Time machines


When I’m really bored and have tired of all my usual procrastinatory activities, I sometimes look at places I used to know on Google Street View. Like pressing on a bruise that’s nearly faded, or picking at the hardened skin of a mostly-healed scab, it’s not a million miles away from being an act of hesitant, low-level self-harm. I know it’s not entirely healthy. Like Harry in front of the Mirror of Erised, I know I can’t stay too long.

While doing some idle clicking recently, I discovered that the house where my childhood best friend lived is now a B&B. Nestled at the end of a lane, surrounded by fields, it’s the perfect spot for a country escape, and online, you can see photos of clinically tidy bedrooms which were once cluttered with the benevolent chaos of family life. The sitting room, where we ate hot buttered crumpets, played with the Labrador, and watched England beat Germany 5-1 in 2001, is now the dining room where guests wait to be served their home-grown, locally sourced eggs, bacon and tomatoes.

But the place I go back to most often is the village of Fittleworth, where Granny lived, and where I spent most weekends and school holidays until the age of about 17. I knew it like the back of my hand then – the recreation ground, the village hall, the shop and post office run by Keith who was grumpy to everyone else but always gruffly sweet to me, the garden on the corner where Megan, the gentle Alsatian, would jump up and rest her paws on the wall to say hello to passers-by.

It’s a village where not much happens, where white-haired, well-to-do people tend their roses, organise fetes, and amble to the pub before lunch for a polite half or a dry sherry. Now, clicking round on Street View, I get a Proustian rush so forceful it knocks the breath out of me. The village shop has been replaced by an antiques dealer – of course – and I am a virtual ghost, a digital time traveller.

It was Granny’s birthday on Monday; the first 9th July in twenty-something years I haven’t had to think about what to get the woman who never seemed to want anything in the way of material goods. And of course, I wish I could have thought about it. I wish I could have bought her some garden centre vouchers or a potted plant – any colour but red – or a funny book she could dip in and out of. Or, as in more recent years, things that would make her nursing home room feel more like her real home. Soft cushions, cut flowers, nice hand cream.

The thing about loss is that it gets worse before it gets better. You don’t expect that. However many times people tell you, “You don’t get over it, you just learn to live with it,” you don’t fully understand how that can be until it happens to you. I miss her more now than I did at Christmas when she’d just gone. It’s easy to expect that the early days are the hardest, but apparently this is a trap. You think when the pain of loss is at its freshest, you’ll feel your worst, but your own thoughts, however troubled, are the easy bit. It’s the carrying on that’s hard. The work of learning to live with it. The making of space in your life for a particular kind of sadness, allowing a little ache to occupy your heart permanently. This is who you are now: a fraction sadder, a sliver wiser, a fragment more aware that life is short so kindness trumps anything else you can be.

I now understand why time travel is a recurrent theme in books and film; I understand our need to build time machines, if only with words and pictures. We ask ourselves what we’d do if we could travel back through the years – who might we kill to avert later atrocities, who might we try to yank from the closing jaws of disaster? I don’t think most of us would attack tyrants or apprehend killers – I think most of us, if presented with a day return to a year of our choosing, would go back to when we were happiest, safest, most carefree. We’d go straight to those we’ve loved most and lost, and have one more day, one more conversation, one more riotous laugh, one more “I love you so much”. The chance to say, “Thank you for everything you gave me. Everything you made me.”

I’d go back to Gran’s garden, at the height of summer. We’d sit on the clanking metal-frame swing seat, ice would clink gently in glasses of gin and tonic, and we’d look out at the lawn, the flowerbeds bursting with every colour but red, the fir-green woodland that borders the garden. We’d hear birdsong, the faint rush of traffic from the main road she cursed, and not much else. I’d say something silly to make her burst into that gunshot laugh, and I’d ask her how to stop pastry shrinking down into its tin when being blind-baked. Or what I should do with the bit of pork I’ve had in the freezer for weeks. Or how to make her blackcurrant fool, the sharp, sweet, vivid purple pudding of my childhood summers. I watched her make it thirty times over but never made a note of the recipe.

The 9th of July will come around each year, and maybe some Julys will hurt more than others. Graduations, marriages and births will be celebrated but there’ll be an empty chair, a space saved but unfilled. All you can do when you lose someone you love is carry that loss, that hollow little space, and hope that it makes you kinder. Hope that their memory lights your darkest days. Hope that you keep the joy they gave you, and throw it out into the world.

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