Of course, it’s the house I think of now more than almost anything else. I imagine it as it was back in the days when we first knew it. I build it up again, brick by brick. My dark chateau, my sleeping beauty castle, half-suffocated by weeds and fingers of ivy. The long lawns tangled, and the garden heavy with dying flowers and overripe fruit rotting in the grass.
Inside the dusty windows, there could be music playing: scratchy old jazz records, a tinkling piano melody. The secret sound of footsteps, one-two-three, of a heavy satin skirt dragged across the bare floorboards. There is the smell of cigarette smoke, a fur stole tossed over a chair, and there are suitcases waiting in the hallway. They are labelled with the names of exotic destinations: Constantinople, Zanzibar, Timbuktu. It is as if a party has just ended, with empty glasses and full ashtrays and a sudden loneliness, a sharp edge of regret.
The house must have been there forever. It was ageless: it could never have been built from ordinary brick and plaster. It was not a house at all but something else altogether: the ruins of a medieval castle, the site of sacred standing stones. It was a dream-place: it had sprung fully-formed on the hillside, complete with its marble bathrooms, its fountain, its chandeliers, its drowsy garden of old roses and ancient trees.
The garden was green and gold. It was the colour of leaves shot through with sunlight, of Isobel’s green skirt, of light skipping across the water, of surfacing as the spray flew upwards and turned to glitter. It could never be forgotten. I know it's supposed to be “all about the future” now: I’m supposed to be moving forward, but somehow I find myself coming back again, through the gate, down the path, back into the garden, pacing out the story.
Maybe I do think about it too much. Behind my own words, there’s tinkling laughter, mocking voices. They always did say I was too serious, too ponderous, too intense. “Don’t take everything so seriously,” Nancy used to say, exasperated with me yet again. “You’re being weird,” Alix said, her voice marshmallow-light, milkshake-pink. But this is my story now, so I can be serious if I want to be. I can tell it however I want.
Once upon a time it seemed easy to move forward. We couldn’t wait. We were following a line marked on a map in red ink, fast-track to the future, on the express route to tomorrow, no stops, no waiting. We skipped blithely along towards the horizon, arm-in-arm. But now I always seem to be walking in circles that spread outwards just as a pebble falls into water. A carousel, a circle of candles to be jumped for some reason I’ve forgotten. It’s as if I’m lost on the Circle Line, going on and on, down and down, rattling through the long dark tunnels with a tinny silver sound reverberating in my ears, always missing my way and ending up strung out at the end of a line I never wanted to take. I miss the exits, and now the future is just a dim light in the distance. I can no longer see it clearly: it’s just a blur, an imaginary thing. Maybe I am slumbering somewhere in an enchanted poppy field, though I still wear my red sandals for luck.
As to the past, that is done with now, shut up in books with hard covers, and arranged neatly on shelves in sections and sequences: maybe some old yearbook in the school library, doodles on the yellowed paper. It’s just history, like the lessons where we learned the dates of things: births and deaths, wars and peace treaties, controversies, grand betrayals. I wrote them down in my exercise book but somehow I never could remember them. They were erased by the slow, flickering tick of the schoolroom clock, and Alix’s hair gleaming in a shaft of sun. Of course, she wasn’t writing down dates: she was staring out of the window, or drawing swirly patterns in her exercise book: hearts and flowers, moons and stars, a kaleidoscope of colour like a bad acid trip and her name, ALIX, written in giant pink and purple letters, filling a whole page. She said history was boring. She rolled her eyes and said, “Who cares?” She was always more interested in the here and now, but she came top in all the history exams just the same. It was one of her paradoxes.
Of course, that was back when her own future was tangible, bright and light, a door opening, held out to her in the palm of an outstretched hand. “She’ll go far,” people said, and the headmistress wrote on her end-of-year report that she was a young lady with a bright future. She always seemed destined for driving down long, empty highways, glamorous in a gleaming white convertible, with the radio turned up and her blonde hair flying free beneath a wide blue sky. Of course, back then I would have seen myself in the passenger seat, but now I’ve drifted too far from the days of blue-sky dreams of open roads. I’m here now, trapped in this context: these four walls, this city, the yellow light of the afternoon. In the next room, the radio buzzes like an angry fly.
“So, what about the future?” people ask me: the personal tutors, the uncles who can’t think of anything else to say. “What’s next?” I can’t answer them. I shrug and say something non-committal; I have trouble imagining a future, trouble thinking about it. Perhaps that’s because I don’t want to think about it, not really. In the end, I’d rather think about the past.