The Deepest Part, by Martyn Clayton
Nancy stilled herself then took a deep breath. Lifting the latch on the back door she stepped into the yard. Beyond the high back wall was the alley, and the street and more streets and the park and the river and the rest of the city. For now she would rest a while in her own back yard. The few pots she’d planted up in previous years were parched, the plants turned to brittle string. A rotten piece of trellis that had once held a clematis which would bloom with purple flowers almost the size of dinner plates in Spring, hung half broken from the rusty nails that had secured it to the wall. The bell flower which colonised the smallest crack in the mortar kept flowering regardless, happy to be neglected.
In the alley were female voices. There was the trundle of a pushchair, and someone coughing in another back yard. She could smell pipe smoke and bacon from an open window. There was an absence where the smell of molten chocolate should be.
This would be enough. She’d managed to step out from inside her four walls for the first time in nearly four months. It had been the weather that had made her feel it might be possible. It had been almost two years since she’d walked down the street. Nearly three since she’d visited the park. It was only five minutes away and yet it may as well have been on another planet. On still days she could hear the excited voices of children playing there from her open bedroom window. Public address systems and the muddy boom hum of music marked events. When the weather was poor the park was all but silent, but it didn’t need to make a noise for her to know it was still there.
So much of her childhood had been played out in that park. She’d go with her mum in the hazily remembered years before school intruded on a happy life. Her mum had to wait for a child, watching her friends and family growing with new life as she held her belly and wondered if her time would ever come. When Nancy finally arrived her mother said that no child would ever be loved as much as her. She made friends easily and ran until her lungs felt like they were going to burst out of her ribcage. Her mum would sing to her. She’d sing songs about the green green grass, and riverbanks, and handsome knights, and raggle taggle Gypsies. She’d sing when she was doing the washing. She’d sing while she was peeling vegetables or setting the table. She’d sing as much in sadness as she did in joy. Nancy struggled to remember the words of the songs she’d sing now. Just as she struggled to remember much detail from the years before that quiet evening on the riverside path. She remembered the sound of footsteps, the failing autumn light, the smell of sweat, cider and cheap deodorant.
Her forgetful lapses were a result of shock said the doctors. Her mind was shutting down large sections of memory to protect itself from the enormity of what had happened. It was a coping mechanism, except Nancy didn’t feel like this was coping.
As the months slipped into years and the memories remained blank it grew harder to recall if anything had ever really happened at all.
She wrote the word ‘YARD’ on the calendar under the date complete with a biro picture of a smiley face. May already. It was the month of her birthday, but she’d stopped counting never mind celebrating when she reached forty. She remembered the dining room table set for childhood birthday parties. Paper plates, sandwiches, crisps, cake, trifle, girls in party frocks, boys in bow ties, the names of the children and what happened to them now all but gone. Pass the parcel, pin the tail on the donkey, Grandad Bewley not saying a word. Partially blinded during the war, he’d retreat to the old arm chair in his potting shed and trace the words of books he was no longer able to read. He could quote sections of the Old Testament chapter and verse when he was determined to tell you off.
In those days the elderly would sit sweating in wool coats when the weather was blazing defiantly telling you that things were always much sunnier when they were small. Nancy knew there was a temptation for her to start thinking the same. She often thought of men like Grandad, returned from war to a world where people only wanted to think about the future. Full of stories, but no one wanting to hear them; each reminiscence at the dinner table or lull in conversation greeted with a roll of the eyes, a raised eyebrow, the quick changing of the subject. All that weight inside them, but no one wanting to listen.
It was hard to know what to do with all the heaviness. At least Grandad Bewley could walk to the park, tapping out the dimensions of new bits of street furniture with his white stick as he did so. He never let his poor vision reduce his world. He never let his heaviness cripple him. She sometimes apologised to his faded photograph for being so weak.
The school day ended, pushchairs resumed their trundle and children, reluctant to leave the good weather behind, busied about the street. Some ran with footballs to the park, others weaved figures of eight on bicycles between the cars.
She sat in her usual chair aware that she had long become a topic of street discussion. She’d found a niche as the lady that never went out, the touched harmless soul who sits by the window day after day gazing out at the street. People were moving on; those who knew her when she could hold conversations and look you in the eye were now living elsewhere. The elderly were dying, their houses gutted, skips cluttering the street as a new generation stripped out all that was once desirable. The houses sold for a fortune. If her mum were alive, she’d never believe that people would pay so much to live somewhere so humble. It had often crossed Nancy’s mind to sell up and buy a flat somewhere. Something clean, modern and easy to maintain, a place less loaded with missing memories. She could bank the rest of the money, live a little more comfortably. But it was hard to leave the place she’d lived in all her life.
Cath from two streets up brought her shopping, shouting her ‘hellos’ through the letterbox so Nancy knew who it was. She was always on her way somewhere else; Nancy writing her a cheque for its value plus five pounds for her trouble. Cath suggested counselling again, asked if she still had that leaflet she’d given her, said that there was really no need to suffer in silence. It was hard to explain to someone whose life was so full of noise that silence was sometimes the greatest comfort.
Day followed day. It would be easy to lie immobile in bed and wallow in stale, bitter things. Instead she resisted the imperative to shrivel inside, seeking discipline to iron out the ups and downs of her internal landscape. The alarm went off at the same time. She washed, dressed, made breakfast and chased breadcrumbs around the kitchen worktop with a damp cloth. Now the yard was part of her territory again, she could dry washing on the line, drink tea at the rusted bistro table or read a book. She tidied up the plant pots, took photos of the bell flowers, listened to the talk of weddings and failed courses of study from neighbouring back yards, cars in need of a service, starlings trapped down chimneys.
One early Sunday morning when the curtains of all the neighbours were closed, she opened the back gate and stepped into the alley. Her stay was brief and filled with nerves that turned her stomach to goo. She spotted a damp old newspaper that had escaped from someone’s recycling box. She retrieved it, scurrying back into her yard to sit down at the table to read. There was a report about some age old disease she thought was long consigned to history but was now making a comeback. It was poverty, and cramped conditions, and poor diet that were to blame it said. People had broken into a children’s farm and tortured and killed the animals, using mice as live bait, tying fireworks to the tails of donkeys. Children were getting fatter. You couldn’t move for wind farms. She placed the newspaper in her own overflowing wheelie bin and wheeled it into the back alley. On her calendar she wrote the words ‘BACK ALLEY’ complete with a smiley face.
Every Sunday morning she would step beyond her gate, venturing a little further into the alley each time, her visits getting longer. She would look forward to her excursions, crossing off the days on the calendar as they grew nearer. On the third visit she pottered at least fifty metres from the back gate and stood eyes closed in the middle of the alley singing a half-remembered song about sailors beneath her breath. On week four she pretended to dance, swaying as if being led across a sprung dance floor by someone fleet of foot and handsome while sweeping strings soared from an imaginary orchestra.
By week five the alley couldn’t contain her imagination so she strolled to where it met the street, pausing at the end looking one way then another before racing back to the safety of her back yard.
The summer was of the kind she knew from childhood. The mercury kept rising, she opened all her windows but still no air circulated. Even the heat in the yard was oppressive, and when Sunday came around all she could do in the alley was slump against the wall. She thought of the park. The little lake. The ducks. People eating ice-cream. People stretched out on the grass reading books. People meeting for coffee. Dogs greeting one another, dogs sniffing the news on tree trunks, dogs everywhere you looked. She’d once caught an old lady emptying a cremation urn on the rose beds. “It’s Hester. She’s left me,” cried the lady. “The sleekest, blackest, most loyal Labrador I have ever owned.”
It had never crossed Nancy’s mind to own a dog but she sometimes wondered how it would feel to have a loving head placed in your lap, a wagging tail to greet your arrival home, a friend to tell your worries to who never thought to judge, teeth and an honest snarl to protect you when evil came calling.
Grandad Bewley had said he hadn’t believed in evil until he and the rest of the 11th Armoured Division had rolled up to the gates of Bergen-Belsen. That was why he gave up on sight. If man was capable of such things then he didn’t want to look on mankind’s works again. When he returned to England that story got lost somewhere in the rituals of daily life. They sent him to make wooden toys and small items of furniture at a factory for disabled veterans where he could hammer and screw and try to forget about what he’d seen. Sometimes when Nancy dreamt of that night by the river, her assailant was dressed as a prison camp guard like in the old films.
Midsummer was approaching, the day when the night was kept at bay for longest. As it got nearer she decided to wash her curtains, the cushion covers on her sofa, sort out her wardrobe by placing unwanted old things in a charity shop bag that had been posted through the letterbox. She’d sit in the chair by the bedroom window until well past midnight reading books she’d retrieved from a skip in the back alley. One night she decided not to go to bed but made herself strong coffee and sat in the window watching the brief hours of darkness, remembering that they too had their own beauty if you let them show it.
On the morning of Midsummer’s Day she found herself dressed and standing by her front door at 7.30 am. She’d been awake before the dawn chorus, the early rising of the sun catching the birds off guard. She straightened her dress and decided against a coat. Placing one hand on the door handle, she turned the key in the lock, pulled open the door and stepped outside. She could hear radios from open bedroom windows, showers being turned on, a morning cough, indecipherable conversation, and a deep heavy snore. Her heart was racing but she remembered the confident stride of Grandad Bewley and his white stick. She set her eyes on the end of the terrace and headed towards it putting faith in her swift feet. Then she turned towards the river, mist rising, a flight of geese honking in formation above her head. There was a song her mum used to sing about the Clyde waters. Some man, probably on a horse, was trying to cross the River Clyde. He was either fleeing from an angry father, or trying to meet a lover, or escaping from the law but, whatever his reasons for being so foolhardy, the waters rose. He was lost forever in the deepest part of the Clyde waters where he sleeps to this day. The story had a moral but it was no use trying to remember what it was if you couldn’t even remember the details of the man’s flight. No matter, the river wasn’t the Clyde and she had no intention of crossing it. Instead, she inadvertently caught the eye of the man unlocking the park gates.
“You’re on the ball,” he said with a smile in his voice.
“Aye, I am,” said Nancy, stepping past him and inside.
There was the little lake and the ducks. There were the benches where her grandad used to sit. There was where children would soon be playing. There was the grass where people would later stretch out to read books. There was the final resting place of sleek, black, loyal Hester, amid the reds and soft yellows of roses her mother would have known the names of. Here was Nancy, in her dress but without a coat.
She left the park as dog walkers began to enter via the big gates. A young woman ran by, her blonde pony tail swinging rhythmically in time with the music from her headphones, a cyclist, an elderly man, a tired young woman with messy hair wearing last night’s frock and swinging her shoes by their straps in her hand.
It was fourteen minutes past eight when Nancy turned on the radio and sat down at the kitchen table with a mug of tea, the calendar before her. Under June 21st she wrote the word ‘PARK’ and drew a smiley face in biro.