Recently, I’ve been writing a lot of the dead.
That sounds morbid, but lately as I have been seeking an almost spiritual level of guidance and direction, the memories of people I have known and cared about have been prevalent in my mind. When I write of them, I feel them watching me, without judgement, like I am carrying a small part of them with me in my heart. As an atheist, these actions are a celebration of their lives, of my experiences with them.
I’d like to share the first part of a story I am writing about a woman I knew called Valerie or “Val”. I only knew her for a decade or so before she passed away, but she had countless characteristics I envied. She had a talent for painting, and to me, she had a talent for curating. She kept a miraculously large collection of fantastic items from her life, and walking into her house was like going on an archaeological dig.
Anyway, without further ado. It stops a little abruptly, but it’s not over. Look out for follow-ups! xx
“Knock, knock,” came a tentative voice from the back door of the shop. Val lived next door and owned the lease for the building, which technically was a part of her home. The back door led out into her garden, which was a glorious sun trap with a shed, tens of different kinds of flowering plants, heavy stone ornaments, and what once was a pond.
“How is it going?” she continued.
“Slow day, I’m going to close early,” I replied. “Give me one second.” I walked to the front of the narrow shop, turned the sign around and locked the door. “How are you, my lovely?”
“Oh you know, once you reach a certain point as I have, each day is somewhat miraculous.” She often replied to questions about her health or status by referring to her impending mortality. Thinking that I would probably end up coming back to finish some painting, I left everything where it was and walked us straight back out into the garden. Val carried on, heading for her veranda. I pulled an ‘okay then’ face to myself, and followed her in.
“Do you know, I have spent so much of my life collecting things. Silly little things, mostly. Objects. Listening to people’s stories. Picking up experiences, making memories. It’s all collecting I suppose. But mostly the objects. I’m not a hoarder, at least, I don’t think I am!”
“No, no.” I smiled politely, standing in Val’s veranda. The plants outside smelled vegetal – warm, summer rain was on its way. Bright light still beamed through the first smattering of grey cloud, and it arrived in distinct rays.
“I just love displaying them. You won’t know it yet, but it’s such a gift, these things I have. There are just so many! I have to try to sort them out at some stage. I keep meaning to.” She took a puff on her newly lit cigarette, breathing an impressive quantity of thick, tarry smoke out through her nose, her hand shaking wildly. “I just never get very far, you know. And do you know, I’ve thought so hard about some of these things that I can’t remember how on earth I came about them. This here…” Val stood up, cigarette in hand, and moved through her kitchen to a shelf at the back. She picked out the thing that had fluttered into her mind just then: a small wooden horse, coarsely painted, like a work of art made by a child. “Someone gave me this, and do you know, I can’t think who. Dreadful.” Her accent carried the rich, plummy hues of a woman who had seen the world through the eyes of some privilege, fitting in with the Sussex town in which she lived, and now somewhat cracked and worn by a life well lived.
Val furrowed her brow, disgusted with herself. “What a marvel it would have been to share this thing’s story – here you are, my captive audience… we could’ve shared a bottle of vino while we’re at it… surrounded by objects from other stories, each one capable of telling its own I might add, and here I am forgetting the bloody things. This poor horse has forgotten its story; it’s not its fault, I don’t think. Maybe they’re too old, their memories faded like some old doddering woman’s.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Val.” She was too harsh on herself, but I supposed that she meant it lightly. She smiled and wandered back around me to her starting place – a wooden chair with a squashed cushion on the seat. “I am lucky. Many people my age complain of loneliness. That their children don’t listen, their friends stop visiting. I am not her, not that woman, no. Then again, I can’t say it’s for lack of trying!” She chortled and took a second puff of her cigarette. “I smoke like a chimney! I’m told that makes me difficult to be around. Especially at my age. Killing me faster! And I’ve tried to quit, but the longest I’ve gone without one is dinner to breakfast.”
Despite her lack of interest in this particular smoke, Val certainly lit up a lot of cigarettes, evidenced by the overfilled ashtray on the table in front of her. Her house always carried the dense air of a smoker. It was difficult not to wrinkle my nose at it when I visited, but her company was so pleasant, I always managed to conceal my disapproval.
“I drink like a horse, if they had a penchant for vino, which I don’t think they do.”
I wished I could hold court like Val. She was famous for it. Most of my stories were inherited from other people. Grand tales handed down from others’ lives. Mine weren’t interesting enough. I hadn’t lived like these greats, so I lived through their stories. I had no doubt that there was a great deal of embellishment going on in what she told me, but when she recounted the time she fled the hinterlands of Russia with her parents, or the scandalous occasion when she flirted with one of the maharajas of India half a century ago, why would you want to question or disbelieve it?
A short while ago, one of her sons started writing her life into a musical. I think it was his way of immortalising his mother. But so rich and complex was the story that he had to thin it out, and then it didn’t seem like it did her justice.
“It’s frustrating, of course, trying to look back now and not having had some sort of system for everything. So I’ve been going through my things, but every time I think I have a way to sort them, I come up with a new category.”
Val picked up one of the half-dead soldiers in the ashtray and reignited it. Puffing on it gave her another spark of life, and she leaned over and picked up a large, silver plate.
“I have this obsession with round things just now. I wish I could explain it to you.” Her newest category. “Do you know what this is?”
“It’s a Thali,” we both said together, because I did know, and didn’t realise that Val wanted to answer her own question.
“I found these in the attic yesterday, buried in some boxes. I want to display them somewhere, and I brought them down in here and thought how wonderful they reflect the light. This one,” she picked up a second, slightly larger though much more tarnished Thali, “think how beautiful this would be, hung up in here where it could catch the sunlight. And these,”
Val took out a collection of medals she had been curating – no doubt buried within her labyrinthine mind were the stories to each of them – all of them round, all of them in need of a good polish.