Perhaps Everything is Fiction
She would read her grandmother’s books each night before she slept. When she had finished reading each one, her grandmother would start melting butter and oil in the large pan, layer dough and nuts, cut sweet treats into triangles, soak them in honey and rosewater, pour her the blackest of tea. They would sit, sip tea, let the rich honey run down their hands unnoticed, talk about brave men, the beauty of women, the long chapters within the book’s covers.
Their home together had no television, no radio, no lines to the outside world. On school holidays, as the girls in her street ignored her, she sat with her legs crossed in the gutter reading, involved in tales of age old romance. Each book reminding her of the way her mother and father, all those years ago in their dim lit kitchen, danced together with the radio low, the sounds of the blues their delight.
Each year on the eve before Christmas, her grandmother would carefully pick and wrap a book for her on the history of the world, place it on the end of her bed as she slept. The next morning she would wait for her granddaughter in the kitchen, make butter and honey breads, churn yoghurt, sing her ancient carols out into the dry and bright garden. The young girl would always wake with the weight of the book on her toes, look down at the carefully chosen tissue it was wrapped in, jump up, race with it to the kitchen, wait patiently at the table for breakfast and the chance to open her present. Together each year, they would give thanks to a God she never really understood and she would open her present, as her grandmother watched, quiet, with anticipation.
In the year she turned thirteen, her grandmother bought her The Acropolis, a homage to her homeland, to the past, to history, to the person her grandmother once was. She kissed the ageing woman, thanked her, went to sit in her grandfather’s worn chair, looked out on his dying, once loved garden, and began to read. She was allowed to sit in the hallowed chair, allowed to wear her night dress all day, as her grandmother brought her small sugared biscuits, hot tea, walked past the fireplace mantel all day, lightly touching the picture taken of her and her beloved husband, when her own daughter was was but three weeks as unknown in her womb.
Living with her grandmother, history became her. The past was the only thing they spoke of and they never mentioned what the young girl would become or what would happen when the old woman’s body failed her. It was as if the future was to be feared, didn’t exist, that the past, the space in which love ever existed, where loss lingered, where memories could be forever known, was the only real place. Her imaginings, void of an inevitable future became heavenly notions, romantic and tragic.
As she aged into a teenager, she read through her grandmother’s full collection of books, wore cardboard library cards out, lay in bed at night and thought of men who opened doors and spoke in proper English, heard the girls in her street creeping through bedroom windows, their shadows a tale of new times, of a world she had never known, a world that would certainly destroy her. And as sleep came, her head facing the ceiling, her grandmothers faint image above her started whispering in her frightened ear, there is nothing in the future. Nothing.
She finished school and found herself working in a small office filing family history. She would walk to work each day thinking about grand manor homes, of ways to make old clothes she found in second hand stores fit her widening hips, thought of how small woman used to be, cursed the ease of fast food and cheap wine. She had quiet friendships, felt the weight of history, of books now an avalanche in each room, watched out at the garden surrounding them, in pictures, once of colour and celebration, now but a light grey flatland.
At twenty she met a man, handsome, rushed, well dressed. He asked her what book she was reading, smiled at her as the heat in her cheeks rose, told him that it was an old English romantic who died too early, that his love letters where her favourite pieces, that she would prefer he write to her instead of calling when he asked to see her again. She walked away, light, unbearably hot, unable to focus on the simple task of placing one foot in front of the other. She waited for weeks for his letter to arrive.
In his first letter to her, he told her he had bought the book that she had been reading, that an ode, Bright Star, was by far his favourite, realised he was a cliché to like the writers most famous work. He told her he felt quite strange writing a letter and mailing it, that he was used to texting, to calling, to sending an email, that he found it archaic, unfair to be unable to reach her in quick time. His handwriting was large, childlike and the paper he wrote on was the same used in her office for printing and sending out newsletters. In his third letter to her he asked her to meet him for drinks, and she responded agreeing, excited to be wanted.
For months they met in quite coffee shops, parks, bars. They talked, held hands, folded into each other’s lives. She would always order black tea and she taught him about the Romantics, Greek tragedy, the escape of the troops from the edges of Europe from Hitler, the way that in old England, the aristocracy would have their Tudor Ruff pressed with a specialised tool called a Tally iron by servants in their quarters. He sat with her, amazed at her knowledge, at the stale smell of her neck, at the way she sat with her small hands in her lap as she talked of the romance of Kings, of the reign of Napoleon, of how women and men of wealth would carry small scented balls to sway in front of their noses when those without bathing would come their way. She told him how she thought the war taught the world lessons in love, showed him the black and white picture of her parents, once young.
He introduced her to the speed of the world, to technology, to new ways of making art, to the beauty of power and youth. He told her that all tomorrows where inevitable, that science demanded it, that history held her to ghosts, to unreal ideas, to notions of love that were outdated. He attacked her tradition and asked her why she never once spoke of the future with him, asked if her quite sadness, if her yearning and unsure idea of what was, was because she didn’t anticipate the future. And she told him that the future was an assumption, an ideal, a fiction, that his desire to know would one day make him more miserable than she ever would, asked if he had any place of reference, any real space to call home. He had no answer to give her, blamed her grandmother, blamed books, blamed the romantics, blamed memory and recollection.
Their bodies, forever present and in the now, screamed to them, the time is now. What else is there? Tried to make them ignore the past and the future, made them start to believe that they could love; that explosions, wild promise, irregular wild beating and enlargement of the heart could be. Deceived them, as they sat touching, their skin burning with the heat of every summer that had ever been. And one night, as she lay beside him, her hands softly touching his chest, she asked him if he could know his future, would he let it be known. He would, he said. That often he wondered about the time and day of his death, wondered of eulogies and lies that would be told after his passing, thought often about how it would happen. He asked her if she had also ever wondered, and she told him I am only my past. I can only ever know my past. I can only ever be my past. How can I be anything else?
He tried to kiss her to make the confusion between their bodies disappear, tried to think of her being able to let the future be part of who she was, be able to be free from the history of the women before her, of what she thought romance should be. She ached to kiss him, as the idea of heartbreak, the worn picture of her mother and father, the stories of Queens beheaded for love and ego, the books in her room she was yet to finish, made loud noises at her, made her recoil in fright. And they both knew, as she pulled away from his soft face, that they could not allow themselves this moment, allow a past and inevitable future to be ignored, both of them quietly confused at their bodies idea of only the present existing. This wanted romance now final, complete, not ever beginning, mourning quickly in strange and unknown ways.
And in the year that followed, she thought of him often and wrote nostalgic poems about the way she had nearly loved, kept the memory of those quiet coffee shops, parks, bars, close, thought about all the things they spoke of and the excitement of all his tomorrows. She slowly began to learn how to think of the future, bought new books that held within them modern art, science, prediction. Started buying new clothes and making new friends, started planning a life in a new city. She never did speak to him again and wondered if in quite moments his body ached for her, if he kept going forward, if he ever looked back. Wondered if he even remembered her name.
Her grandmother fell ill in the month before Christmas that year and the old woman started making plans for an inevitable death, the urgency of her known future making her act in strange and new ways. In the days before she died, the old woman started mumbling to imagined gods and saviors about the great guilt of teaching her granddaughter to dream backwards instead of forwards, about her fear of the future that always was now seeming like madness in the face of her godly hour. There is nothing to fear, there is nothing to fear came her shallow breaths. The book her granddaughter had boldly bought her for Christmas on the future of the future art in Europe, sat in her lap, her old hands rest upon it, and she asked the young woman to be still with her in the moment, told her that this was the only moment that she could ever remember, that this was the only moment that mattered. And she looked down at the book in her lap, quietly said in her granddaughters ear, Perhaps everything is fiction, but right now my young girl, perhaps everything is fiction but right now.
(Finalist for the Newcastle 2015 Short Story Award and published in the 2015 finalist anthology)