I felt uncomfortable. The carriage was hot, and I was wedged in by the table. To get up then, to get my case from the rack above, to the bottle of water and the pills, well that would have caused a scene. So I sat and sweated, and worried, the whole three-and-a-half-hour journey. About this and that. Until we finally arrived, and I set to finding a place to stay.
I headed to the other side of the town, where Angus grew up. “Across the Water”, we used to call it. Where the factories and the workers’ cottages were, and the rough taverns spat out the stevedores and the foremen at ten-thirty sharp to fight on the streets. Where, as my father put it, “the boys are a little too drunk and the girls a little too simple.”
I was surprised to find, as I crossed the bridge, that Across the Water has utterly changed. The factories and the wharves are mostly gone, the tiny cobbled alleyways from dock to dock have disappeared. The church of St. Ferris is now a theatre, and some of the warehouses look as though they are in the middle of being converted. Into flats, I presume. Broadstrand used to be the place to go if you wanted some sort of illicit release. Now it’s a row of smart shops and cafés, brimming with prim young things who look dressed for a proper profession.
I couldn’t get my bearings in this new world. The church was my only point of reference. A seagull squawked overhead – the sound was both nostalgic and startling. I sat down on a bench by the estuary, and looked out to the other side – the better end of town, where I had the fortune to grow up. But now it seemed rather down-at-heel.
I know all this will mean nothing to you, but it means a good deal to me. But – I did promise to be concise. Well.
I took a room above an old tavern I vaguely recognised, down Tentmarsh Street. It looked like the sort of pub I remembered from my youth – all swirly carpets and fake-old panelling. There was a young afternoon crowd at the bar, in smart suits and dresses. The barmaid, who seemed a tad blotto herself, gave me my key, and warned me that there was a private function at seven o’clock, but I was more than welcome to come down if I needed anything. Her cold eyes, set behind thick glasses and even thicker flicks of black eye-shadow, suggested otherwise.
So I lay down in bed, and waited for the party downstairs to begin. I must have fallen asleep, as the next thing I heard was music blaring – an old Andy Williams number – the sort my father would have described mockingly as “hip”. I lay awake for a while, listening, and I thought of Edith’s eighteenth birthday party. It was a few months into her marriage to Angus, and he had asked me not to go. But we shared the same circle of friends, and it was Jimmy who finally convinced me.
It was quite possibly the last time I went to a party. I’ve never understood your hatred of them – why you’d sooner be locked away in your studio. I had always been social, in my youth. I remember dancing that night in a circle of friends to some god-awful song that I could hum to you but I don’t recall the name of it. I had just been offered my place at university. I was glum because I still hadn’t fathomed why I turned Angus down. It just didn’t feel right to marry him. To sleep with him. To have children. But after a round of drinks I was unstoppable. And oh, my outfit – a ridiculously short, bright yellow mini-skirt – it felt like felt – I’d worn it and washed it that many times. I had this frilly Paisley blouse on, with billowing sleeves. I clashed awfully. You would have called it “gaudy”.
It makes me smile, even now. I was a beautiful young girl from the good side of Turnshaw, and I was with a good crowd, and I was going to university. By the time I was on my third drink, it felt as though my life was just getting going. I’d find another Angus. Or whatever I was looking for.
But there comes a time at every party when the alcohol tips the balance of your mood. When you leave the circle and go to the loo, and you square up to your own reflection and you see then that how you picture yourself is not what you see in front of you. I plucked at my face. I tried to bring some life back into my blank, drunken expression. I was on the edge of tears – not through vanity, you understand, or because I saw myself as someone who would deserve to be painted – but because I hated myself. I loved Angus and I hated myself. I was just about to burst into tears when Edith walked in. I suddenly felt guilty for being uninvited. For being Angus’s first choice. Edith was beautiful. And she was just eighteen. But she just smiled in a genuine and warm way, and she asked me if everything was all right. I nodded, and smiled weakly. She said – “your friends are looking for you”. And, I suppose, defensively, I said – “they are your friends as well”. Before she could say anything, the first strings of Strangers In The Night came on, and her eyes lit up. She said – “oh, that’s our song”, and she nodded excitedly, girlishly, and patted me on the hand. I gripped the underside of the sink tighter, my fingernails bending on the basin. She called over her shoulder as she left – “Jimmy told me you’re going to university. Congratulations,” and she clumsily backed out of the loos and onto the dancefloor.
A whole weekend led up to this moment, Alice. And twenty years before that.
The reminiscing had made me hungry. The place didn’t serve food, but I relied on bar snacks and company to cheer me up. I took out a dress I’d packed – one I’d not worn in years – the black one. You know, the one I wore to your first show. The show you said was a failure because they didn’t like the portraits of me. I’d brought your make-up bag with me, too, and for the first time since I-don’t-know-when, I put on my face. By the time I was done, I wasn’t a far cry from 1967, that night at Edith Cressing’s eighteenth. It was at some dingy pub not unlike the one I was at on Tentmarsh Street, someplace Across the Water. Perhaps it is this one, I thought. I froze on the steps down to the bar. The smell of smoke and ale creeped up the stairs. I clasped the bannister, and descended into the party downstairs.
You won’t credit this, Alice. You’ll think me mad. But on my honour, as I stepped into the party I — well, I stepped back in time. The bar was just like any other – all swirly carpets and fake-old panelling. Another young crowd was there, casually dressed now, jiving and jerking to All Tomorrow’s Parties. And they all looked so old-fashioned. I thought – it must be trendy nowadays to dress like your parents. All pointy collars and floral frocks. And then I realised it must be a themed party. Back to the Sixties.
I went to the bar, and ordered a white wine and soda. This barmaid was younger, perhaps about twenty. She was pretty, and surly. But she didn’t notice me at all. I was too old for this hip crowd. Goodness – when did I become my father? Out of step in the space of just one generation. I tried to mingle amongst the movers and shakers, but I’ve never had rhythm, even as a girl. Eventually, exhausted from trying to pay attention to the beat whilst also trying not to make a fool of myself, I slumped down in one of the booths. It stank of aged vomit. I swivelled the ice cubes around an abandoned glass on the table, and that’s when I noticed him across the room. Jimmy – but what was he doing there? And he hadn’t aged a bit – hair still intact, in that wave of his that never suited him. And still with that boyish, ruddy complexion. His cheeks were puffed out as he danced. I nearly laughed. Jimmy always looked out of breath
And there, next to him, swinging their big, child-bearing hips out of sync to the beat, was Diana and Deborah – the twins. I’ve told you about them before, I’m sure. Their parents – the big Mitford fans. The poor things spent most of our teenage years regretting they ever told anyone that. They were a strange pair of kids. And, my God, did they still look like kids. Almost too young to be in a pub by themselves, I thought. But surely it couldn’t be them.
And then the first strings played, and I jolted forward in my seat, spilling the ice cubes over the table. I suddenly became aware of what was happening. The carpet, the booths, the bar, Jimmy – I was at the Crown & Sceptre – the Spectre, we called it, or the Phil if you were ultra-cool. It was a pub that Edith’s up-and-coming parents would never have agreed to.
And there she was, striding onto the dancefloor. The girl with the collapsing bun. Edith, with her thick mass of hair that refused to stay in place, even on her wedding day. Her striking, light green eyes. “They look like Peridot,” I said to Angus at their. He just laughed, and ordered me another drink.
Oh, what a group scene it would have made for you. Bright young things, swaying in time. And there I was, bursting out of the loos, just in time to see Edith and Angus intertwine. I watched on, as Jimmy grabbed my arm, and the two Mitford replicas slowed their hips to a stop. They gawped at me, looking very concerned indeed.
I got up, and navigated my way past my teenage self and across the dancefloor. I stopped in the centre, and I stared into Edith’s eyes. Her head was resting on Angus’s shoulder as he swayed her back and forth. She was looking right through me, and smiling. She was smiling because she never knew. I wanted to reach out and tell her I’m sorry, but they turned with the music. I stood there, for a moment, and stared at the back of Angus’s head.
“Love was just a glance away, a warm embracing dance away…”
I started to cry, and even though I knew no one could see me, even though I knew something had gone wrong with the passage of time, I felt embarrassed. The song ended. I looked around the circle to see that I was staring at Edith, and Angus was staring at me. I covered my face and went to my room.
You will think me mad, but whatever it was – some fantastic dream willed into reality by my own emotions, by my unwitting return to the last group scene of 1967 – whatever it was, I take it as a sign.
Because you weren’t painting me, were you? Somehow it hurts me more to know that it was her – Edith – the girl – who took my place in that painting.
A place for everything, and everything in its place.
I think my place is back in Turnshaw. I want to find Edith in the present.
In the meantime, I hope she brings you all the success that I could not.
With regret love affection sympathy,