You went on holiday and never came back.
When people go on holiday, they are supposed to return with a suntan and a box of fudge and a pebble from the beach. They are supposed to walk through the door in creased, summer clothes and put the kettle on and tell themselves how much they love their own bed.
But you went on holiday and never came back.
They telephoned from a hospital hundreds of miles away and when my father began to cry into the receiver, I ran up the stairs and hid under a bed, where the words couldn’t find me. I have seen it since. People who cover their ears and escape down hospital corridors. People who shout and beat the air, needing to hold on to a few more seconds of hope.
If I don’t listen, it isn’t real.
My father drove down to the coast and fetched grandma back in our Hillman Hunter. I had never seen grandma without you before and I was angry with her, as though she’d taken you away and lost you somewhere, and so I stayed in my room and tried to listen for your voice through the floorboards.
Each day would hit me with never-do-agains. Who would teach me to paint and play the piano. How would I know what the trees and flowers were called. Who would say sweetheart of mine and scoop me up like ice-cream into their arms. My never-do-agains stretched through the years. Even now, when I see a golf course or eat chips from a newspaper or hear a twig snap under my boots, my never-do-agains reach out and pull me straight back to you.
I could see your house from my room. Before I went to bed, I would flick the light three times and you would do the same. Goodnight, sweetheart of mine. Our special, secret code. Now I know how you must have stood and waited in the dark, not wanting to disappoint me. Now I know a lot of things.
They decided I was too young for funerals and so when I looked out of my window that morning I saw a car filled with flowers parked right outside your house. I couldn’t understand how it could be anything to do with you or me and so I made myself as small as I could and pressed my back into the skirting board.
If I don’t look, it isn’t real.
And that night, I flicked my light three times and I stared out into the darkness and waited.
Before you went on holiday, you came to say goodbye, but I was lost in the pages of a book.
Goodbye, sweetheart of mine
you said from the doorway, but I was too busy to look up. And so the story I read stole away my very last chance to ever see your face.
I rang your house when no one was watching. Whilst everyone was talking and pouring tea and making decisions, I crept into the hall and turned the dial on the telephone as quietly as I could. I was sure you would answer if you knew it was me.
Two, Four, Five, Six.
Even though I am three times the age I was when you died, I remember the number. I telephoned you each day, every time I was sorry for reading my book. Again and again and again.
Two, Four, Five, Six.
I am wise now. I know that people slip out of each other’s lives like shadows. I know that people flicker and falter and disappear without a goodbye and yet still, still, I don’t always look up.
After all the years of never-do-agains and all the twos and the fours and the fives and the sixes, even after all the aching years of wishing away my own selfishness.
You think I would have learned my lesson to always look up, wouldn’t you?
My long-ago, faraway, sweetheart of mine.