Story telling from Australia
I like not knowing what comes next. It’s like having an unexpected gap in the day, a chance to press the pause button and relinquish any attempt to wrestle the future into shape.
In the few days I have left in England I’m staying with my sister in a village not far from where I grew up. I caught the bus into town for dinner with a friend, hoping it would head straight there, but the bus meandered through the village instead. So I had no choice but to sit back and accept the journey. And I noticed things I hadn’t seen for years.
First stop St Saviour’s, where Liz and Don got married and Emma was christened. We turned right, then right again towards the old hat factory on Park Lane, where fairground families have lived for generations. The yard was empty of the usual dodgems and waltzers, those spinning rides that made us scream as teenagers, stomachs lurching, eyes shut, heads pressed back by the force of gravity, willing it to be over until the gypsy with the dark hair asked if you wanted another go and your stomach lurched again, this time because of what you could see in his eyes. And maybe what he could see in yours.
We drove past the lamppost Mum hit when she crashed her car reaching for a spilt bottle of milk, then the dentist where she contracted lockjaw. My tongue probed the empty space of an old wisdom tooth extraction. Another left turn and we were at St Peter’s, the venue for Wendy and Jef’s wedding. I remember snow on the ground, white gloves, bridesmaids’ dresses with long sleeves and noses running with cold.
Left again took us past Aunty Beth and Uncle Jim’s old bungalow, a calm place of china ornaments and ‘Little Donkey’ on the record player.
There was the Rentokil office where Mum worked as a secretary, calmly and quietly, for decades. On the day she retired her colleagues decorated the squat 1970s building with balloons and streamers and graffitied ‘I don’t want any fuss’ in large white letters across the windows. She hated fuss. The bus trundled past, leaving no time to mope or mourn—it’s been ten years since she died—and I wondered who works there now.
On past the old youth centre, scene of Friday night discos, the last song always a slow one (Procol Harum, Whiter Shade of Pale) when I would hang about the dance floor, waiting for someone to ask me to dance. When the gypsy did, after weeks of waiting, he pressed too close and asked me to step outside.
Mercifully the bus moved on, past the duck pond, the vet, the post office and the pub, down a steep hill that always made my heart beat faster in case a lorry took the sharp bend at the bottom of the hill at the same time I did.
We picked up speed along roads bordered by fuzzy green hedgerows, trees heavy with overhanging branches, past a game of cricket on the common, under the motorway, across the dual carriageway and I willed the bus not to stop outside Frenchay hospital. Mum fought and struggled and finally gave up there, although her body forced her to keep going long after she wanted to leave. Dad’s end was swifter, a heart attack that felled him just as we thought he was getting better.
There was a pause in traffic at the junction of the road leading up to the old polytechnic—a university now, still hidden behind an ugly Victorian building visible for miles. It used to house psychiatric patients, the ‘loony bin’ we called it as we trudged past on our way to lectures, ignorant callow youths that we were, blessed by good health and innocent of what could lie ahead for any of us.
And then the city closed in and landmarks were missing or hidden behind buildings I no longer recognised. The bus station itself, scene of many tearful farewells, hopeful beginnings and weary returns, had been renovated.
‘Mind the gap,’ said the driver, and I stepped off the bus and picked up the threads of what I had planned.