On the 4th of October every year I go through the same ritual. It’s been six years now but the urge never fades. If anything, the emotional intensity of that day burns all the more strongly in my breast each year. It’s not something that can easily be translated into words, for none of these strange symbols dancing across the page can convey feelings that shook me to the core.
The day begins with a silent prayer. Now I’m not, nor have I ever been a religious person, so it’s not a prayer to any passing deity, but it is a prayer that matters to me. Perhaps it’s a silent plea to the people who ever meant something to me – my mum, my dad, my friends, my lovers, my kids – to absolve me of my sins and see the good in me. The one thing on which I can agree with the bible is that we’re all miserable sinners, though who if anyone can stand in judgment is debatable.
I then take a walk to a café. It’s not far but this is not a café I frequent at any other time of the year. It’s close by the quay, so you can sit outside and enjoy the tranquil sight of yachts moored in the harbour cool autumnal air with a coffee and a warm croissant, though I’ve been known to sit at the same table with rain hammering down. Getting wet doesn’t bother me, but remembering the past does. I inhabit the past.
The owner of the café, Erica by name, remembers me. Erica is maybe 60, Caribbean by descent and blessed with a shrewd and thoughtful face that encourages people to talk to her. It is said she opened the café many years before, as a distraction after the early death of her husband, but her primary motive was the opportunities to gossip in the name of business.
“Morning, lady,” she says as I sit down, having placed my order with her daughter at the counter. I look up to see her generous proportions relaxing in the morning sunshine at a neighbouring table. “Been a while she we saw you here. “
“You said that to me last year, Erica. And probably the year before.”
Erica waves a plump hand as if swatting a fly. “Bout the same time of year too, if memory serves…” she says with a sly glance in my direction.
“Yes, that’s true.”
I say no more but serenely sip the coffee placed in front of me by Ophelia, who seems every year to be growing more into the mould of her mother. That she is called poetically by a Shakespearian name like “the fair Ophelia” pleases me, though the daughter is less fragile and knows the value of holding her tongue.
Erica regards me with curiosity. “Who is he? Do I know him?” she asks in a very casual voice, the sort of throwaway remark that hones in on target with unerring accuracy. Erica is the very mistress of such comments, and in the ten years or so since she first laid eyes on me has seldom if ever failed to deliver. Perhaps she does remember that day, way back when, but has the good grace not to mention it? I suspect Erica always knows far more than she ever reveals, and a seemingly innocent question is her weapon of choice.
But this is my ritual, not one that I share so I shake my head sadly and turn away. I can play the game with the best of them but I’m not about to reveal why I sit at this café on this day every year, let alone that I have a ritual I must follow to the letter.
It’s not that there is any harm in the question, nor any ill intent from Erica in asking it. On the contrary, I have no doubt she would welcome me into her warm arms with a simple word, “honey I am SO sorry” or something similar. She is a good-hearted woman, to be sure, one capable of great empathy but not someone I feel able to share my innermost feelings with.
We all do that though, don’t we? Build up layers of defences, some of them booby-trapped for the unwary. No doubt there are some who can negotiate the highest walls on the fortress, fight off the dragons and make their intrepid way to the vulnerable core – but they truly are rare people, the ones not put off by verbal and physical assault along the way. I have no doubts that I have been very deeply unpleasant to good people along the way, without ever having any intention of hurting them.
I don’t believe Erica is easily hurt; she strikes me as having the hide of a rhino, but she knows her place and is sensitive to that moment when idle curiosity becomes intrusive. Her ultimate objective would be to entice me back into her café day by day, buy a different breakfast every day and chat cheerily as I do. Well, maybe.
So I eat my croissant and drink my coffee in relative silence, nod politely to Erica and make to go.
“You come back, you hear?” she calls after me, her head shaking and her lips pursed as she takes mental note.
The next part of the ritual requires a further journey. I catch the train to the nearest major town. I could drive, catch a bus even, but it has to be train, and a very particular train at that. I get in the third carriage and sit facing the engine, then watch the Victorian brickwork of the aqueduct, the line of houses curving away, the rich green of foliage and trees, the open fields with horses grazing, and finally the gradual passageway through industrial zones and blocks of flats into urban sprawl and the town centre. I endure the crawl into a modernised station, bright with fresh flowers in yet another Indian summer, before standing and gathering my things together.
I stroll along the platform, soaking up the sounds and sights of passengers intent on reaching their final destination, the tannoyed announcements, the tart and earthy smell of engine grease. Then through the ticket office and I am heading towards the centre of town. A short walk down the high street, then left past the town hall. The park is straight ahead at the bottom of a short hill. I remember it as a tranquil spot, much as coffee by the quay was always the moment of calm before any storm. This was the place I would come to regain my equilibrium, the place where nobody could hurt me.
It was always a pretty simple park in the scheme of things; a tarmac path led around the gardens, then circled the duck pond. In the past schoolboys in shorts and stripy shirts would sail their yachts on the water while young mothers chatted over the pushchairs. These days it’s just a boy in flashy jeans, trainers and t-shirt on his own with a remote controlled speedboat to frighten the ducks away.
Beyond the pond and the trees are football pitches. It was quite common to see games being played, or teams in training running around the perimeter. But I choose a park bench partially hidden from view by a large hydrangea bush, as I always did. What I would do is what I am doing now: I spread a tissue on my lap then take from my handbag one of those small orangey things, Clementine is it? Very easy to peel, but I would always take great pleasure in the slow and precise striptease of my orange. Then I would eat it, taking time to savour each tiny, juicy segment in turn until none was left. The peel was and is wrapped carefully in the tissue and deposited in the nearby wastebasket. These days there is also a basket not unlike a small red postbox designed for dog doings, quite a recent innovation.
A very select few people always came to share the bench with me, almost all of whom were known to me. And I would offer them a segment of my orange, sharing being at the heart of any human interaction. Whether you would describe them as friends or merely acquaintances I’m not sure, but they were people I could greet with a cheery “hello” and know that it would never be taken out of context. But today there is nobody prepared to come sit next to me, not even a polite stranger.
I sit there for maybe an hour, watching the world come and go, the birds pecking for seed, the sun flattering to deceive. And when it feels cold, that is time to go.
The next part of the day is the hardest but one I have to endure, the sort of moment we all have to face and feel better when it is over, though ‘better’ is not really the mot juste. It is something to be faced, to be endured, no matter how painful.
I’ve always thought it ironic that we think of this in terms of pain. It’s not physically painful in the way that a broken leg or breast cancer would be painful, nor is anyone else forcing me to endure such torment, yet pain is the way it feels. A form of masochism makes us put ourselves through such moments, but neither can we stop the behaviours that cause the pain.
Our emotions cause us such grief, yet without them we would not be able to experience the warmth of humanity. I can think of nothing worse than cold, unfeeling, robotic detachment. It is worth enduring years of pain for a few precious moments of pleasure, for most of us at least. But then we spend years trying to recover that feeling.
In a sense the loss would be easier to bear if there was some physical manifestation, some symbol of loss and suffering, real or imagined. This is of course why we still revere the dead – we have their gravestones by which to remember them, the last vestige of remembrance, those we have loved. In this case, there is nothing with which to associate the pain, so the remembrance must take a different form.
On my way back from the park I stop at the florist’s shop. I know the florist well and always chat with her when I am passing, though she is rarely in the shop these days. The counter is populated by a teenage girl, who is enthusiastic and helpful but fails to understand the resonance the purchase of flowers can have.
When I ask for a dozen red roses, she asks whether I would like any gypsophila with that? No, I would not, thank you.
“What occasion is it for? Would you like to pick a card?”
Reluctantly I pick a plain white card.
“The pen’s there”, she says helpfully while wrapping my roses, “why don’t you write a message? People love a message, don’t you think? My boyfriend’s really good like that – he comes up with really thoughtful messages, makes me feel, you know, wanted. Loved. What we all want, eh?”
I say nothing but pick up the pen. No words spring to mind. The pen flickers above the card in my hand. As the girl turns to bring me the flowers, I write the one word I know I want to say:
The girl looks at the card and frowns. “Is that a question? Maybe you should have some dots after it then a question mark? He might get the idea then. But you should add some kisses too.” she says helpfully and giggles.
I feel myself getting flustered. I pay quickly, grab the roses and the card then leave rapidly. The girl is evidently thinking to herself that it takes all sorts, but then the significance of the roses is lost on her. How could she know?
As I walk back to the station, I pause to look at the roses. They are big, beautiful, deep ruby red in colour. How apt that what we choose as the floral representation of love also has thorns to prick the unwary.
I’m wearing gloves but each thorn could be buried deep in my flesh. “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” Maybe I am no better than the witches in Macbeth, maybe I just foretell that without my personal rituals I can no longer ward off evil. Bad and wicked things must happen, and maybe I deserve them?
But what value is there in punishing yourself? Surely you have to lead the best life you can, and in the scheme of things I am not a wicked person. I’m responsible for no genocides, nor even any crime that I can ever recall. I’ve never been cruel or deliberately hurtful to anyone. I’ve been the best person I can be in the circumstances, I just lack the mental faculties to switch off the pain and suffering from the past.
Perhaps others have been guilty of manipulating me, of pressing the buttons that switch on my guilt reflexes, and for my ritual it is one such moment set in stone. We replay such incidents over and over, wondering how we could have done things better, and revisiting the locations is a physical reconstruction, a walk through. If ghosts are mythologically programmed to repeat the incidents that led to their demise until their spirit is set free, I am the living, breathing equivalent.
There are many ways I could do the next part, but habitually I go back to my small town and walk by the river, maybe a mile from the quay. It’s more of a meandering stream than a thriving waterway. There is the odd fisherman on the banks, maybe the odd cyclist but not many passers by. The bridge here is the oldest, traditionally the point at which dwellers on the south side would cross to get to the Old Ferry pub on the north side, and from which they would wend their merry way after closing time. In late afternoon it is deserted.
At this point many thoughts come into my head. For some reason, I always think of that wonderfully enigmatic song, Ode to Billy Joe. The words hit home:
Mama said to me, “Child what’s happened to your appetite?
I been cookin’ all mornin’ and you haven’t touched single bite
That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today
Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh, by the way
He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge
And she and Billy Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge”
A year has come and gone since I heard the news ’bout Billie Joe
Brother married Becky Thompson, they bought a store in Tupelo
There was a virus goin’ round, papa caught it and he died last spring
And now Mama doesn’t seem to want to do much of anything
And me I spend a lot of time picking flowers up on Choctaw Ridge
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
So my Billy Joe moment has arrived. Slowly I unwrap the roses, then toss each one idly into the lapping waters of the stream, watching it bob in the water then float downstream, drawn by the gentle current down this way, then that.
An elderly woman crosses the bridge behind me as I do this. I can hear her mutter, barely under her breath, “what a waste of good roses.” Nobody truly understands.
Or do they?
It’s only as the last rose has slid down the stream that I become aware of him standing there. I know this man, slightly. He’s slightly younger than me, not obscenely so, dressed smartly in a grey suit and open-necked shirt. He has longish hair, greying at the extremities, and a sparse beard.
I must look startled, because he smiles.
“Sorry, you frightened me.”
“Sorry, I do have a habit of creeping up behind people. Must stop doing that.”
“No worry,” I wave away his apology and in the same fluid movement dismiss my own grief as being of no importance to this moment. But neither does he ask, nor question my behaviour. In some way I find this strange, almost unnerving.
“It was a lovely afternoon but I think it will rain soon. Would you care to walk with me to the pub? Maybe they serve coffee?”
“Thank you, I’d like that,” I reply, still wondering about the motives of a man who can observe but not question. He is evidently more subtle than most of humanity.
“It’s funny, I’ve seen you often but I don’t know your name,” he says with a certain air of insouciant charm. Knowing, but not presuming.
“Alice,” I reply with a smile. “And yours? Aren’t you…”
“Just John, I’m afraid. Very boring. Blame my parents.”
“Not at all. You live locally, don’t you, John?”
“Yes, very. Perhaps you hadn’t realised but you and I live on the same street?”
“No! Really? And I never…”
“Often the way, these days. I wish people were less insular.”
“I do so agree! But…”
He pauses and turns to look at me enquiringly: “But what?”
“Maybe I’m the worst offender there. I keep too much to myself. I should be far more a social animal.”
He smiles. I do like his smile – his big teeth are yellowing slightly but he is not afraid of showing them.
“Well I’ll drink to that, but maybe that’s just my good luck?” he says with an approving wink. “We should all take ourselves far less seriously, just live for the moment.”
“That’s very true,” I hear myself reply. What a hypocrite – I feel such a martyr to the past, yet say in such a blasé fashion that I should be in the here and now. Would that I kept my own promises. And yet the past is past, we can’t change it. If we could there would be more hope, but as things are the knack is about drawing a line, accepting the past and moving on.
“So tell me about you,” he says lightly, “you’re a woman of mystery, and no mistake. Whenever we’ve met before we’ve only ever talked about something specific like train times or what’s on offer in the supermarkets. You must have a life, surely?”
Sometimes I wonder if I have. “Well, there’s not much to tell, if I’m being honest. I live a very simple life. Nothing much every happens to me.”
“Maybe you should change that? Not much point living just to exist. We all need highlights from time to time.”
“You’re so right” – and so he was!
“And the thing I find is that if you’re the sort of person to whom life happens, there are two options: you can let it happen and moan about your luck; or you can do something about it. Change things, make them go your way.”
Before I can reply we have arrived at the pub. He has sat me in a corner, bought me a drink and somehow hours have flown by as we chat – or rather, he has chatted in an open and inviting way, and for the first time in a long time I have laughed. Maybe I have spent the time in awe, but for once I am happy. The ritual has been broken. Maybe it’s been broken for good?