This one is for Sacha Black’s writing prompt, The Rusty Thing.
They had lived in the same house for twenty years and now they were leaving it, moving to a smaller place. They’d last moved when child number four was born and they had run out of corners that could be turned into somebody’s private space. Child number four was now leaving home, taking her belongings and the few inherited bits and pieces that spoke to her. The others already had their own places and had ransacked the house years before for anything useful.
She had been gradually filling bin bags with things she didn’t want, emptying drawers, wardrobes, dressers, going through the dozens of boxes full of amorphous ‘stuff’ that should have been thrown out long ago but was supposed to come in useful one day. She had now reached her own personal things, the single drawer in the entire house that held the bits of rubbish that meant something to her. She never opened the drawer, never looked inside the leather case that held the letters, the odd bits of inherited jewellery, the child’s toys, broken watches, and scratched glass paperweights.
She opened it now and caught her breath. So many memories fluttered out. She closed her eyes. Scenes of the past flickered behind her closed lids so fast she had barely time to grasp them before they subsided again. Their first cat’s collar, the bell tarnished and silent, a plastic turtle she had loved when she was a kid, her mother’s only pair of earrings, the children’s maternity bracelets, the ink on the name tags illegible now. Two were chopped to pieces. Joe’s. The duty nurse forgot to take them off at the maternity hospital, and she remembered how they had panicked when the baby’s hands had swollen up and had rushed him to the paediatrician to have them removed. That was the first emergency with Joe, the first of many. He was gone now, that son who had caused them so much heartache as a child. Gone to live in Australia. She dropped the bracelets into a bin bag with the plastic turtle and the cat collar.
A hand on her shoulder made her turn.
“Why are you throwing those things away? Remember how Rambo used to hate that collar? And how he almost choked when it caught in a branch of the apple tree?”
He picked up the collar and fingered it lovingly. She saw a piece of faded leather and a tin bell that didn’t ring. She pushed back the memory of the old cat lying still, a dribble of dead drool on his lip.
“And the kids’ bracelets! Don’t you want to keep those?”
He looked at her with wide, questioning eyes.
“Well… as souvenirs.”
“We have the children. In a way. Why keep bits of plastic?”
He wasn’t listening, riffling through the paper, the letters, restaurant menus, hotel bills, theatre tickets, part of their shared youth. She could sense his annoyance.
“These things, the letters I sent you, your parents’ letters, the souvenirs of that holiday in Greece. You can’t throw those away!”
Suddenly it was too much. She covered her face with her hands and sobbed.
“Hey.” He was tender now, crouching on the floor beside her. “Hey.” He pulled a strand of hair from her tear-sticky cheek and kissed it. “I just don’t understand…”
She swallowed and cleared her throat, steadying the tremble in her voice.
“All these memories, souvenirs you call them, they’re all bits of what’s gone, finished. We don’t have babies any more, or parents, or a cat. All of this,” she gestured at the papers and objects scattered round her on the floor, “it’s just a reminder of what we’ve lost.”
She looked into the bewilderment of his eyes and saw that he hadn’t understood.
“But they’re souvenirs of good times, not sad times. Don’t you want to remember happiness?”
She shook her head. “But we don’t remember happiness, not really, just the idea of happiness. Haven’t you noticed that the sharpest memories are always the sad ones? They jump out at you when you’re unprepared, and each one unleashes a whole crowd of other sad memories, unrelated except in their sadness. When I look at Rambo’s collar, I don’t see a happy young cat, I see me taking the collar off for the last time when he died. I don’t remember why I loved that plastic turtle so much, it’s too long ago, but I do remember how heartbroken I was when my hamster died when I was eight. Don’t you see?”
She searched his face for a glimmer of understanding. She took his hands. “Seeing Joe’s baby bracelet just reminds me that he’s gone. I know Australia isn’t death,” she managed a smile that he echoed, “but that little boy we loved so much has gone. I don’t want to be one of those old ladies who lives in the past, sifting over the deaths and the partings. I don’t want to be ruled by memories.”
He sighed. “We’ve built up quite a past, haven’t we? When I look back—”
“Don’t! There’s too much past, and not enough left ahead. The river never stops flowing, you know. When I die, I want it to be trying to finish one last thing, not drifting backwards into some rose-tinted, bittersweet place that didn’t exist, trying to catch up with the people who have already flowed back along the river.”
He smiled and nodded. Understanding.
“So, we’ll give your mum’s earrings to Isa, and we’ll get another cat for Rambo’s collar.” He dropped the plastic turtle into a bin bag.
“And we’ll take cuttings of the roses to plant in the garden of the new house.”
“And nothing else.”
“Nothing. Just you and me.” She held his hands tight. “Building something new.”