Ah, November. You darkening month of Christmas anticipation. Going to work in the dark, not being able to go outside in the day time (except to the playground for 5 minutes – and who wants that) and travelling home in the dark makes for a strange feeling of head-down hibernation, onesie obsession and pale face. If, like me, you love the festive season, at least there is light at the end of the vampiric tunnel.
What always strikes me at this time of year is just how strong the power of memory is, that certain changes in season, leaves turning yellow, the smell of non-stop agitated rain all combine to trigger remembrances from years ago. And when that memory is one of loss, this time of year becomes even more poignant and, for a short time, even darker. And if we don’t talk about these things then there’s a danger of the darkness becoming all-pervading. None of us need that.
On Saturday I went to the British Museum for my National Writing Project group. Our theme this week was ‘anniversaries’ and our task was to write from a different perspective than our own.
Sweeping the path, leaves turning to mulch, I hear the comforting patter of hurried footsteps. I glance up under the brim of my flatcap to scan the faces.
One, a young girl, skipping.
“Shush,” her mother demands, yanking the little arm back to keep her daughter in line, whispering vexation at her childish ear.
The girl searches her mum’s tight, pale face, questions in her eyes, but she clamps her mouth shut. She knows to keep quiet; lowers her eyes to the ground.
I see wreaths in her mother’s eyes.
They dodge the puddles and me, the mounds of leaves calling to the girl’s feet, but she looks up at her mum again, checking in, and knows better.
I don’t know this one, so I turn to see which row they choose.
I think of the tablet soldiers of other such places and wonder if a plaque on the ground, a wilting rosebush, is a fair deal. It feels as though the earth pulses with lives unfairly relinquished.
Tears glisten on the brass, today there have been many anniversaries. I lean on my broom and look to the sky. Is that where they’ve gone? Where we go? Where I’m going? My heart rises to the blue; I adjust my cap, wink to the sky and continue with my work, whistling a light tune to lift the spirits.
The vibrating earth calls to me and I know I have to visit her, when the leaves are done with. Sweep, sweep, sweep. Every Sunday.
More hushed footsteps, more whispy voices lost to the mournful wind. I wonder at this shushed atmosphere – we’re not going to wake them, after all. I’m sure they’d love some lively voices.
I touch my cap at the old lady who arrives on the dot at the same time every week. She’s told me some of their story. For her, every day is an anniversary, making a cup of tea for one, wanting to nudge him when his favourite programme comes on, still feeling his goodnight kiss on her forehead when she turns out the light; every moment and action a remembrance. Coming to his resting place just a checking in. She told me once of the ridiculousness she sees in this, that it is in his slippers, their bench, the photos on the mantelpiece and, most of all, in her mind that are the real places he still lives.
What is an anniversary? From the Latin meaning ‘returning yearly’. What about the monthly returns: mensiverary, monthiversary? Or the daily returns, the hourly remembrances? ‘Happy returns’ would work better as a question not a greeting.
So my sweeping stops. It is time for my return. Though a return implies you’ve gone away somewhere. And I haven’t. She is currently reclining in the lounge of my mind. I smile. She reaches out for my hand and we walk to her plaque together.