I liked the way Montgomery felt in my mouth, like a sweet. Mont like a mountain, gom like a French eraser. I always loved that word, gomme. It was just right for its purpose. Unpretentious. And then the ery just rounded the thing off, like rolling an r. It was a good, solid word. I would call a cat Montgomery and he would not be called Monty. Ever.
I liked writing it, too. The tall t with its line across. Making it a cross, in fact. Reverential. A blessed road. Then the two tails, the g and the y, curling round confidently. I perfected the art of looping the g-tail elegantly round to the o. It could look almost Victorian, or like a flower.
M is a good starting letter. It’s the thirteenth one, which is unlucky. I hesitated over calling your sister Martha – but I had to, because it’s so solid and strong and old. I hope she wasn’t cursed. I don’t think she was. I looked forward to Mondays, was the only kid who did, because Monday started with M and felt safe and reassuring. And it wasn’t a double like those pesky Ss and Ts. Just Monday. A dark-bluey purple day that held no fear.
We could win Mars bars at school for good behaviour. They would never allow that now, of course. Health and safety and all that. They were good size ones, the sort you’d pay at least a pound for at the corner shop. I would have them to look forward to as I muddled through days starting with T. A t in the middle of something was holy and fine, T at the start was like a gallows. Which is ironic, if you think about it. You could get hanged on either.
Friday was red and sharp and scratchy. I would dab out big wavy ovals with my green and blue felt pens to cool down, like ripples or a cold front or a mountain on a map. I would use my eraser to blur them, making an inky mess and not caring. I would curl my gs and ys, cross my ts, start as many words as possible with M, writing about mice and muddles and Michigan and Milton Keynes. I would run home with a fistful of Mars bar, feeling vaguely triumphant as I sought the cool of our porch on Montgomery Road.
Something like soap
I can smell the grass through the window, across the terrace with the lilies. They were purple and coral and mauve and ours were only peach. I wanted cuttings, so much.
I can smell and taste butter, though whether it is in the same memory as the grass I don’t know. It may not be compatible. There may be one before and one after. Real butter, from Kerry, they said, though it was probably made in a plant in Dublin. It was too thick, too strong. It clogged my throat, my nose.
The lilies were with the grass and they were long ago. They stood on the terrace like beautiful sentries, like Japanese ladies lounging around their canes, oozing scent. Could they outdo the butter? Or would they work together, creating something like soap, something creamy and fragrant and sweet? Something that may actually have been made in a field of cowslips in Kerry?
No. They were different places and times. The grass and its lily loves were before. The butter and its tyranny were after.
What is now? The after of the after?
There’s no butter on the air. I think I smell jam. Raspberry, maybe. I liked raspberries as a kid; they were underrated and unloved next to strawberries. Not anymore. Forget purple lilies and yellow butter. The time of the raspberries is now, and they are pink like they should be. Not blue, like those daft Slush things so long ago.
I still want lily cuttings. I also want a Kerry calf. And a raspberry bush. I want to reunite all the timelines, the before and after and now and next.
But they’re fragments, scattered across the floor in a pool of incompatible colours, messing with my eyes.
And we know my nose was done for long ago.
Climbing the mountain
It’s Friday night. I leave France Saturday morning. I have to be out at half seven. I glance around at my apartment. Ready to go? Well, I only have most of my clothes to pack, all my books to cram into my trunk and a load of recycling to take down to the car park.
I shudder. It’s too much. I have the whole night ahead of my, anyway. I listen to some music to calm myself.
I finally accept, at around eleven, that I ought to deal with the rubbish. I shudder as I take the Walk of Death down the near-vertical, light-free stairs leading into the abyss of the car park. As always the huge, heavy door at the end bangs shut like a rock falling to earth and I jump out of my skin.
I sort all my recycling properly like a good citizen, despite the fact that others haven’t been so considerate and the bins are a mess of unsuitable items. I hear the famous door bang again and inwardly moan. What now?
A cleaner looms ahead. “What are you doing?” she asks, and I panic.
“Just sorting my rubbish.”
“Ah, that’s okay,” she says happily. What did she think I was doing, holding a satanic midnight car mass? I return upstairs to begin the second of many, many runs.
* * *
With my recycling dealt with I pack, and pack. And pack. One o’clock comes. Two. I have to be up at seven. Everything is a blur of exhaustion. Three. Both cases are stuffed. I begin on my rucksack. Four. I finally go to bed.
My alarm rings. I spring up, head spinning, grab everything and haul it out into the corridor. I’ve missed my desired bus. I’m depending on the last one that will get me to Perpignan Station in time. It stops up the hill from me. I grit my teeth. I will get there if it kills me. In hours I will be home and watching How I Met Your Mother while drinking Horlicks. The pain will be but a distant memory.
I get to the road, cross. I am now at the base of the mountain (aka mild hill) to the bus stop. The bus is there. My heart sinks. There’s no chance now. But he doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Could he… be waiting for me? Surely not. French buses don’t wait. But this one is stationary. Time to climb a hill.
I grit my teeth and drag one bag, then another. The handles cut into me. Everything hurts. Home, I think. Horlicks. A couple of guys look at me with interest. Neither offers to help. I soldier on. I conquer the hill and start on the ten-metre trek to the bus. Still he waits. Either he is the nicest, kindest bus driver in France or he is ahead of schedule. Probably the latter.
Five metres. Three. Then I am on the step of the bus, panting, looking like an animal – but alive. I commence the quest to locate my pass. The driver shows no sign of going anywhere. Five minutes later another woman boards and then he pulls out. Looks like he wasn’t waiting for me. I am heartbroken. But I will find it in me to forgive him one day.
We arrive at the station with moments to spare. I stagger in, trailing my bags, a triumphant snail. I will do it, I think, failure is not an option. I clank down the steps into the tunnel. Through the tunnel. Up the steps. The train. The doors are shutting.
I stumble and nearly fall, nearly give up and accept it as my destiny to sit there sobbing eternally, a martyr of the steps. Then I hear a British accent and two expat-ish women grab one of my trunks. I hurry up behind with the other, filled with a new, raw hope. My heroes. I sob out my thanks as they throw me onto the train.
I sprawl in the space between compartments, squashed against some kind of machinery. I have a seat reservation but the thought of going searching for it is laughable. I just slouch, gasping, as we fly through the countryside. No cowboy who ever hijacked a train felt more gangsta than I do right now. I have a final bag-tidy, leaving a couple of battered old English books in the train in the hope some cultured person will pick them up and think, “Sacre bleu! A book in English! I’ll keep and read this!” (And hopefully not “What is this cluttering up the train, let us throw it out.”)
The train stops. I trawl the bags anew through Carcassonne Station. Feeling more in control than I have all day, I march out to find the airport shuttle bus. It isn’t there. I check the timetable. It left fifteen minutes ago. I throw my hands up in the air (metaphorically, of course; I’m not sufficiently French to really do it). That’s it. Fate does not want me to catch this flight.
I call my mother. She calls me a taxi. I arrive at the airport, check in, go through security, buy a bar of chocolate. Two come out of the machine. I take one and back away, scared. I don’t want to be a thief. I come back later to see if the other is still there. It’s not. The same guys are hanging around, smirking. What a wuss, they’re thinking. I tiptoe away and sit. That seems like the safest option.
The flight is delayed and delayed. Finally I board. I sit and close my eyes and think, let this be over.
* * *
Soon it is and I am home watching How I Met Your Mother, drinking Horlicks and thinking, bloody France. Of course, it doesn’t last long. It never does. Days later I am researching Antibes. Antibes is pretty…
* * *
Announced as a New North Poet at Northern Writers’ Awards 2017, Elizabeth Gibson tweets from @Grizonne