxicating rhythm altering my mind, this addiction coursing through my veins.
With lips sweet as fruit
To peel my blue suit
I whisper, ‘My darling, let’s …’
Pearl white teeth catch the dark lip below, while the silent rhyme hangs expectantly above us in the fragrant night air.
No teasing, no false modesty. I am desirous; no temptation, no sin, just fruit, shared and devoured. No predator, no prey. A feast to sustain a lifetime of famine.
Regret is the phenomenon of middle age, like a beer belly or the thin mean lips of the village gossip. Regret is the prism of the past, fracturing the future into what might have been, then delighting at despair. I do not despair. I move on. There is no hand to clasp my wrist, to hold me back. Regret can never exist. I will repeat every word, every phrase, unchanged and seared within me by the heat of that Midsummer’s Day. Every touch, every aching moment of desire of that Midsummer’s Night. I relive it a thousand times over, a hundred thousand, a million. There is no fantastical dream, no fairies nor imps. It is real, like the goose bumps that appear out of nowhere and the shiver down my spine. Real, like the heat within my receptive body. There is nothing to regret.
‘Coral wants to take you out in the minibus, a bit of fresh air. It will do you good? You’d like that wouldn’t you? It will be a nice little treat.’
What do you know of treats, Sheryl? What do you know of fresh air? Coral will push me around the parade where once I walked and then a stop at Fitzbillies, without which, no walk would be complete. That Saturday morning treat of years gone by, this scarlet dressed spinster, with my sticky Chelsea bun and the bulging leather notebook, full of plans and scribbles, indecipherable to all but me.
There is no telegram delivered by a solemn youth, who’d rather stare at his shoes than witness the inevitable grief. Nor a sympathetic letter from a commanding officer, extolling his heroism, his camaraderie, telling of his azure coated brothers that will miss his youthful smile.
I bump into a mutual friend, who saw us drinking at the club.
‘Such a shame’ he said, ‘A decent chap. Did you know him well?’
‘Not really, we only met twice, at the club and in Cambridge, on Midsummer’s Day.’
He nods and smiles then wanders off, a girl he must meet before he leaves. I return to my desk, there are files to be read and details to share with those who should know, of operations far away, of lies and stories that must not be told.
I pretend my tears are for other lost souls, a bottomless chest of horror to hide my reason why. I return to the club where first we met, to smoke cigarettes and drink the gin, that ‘mother’s ruin’ of London fame. I ignore the sirens and stare up into the sky, hoping my prayer reaches up to touch the Nazis’ bomb.
The impatient commanding officer awaits my answer, tapping his fingers on the file in front of him.
‘Shall I get you some water, you do look rather pale?’ concerned to solve the dilemma, yet too bashful to say the words.
‘Yes, water would be nice.’
I sip the cold water that tastes of strawberry, while he tells me how important I am, an invaluable asset to the team.
‘A spot of country air will do you good. We’ll make all the arrangements, you really need not worry. Just a few months away, our secret, no one need know. Then back to work, no unpleasant embarrassment. This war will be won through sacrifices that must be made.’
Marija brings me a drink. She tells Sheryl it’s just fizzy water, we both know it’s not. Soft lotion is massaged into my bare fingers, then she paints my nails a rich scarlet. Sheryl stands beside me, the crumbs from her biscuit dropping onto my lap.
‘You’re wasting your time, Marj, she doesn’t know you’re there.’
Marija’s voice, tender and full of the memory of war, replies unperturbed by the intrusion into our private moment.
‘Joanie knows, Joanie knows everything.’
I try, but some memories are worth forgetting.
I traveled the globe to share my adventures with our night time pleasure. To Egypt, where your goddess walks her ancient tombs. To Asia, for exotic and sensual heat, and your favourite, to America, searching for the rhythm tapped out on a distant punt.
In crowded bars, filled with southern drawls, where the Cajun smokes and mourns, we discuss Ella, Satchmo and the Duke. In Memphis, that melting pot of sound, a creation born to flood my ears. I swung and asked for more as the radio sang out, “That’s All Right”. I retreated to Martha’s Vineyard, and debated late into the night. Lyrics and feelings and political leanings. Tom Paxton was there, he spoke of daughters and adventurous rabbits, brown and white. I listened, holding your invisible hand.
Marija brushes my hair, the auburn gone long before my sight. I feel the brush against my skull, her fingers lifting and curling the grey tresses.
‘Sheryl says a lady rang, she is coming to see you. She flew here all the way from America. I should make you pretty for your foreign visitor.’
I can smell the rose she slips into my curls. Marija says I am Gilda, poised, ready to tempt, a femme fatale of celluloid dreams.
I traveled the land from north to south, from east to west. I strummed and hummed with Joan and made cloud fantasies with Joni. Sisters together with fists held aloft saluting Hanoi Jane. I sang, I chanted, I kissed the cop and thread a flower into his cap.
I shared a bed with John, Paul, George and Ringo too. Those were not their names, but I did not care. The room was free, and the sheets were clean. We smoked our pot, said our goodbyes and I left them counting diamonds in the sky.
At the Griffiths Observatory, I spied upon celestial bodies far below, in open top cars and sunglasses, hiding their sorrowful tears. Hollywood stars light up the black velvet sky, shimmering forgotten suns, only to see them fade and dim before the angels’ dawn.
Our summer days, our treasure trove of memory and adventure.
Mandy is back on duty, fussing and fretting.
‘We really should make her wait until tomorrow, it’s not right you know. It’s not as if you’d even know or care. But we do what our betters tell us, don’t we Joanie? Your hand is quite cold, I’ll fetch you a blanket, dear.’
I hear her talking, that American twang of so many summers. No lazy drawl of the southern states, nor west coast ease, she’s east coast precision. Those Katherine Hepburn vowels of education and a comfortable life.
‘I’m here to visit Margaret Joan Ansell.’ she says.
There is silence from Mandy as her brain slowly turns. She has her father’s intelligence, that’s for sure.
‘Oh, you mean Joanie, she’s over there by the day room window. So how do you know Miss Ansell, were you one of her pupils? She taught my mother, you know. A dedicated teacher mum would say, God bless her soul.’
I remember your mother, Mandy. Mouse brown hair and marshmallow skin, that showed the bruises from the back of her father’s hand. She found me that November morning. The corridors and classrooms empty as the girls stood shivering by the war memorial, prayer books in hand. Late as usual, she ran in to fetch her book and saw me at the desk. My grey hair undone, my face blotchy and tear stained.
‘I can’t go, Cathy dear, I’ve lost my poppy. I don’t know where it’s gone.’
She stood beside me and saw an old spinster’s heart rent in two. No words were said as she un-pinned her scarlet flower, then tucked it into my buttonhole.
I felt the woman’s hand on mine, the veins that map her life, and her nails, smooth and painted. Are they scarlet, just like mine?
‘Can she hear me?’ the lady asks.
‘We think so? But, well you know, she’s very old now, who knows what she understands?’
Don’t worry Mandy dear, I knew, I know, and I understand.
I draw my hand across her face, the lines of age disappear beneath my touch. Are your eyes as blue as the azure sky? Were your rosebud lips kissed and loved? There are gems on your fingers, a goddess adorned, I kiss them each, one by one. I slide my hand into my pocket to touch my treasure, precise and sharp.
‘So, where’re you from, in America? We took the grandkids to Florida. Do you know Florida?’ says Mandy
‘No, I don’t know Florida at all. I am from Cambridge, Cambridge, Massachusetts.’
‘Wow, just like here, what a coincidence.’
‘Yes, just like here.’
My guest does not want to talk to Mandy. She holds my hand and touches my face. I retrieve my tin foil heart. For seventy-six years, I’ve kept it close. The best traveled tin foil heart the world has ever seen. I turn over her hand and press it firmly into her palm. A warm tear gracing my skin, her voice rescuing me from my treasured past. ‘It’s me, Jennifer. Margaret, can you hear me? It’s me, Jennifer, your daughter.’
*Souvent me Souvient (I Often Remember, old French) was the motto of Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII. She founded Christ’s College and St. John’s College Cambridge, as well as Lady Margaret Hall Oxford. They all have the same motto.
The College in the story is St. John’s, whose college colour is scarlet and where you will find the gothic revival, New Court, nicknamed the ‘Wedding Cake’ and the Bridge of Sighs.
‘Souvent me Souvient’ was published in ‘Carrying Fire‘ by TL;DR press in October 2018.
Buy Carrying Fire on Amazon – 41 stories by 33 emerging women writers