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Somebody Else's Memories

A story about chasing the past

By Wilkie StewartPublished 3 years ago Updated 3 years ago 8 min read
Somebody Else's Memories
Photo by Hello I'm Nik on Unsplash

The train curved along the coast, the puffing engine and the rattle of the train's carriages noisy. The approaching town felt familiar, the lighthouse on the rocky promontory, the long sandy beach, the little multi-coloured huts, the whites and greys of the houses and the church. The woman checked her bag. The photos were safe. In her State there were only freight trains. Public transport was the greyhound bus. Even the poor went everywhere by car. Not that she and Bill had been poor. Her father had handed the business over to them a long time ago. He hadn’t taken to Bill straight away, had been unsure of his credentials, but hard work and an easy manner had won Pop over in the end.

She had found Bill lost on a mountain trail and been taken by his fascinating Yorkshire accent, not English as he often corrected people, and by his muscular shoulders and arms, big enough to hug the entire town where she had grown. How frail he had become at the end. There she goes, slipping into self-pity again, she should be cheerful, count her blessings as the pastor said, so she smiled and a small boy across the carriage smiled back.

Sitting beside the boy, his father was replaying an argument over in his head. Mel was leaving him. That's what he’d wanted wasn't it? A single life. No responsibilities, he could sleep with any tart he fancied, no need to lie about it.

It hadn't really been like that. The thing with Janet had been unfortunate, but it hadn't meant anything, not really. And Mel had been happy, hadn't she? Looking after the boy, redecorating the house, meeting the girls for lunch. It was other people who had put the boot in, dripping poison about what they thought they had seen into her ear until her head had burst with it.

The boy bounced on his seat, excited by the train. "Look Dad," he said. "A lighthouse!" Tom looked at the white and red building on the rocks. They must be getting close to the station.

"Where's your coat, Jack?" he asked reaching up to the rack above. He made the boy stand in the aisle while he pulled the arms through an anorak and zipped it up. "No taking it off," he said. "Mummy wouldn't like it." There was a steely expression on the boy's face.

Tom allowed the woman across the way to step out from her seat first and helped her through the old-fashioned doors, down onto the platform. "Thank you," she said. "What a cute boy." She patted Jack's head. His son looked at her strangely, her American accent giving him pause perhaps, before he pulled on his father's hand wanting to get to the seashore.

Down on the beach they had an ice-cream and set about making a castle. Tom had vague memories of doing this as a child while his sister ran around and played at pirates rather than sit at something so stupid. She would kick it down at the first opportunity. As they worked on the turrets Tom saw the woman pass along the promenade with something in her hand.

The woman was looking for the house in a photograph. It looked white in the print, but it was difficult to be sure - the colours had faded. There was a young woman at the door of a cottage, a trellis surrounding it, roses peeking between the wooden slats. His mother, Bill had said. There was no house number. The only clue she had was that he said it was beside the beach, the whiteness of the sea wall the first thing he saw every day coming out of the door, with the lighthouse away to the right. The problem was that all the houses fitted that description. They curved with the wall and the lighthouse was surely visible from everywhere in town. It was hopeless. She had another photograph, showing the back garden, not visible from the front. Bill was about ten and was standing on his hands, a tall man holding his feet. The faces were blurred. Above the garden wall there was a patch of grey. Was that stone? She looked up from the photograph and back at the row of houses. A church with a bell tower overlooked several of them. Could one of those be the house she wanted?

At each house she lined up the photograph, but none seemed right. It was the trellis. Whichever porch it had been on, it and the roses were long gone. She sat down on a bench on the promenade with her back to the town. From her pocket she took out an envelope containing ashes. The rest had been scattered in the mountains back home, but she had promised herself to take some to the town of Bill’s birth and perhaps the garden of his boyhood. The gulls on the beach wall seemed to eye her suspiciously. She put the ashes away again. They might mistake them for treats.

The man and his son were playing in the sand. Brits were funny. Back home there would be beach volley-ball games, people taking exercise, surfers, all manner of healthy activities. Here everyone was sitting on blankets with all their clothes on, looking at their phones. The man and his son seemed to be the only people engaged in any sort of activity.

Tom could see that Jack was losing interest. The boy had spied the amusement arcade on the small pier, and since then had been asking if they could go. Tom wasn't sure why they were building a castle at all. Had he really done this as a child? Or only once? That time his sister had destroyed his efforts seemed like someone else's memories. He dusted the sand from his trousers. "Just leave those there," he said pointing to the plastic bucket and spade they had bought at the station.

"Oh no, Dad, we can't! What about the dolphins?" The boy gathered the items up, handed them to his father. "You can find a bin."

They had to stagger up the sand towards the crumbling promenade stairs. There was a bin next to a bench. He forced the items into it, avoiding the wasps that were buzzing around a discarded can of cola.

The woman from the train was sitting further along. The pier was in the other direction. His son was tugging on his hand. "Jack, can you wait a minute? I just want to check this lady is OK." He pulled a comic from the bag on his back.

"I've read that one," Jack said.

"Well, just sit here a minute and read it again. I won't be long."

"Hello," he said to the woman.

"Oh, where's your boy?" she asked.

"He's just there," he said pointing at Jack lying flat on another bench, engrossed in his comic.

She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. "You must think I'm crazy as a loon crying on a bench in a town I don't know." The photographs were in her lap.

"May I?" he asked. She passed them along. "These were taken here?"

"Yes. In the late fifties or early sixties."

"She's very beautiful," he said. "Your mother?"

"No, I didn't know her. My husband's mother. I suppose that made her my mother-in-law."

"Is this one of these houses here?" he asked.

"That's just it," she said, wondering if the man was a detective of some sort, he was working this out so fast. "I don't know. I thought the grey stone in the second photograph might be the church but none of these houses seem to fit."

He nodded then looked at the second photograph, the one with the handstand. In the background there was a tree. A pear by the looks of it. An unusual tree for a town on this coast. "Maybe this pear tree is a clue?" he said. He stood looking at the houses along the shore, then back in the other direction.

The comic was discarded on the ground. "Shit," he said, starting to run.

The woman let him go. The boy’s safety was more important than her photographs. She stood up and followed at a slower pace.

The amusement arcade was busy despite the sunshine outside. A group of boys were gathered around a platform game, egging Jack on. Tom held back his anger. He hadn’t given Jack any money when they arrived. He must have had some from his mother. At least he was safe and enjoying the game. Was this how the future would be, watching from a distance as the boy grew up?

He exchanged pounds for smaller coins and idled near the group to play on a penny falls machine. He used to love these as a kid.

The old lady tapped his arm. "You found him then?"

"Yes. Sorry for running off like that," he said reaching into his pocket for the photographs. "You must have wondered if you'd ever see these again?"

Jack had finished his game and the seat was taken by a new player. Tom took his boy aside. "Jack, you've never to do that again, OK?" The boy nodded, looking sorry at least. He gave him the remaining money in his hand. "I'm watching you."

The woman saw the exchange and smiled. She started for the exit. In the coin exchange booth, a man with a moustache was eating a burger. On a whim she paused and presented the photographs to him. "I'm sorry to disturb you," she said. "I've come a long way to try to find this house on the promenade. You don't recognize it, do you?" The man put down his burger and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He peered at the photo.

"I've seen that house," he said. "It's not on the front, it's in Church Street, next road back from the sea."

"Not on the promenade?"

"No. Definitely Church Street." He picked up his burger bun and took another bite.

She looked at her watch. There was an hour before the train would leave for the city. At the other end of the arcade, she saw the father and son racing each other in a driving game. She was hungry and bought a warm, sugary donut and ate it as she crossed the promenade. Sure enough, the next street was Church Street, curving in the same way as the sea road with the church further along. She checked each house, looking for the decorative frame around each door. Even before she got to the right house, she could see the pale fruit of the pear tree at its back. The trellis with the roses was there on the porch. She lined up the photograph. It was perfect.

Tom and the boy took their seats. The old woman was already there. As the train whistle blew, she smiled across the aisle. "I found the house," she said.

"Yes?" the man said. "Sorry I couldn't help." The sadness in his eyes was still there.

"Oh, but you did," she said. "The man in the arcade directed me. And you were right, it was a pear tree. The house is owned by two lovely gentlemen." She lowered her voice. "I think they were gay. Anyway, they let me scatter some ashes in the garden and treated me to a cup of tea. Bill would have been pleased. It's strange that he hadn't remembered all the details correctly."

"Look, Dad," the boy said. "The lighthouse."

Tom began to turn his head away. She stretched a hand across the aisle and patted him on the wrist. “You mustn't give up,” she said. “Family is worth fighting for.” His smile was thin.

She settled back in her seat and before long she was dreaming of a mountain trail, and meeting a man with a Yorkshire accent and a hug like a bear.

Short Story

About the Creator

Wilkie Stewart

Writer of strange little tales living in Glasgow, Scotland. A former IT professional who loves literary fiction, poetry, Eurovision, art-house film, post-crossing, and comics. Walks daily with his camera when he can. @werewegian1 on Twitter

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