Home > Sea of Memories(2)

Sea of Memories(2)
Author: Fiona Valpy

On the cabinet at her bedside sits a delicate, deep-blue bowl, shot through with a vein of pure gold like a bolt of lightning, containing a handful of seashells. Those shells are particularly poignant somehow. There’s nothing special about them; they are a beachcomber’s modest pickings. And yet, for her to have kept them like this, they must be more than they appear: treasured memories of holidays long ago, perhaps, reminders of days gone by spent on far-flung beaches awash with sun, wind and sea. I swallow the emotion that rises suddenly in my throat.

‘How are you settling in, Granny?’

I know this move has been hard for her, that she sees it as an admission of defeat, an ending, and I glimpse the look of sadness that flickers around her eyes at my question. But she quickly composes her features, a customary calm smile on her face as she replies, ‘Oh, fine really. This place wouldn’t be bad at all if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s full of old people.’

I nod, grinning back at her. ‘I see. And at the age of ninety-four, you’re excluding yourself from that description, I take it?’

‘But of course.’ She raises her eyebrows in a look of mock innocence. ‘Despite appearances to the contrary, I’m really only seventeen you know. I have a theory, you see, that, when you’ve lived as long as I have, your memory chooses whichever age it wants to be; and today my mind has been back in my eighteenth year again.’

I look at her a little askance, worried that she’s having another one of those lapses where her brain loses its connections to the more recent memories and transports her back into the past, stealing her from us, little by little, with this cruel trick of the aging mind.

But her eyes are clearly focused, watching my face intently. She must have seen the giveaway flicker of concern in my expression because she reaches for my hand and holds it in both of hers.

‘Don’t worry, Kendra, I’m teasing you. I’m all here today.’

My cheeks flush and I put my other hand over hers, turning to face her more squarely. The realisation that she knows – that she’s aware of her lapses of memory, the frightening, dark flickering of a candle flame that had always burned so steadily up until now – hits me suddenly, bringing a lump to my throat again that silences me.

‘But,’ she continues, ‘I do know that I’m losing my marbles.’ She squeezes my hand as I try to find the right words to protest, to say No, that’s not true, you’re fine, as if those lies would make it better for both of us.

‘No, dear, I am. There’s no point in pretending otherwise. And so I want to ask you a favour. You’re good with words, and now that I’m in here’ – she nods at the room around us, which is all that remains for her – ‘I have a great deal of time on my hands and a head full of memories. So, before I forget them all and there truly is nothing left, I want you to write them down for me. To tell my story. Would you do that for me? I remember you used to say you wanted to be a writer. Here’s a chance for you to exercise that talent.’

‘Yes, well you know what they say: “Those that can, do; those that can’t, teach.” But, of course, Granny Ella. I’d be happy to write down your memories. The only problem is time. I can only come and see you after school, although I suppose I can come more often in the holidays. But there’s Finn too . . .’

I trail off, feeling guilty again. Of course, I could try to make a bit more time, but Dan’s so stressed out right now, stuck at home all day with our lovely, challenging boy. I know he finds it all so hard, the constant reminders of how ‘different’ Finn is, the agony of worry about what the future might hold for him . . . How will his autism develop as he grows older? Who will look after him when we’re gone? And then, by way of light relief, Dan spends any spare moments he has trying to send off more job applications, with little hope of any success. The only news is bad these days; ex-colleagues who’ve been made redundant too now, as well as the all-too-frequent letters of rejection which have plunged my husband into an all-time low.

Ella nods, relinquishing my hands as she turns to open a drawer in the bedside table behind her.

‘I know how busy you are, dear, and I don’t want to make any more demands on you. So I got Robbie to bring me this.’ She brandishes a hand-held tape recorder. ‘What I’m proposing is that I will speak my memories into here and then give you the tapes so that you can transcribe them in your own time, in the comfort of your own home. I’ll give you these scrapbooks to take away too – perhaps they’ll help you to be able to picture it all, bring the people and the places to life.’

There’s a shoebox tied up with string and a larger cardboard box on the floor beside the bed, holding what looks like a pile of board-bound photo albums. I pick up the top one and open it at random. A photo of my mother as a young girl gazes out at me seriously from the black page. Written beneath it in white ink – she must have had a special pen for the purpose – in Granny Ella’s neat handwriting, the caption reads ‘Rhona, aged 8’.

I raise my eyes to meet Ella’s again, wondering, as I so often do, exactly what did happen to create the distance between my mother and my grandmother. It sits there like an ice-field, chilly and uncrossable, riven with the unfathomable crevasses that life has driven between them.

Ella lays her hand on mine again, her grip stronger this time, a note of urgency in her voice.

‘Please, Kendra. My time is running out. Before it’s too late, before I forget it all and there’s no one left to tell it, please would you write my story?’

I glance again at the photo on the page, of a girl in a neat white blouse and striped school tie, her straight blonde hair held back from her face by a plastic hairband, her dark eyes enigmatic. And I realise that my grandmother isn’t just asking something of me. She’s offering me something too. Explanations, perhaps. Insights, certainly.

Looking at the box of albums, I realise how little I know about my grandmother’s life. Because of the rift with Mum, I didn’t see that much of her when I was young, and it was only when I came to Moray House to do my teacher training, and then met and married Dan, that I began to see my Edinburgh granny more often. Caught up with my own life, with all its distractions, I’d never seen her as more than an elderly relation, there in the background to weigh on my conscience now and then, whenever Robbie and Jenny were away or otherwise engaged.

So, I have to admit, I’m intrigued at the prospect of looking through the albums and poring over pictures from my mother’s and Uncle Robbie’s past. There’ll no doubt be pictures of my grandfather too, a dimly remembered figure from my childhood who died when I was seven. I remember the long drive north from London for the funeral; a draughty Scottish church; my mother sobbing, my father unable to console her; shortbread and orange juice at Granny Ella’s house afterwards. We didn’t stay the night there, although there were lots of spare rooms. ‘I’d rather stay at Robbie’s,’ I’d heard Mum telling Dad, her voice suddenly too high and too loud . . .

I drag my attention back to the here and now, seeing my grandmother’s expression which is a mixture of questioning and invitation.

‘Okay, it’s a deal.’ I smile at Granny Ella and she beams back with relief.

‘I was hoping you’d say that! Here are the first two tapes, and I got Robbie to buy a second one of these gadgets so you can play them back at home.’ She puts a lumpy envelope on top of the albums in the box. ‘And, Kendra, tell it your way. Take my words and the pictures and write it properly. Use that talent of yours. So that others can read it and understand.’

I nod again slowly, once more aware that there’s an underlying urgency in what she’s saying.

Suddenly aware, too, of the two pairs of eyes that are on me, appraising me expectantly: Ella’s own and, from the photo in the book on my lap, those of my mother as well.


1938, Île de Ré

A girl stood on the jetty, watching as the ferry that would carry her across to the island ploughed steadily through the blue waters towards her.

Setting down the cream leather travelling case, she slipped her jacket from her shoulders, releasing herself from the confines of its neat tailoring and letting the warmth of the French sunshine caress her skin. Her arms were pale after the long northern winter and there’d been no spring at all to speak of that year; she felt like a butterfly, emerging from its slug-like chrysalis, suddenly discovering its wings and spreading them wide to soak in heat and light and colour.

A breeze – the soft breath of the wide Atlantic Ocean that extended to the other side of the world beyond the low-lying island – lifted her honey-coloured hair where it fell over her shoulders, cooling her neck and her flushed cheeks.

It had been a long journey from Edinburgh, full of new and exciting experiences. She’d have been tired if she weren’t so nervous at the prospect of meeting her hosts, and the approaching ferry was now bringing that hurdle ever closer. On the overnight sleeper to London, Mother, who – despite Ella’s protestations that, at the age of seventeen, she could manage perfectly well on her own – had been chaperoning her as far as the boat train, had slept the sleep of the just in the other berth. Her slow regular breathing mingled with the clatter of the wheels over the rails and the occasional startling roar of another train passing in the darkness.

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