Living Memory – A Short Story

It was the name on the door that gave me a jolt. It was always going to be a possibility that I would meet up with my own past, but I wasn’t the slightest bit prepared for it. I knew the address. I’d been there before, albeit a long time ago. It was a shock, nevertheless, to find that he might still live there, in that large house, in that almost-hidden street where the shy, reclusive people used to live. They don’t welcome cold callers in streets like those. I knew that, but I rang the bell anyway.

Some people really don’t go far, and it can be a difficult choice for the habitual migrant to comprehend. It’s strange the way a million different intuitions and recollections can arc across your mind in the short time between the ringing of a bell and the opening of a door. It surely can’t be him after all these years? So much time had disappeared into experiences, expeditions and excommunications. I’d been three times around the world and back. Was it possible that in all that time he hadn’t moved from his small spot in this cul de sac, at the far end of a dead end street?

What had he been doing all this time?

I heard heavy feet on the parquet floor, a thick jangling of bunched keys and a curse. I listened, almost in dread, as the internal door squeaked its protestations like an unhinged dog that had just received a cold, hard kick. I stood back while two bolts cracked back and the mortis machinery clattered under the weight of a heavy, iron key. It was the key to a large, solid stone, three-storey, much storied, detached citadel protected by a siege door. The ‘go away’ signs that began at the pillared gate discouraged visitors, and the narrow opening of the door confirmed that those who got that far would be confronted by an impenetrable wall of reluctance.

I caught a glimpse of his face and compared it with the mugshot implanted in my recollection of him when we were both much younger. My first thought was that this face was the face of his father; a man I’d met three times in my life. It is not possible for time to stand still. It is insensible to entertain, even for a split second, the notion that a face can remain the same face for forty years. It couldn’t be his father, I thought. It must be him, surely? Yet, his face, forty-five years older now, was no longer his face; it was now someone else’s face.

We were both eighteen when I last saw him. We’d been at school together, but we studied in different classes, were assigned to different Houses, and moved in different circles. He took French, I took German. He did Maths, I did Art. He was picked for the hockey team, I dodged physical jerks. I delivered newspapers, he didn’t need money. We became friends, in unlikely circumstances and despite the obvious differences, primarily because I delivered the Jewish Chronicle to his home.

Once a week, plodding along these same suburban streets, I’d arrive at his house about halfway through my round. I’d knock on the door and give his father the paper. He’d take it from me without saying a single word, turn around, already absorbed in the headlines, and simply walk away. He’d leave the front door wide open for me because tea and biscuits at Danno’s had quickly become a regular thing.

I wish I could say that we were great mates for whom time disappeared unnoticed into a labyrinth of trivial banter, but that wasn’t the case at all. We each had muckers like those already, and sufficient of them. Danno and I were friends rather than pals, and this meant long silences between shared confessions and confidences.

I could admit to him that I’d once been caught shoplifting, and been so terrified by the whole experience that I’d spontaneously soiled myself. They let me go with a warning, but I carried the smell of petty larceny on me all the way home on the bus from town.

Danno didn’t appear at all disgusted, but he neither was he especially sympathetic. He always struck the right balance between a silent, knowing smile and tight-lipped insouciance. He was, I suppose, my first and only counsellor, and I repaid his patience by laughing at his stories.

No one at school could see that he was funny, but that can be blamed on collective, adolescent blindness. At that age, it’s not enough to be witty, you have to be an entertainer in order to get noticed. Danno was a likeable lad, but his voice got lost in a crowd.

He told me stories about his father, whom he always called, ‘Father’, never Dad or Pop, much less ‘the old man’. It was always ‘Father did this’, or ‘Father did that’. Everything about Danno’s life, from the rambling rooms in the huge house, to his threadbare wardrobe and his faraway gaze amplified his ‘otherness’. There was a suggestion of bookishness about Danno, but I can’t say that books were much in evidence in his sparsely furnished room.

‘Father’, who gave every impression of being an academic, kept his books under lock and key in a small room that may once have been a large pantry. He shuffled back and forth between his makeshift library and the study where he did his important work. He mumbled a lot, and I was never sure whether he was talking to himself, to Danno, or to me. He was not tall, but he stooped shabbily and peered at me over the top of his gold-rimmed spectacles. I got the impression that he was thought I was someone else.

Danno said that his father had once spent a whole morning in the kitchen talking to ‘a humanities professor from Heidelberg’ about the cultural heritage of the Sephardic diaspora, describing in enormous detail the vocal ornamentation, or floreo, specific to Moroccan Sephardic singers. When Father got going there was no stopping him. He described the wanderings and tribulations of these unfortunate people so vividly that his audience of one could do nothing except sit and listen in open-mouthed, dumbstruck awe.

It was only when Danno’s mother came home from the fishmonger with a late breakfast of smoked herring that the misapprehension became evident. The professor from Heidelberg was not a professor at all, but a gas boiler salesman who’d introduced himself at the door as the ‘boiler man’. Father had completely misheard him, and thought that the hapless technician had said ‘Tollerman’. Somehow, it seemed more credible to Danno’s dad that the world’s leading authority on Sephardic music would appear unexpectedly at his door, than someone who’d come by scheduled appointment to put the tired, old Baxi Bermuda out of its misery.

One thing I especially liked about being at Danno’s was the presumption of discretion. It went without saying that the things we spoke of at Danno’s stayed at Danno’s. Our personal stories were vulnerable to vicious misinterpretation by cruel kids, and misappropriation by condescending adults. These were innocuous secrets, but we both knew that they were they could only be shared with the walls. We were quite grown up about that, more so, I think, than many juvenile adults I’ve since had the displeasure to meet.

Mostly, we exchanged one or two anecdotes while sifting through the comics that rightfully ought to have been delivered long before five-o-clock. Danno always had the radio on, turned down low, but loud enough to hear the pips that signaled the news at six. Time enough to read our favourites, the The Beano, The Dandy, The Eagle, Beezer and Topper, re-align and re-order them, and slip them through the letterboxes before the parents came home from work. It didn’t matter so much about the kids’ comics, but it was the end of the world if they had to wait for the newspaper.

Danno was fascinated by who lived where and the papers they had delivered. He’d quite convinced himself that the reading habits and choices of his neighbours revealed everything about them. According to Danno, they were all either reactionaries, recidivists, or recalcitrants.

Whatever they were, I knew it was the easiest paper round I ever had. There were forty-three addresses in seven, tightly-bunched streets in a small estate that consisted mostly of recently built, semi-detached bungalows, each with its own mercifully short driveway. Danno observed dryly that they must surely be inhabited by semi-detached people, but I didn’t rise to it. They tipped well at Christmas, and I never took money for granted.

The terraces, crescents, roads and lanes were all named for Scottish sea lochs that lay miles distant from that manicured enclave; a shopless, shapeless suburb of a tumbledown town overlooking a wide, azure river. Some people, quite wrongly, see the river as a silvery depth of water. On dull, overcast days, the river is indisputably dirt-grey, as if it has been mixed with vast deposits of household dust. Compensation of a kind comes with the high-sun summer mornings and the low-sun winter afternoons, which turns the surface so overwhelmingly golden that it hurts the eyes to look too long upon its reflected glory.

The sea loch streets, of course, fed the imagination and had us both flipping through a Highland atlas in search of the sources. Sure enough, there was indeed a Loch Sunart, a Loch Etive, and a Loch Striven, for which these streets were named. I vowed that I would visit them all of these landscapes, but I often made promises to myself (and to others) that I would never keep.

I did once, however, deliver papers to the freshwater lochs when one of the other lads was off sick. I toured Katrine Avenue, and explored Maree Place, Laggan Road and Morlich Gardens. I dallied in Leven Drive and Earnhead Close, surrounded by double-garaged detached villas, feeling like a tourist with a third-class ticket who’d blundered into a first-class compartment.

Danno didn’t live in a loch. He lived in an old street, where old money had built three defensible, sandstone mansions, probably for three managers, or perhaps even three directors, of a long redundant jute mill. The erstwhile Scotch Barons were a long time dead, and these crumbling structures, rotting from within, will shortly follow them to the grave. I told myself I had no choice but to visit Beach Church Manse, in Beach Church Lane, in all its confusing incongruity. It was almost two miles from the beach, and hadn’t been inhabited by a minister for a hundred years. Now it was on my list, and I had to ring the bell. I had to make him come to the door. It was my job, if you can call cold-calling a job.

The two properties that flanked the old manse were already condemned, deserted, and surrounded by ineffectual fencing. Unconvincing notices warned of non-existent cctv cameras and phantom security guards. The windows and slates had long gone, leaving charred beams and nothing but stone walls to protect. Vandals had descended from a northern estate on the other side of the dual carriageway and taken everything that wasn’t nailed down. They ripped out anything that might be of value and burned the rest, leaving two empty, blackened shells either side of Danno’s old, but still intact and inhabited house.

Was it him? I’ll never know. I only managed to say, as brightly as I could, ‘Good morning, I work for the Scottish government…’

The person who answered the door, the one who opened it very slightly and peered suspiciously at me from inside Danno’s old house simply shook his head, and said, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no..’ The words disappeared into a labyrinth of deep loss and profound grief as he quietly closed the door.

Some people don’t go far. Some places live long in the memory. Other places are a living memory, preserved in street names and house numbers, and engraved upon countless broken hearts and minds. I wish now that I’d had the sensitivity not to trespass on someone else’s past, and the good sense to leave my own bygones well enough alone.

Text and Images © Michael Stephen Clark (2019)