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Stone Cold Memories

 

Every year on the twelfth of November, Eddie Portnoy left his house at two-thirty, visited the local chemist and bought a new brand of deodorant, and then two copies of the Times newspaper from the adjacent newsagent. He placed one copy into a thin waterproof plastic folder and put it in his shoulder bag and the other he carried, as any other person would, tucked under his arm. On the return journey, no one ever commented on why he was so soaking wet. His neighbours sometimes remarked on his trip, commenting how comforting it must be for him to tend such a special place. ‘A real rock,’ they would say, especially in the early years. He was old now, and not a little scrawny, so the trips took longer each year which meant he returned in increasing levels of darkness. Eddie spotted the twitching curtains from his next-door neighbours and hurried to find his keys.

"Eddie, you’re shivering, can I make you some tea?"

"That’s kind, but I’ve got to prepare the paper," he waved the plastic folder up and gave it a little shake as if proof were needed, "and dry my clothes. Thank you."

Eddie opened the front door taking care to shut it quickly. He switched on the hall light and bent to kiss the yellowed black and white photograph of his wife, Florence. "Cup of tea is the ticket though, she’s right about that, Florence, my love."

Eddie took two mugs down from the kitchen cupboard and dropped a tea bag in each. He braced himself on the marble counter and waited for the kettle to whistle.

"You daft bugger," said Eddie, replacing one of the mugs back into the cupboard. He removed all his clothes and slipped into a chunky towelling dressing gown he had placed in the kitchen earlier.

"Florence. Marcus." Eddie repeated the names a few times as he took the tea over to his recliner. Eddie liked to hear the sound of the names out loud. It was comforting. Solid. Real.

"The rocks are beautiful, Florence. Mostly white still too. They’ll last long after I’m gone." Eddie listened to the silent response and fell into a deep sleep.

***

Even before it happened, when his life had purpose and colour, Eddie Portnoy had always hated November. Dank. Lifeless. Summer’s memories, luke-warm and sepia. November held no promise. Distorted, rotting. Eleven days gone, Eddie looked up at the sky, dark and burdened with gravid cloud. The thick air lay on his chest like a dull weight. Florence shivered. Eddie nodded his head towards her, curving the corner of his mouth into a wry smile. A long marriage had created a Morse code of understanding between them. Florence rubbed the centre of her chest, and Eddie wondered if she felt the heaviness there too. She returned a smile long enough to reassure Eddie who was relieved not to have to talk. He set about making a peppermint tea.

Sleet rain hit the French doors of their suburban conservatory with such force that they found it hard to hear each other. They called it their coastal curse. They could not see the ocean from their garden, but at all times there was a salt-spray scent of its proximity, a lament tasted in the air, like a half-remembered melody. Eddie and Florence glided effortlessly on thirty-year-old tracks, comforted by familiar grooves. Florence pressed her face into a neatly folded, Fair Isle, short sleeve jumper and sniffed. Hard.

"You all right, Love," said Eddie as he placed the tea down next to her.

"I think it’s losing its smell," said Florence, briefly coming up for air.

Eddie swiped a yellow highlighter pen across the date of a crisp Times Newspaper laid out on the kitchen table.

"Go easy," said Eddie, as he circled around a number of article headings in the news and sports sections, "of course the smell will disappear eventually if you carry on sniffing it hard like that, Love."

"It’s Teen Spirit," said Florence.

"Of course, I know that, Love. Nothing lasts forever though," said Eddie, immediately regretting it. He folded the newspaper into a half, and then half again, placing it longways into his coat pocket. Eddie retrieved a second pristine copy of the same newspaper from the sideboard then placed it on top of others, older, folded identically, into a box marked, “Newspapers:12th November 1979 to - “

"Don’t see that brand of deodorant on the shelves now. Too musky I expect for young men today," said Florence.

There was no year after the dash and Eddie wondered whether it would be him or Florence that would add that. He hoped it would be him, not because he was better at remembering, although that was undoubtedly true, but because it would mean she’d go before him. Others blamed Florence for it, at the time, but not Eddie. He would say seat-belts were different then; take it or leave it. There were choices. Besides his jumpers smelled of Old Spice and he suspected Florence had never liked it. He looked at Florence.

"What smell would you like my jumpers to have, Florence?"

It wasn’t the sort of question that was easy to ask. There are some strands of enquiry too delicate for even the longest marriage to tease out. They didn’t talk to others now, so what did their opinion matter anyway?

"What time are we going?" Florence brought the jumper over to Eddie and held it up to his face.

"No thanks, Love."

"Do you think that eBay would sell deodorant?" said Florence.

"Same as usual, Love," said Eddie taking the jumper, placing it into a clear plastic box, "like we always do, two-thirty. Taxi’s booked."

"Girl at the chemist said eBay sells everything, even old stuff like Teen Spirit." Florence took the newspaper box from Eddie and placed the jumper-box on top of it, slotting both into a perfectly matched space in the dresser cupboard. A cuckoo-clock struck two gongs. Two tiny mannikins, mounted on aging springs, moved around each other in deep fixed ruts.

"Suppose we could ask them next door when we get back," said Eddie, helping Florence on with her Macintosh, "they’ll know where eBay is."

 

A black cab pulled up, and Florence and Eddie took advantage of a break in the rain to dash to its rear doors. As the cuckoo-clock chimed the half hour to a silent kitchen, Eddie and Florence arrived at the graveside.

Marcus Portnoy, loving son, July 25th 1962 - November 12th 1979.

 

Florence knelt and began to clear the fallen oak leaves covering the grave. Eddie noticed how white and ghostlike her complexion appeared. Lilac agapanthus and cerulean alliums formed a serried rank of mourners. Florence removed their faded heads and trimmed the weeping ivy tumbling forward from terra-cotta urns. The earth, sodden from the morning’s storm, remains unperturbed by the addition of Florence’s tears. Eddie waits as her quiet sobs fade, and her gentle rocking stops. He helps her to her feet and feels the dead weight of her.

"Villa have started the season well, Son." Eddie unfolded two portable garden stools and placed them either side of the grave. He sits and starts with the sports on the back page before thumbing to the highlighted circled stories in the inside news sections. "They reckon this global warming is a real thing, not that you’d have noticed today." Eddie shows the newspaper to Florence, pointing at the story. "You want to read this, Florence, I was always a bit skeptical, if I’m honest."

But Florence was not sitting or standing. She had knelt again and then had slumped, briefly on all fours, like a dog checking a new territory. Then she was dead.

***

Eddie insisted on returning home despite the late hour, and the nurses saying he could stay on the ward. Everyone had been very kind. Especially the consultant. Eddie wanted to ask him how old he was. He tried to work out how old Marcus would be. But couldn’t.

"There was no suffering, Mr Portnoy."

Eddie wanted to laugh at the suggestion. But didn’t.  Some truths cannot be explained. Suffering. There is always a kernel of that, deep within the muffled layers of domestic routine.

"Thank you, Doctor, that will be a comfort." Eddie fumbled the buttons on his Macintosh. "I suppose I should go." He wiped a small tear and picked up a large canvas bag of Florence’s clothes and possessions.

"Is there someone we can call? Family? A friend, or a neighbour?"

Eddie felt the nurse’s arm around his shoulder and wondered if after this night was done, he would ever touch anyone again. Alone in thought, word and deed, alone in old age without Florence, without Marcus. It was a terror he decided he would avoid. First, he thought, eBay.

***

Eddie’s neighbours were perplexed at his request but, given the circumstances, relieved at having a practical task with which to help. It meant they could comfortably fill the awkward gaps that characterise conversations of the recently bereaved. They invited him for coffee and regaled him with news of their internet search and eventual delivery. One hundred assorted bleached pebbles, weighing twenty-five kilograms, from Chesil beach. Flint and Quartz dot com. Eddie asked how much he owed, and what dot com was.

"We were so happy to help, Mr Portnoy. Are you planning a memorial rockery, or perhaps an artwork?"

The truth was simpler. Eddie was saying goodbye.

***

Eddie stood at the shoreline facing a gentle sea and estimated he had five minutes of life left. Rays from a low early morning sun danced off the swell, hitting his vision from all angles. He wiped a small tear and stepped forward into the gently lapping tide. He was expecting the usual bracing chill from the cold, unforgiving water but realised his shoes and clothes would protect him for a short while. He tried to smile at the irony as he waded deeper.

A stone from his jacket pocket fell into the water to his left. He took the opportunity to retrieve it in the shallow edge and gathered a few more. He crammed them into what little spaces were left in his trouser pockets and continued forward. Onlooking children might think him like a clumsy deep-sea diver, wading with stiff, heavy legs at the bottom of a deep sea. Except there were no onlookers. He had no diving suit, or helmet just pockets full of bleached stones. He moved forward. The seabed fell away with a sharp slope, and as the waters reached his shoulders, he knew the stones would do their job. He felt grounded with no sense of floating. That would come later he guessed. He didn't want to think about that and turned for the last time to look at the shoreline he had just left. To look at everything he was leaving. To remember Florence and Marcus, one last time.

Now facing away from the sun, and feeling its warmth compete with the cool licks of the wave-tops on his neck, he could see the shoreline in exquisite detail. His eye was drawn by the dark staining each wave produced on the sloping sandbank. He watched each wave noticing the subtle differences each painted onto its sandy canvas. Relentless, futile, but comforting; in their attempts, their very persistence. We will remember. Each wave, collapsed, receded now, forgotten, had built on those before them, preparing a pristine canvas for those to come. The beaches. We will remember. Small, individually worthless, they persist, prevail, always contributing something in their fragile, fleeting present.

***

Eddie looked up at the mountains encircling the bay and wondered if they knew their fate, how one day they would become the stones in his pockets, and then the sand grains, crushed and coloured by these stubborn waves. He reached into his pocket and placed his fingers around one of the larger stones, stroking its smooth surface. Eddie let it fall to the seabed and, as others followed, he rose, floated, and permitted himself be washed back to the shore. He had a few tides left, to try again, to try and change the course of his life. He stood, the task futile but, as a small rippled wave washed over his feet, he knew; he must try again, he must prevail, he must remember.

***

Eddie would sometimes sleep right through the night of the twelfth. Vivid dreams mining memories, presenting blurred slideshows of half-remembered days. Sometimes, Eddie remembered more, and he would try and patch together the strands presented to him. His life, Florence and Marcus, grey weaves of time and events strung together. He would sip his tea and wait for another strand, a string. Strings. Spun lines. Woven cloth. A tapestry of memories, warm woven blankets of remembrance. Most days, Eddie tried to remain in the present and would chat with neighbours, watch TV, look forward to the cleaner’s weekly visit and chat to the young lad from the voluntary charity that tidied his garden on a Friday. But on November days he looked at black and white photographs, listened to names dissolve in the air, sleep and weave his way back. Back to the beach, back to the mountains, back to Florence and Marcus. He knew; he must try again, he must prevail, he must remember what he now understood to be true. Life just is, it sweeps over and around you, through you, past you. Small waves of experience that have been and will be. All you can do is hope that the first swaddling blanket is waterproof and that you hold on to its tattering edges for as long as you can.

Every year, Eddie Portnoy buys a Times newspaper, tries a new deodorant, and knows no one questions why he is dripping wet.

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