I went looking for something. Perhaps that was a mistake.
On top of my wardrobe there are three white boxes, filled with fragments of our lives. A box of keepsakes, like the first time my writing appeared in print, a box of magazines my partner has made, or been in, across his career, and the obligatory box of photos. We moved into this house almost exactly five years and I have peered into this box only once. I can’t remember whether the experience sparked joy, but Marie Kondo isn’t right about everything, so the box has remained there, gathering dust, keeping safe the portals into other worlds that its contents offer.
I took down the box I wanted, gave it a quick blast with my DustBuster, and opened the lid. I was digging on behalf of a meme, embarrassingly, trying to find a picture of myself at the age of 20. I knew I looked an absolute state during almost that entire period but I figured I couldn’t look much worse than my mid-lockdown pallor. When I was 20, I didn’t pose for cameras, and they didn’t seek me out. They happened upon me by mistake. Candid shots and flashes of my profile, the true extent of my nose being revealed to me for the first time ever. I was left reeling and made a pact with myself to go to the hairdresser as often as possible and always wear good shoes as if to mitigate the damage. Looking at old photos is like watching a favourite movie for the nth time. You know what’s coming, vaguely remember the scenes, but not quite how they got together. Some of the strands that link the events are broken, and dark gaps in your memory slowly let in light as it all becomes fresh again. It was like being in a dream and walking through rooms, all the people you loved, from all eras, just there, incongruously but joyfully.
I found two particular photos I had forgotten existed. I was in one of them, a group shot that I instantly remembered being taken, the plot that led up to it quickly unfurling around it, like spilled paint seeping into once-perfect white floors, fanning out and out again until it hit each corner of the room. I remembered the day it was taken – a quick scoot at my calendar tells me it would have been 18 May 1996, a Saturday, the day after the end of term ball in my second year. There are five of us sitting on the bed of a student bedroom, packed boxes around us to signify that someone – with characteristic efficiency – was already making their way home for the summer. In movies, when someone finds an old photograph, they trace their fingers along it, along the shoulders, and the faces, hoping maybe that the contact of fingertip to printed mouth will help them hear the voices of long ago. I did that, thinking it tacky, yet doing it all the same. There was no sound. But I looked closer and saw the reddened eyes of the girl on the far-left; she had been crying because she didn’t want it all to be over for the summer, because she would miss us all hanging out together. She was also hungover. I’d forgotten all about that moment, that she’d been rubbing her eyes in embarrassment, not really sure why she was upset, because she was 20 and not a baby, and we would all be reunited soon enough – or so we thought, but that is a story for another day – and that she was just being silly. The photograph was suggested – by me, as it was my camera – and she didn’t want to be in it at first. I am sure there is another version without her, but I couldn’t find it. She said she looked a state. But we all did. In the end she relented and posed, smiling too widely in the way you do when you’re trying to show that you are not upset. But the red eyes gave her away. I could see behind her, photographs of us tacked to the wall – she was in a lot of them, the red dress she’d worn to the previous year’s ball standing out, along with her mass of curly hair. It all felt so current, she looked so alive. Which of course, as you have probably guessed by now, she isn’t. Not anymore. What happened after the photo is one of those gaps in time, but I suppose we must’ve watched our friend pack up her parents’ car and go. Maybe we stood on the pavement and waved. I wonder what we said to our friend, perhaps through the open window of the car. No doubt as the car pulled away, we looked at each other and flicked open a box of Marlboro Lights and smoked a few in quick succession, walking back to her own house just across the road.
The other photograph was just her alone, months later, when we came back for our third year – a rerun of our second, at a different university, it’s a long story – and it was just the two of us then. She was sitting on my bed, in my tiny room in a house I truly hated, reading The Face, in her yellow jacket. November, I reckoned. I don’t remember taking it, but I must have said her name and made her look up and took the snap, as it doesn’t look posed, but she had the time to smile.
I think of her all the time anyway – first thought on waking, last before sleep – but the day I found the photographs was like a new high-definition set of memories and feelings of loss and devastation that I wasn’t ready for. The trouble with grief is it cannot go on for ever in its earliest, purest, and ugliest form, it has to evolve. Not just for your own sanity but also because social niceties tell you that you simply can’t go on ‘moping’ indefinitely. The conversations become one-sided, you recognise the sentences people have on standby to comfort you. And you understand, because you would feel the same, if you were on the other side of it, if you didn’t feel like this.
I have mainly spent the isolation quietly getting on with my work and treating a trip to the supermarket like I’ve won a competition, but I’ve also spent it contemplating the loss, so acutely aware of it. The space where she was, the messages unsent, conversations now unspoken. A present tense with a piece missing. ‘Oh, it’s nine months today since…’ I said to myself, to nobody, as I ran a cloth over the kitchen worktop and thought about what to have for dinner. Amid the abnormality all around us, the regular things still have to be done – the washing machine spin cycle is just lurching into action as I type – and I know now I’ll never be free of it, but that I will adapt. I forget, sometimes, if only for a few minutes, before remembering again, the pain almost as jagged as the first time. A photocopy of grief, but still pin-sharp, that refuses to fade out and become unintelligible.
I am not sad, or lost, just… heavy. I am, in fact, largely positive and, a few personal bits and pieces aside, more or less unfazed by the state of the world. It is not the day-to-day bustle that I miss at all – I miss a world where I knew that she was somewhere out there, a message away. And that is one lockdown my heart will never be freed from.
This is what happens when you go looking for something. It finds you. But it cannot take you back.
Make a donation to the Trussell Trust to support food banks. Call a friend and remind them how important they are. Stay well.