She tried to forget about the box. Really she kept herself so very busy, that she almost truly forgot about it. But it was always there, catching her step when she walked past, whispering into her ears when she wasn’t listening.
A box could contain everything and nothing. But she didn’t look because she didn’t care to find out.
She found it one warm summer afternoon, long after the funeral. She had been stiff and dignified, accepting the mourners’ murmured words of condolence. But she felt nothing. Those words rang hollow after all the sniping and criticism. Her mother had ground her down for years until there was nothing left. Or so she thought.
It was so unfair that there was nobody else to help. Her beloved father had gone years before. She imagined him apologising to the paramedic.
“Sorry to cause all this fuss,” he would have said as they bundled him off to the hospital. There, he had held her hand as she wept real tears.
“Really, Theresa, you’re making an exhibition of yourself.” Her mother’s scold bit deep.
She tried not to cry at his funeral. At her mother’s funeral, she didn’t. They all said how well she was doing.
Clearing out the house alone, she found the little dusty blue box, tied with navy ribbon. Eventually she gave in. It rattled.
Inside it she found the baby shoe she had once worn. Finally she cried, that her mother had remembered a softer, better time.
*written longhand in ten minutes, from a random word prompt: box
This object may be unfamiliar to some, now that milk comes almost exclusively in plastic jugs. Or in bags, so I’ve heard, if you live in Canada. But before plastic bottles and supermarkets, milk came in glass bottles, left on your doorstep by a milkman who collected your empties.
We’ve all heard about Proust’s petite madeleine, and how it triggered a memory of his childhood. If you watch the film Ratatouille, there is a lovely homage to this. The sneering food critic Anton Ego, a grey and joyless man, is transported back to his warm, colourful boyhood by a single mouthful of ratatouille like his mother used to make. It is a defining moment for him.
Last year I spent a few days at a cottage in Wales. The owners had left a few basic food items in the fridge, one of which was the bottle of milk pictured above. Yes, I was so amazed that I took a photo of it.
Milk, Margaret Thatcher, and me
Margaret Thatcher was renowned as the first woman Prime Minister of Britain. But before her ascent to be first among equals, she was infamous for abolishing free milk in schools. Every child in infant schools received a bottle of milk daily, around a third of a pint. It was a great honour to be appointed milk monitor, helping the teacher hand out the bottles, each with a straw to be poked through the foil top. This was of course full cream, homogenised milk, semi-skimmed was yet to be invented.
I hated it.
These days I’d wear my label of lactose intolerance proudly. In those days such nonsense wasn’t tolerated. You drank your milk, or else. During the cold days of winter, the paper straw had to be plunged through an ice cap to reach the freezing milk below. It chilled my mouth and sat uneasily in my rebellious stomach, leaving me with a bloated discomfort till lunchtime.
I learned to keep quiet about it. Complaining did no good. Consequently, when other people criticised her, I silently applauded Mrs Thatcher, milk snatcher.
Milk, my mother, and me
Was it just the temperature? Not really. Fast forward a few years. My parents worked shifts, and if my mother was doing earlies (6am to 2pm) she would heat a pan of milk for our breakfast before she left for work. We would wake to warm milk for our Weetabix or shredded wheat, the aroma filling the kitchen. At bedtime, she heated more milk to make Ovaltine or drinking chocolate. It should have been comforting. My siblings loved it.
I ate toast.
Even writing this recalls the smell of boiled milk, and my stomach shifts. Years after that, I would flee from people making hot milk. These days, I don’t mind hot chocolate, as long as I don’t have to smell the milk heating.
But I see a glass milk bottle, and I’m five years old again, dreading morning break and the forced drink that grown-ups said was good for me.
I might have been young, but I knew my own mind. The milk bottle taught me that I didn’t have agency and shouldn’t talk back to adults.
Today, the glass milk bottle reminds me that the world has moved on. Thank goodness.
I thought I was over you. It’s been a while now, and they say time heals.
They don’t say how much time.
I got a new phone. It was a good opportunity for a clear out, you know, out with the old, all that. Anyway. I should just have hit delete all, but I’m always careful, don’t want to discard something important. So I listened to all the messages, clicking through, delete delete.
Your voice caught me by surprise. Your tone was sad, asking me to call back. I didn’t remember ever getting the message. Listening again, it sounded like you really needed to speak to me. Whatever you had wanted, obviously it could never happen. I’d sat in the front pew, blinded by tears. Grief swallowed my voice and I couldn’t sing for you one last time. That broke me even more.
I deleted that message.
Then the messages started, from an unknown number. They were crackly and unclear, but your voice was always there.
I deleted them all. They kept coming, though I changed my phone again. One day I heard you on the landline answerphone, and my heart stopped, for a panicked moment. I threw out the answerphone.
It felt like going mad.
After a while, I started to wonder. Were you really trying to contact me? Nobody has ever proved communication from the dead, and I certainly didn’t believe in any mumbo-jumbo. But. What if it was you, trying to pierce the veil from the other side?
The idea took root in my mind, and I stopped deleting the messages that popped up on my voicemail. I listened to them over and over, your almost-words teasing me.
I ran them through voice analysis software, trying to make out your words. Sometimes I thought it was just you breathing, but with distant singing and static. Waiting for me to reply.
I have so many things to say to you.
I have a brilliant idea about the source so I bought a ham radio and I’m combing the frequencies. I’m certain that if I tune in right, we can talk again. There’s a lot of wavebands to cover, but nothing is more important than this.
I will devote all the time we didn’t have to finding you. No matter how long it takes. I already know what song I will sing.
We all draw different hands in life. It’s easy to envy some people, and feel superior to others, based on your level of opportunity and perceived status. More of that depends on mere chance than we’d like to believe.
We want to believe that we’d do the right thing, cope with that challenge, rise up against that evil tyrant. That’s why we devour movies in which characters challenge oppression, follow their principles and stand shoulder to shoulder with their fellows. Sure, other people lack moral backbone. But I’d give the last seat in the lifeboat to the pregnant woman, the last crust of bread to the starving child. Wouldn’t you?
Well, it depends. And that doesn’t make for thrilling viewing.
Remember Hans Christian Andersen’s original story of the red shoes? The little girl put on the pretty red shoes and forgot her duty to the church and her adoptive mother. She was cursed to dance without end, and eventually asked the executioner to chop off her feet. The shoes danced away on their own. (Original fairy tales are often rather gory.)
Kate Bush sings a softer version, in which she envies a dancer her prowess. The dancer tells her to remove them, and she too could dance like a princess.
“But the moment I put them on, I knew I had done something wrong”
She realises, too late, that she has taken on the dancer’s curse. Now it is her turn to dance away, envied and admired by all, but unable to escape. She is trapped by her own desire and actions, and the only way out is to condemn someone else.
Perhaps to begin with, she swears she would not let another person suffer as she does. But eventually, weary and ground down, she would dream of nothing else.
Would any of us do differently?
The price of fame
As writers, artists, creators, we toil away and dream of success. We look at the shining stars, the Rowlings and Gaimans, the Downey Jrs and Lawrences, the Beyoncés and Biebers. We want a taste of limousines and red carpets, money, fame, privilege. It sounds great, from the viewpoint of impoverished obscurity.
If the mask slips, and a star is revealed as a struggling human resorting to drugs or alcohol, who cannot smile and twirl on command, we tut. Fancy that, forgetting the fans and failing to do their job. How hard can it be? I’d never behave like that.
This is the age of celebrity as never before. Ordinary mortals are thrust into positions of extraordinary scrutiny and rewarded beyond their wildest dreams. The only catch is, they must continue the dance, no matter what. Even at the cost of the very artist that gave them life, the shoes dance on.
Put on your red shoes and dance the blues
Michael Jackson’s last tour would have netted millions. But it is a drop in the ocean compared to his after death earnings. According to Forbes’ list of the top earning dead celebrities in 2016, MJ earned $825m, the largest total of anyone dead or alive. Even Elvis earned $27m and sold over one million (mainly physical) albums. That is some feat, 40 years after his death. There are some very happy lawyers and managers out there.
The art becomes a machine, and the entire entourage is focussed on their own agenda. Keep the gravy train rolling. To achieve it, the machine must keep churning out product. Something new, but also something the same. This is no place for brave creative experiments. A few turn their back and walk away, like Sade or Rick Astley. Others live and die in their silk-lined prisons.
Do you still want it? Public battles with demons both internal and external is standard tabloid fodder.
Do you still want it? The isolation from reality and broken relationships replaced with fawning employees are well documented.
Do you still want it? The obsession with physical appearance, every pound and line and grey hair displayed to the world’s media, reduces humans to meat for consumption.
Do you still want it? We imagine fame buys freedom, but actually it gilds the cage and puts diamonds on the handcuffs.
The red shoes are a trap
These shoes of fame are lined with cruel blades that ravage your flesh every waking moment, but especially when you dance for the audience. You look good and it’s killing you. That gorgeous red is your own blood, trailing behind you with each exquisite, exhausted pirouette. That smile is a grimace of fear and pain without end. Even death is no escape.
We shared so much over the years, and yet here we are. Yours is the last name I expected to see on my timeline.
First things first. I knew your ex-husband before you did, at college. It was a twist of fate that brought us together, working in the same city, and then in the same firm as colleagues who became friends.
We produced four babies within five years. Remember how people joked that they should avoid sitting on the same chair as us? We laughed, and we raised toddlers together. Those birthday parties, overlapping guest lists, Sunday lunches. It was fun.
I hope you knew how I supported you through the difficult end of your marriage years later, shielding you from stress at work. That’s what a good colleague and friend should do, right? You invited us to dinner with your new partner at your new house. We talked and laughed over a casserole and a bottle of good red.
I didn’t see any cracks, everything seemed fine. Maybe I was blind.
I thought you were just busy with your life changes, but you were a little distant. No worries, we’re all dealing with our issues. We chatted on the phone, trying to steer a way forward for our firm. Then came the meeting at which you demolished me. You were unhappy with everything I’d done, everything I was doing right then and planning in the future.
No knock on my door, no private chat, just an explosion of criticism and bad blood. All our encounters afterwards were underpinned by anger and hostility. I never saw it coming, but you don’t expect a friend to bury a dagger in your heart.
That’s why it hurt so much.
Two weeks later you resigned. By email. Finally, you gave me a taste of how you treated your ex, throwing threats and lawyers into what should have been a simple agreed exit. It all left a very bad taste.
I still don’t understand how or why it played out this way. But I accept that you have moved on. If I hurt you unknowingly, I am sincerely sorry. My regret is that we couldn’t talk about it, and allow me to make amends.
So, your friend request? I must decline. Looking back, I realise that the foundations of our friendship had been eroding for a long time, long before you dropped your bombs and walked away. It would be foolish, would it not, to do the same thing again and expect a different outcome? We stand on opposite sides of the river, and there’s no way back.
We can never be friends. You didn’t just burn your bridges, you poisoned the wells and salted the earth in your wake.
Big girl now, so you don’t. Your tea party will not come to pass, so get up, get out and get on. There’s gold in those distant towers, creep in, sit quiet, be good. Rapunzel got her prince, but you cannot, must not, let down your hair, no. Don’t spread too wide. Fold those gauzy violet wings neat. Pack them in a shiny carapace without markings, and lower your eyes.
Big girl now, so you don’t. It’s a paradox all right, this flipped and contrary view. You’ll get used to it, or maybe not. Don’t talk back. A smile pays rent on the space you occupy. See, you exist in the moment of a careless glance. Grow curves (no edges) smooth and pleasing to the hand. But beware the wrong places. A magic trick; more presence, and you are invisible. Now they see her, now they don’t.
Big girl now, so you don’t. It’s good to share, yes, even that. Everything. Your one possession, boundaries breached, legs parted for him. Not too many, just enough to bag your prize. It is what we have done, always and forever. You must prove you’re worthy, grown in a different way. Mouth shut, eyes open, the cuckoo housed. The enemy is within the walls.
Big girl now, so you don’t. There are always jobs to do, babies to soothe, egos to cradle, wounds to bind. Your blood ebbs and flows, and the clock ticks on, and life is a seething ocean, testing defences and opening cracks. Peer over land’s end at the rocks where sirens beckon. Their invitations whisper at the edge of hearing, snatched away on the wind.
Big girl now, so you don’t. You are the battered headland assailed by storms; the lighthouse dark and empty. It is another day, and you have forgotten how the sun warmed your skin. This world is forever grey. This heart is forever patched and broken. No matter how much you wish to sink, the world is built upon your back. When the cliff itself despairs, there is no place to jump. Offer shelter, promise safety, stand firm and carry on. They need you.
It was child’s play then; it’s woman’s work now. It’s a man’s world still, and it’s time to find your place. You’re a big girl, so hush now.
Here, a bright feather of iridescent purple and blue, plucked from the bird of happiness as it flew by. I fashioned a quill, dipped in black ink drawn from a pale, eyeless octopus that, shunning light, knew only deep sunless despair. And with these, I write a song for you.
Here, a dark mysterious shell, some glittering grains of sand, pulled from the farthest shores of imagination. I searched after lightning struck and used sea glass to bottle tamed fragments of raging sea. And with these, I carry the storm home for you.
Here, a smooth jawbone and a horn, ripped from some ancient creature now extinct. Elbow deep in blood I dug through rotting meat and guts, and boiled the bones white. I strung sharp teeth on sinews and scraped the hide clean. And with these, I make necklaces and furs for you.
Here, a fine pattern hinting at past violence and pain. The icy burn of a Judas kiss, a red-hot blade slipped into my heart both left their names behind. Fresh scalpels carved embedded bullets and forgotten shrapnel from my flesh. I cried healing tears till wounds were mere memory, scars written on my skin. And with these, I trace forgiveness for you.
Here, a brimming cup of clear water. I stumbled among rocks, scrabbled in the earth with ragged hands, searching for the source. I toiled endlessly, shaping the clay, firing each hard-won vessel in the furnace, though so many lay broken on the midden of experience. And with these, I bring refreshment for you.
Here, a monarch butterfly caught in amber. I chased many joys but captured only one, sacrificed to preservation that more might see it close. I dissected and catalogued the pieces, then remade them into a lesser whole. Deathless yet not alive, its colours are held where a tree wept, hardened by time. And with these, I offer possibility for you.
Here, a hoard of objects orbiting my gravity. A lock of hair, a puff of breath, a glistening tear. A heartbeat, a ruby blood drop, a remembered sunrise. A sea-worn stone, an autumn leaf, a stolen kiss. All these I have collected, sewn into a Frankenstein quilt with hopeful stitches. And with this patched creation, I offer my love to you.
First published 15th April 2017 in The Creative Cafe on Medium, and winner of the creative challenge