Things We Never Said, my new novel, is available in paperback here:
And for Kindle here:
(All previous sample chapters are now included below.)
120 format, black and white. Two children are playing in a sandpit with buckets and spades. The little boy, in a woolly jumper and jeans, is staring at the camera and smiling broadly. The little girl, wearing dungarees and a sweatshirt, has her face obscured by a mop of unruly hair which has fallen forwards as she plays.
The drive from the funeral parlour to the house takes place in silence. Beside Sean, April, his daughter, stares stoney-faced from the side window. They both cried abundantly during the service but, right now, are feeling more numbed than anything else.
Both are thinking about the fact that they should probably say something to comfort or reassure the other but, as none of the normal formulas for filling silences work here – there’s no point, for example, in asking if the other is OK when they’re clearly not – they continue their journey in silence. The risk of provoking fresh floods of tears is just too high, at least until the journey is over.
On reaching the house, Maggie, one of their most faithful family friends, opens the front door. She squeezes Sean’s shoulder and silently hugs April who, bracing herself against further tears, accepts the hug more rigidly than she intended.
“The food’s in the lounge,” she says. “And Perry’s making drinks in the kitchen.”
“Thanks, Mags,” Sean says. “You’re a star for doing all of this.”
As Maggie retreats into the house, Sean removes his overcoat and hangs it on a hook in the hallway.
He hesitates between the lounge, where he can hear somewhat incongruous laughter, or the kitchen, where a stiff drink will come at the hefty cost of being forced to talk to his brother.
“Dad!” April prompts, applying gentle pressure on his elbow. “You’re blocking the hallway. Let’s go get a drink.”
“Sure. Yes. Sorry,” Sean says, moving reluctantly towards the kitchen.
“Hey,” Sean’s brother says, looking up as he enters. “How are you holding up?”
“Um, OK, Perry,” Sean replies. “Can you make me one of those?”
Perry glances at the bottle of Bombay Sapphire in his hand. “A G & T?” he asks.
Sean nods. “With plenty of G.”
“Coming up,” Perry says, already starting to unscrew the lid.
“Me too, Uncle Perry,” April says. “If that’s OK?”
“Sure, it’s like a production line, here,” Perry says. To fill the silence that ensues as he mixes the drinks, he adds, “It was a nice service.”
Really? Sean thinks. Do I really have to do this? “Yeah,” he replies. “It was.”
Someone squeezes Sean’s elbow and, thinking that he’s chosen the wrong place to stand again, he starts to apologise.
But it’s just Maggie trying to comfort him. “Are you OK?” she asks, gently. “I mean, considering the circumstances, obviously. Are you as OK as can be expected?”
Sean takes a deep breath and nods. “I’m exactly as OK as can be expected,” he says. “I just need a stiff drink, but Perry has that under control.”
Just as he says this, Perry holds out his glass of gin and tonic. The ice cubes tinkle against the glass and Sean’s mind unexpectedly flashes back to a different glass of gin and tonic held by his late wife’s petite hands in the Grecian sunlight. He shakes his head as if to dislodge the memory and braces himself, because, yes, there are no doubt thousands of these memories yet to come.
“How’s Mum?” he asks Perry. “Have you been out there to see her recently?”
His brother nods and shrugs simultaneously. “Most weekends,” he says. “And you know… She’s pretty much the same. She doesn’t know her arse from her elbow most of the time.”
“Right,” Sean says. “Of course.”
“She’d still like to see you, though,” Perry says.
Sean restrains a snort. His mother has never shown much sign of wanting to see him, and dementia has done little to improve the situation.
Armed with drinks, Sean and April move through to the lounge where family friends are telling each other amusing stories about Catherine.
April leans in against her father’s side and rests her head on his shoulder. “I’m not sure if I can do this, Dad,” she murmurs.
“Do what?” Sean asks.
“All of this do you remember when stuff. It just makes me feel like punching someone.”
Sean smiles sadly and lays one arm across her shoulders. “You don’t have to do anything, you know. You can go for a walk with that boyfriend of yours. You can go to bed. Do whatever feels easiest for you. They’ll all be gone soon enough, and you and I can be as miserable as sin together. How does that sound?”
“That sounds great,” April says. “OK, here goes.” Then, visibly steeling herself, she straightens and launches herself towards the group. “Hi,” she says. “How are you?”
“Oh, hello!” a friend of her mother’s says. “I was just telling everyone about your mum’s poor hydrangeas.”
By four, everyone has left.
Sean removes his tie and throws himself onto the sofa. He’s had four gin and tonics and is feeling fairly wobbly, but it’s not helping as much as he had hoped.
“Well, thank God that’s over,” April says, taking the armchair opposite and lifting a sandwich from the small plate on her knees.
“I know,” Sean agrees.
“Have you eaten anything?” April asks. “There are loads of sandwiches left. Mags thought she was catering for a football team, I think.”
Sean wrinkles his nose. “Not hungry,” he says, then, “How long did you say you were staying?” He’s wondering whether it would be easier to be alone with his pain right now, or whether the empty house will be quite simply unbearable. For the moment, he feels so exhausted, so dead inside, that it doesn’t seem to matter one way or another.
“Until tomorrow afternoon, I expect,” April says. “If that’s OK.”
“Of course,” Sean replies, turning to look out at the sunlit street.
“Could we watch a film or something?” April asks.
“A film?” Sean asks, turning back to face her.
April nods. “I don’t…” she says, her voice wobbling as her eyes begin to tear. “I don’t know quite what to do with myself. A film might help. Maybe.”
Sean blinks slowly. “Sure,” he says. “Go for it. The remote’s um…”
He fidgets uncomfortably, then reaches below his thigh and retrieves not the Sky remote, but an iPhone. He sighs deeply and frowns at it, then places it on the coffee table.
“Her phone,” April says.
“I’m not really sure what to do with it,” Sean says.
“No,” April says. “Just, maybe, stick it in a drawer or something?”
Sean nods. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, that’s probably best.”
April finds the remote control down the side of her own armchair and clicks on the television. She starts to surf the list of available films, then pauses. “Can I ask you something?” she says.
Sean nods. “Of course, sweetheart. Anything.”
“I don’t want to upset you.”
“It’s OK. I think I’m at one-hundred percent, anyway. I don’t think I can feel more upset. What is it?”
“It’s just, you know, that last day. When Mum said we’d be hearing from her shortly?”
Sean smiles sadly. “Yeah. She sounded like she was making a dental appointment or something. She was off her face on morphine, sweetie. That’s all it was.”
April nods. “Mum didn’t…” she shakes her head gently. “She didn’t, you know, believe in anything, did she?”
“What, you mean like an afterlife?”
April shrugs. “Anything, really.”
Sean shakes his head. “No, sweetie. You know she didn’t.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“That doesn’t stop you believing whatever you want, though.”
“No,” April says. “I know. Only I don’t either, really.” She glances around the room as if perhaps searching for some manifestation of her mother’s spirit. “I wish I did, really. It would be nice to know she was… you know… living on. Somewhere else.”
Sean chews his lip and screws up his eyes against a fresh bout of tears.
He taps his chest with his fingertips. “In here, sweetheart,” he says. “She’s in here.”
“Yeah,” April says, sniffing and dabbing at her eyes before turning her attention back to the TV screen. “So, a film, eh?”
“Nothing soppy, though, OK?”
“No,” April says. “No, I know.”
Unable to choose anything that might be too emotional, yet not wanting to watch either an action film or a horror movie, April ends up choosing a biopic about the life of Che Guevara, but with her mind wanting only to think about her mother, she finds herself totally unable to concentrate on the film.
Sean, for his part, falls asleep quickly. Some hours later, when he wakes up, the television has been switched off and the room is empty. He sits for a few seconds, half asleep still, and then, just as he begins to wonder where Catherine is, he remembers. He gasps and sits bolt upright.
• • •
Sean sits at the kitchen table and cups the steaming mug of tea in his hands. He glances at the kitchen sink – it’s piled high with washing up – then shifts his focal point to the window and finally to the garden beyond.
It’s a sunny spring day and he should probably get washed and dressed and get out there. It might make him feel a little better. Or at least, a little less bad.
But only two days have passed since the funeral and this is his first day alone, so this is allowed, isn’t it? He’s back to work on Monday, so surely he’s entitled to spend the weekend staring into the middle distance, to spend the next forty-eight hours feeling utterly, utterly wretched if he wants to.
He looks at the rose bush, blowing in the wind. He hears Catherine’s voice saying, “That’ll need pruning as soon as this frost is over.”
“But I don’t know how to prune a rose bush,” he murmurs, as if perhaps Catherine might hear him. It crosses his mind that there are probably thousands of things he doesn’t know how to do – things he never even realised that Catherine did. He starts to make a mental list but then, realising that it’s just another way of describing her, another route to thinking about the loss, he stops himself. It’s just too painful.
He’s still sitting, the mug on the table long since cold, when a knock on the lounge window makes him jump.
He twists in his seat and through the arch between the kitchen and the lounge, sees Maggie peering in, her face framed by cupped hands. He exhales heavily and levers himself from the chair and slopes across the room in the direction of the front door. Cold air bursts into the house as he pulls it open. “I’m not properly up yet,” he tells Maggie, flatly.
She scans his rumpled clothes, then peers into his eyes in search of… in search of what? Something, anything, perhaps. He sees her see that there’s nothing there. He sees her note the emptiness, and the fact of her observing it makes it become real, makes it become a thing he’s aware of.
“I brought you sushi,” she says briskly as she raises the pink paper bag held in her left hand. Under her right arm she’s holding a box wrapped in brown paper. “I’ll bet you’ve not eaten anything and I know how you love sushi.”
Sean nods and reaches for the bag. “Cheers,” he says.
“It’s from the place on Mill Road. They’re the best, I reckon. May I come in?”
“Er… do you have to?” Sean asks, wincing awkwardly. “It’s just… as I was saying… I’m not really up yet.”
“It’s only for a minute,” Maggie says, stepping forward, and in so doing, forcing Sean to move to one side. “Just long enough to check that you’re OK.”
“OK…” Sean repeats, quietly. He’s not sure what that even means anymore.
He rolls his eyes at the now-empty doorstep, sighs deeply and then turns to follow Maggie into the house.
“The place looks like a tip, Mags,” he calls out, peering inside the bag at the plastic tray of sushi as he follows her. “I want to be quiet at the moment, that’s all.”
When he reaches the kitchen, he finds that Maggie has removed her coat. She’s already stacking the dishwasher. “… and just leave the dishwasher door open if that helps,” she’s saying. “That way you’ll automatically dump your plates and stuff in the dishwasher rather than the sink. And once it’s full all you have to do is close it and switch it on. I’ll even put a dishwasher tab in so that it’s all ready for you. How does that sound?”
“I do know how to stack the dishwasher,” Sean says through another sigh. “I’m just… you know…”
“Look, I know you must be feeling awful. I can’t even imagine how awful you must be feeling, to be honest,” Maggie says. “But if you let everything go to pot, well, it won’t help.”
“Maggie,” Sean pleads.
Maggie pauses and straightens, a dirty mug in one hand. “I know. You want me to leave. I know that. I’m not stupid.”
Sean nods gently. “This is very kind of you,” he says, “but yes. I just want to be on my own right now.”
Maggie presses her free hand to her hip and twists her mouth sideways. “I’ll do a deal with you,” she says, gesticulating with the mug. “You go have a shower and change. And in the time it takes you to do that, I’ll tidy up a little bit down here.”
“But Mags, I…”
“By the time you’ve finished, I’ll be gone. I promise.”
Sean nods and swallows with difficulty. Her kindness makes him want to cry but he reckons he has cried enough these last few days. “OK,” he says, turning to leave. “OK. Whatever.”
He walks to the base of the stairs then pauses and looks back. “Thanks Mags,” he says, his voice croaky. “I um… I do appreciate it, you know.”
Maggie, who has just pulled on Catherine’s rubber Marigolds says, “I know. Now go wash yourself. Because that’s the bit I can’t do and frankly you’re a bit smelly.”
By the time Sean has showered, shaved and dressed in fresh jeans and a sweatshirt, Maggie, true to her word, has gone.
The kitchen surfaces are clean, the room smells of bleach, the dishwasher is chugging away and the dining table, previously covered in a seemingly insurmountable mixture of cups, wrappers, unopened post and random computer cables, is now clear. Only a mug of fresh tea and the wrapped box remain. The box has been carefully set in the exact middle of the table. Sean can imagine Maggie, her head tipped to one side, adjusting it until it’s perfectly centred.
Though grateful for the gift, whatever it turns out to be, he finds himself unable to summon the energy required to investigate the box’s contents. Or perhaps, more precisely, he finds himself unable to risk the energy that might be required if Maggie’s gift turns out to be touching or moving or emotional in any way. He feels too fragile to take that risk.
He reaches for the fresh mug of tea, stares at the carefully wrapped box for one second longer and then moves instead to the lounge, where he hurls himself lengthways onto the sofa. As he reaches for the remote, he notes that Maggie has hoovered in here, too.
Jeremy Kyle’s face fills the TV screen. “So how could you not know that your lover was your brother?” Kyle asks, smug, mocking laughter in his voice. “Please. Do tell us.”
• • •
The next morning, Sean has barely reached the kitchen when the landline rings. He switches on the kettle, turns the heating thermostat up a notch (it’s cold and raining outside) and swipes the phone from its base. “April – Mobile” the screen says.
“Hi honey,” Sean answers. “I’m barely up here.”
“Mmm, same here,” April replies, the sound of a warm bed somehow present in her voice. “I’m not up at all, actually.”
“It’s Sunday. It’s allowed.”
“So they tell me. How are you holding up, Dad?”
“Well, I’m still here,” Sean says. “And you?”
“The same, really. I keep bursting into tears, but I suppose that’s normal.”
“Yes. Yes, that’s totally normal.”
“Do you want me to drive back up?” April asks. “I’m free all day. I could be there in an hour.”
“There’s no need,” Sean replies. “I’m… you know… I’m just slouching around watching rubbish television really.”
“It’s hard,” April says. “I feel like I should have been readier – is that a word? Readier?”
“I think it is.”
“Anyway, I feel like I should have been readier, more ready, or whatever. I mean, we knew, didn’t we? But it’s still… I don’t know. It’s hard to get my head around it.”
“It’s a shock, isn’t it? But I think that’s normal. It’s a big thing. You only lose your m–” Sean has to clear his throat before continuing. “It’s a once in a lifetime thing, thank God.”
Sean hears his daughter blow her nose at the other end of the line. “I just miss her so much,” she finally says, her voice wobbling. “But even that doesn’t make any sense. I mean, it’s not like I even saw her that often. I wish I’d come up more, Dad. I wish I hadn’t let work get in the way so much. But even though I knew… I… I don’t know. I sort of didn’t believe it. I couldn’t really imagine that she would be…” April starts to sob freely.
“It’s all right, honey,” Sean says gently, fighting back unwelcome tears himself.
“I didn’t imagine that she’d be, you know, gone…” April says, through tears. “That doesn’t make any sense, does it? But I didn’t realise how… final it would all feel, I suppose.”
“Things don’t get much more final than this,” Sean says, his own voice trembling.
“I know. But I didn’t believe it in a way. I do wish I’d come up more, though. God.”
“It’s fine, sweetheart. Really it is. She wasn’t up to talking much towards the end. You know that. And she wanted you to get on with your life. She was glad you were getting on with your life. She was really proud of you.”
“I know,” April says. “It’s just… you know.”
“I know,” Sean says, kindly. “But there’s no need to feel guilty.”
“So, are you eating OK, Dad? Are you looking after yourself?”
“Uh-huh. There are still sandwiches left over,” Sean says. He thinks of the sushi box and looks around the room, then remembers that he put it in the refrigerator. “And Maggie has been dropping food parcels in,” he adds. It’s an exaggeration, but at least it will reassure his daughter. Then again, perhaps it’s true. Perhaps the box on the table is food as well. He reaches out and runs one finger across the rough brown string looped around the box.
“Oh, that’s good. Good old Maggie,” his daughter says.
“I’m not hungry to be honest,” April admits. “But that’s no bad thing. I’ve been wanting to drop a few pounds for ages. So… golden opportunity I suppose.”
“Well, don’t lose too much. You’re skinny already.”
“No, well… You girls never think you’re skinny enough. But you have to eat something. You know that, right?”
“I’m living on cornflakes at the moment. I can’t stomach anything else. But there’s, you know, loads of takeaways and stuff around the corner. If my appetite does suddenly return, I’ve only got to nip out.”
Sean, who has been absentmindedly fiddling with the string on the package, now slides the box towards him. It’s not as heavy as he expected. Perhaps not food, then.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come back up?” April asks.
“I’m sure,” Sean says. “You just rest and eat something and look after yourself. Are you back at work tomorrow?” Without thinking about it, he has pulled the end of the knot holding the packaging together. The crisp folds of brown paper are opening slowly, like the petals of a flower.
“I am,” April says. “Three days. That’s all you get for… for this sort of thing. I mean, I could probably take some more holiday and stuff, but I’m kind of wondering if work isn’t the best place to be. That doesn’t sound callous, does it?”
“Not at all,” Sean says. “I’ve been thinking pretty much the same thing. Now Monday’s almost here though, I’m having second thoughts. But I’ll just see how I feel in the morning, I expect. No one will mind if I don’t go in. No one will care either way.”
“And you’re sure you’re OK?” April asks, yet again.
“I am. I’m fine,” Sean says, thinking that how he is right now is a whole new, most unpleasant definition of ‘fine’. “And Mags brought me some sushi, like I said.”
“You can’t live on a bit of sushi, Dad.”
“And other stuff too. A whole box of stuff. Really, don’t worry.”
“Right, OK then,” April says. “Well, I think I might try to sleep some more. Sleep’s the least horrible place to be at the moment. I’m sleeping loads. It’s just the waking up bit that I hate.”
“When you suddenly remember?” Sean asks.
“Yeah. There’s this brief window, like, just a few seconds, yeah? And then I remember.”
“It’s horrible. I get that too.”
“I’m seeing someone tomorrow lunchtime, actually. A counsellor or something. My friend Sinead saw her when her brother died. Sinead said she was good, so I thought, why not? I mean, it can’t do any harm, can it?”
“No, you’re right, it can’t. That’s good. If you feel you need it, that’s good.”
“Have you thought about seeing someone?”
“Oh, I’m not really the seeing-someone type,” Sean says. “You know that. I think I’m OK though, considering. But let me know how it goes.”
April yawns loudly, then says, “Sure.”
“You go back to sleep, sweetheart.”
“OK, talk later, Big Daddy.”
“Sure thing, Little Daughter.”
Once the phone call has ended, Sean stands and crosses to the refrigerator where he retrieves – and sniffs at – a bottle of milk. This he places on the kitchen table along with the pack of muesli and a bowl and tablespoon plucked from the dishwasher.
He’s been feeling nauseous ever since Catherine died. He supposes that he, too, should probably try to eat something.
He pours the muesli, adds milk, and raises a spoonful to his lips. He chews unenthusiastically, then forces himself to swallow, before pulling a face and pushing the bowl to one side. No. It’s still too soon for food.
He pulls the box towards him and peels back the wrapping paper revealing a baby-blue shoebox. At the sight of the lid, he inhales sharply.
Across the top of the box, someone has written, All about us. The handwriting looks a lot like Catherine’s own but, in capitals and written in chunky marker, it’s hard to be certain. He runs his finger across the lettering as he thinks about this, then chews his bottom lip as he removes the lid from the box, revealing one small package and a neat wad of white envelopes stacked end-up, like index cards.
His hand shaking, he lifts one from the pile and inspects it, then another, and sees that they are numbered and in order. Each envelope seems to contain a small object, the size of a box of matches.
He spins the box around so that the numbers are facing him and pulls the first envelope from the box. It reads: Week Two. He hunts for Week One and then finally lifts the small parcel from the box. The inscription says, Start here. Open me first.
Written in ballpoint pen, the handwriting is clearly identifiable as Catherine’s messy scrawl.
He slowly rips the paper from the package revealing a small Olympus Dictaphone and a single Polaroid photo. “Oh, God,” Sean murmurs.
He picks up the dictaphone and moves his finger towards the play button, but then puts it back down and studies the photo instead.
Polaroid, colour. A woman lies in a hospital bed. A man is crouched beside her, his head laid gently on her shoulder. The woman is wearing men’s striped pyjamas and from the buttoned chest sprouts a cluster of cables which run across her free shoulder to a monitoring device. Despite the oxygen mask, which covers her mouth, one can see from the shape of her eyes that she’s somehow managing to smile.
Well, this is spooky, isn’t it? The voice of your late wife. “Late Wife” – you hadn’t thought about that before, had you? Well yes, having been absolutely obsessed with being on time my whole life, I finally get to be “late.”
I’m recording this on Friday night. I started off writing you letters but I kept having to bin them – you know how insecure I’ve always felt about my dodgy spelling – and one of the nurses came up with this idea. I’m sure April would tell me I can do it on my iPhone or something, but I’m far more comfortable with these little cassette things, even if they do seem to cost a fortune. Seven quid each, apparently! Can you believe it?
Anyway, this system has seemed to work better for me, so it’s probably worth it. Plus, you get to hear my lovely voice instead of trying to read my spidery handwriting and that’s got to be a blessing.
Have you looked at the photo yet? It’s the one that April took with that new Polaroid of hers. Isn’t it funny that something as old-hat as a Polaroid camera should become fashionable again? I think it must be because people are fed up with looking at screens.
You have both just left the hospital and they have given me one of those horrible adrenalin pills to get my blood pressure back up, so I’m galloping like Patti Smith’s Horses.
I’ve been putting off recording this last tape because, well, it’s my goodbye message, I suppose.
That’s an idea that neither of you have been able to get your minds around, I know. Just this evening, you said, “Oh, you’ll outlive us all,” which, considering the state I’m in, is pretty much a dictionary definition of being in denial. But the truth is, I’m pretty sure you’ll be listening to this before the end of the month.
The shadows – have I told you about the shadows? I think I did, but I might have dreamt it. I have been having the strangest dreams… Anyway, there are shadows when I dream, shadows like dark forests crowding in on the path. And the path is lit by an ever weaker beam. It’s as if my torch battery is running out, and the shadows at the edges have been becoming deeper and darker and scarier for some time now.
The doctor has said repeatedly that this is just an effect of the morphine pump, but I’m convinced that the shadows are death crowding in on me.
Hum, the nurse interrupted me there, so I had to stop and start again. It’s amazing that it hasn’t happened more often really.
Anyway, where was I? The shadows. As I was saying, they’ve been crowding in on me.
But recently, these last few days, I’ve ceased to be afraid of them. I’ve started to see the shadows as a calm restful place out of the sun, soft grass off the beaten track to lie back in. I’m starting to want to lay down my torch and ramble off into the undergrowth. There’s so much pain on the path, that’s the thing.
I haven’t told you much about the pain, I don’t think, and I don’t intend to now. But know that there is pain. So. Much. Pain. Will you forgive me for not hanging on? Will you understand that the cost to me of staying has got to be too high? It’s the only reason I’m mentioning the pain now – so that you understand that I would have stayed if I could. But it’s no longer possible, darling. I’m sorry.
So, the packages. There are twenty-eight more of them (I’ve been recording them for months, a real labour of love) and they are already packaged and sealed in that little cabinet beside my bed, here at the hospital. If all goes to plan, Maggie should deliver them to you once I have wandered off into the forest.
The idea came to me when you brought that box of photos in. As we were going through them we came across a picture of me looking peculiar on Margate jetty. Do you remember the one? And you said, “Gosh. Look at your face! I wonder what you were thinking about?”
Well, the thing was that you had already said that. You had said almost exactly those words when we got the batch of photos back from the developers in ‘94. “Gosh. Look at your face. I wonder what you were thinking about?” And a little later, when I denied that I’d been thinking about anything in particular, you said, “No one really knows anyone. That’s amazing, isn’t it? We share everything, but we all have our secret gardens too. We all have fantasies and fears and fetishes. We all have secrets about ourselves we don’t want to share.”
I asked you what your fantasies were, what fetishes you had, and you replied, “Oh, I mean most people. Not me. I’m pretty boring that way. And you know I tell you everything.”
But I knew that it wasn’t true. And I knew that even to you, there were things I’d never be able to say. So you were right. To spend your entire life with someone and still not know them is pretty strange.
The other thing that set me thinking was a conversation we had when Mum died. I was talking about what a wonderful person she was and you said, “Well, the dead make so few mistakes.” You’d had a few beers, so you had a bit of an excuse, but I felt that you were sullying her name (I was very over-sensitive about her at the time) so we had an argument about it. But you were right about that too. When people die, we choose to forget the arguments. We wipe out the slights and the injustices. We turn our dead into saints and that clearly doesn’t make the grieving process any easier.
So, I’ve been worrying about your memory playing tricks on you. I’ve been worrying about you canonising me! Because when I die, which is pretty soon I reckon, I want you to move on with your life. I want you to make a fresh start for yourself. I want you to meet someone new and have drunken arguments and holidays in the sun with her. I want you to make that horrible carrot soup of yours even if it’s just so that you get a second opinion on it, so that you realise that it wasn’t me being overly critical after all.
Oh, I can hear you protesting as if you were here, sitting next to me. I can hear you saying that it’s never going to happen, that ours was a once in a lifetime thing. But I hope that you’re wrong. I pray that you’re wrong.
And these messages, well, they’re everything about me that you know, that I don’t want you to forget. And they’re everything about me that you never knew, as well. And I’m hoping that with it recorded, it will stop you from turning me into some kind of angel. It will stop me being remembered as some ridiculous Stepford Wife in whose footsteps no one could ever follow. Because, God knows, I’ve got my faults. And this is my way of reminding you of them.
Now the next bit is going to mean that you’ll call me a control freak, but that’s OK, because you’re right. I am. That’s just one of my many faults.
The packages are numbered two to twenty-nine (this is number one) and I really want you to open them in order and I really want you to open them at the rate of one a week.
These weeks are going to be so hard for you. I know that, and it’s one of my life’s great regrets that I can’t be there to help you, to look after you at this difficult time, as they say. So this is my way of being there for you. One message a week. No cheating. Trust me, please.
The pain is back now, so I’m going to have to press that little grey morphine button. Which means that I’ve reached the hardest part of all. I have to say goodbye and I really don’t know how to do that. It’s so final.
Your mother would say there’s an afterlife, but she’d probably also have me booked on the first train to hell, so that’s no real comfort to me.
As you know, I’m no great believer in the afterlife and that’s OK with me. I’ve been. I’ve seen. I’ve partied. I’ve loved. As long as the coming nothingness is pain-free, I’m ready to go there.
I want you to know that it’s been great. It’s been brilliant. It’s been amazing. It’s been better than anything I ever imagined for myself and that’s all thanks to you.
As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one thing luckier than getting to spend your life with someone who loves you and that’s getting to spend your life with someone who loves you whose name is Sean Patrick.
I love you with all my heart, Mr Patrick. I love you so much that my heart is breaking at the thought of having to leave you. But the path is so painful, darling. And the shadows look so inviting.
So listen to the tapes, one a week. Take time to look at the photos, to remember what we had at each step of the way. Take time to cry over the good things we had. Take time to shout at me for the things I never told you at the time. And when it’s done, put the box away and get on with your life.
Tell April how much I love her. Tell her how proud I am of her. Don’t ever let her doubt either of those things for a single second. Tell her over and over and over – she’ll need it.
God that hurts, perhaps more than all the rest put together: the fact that I won’t be there to say the things she needs to hear. That I won’t be there to tell you I love you anymore.
Because I do. I love you. Forever.
Hi there again. I’ve just played this back and it doesn’t even begin to express how I feel. There simply aren’t big enough words in the dictionary. Or perhaps there are and I just don’t know them. So I’m going to end by sending you a big sloppy kiss and a virtual love-heart which you’ll just have to imagine I’m drawing in the air as I speak. Gosh, that made me think of those love heart sweets you used to buy me. I have the sherbety taste in my mouth, right now, even as the morphine is rising up in me like a deep, dark, soft, hot toddy. Isn’t memory strange?
Photo booth format, black and white. A teenage girl with bleached, shaggy, layered locks and a back-combed fringe is squashed into the frame beside a thin-faced young man with smooth dark hair which almost entirely obscures his right eye. The couple appear to have collapsed into a fit of giggles.
Sean sits and stares at the photo. It is five o’clock on Sunday morning and he has just abandoned his attempts at sleeping, pulled on a dressing gown and come down to the kitchen. Beyond the window, the garden is dark and cold.
Sean feels shattered. His first few days at work have groaned by. He has found himself totally unable to concentrate on his work and has had to mentally prod himself tens of times every hour to think about the balconies he was supposed to be designing rather than the images constantly springing up in his mind: Catherine gasping for air. Catherine pressing the morphine button. Catherine in pain. Catherine’s body, no longer in pain but no longer Catherine at all. On Wednesday, though, something blessed had happened. Just for an hour, he had managed to lose himself in his work. Just for one hour, he had managed to forget everything and think instead about the tensile strength of reinforced concrete, about the shock resistance of sandwiched glass and chrome plated brackets. On Thursday, he had managed it twice. And by Friday, he was dreading the weekend, dreading a rainy Saturday in front of the television. A rainy Saturday in that oh-so-empty house. So he had brought work home with him. He had managed to survive Saturday by pretending, simply, that it was Friday all over again.
Now, it’s Sunday morning and Sean is surprised that he managed to sleep at all. This second message has been playing on his mind all week – so much, in fact, that he has handled the envelope repeatedly before relenting and returning it to the box. Yesterday evening he even started to peel back the flap. But he can’t help but wonder if Catherine isn’t somewhere watching him. He couldn’t stand the idea of being a disappointment to her.
The photo is from the summer of 1982, the day that they met. He and three college friends, Tracey, Theresa and Glen, had travelled to Margate for the weekend. Tracey had invited them to visit during the summer holidays. Her mother ran a slowly disintegrating guesthouse in down-at-heel Cliftonville and was letting them all stay free of charge in exchange for their help with wallpapering one of the bedrooms.
Catherine was the prettiest girl that Sean had ever seen. He isn’t quite sure what it was that first caught his eye, perhaps her lion’s mane of hair, or maybe her makeup, which was bold, verging on punk. Looking at the photo now, it’s surprisingly hard to see what the all-consuming attraction had been. Her hair had been a mock-Bonnie-Tyler mess. Her earrings had been huge, vulgar hoops. He remembers a twinkle in her eyes, though. They had always somehow looked as though they were smiling, as if, perhaps, she was in on some private joke.
Whatever it was, he had glanced across and spotted her filing her nails while manning the turnstile to the hall of mirrors. He had turned back to Glen, who’d been spouting forth about something (most likely the Falklands war, which he opposed with a vengeance), but then something had made Sean turn to look again and the girl had glanced up and winked at him. She’d pointed towards the interior with her nail file and said, “Go on. You know you want to. It’s only 10p.”
So Sean had dragged the others, in varying states of willingness, into the maze of mirrors and they had stumbled around laughing at their reflections. Glen had complained continuously how “naff” it all was. But even Glen had laughed at the “alien head” mirror.
Sean had made sure he was the first to reach the exit.
“That was quick,” the girl had said. “I hope you don’t want your money back.” Slapping the top of the turnstile with one hand, she’d added, “This thing’s got a counter in it, so there’s not a lot I can do.”
“No,” Sean replied. “No. I just…” He could feel himself blushing.
“You wanted to invite me out for a drink or something?” the girl asked, grinning cheekily. “Is that it?”
“No, I…” Sean spluttered.
She had pouted with exaggerated sadness and Sean remembers noticing her lips. They were plump and shiny. She had applied two different shades of lipstick, both pink and purple. “Oh, well…” she had said.
“I mean, yes, then,” Sean said bravely. He was imagining kissing those multicoloured lips.
Her mouth then slipped into the broadest of grins. “I don’t get off till nine,” she said.
“But I get twenty minutes for lunch. At twelve-thirty. We could go get a hot dog or something if you want.”
At that moment, Glen, Theresa and Tracey had lurched from the maze. “Well that was shite,” Glen was saying.
“Oh, it was OK,” Theresa insisted. Theresa believed in seeing the positives in everything. She studied the girl’s face for a moment, then checked out Sean’s expression and frowned before addressing her. “Hello. So who are you, then?”
“Me? I’m Catherine.”
“I’m Theresa. Pleased to meet you. And this is Glen, Tracey. Oh, and Sean, who you seem to have met already.”
Sean hadn’t had the nerve to return for their lunch date. He had fully intended to have the nerve: he had even managed to ditch his friends on the other side of the funfair before speeding back to the hall of mirrors. But when he got there, his courage had failed him. Sean had never considered himself attractive, that was the thing. His mother had spent most of his childhood telling him that his face was as long as a “rainy Sunday” which probably hadn’t helped. So why, he had wondered, would Catherine possibly be interested in him?
Instead of walking up to her and inviting her for lunch, he had lingered, instead, outside the postcard shop opposite, praying that Catherine would notice him there.
He had gone inside to pay for the cards he had chosen – tacky images of people in kiss-me-quick hats on Margate seafront – and by the time he came back outside, she’d been replaced by a tall, skinny lad whose acne was even worse than Sean’s. Feeling panicked and remembering her mentioning hot dogs, he had jogged to a nearby stand he had spotted. And there, at the front of the queue, had been Catherine.
“Oh, you made it then,” she had said, on spotting him. “So come on,” she had added, slapping her thigh, inciting him to jump the queue. And he had felt as if he had known her forever.
Hello gorgeous, it’s me.
This is my first ever recording and this is my third attempt. I keep erasing them and re-doing them. I had the machine too close and then too far away so you couldn’t hear a thing. Like most people, I hate the sound of my voice, too. So it’s very tempting to hit that erase button and start again, but if I keep doing that, I’ll never get these done. Hopefully I’ll get the hang of it in the end.
So, I’ve been sitting looking at this photo trying to remember what it was that first attracted me to you. That will sound wrong, I know. It sounds as if I can’t believe that I was attracted to you and that’s not what I’m trying to say at all.
When I look at this photo, I see a chavvy Margate lass with a Chewbacca hairstyle and a skinny, spotty boy with a fringe. But I did like you. I liked you instantly. And when I try really hard, when I close my eyes and try to remember, the two things that keep coming back to me are how shy you were and how familiar you seemed. Of course, we came up with a reason for that strange sense of familiarity much later on, but at the time it seemed magical.
But your shyness was very attractive to me. I remember, for instance, how when I winked at you, you averted your gaze. And the more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that you were simply the first shy boy I had ever met.
That will sound strange, I expect, but there weren’t any shy boys at my school. They were all too busy being tough and jack-the-lad, even when it was just pretence.
I remember asking you how you liked your hot dog and you saying that you didn’t know, and then blushing when I laughed at the fact that you’d never had a hot dog before.
I thought that was so sweet! Not that you’d never had a hot dog before but the fact that you were embarrassed about never having had one. You actually apologised.
Your voice was really soft, too. That was partly your West Country accent, I suppose, but I loved how quietly you spoke. Half the time I wasn’t sure if I’d heard you correctly.
I remember that tic you had, where you tipped your head all the time to get your fringe out of your eyes, and I remember that your eyelashes seemed huge.
You’ve still got long eyelashes, of course, but your face got wider and more rugged as you grew into manhood, and the lashes somehow got lost in the whole. But when you were twenty, they seemed huge. I remember wanting to kiss your eyes. I don’t think I ever told you that. Isn’t that funny?
So, you jumped the queue and we got our hot dogs. You smothered yours in mustard and then raved about how good they were, which was funny and sort of cute, as well.
You asked me about my job and I told you it was just for the summer, and you asked me if I had a boyfriend and then stared at your feet when I said “no”. You talked about me. You wanted to know all the silly, boring details about my life in Margate. You wanted to know what pub I went to and if I lived with my parents. And that was new to me, as well. Boys generally seemed to spend all their time telling girls about themselves in my experience. But you, you wanted to know all about little old me!
We walked past a photo booth and you said you needed a picture for your student railcard or something and I ducked in halfway through to join you. The first two were of you looking all serious and the third one was blurry, but this one came out. I can’t believe how young we look. And I can’t believe our hair! Still, it was 1982. Bucks Fizz were in the charts so, clearly, no one knew what bad taste meant.
When we got back to the mirrors, I asked you about you, and you said you were at college, that you were studying to be an architect, and I remember being really shocked. I remember not quite grasping it. I think I must have said something daft like, “What, you’re going to build houses and stuff?”
The people I knew worked in Dreamland or Tesco’s. Mum’s boyfriends tended to be bricklayers or car mechanics or, more often than not, on the dole.
Things We Never Said is available in paperback here:
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