"Moon Over Morecambe"
I’m still surprised by it. The possibility of it, the implications. At the time, I just couldn’t imagine it actually happening. Then it resolved itself and the fear subsided. But I’m sure you can imagine how I hated the thought of it and kept on obsessing over it as a child. I know now not to exaggerate importance. I have it tucked away in a side drawer, possibly never to be seen again. After all, it’s only a place to live. Until it comes back in a slightly different form.
Sixteen years ago, it was mentioned in what was an alarmingly serious fashion. My mother had made a special dinner, so there was a great deal of kerfuffle in the kitchen. Instructions for my father lobbed across the steamy exhaust of cooking pots. He liked to help in his way, which wasn’t necessarily the same as Mum’s. Look in this cupboard. Put that vegetable in this dish. Turn down the potatoes. Make certain the table is set properly. Get out the blue set of plates.
“They all have blue on them. Which ones?”
She points at the appropriate cupboard in answer and turns away.
“Could you move all those dirty pots out of the sink so I can soak the plates? They need to be warmed.”
“I am not warming plates in hot water. I don’t have time or space for that.” She looks utterly incredulous at the suggestion.
From my angle, sitting at the dining room table, I see Dad has pursed his lips and furrowed his eyebrows to indicate disapproval. This will go unnoticed for its intended audience, i.e. Mum. I watch my brother for cues but he isn’t registering anything that I can detect. Something is different. Something else is on the table. Something will be said.
What was it anyway? Why the big production? Outside of Christmas, what other occasion would be worthy of “a dinner.” I have noticed how celebratory events are generally marked by the gathering of modern happy family units to share in eating festivities. But with us it was different. The eating part, I mean. We were happy-ish in an average kind of way and eating was something we all took part in regularly. But we ate begrudgingly. I think that, while we would be prepared to admit that food is certainly one of the requirements that sustain existence, we never really took part in that expansive, sensual joy others experience. Other homes. Other families.
Our home was old when I arrived. I don’t have a date, but it was seriously old. Somehow, a first home will always be home. This dining room shares the same jigsaw of slate as the kitchen and hallway. Cold and edge-filled, toes didn’t have a chance. Stubbing an inevitability, perhaps some kind of initiation that the house devised. So you think you can handle living here? Take that. I have since made peace with my slate slabs. Upstairs, the floors are all wide wooden planks that creak in disapproval with any movement. All kinds of hidden traps. Some of them can become strangely endearing as years pass. We must all make peace with our own unique fundamentals. Our first home. Our first nest. Our first asylum.
Imagine trying to sell it. Explaining those highly personal idiosyncrasies that become great embarrassments under the discerning eyes of the potential purchaser. As though the building itself is your own body that might produce an objectionable smell when someone stands near. You want to be there when the interested buyers list the problems so that you can apologize profusely or at least contribute an explanation. Perhaps better to just leave it to the agent and try not to think about it. Not ready for presentation on “Escape to the Country” in any case.
Sitting here at the dining room table at the paltry age of whatever, let’s say twelve to get our footing, everything was just grand. My parents represented that awesome minority that appeared happy to be united in matrimony. Proud of this fact, I enjoyed providing details to my bewildered friend that doubted my certainty and perhaps secretly, my sanity. My conviction that I was part of a contented family unit could not be shaken, not at this juncture in my life. Nothing can upset this foundation. And I remain secure within our fold. Take a bow.
We plod our way through our food. Another task completed, my brother and I ask to be excused from the table.
“Before you two disappear…” starts my Mum. Suddenly I find myself listening to a most eager monologue about my parents’ impending plans to relocate our humble foursome to Canada. Toronto to be exact, to join the already well-ensconced Aunt Joan and Uncle Peter. They represent my Mum’s side of the family which I have never met and don’t really feel the need to now. We will go to school there. We will gather friends there. We will be happy there. A great deal of information for me to process. I am an explorer? I am taken aback. I am instantly miserable and heartbroken.
After the meal, the table ritual is basically completed. After eating, my parents felt like digesting with musical interludes of Harry Secombe. This would be a cue for us to leave. My older brother would roll his eyes at this particular form of torture. Then I would roll my eyes too because that’s what you do. Although Secombe’s voice does sound quite a bit like my grandfather to me, which led me to believe he must have missed his true calling in life.
“Do you want to hear the new Bowie album?” proposes my brother.
Well, obviously. I would follow my older brother’s lead on pretty much anything. School was an ongoing nightmare to me – so much so that I would fantasize about him beating up the kids in my class that tormented me. In reality, that wasn’t his style. Nearly eight years older than me, it was highly unlikely that he would ride in on his reliable steed from his school of older and much cooler people to my sad little primary school in order to first astonish, then pulverize my nemeses with his resplendent armour and lance. Of course, I will listen to the new Bowie album and anything else you’ve got.
“I just need to call Eric. You can go in.”
I plant myself on the firm and uncomfortable bed designed and built by my Dad. I wait. For the most part, the sanctum of my brother's bedroom replaced any need of the outside world. I acknowledge all my musical heroes on the posters around me and scan for new vinyl on the tops of various piles. There is the new Bowie. I can still hear snippets of conversation from my parents downstairs. They continue to discuss emigration, the implications of which are beginning to seep into my consciousness. I really have heard enough of this. I suppose that I am expected to be excited or something akin to that. Adventures in a new kingdom! I can feel my throat constricting. My brother returns and I want to tell him how I feel but I can’t. He shuts the door so that he can adjust the stereo to the correct surge level. He believes his music can replace the reality of the present tense and I support this belief. I await Mr. Bowie.
Okay, so I knew that life did contain moments of change, but I wasn’t prepared for it to be of such a massive size. This struck me as a move in the wrong direction. Aren’t we supposed to try to keep things the same? Isn’t that the goal to shoot for, you know, to avoid any unnecessary discomfort? Imagine the nerve of both my parents committing this positively oppressive error and not even considering the lives of their still young and relatively innocent children. Home is permanence.
I cannot leave my friends. Okay, friend – but an indispensable one. I cannot leave the best tree in the garden. I cannot leave the stream with my favourite bridge and those wildflowers. I cannot leave the sheep in the field adjoining our property. I have tried to give each a good sheep-y name and I’m not done yet. There are rather a lot of them. I cannot leave the hedges. I cannot leave my clouds. I know they change but I don’t care. They are part of my here. What about the wood mice behind the garden shed? I cannot leave the Bay where we enjoy the beach and the sea. I cannot leave those shops. I cannot leave the seagulls and the terns and the sandpipers. I have a list of other bird species in my notebook under my bed. I cannot leave the badger I sometimes see in our yard. And I absolutely cannot leave this slightly wobbly house.
Particularly when I was a kid, anything a bit unexpected or shocking (which had been until this point in time, mercifully rare) was met with my initial silence. Ridiculous levels of oversensitivity in my younger years provided a highly impractical and wholly ineffective strategy for coping. I kind of just froze up and did nothing if at all possible. Normal reactions include fight, flight, and standing still like an idiot.
The stereo starts its thumping. In this tiny, shut up room, the curtains are closed. The lights are dim but very cozy. There is only room for a desk, a dresser, a small half bookshelf and the bed. Covering nearly all the floor surface area is nothing but pile after pile of albums. For me, this is where I find my lovely ultimate security. It was always warm with the heat from the old amplifier pumping out power to the dusty enthusiastic speakers. Nothing to excite the dust except the pounding woofers. Every time I shift, the unique homemade bed makes a sharp creak that rudely breaks into the silent moment of anticipation that precedes the featured song of choice. Right now it’s “Station to Station.” It begins.
Crunching vinyl. In the safe hands of an audiophile, a very satisfying sound. With the wrong handler, cringe-worthy. I absorb the opening with the approach of the train, then the whistle and the screeching guitar and syncopated alternating chords on the keyboard. All the instruments join together and move to the first tier crescendo. The thumping bass pounds just enough to make my head hum. A very pleasant feeling. A bit like the sliding warmth you get after you start on a delectable pint (which I hadn’t experienced at this juncture). That subtle numbing, a pulling down that always calls for more. Turn it up a little. The sated addict waves goodbye to a vanishing world. Just listen.
There is something very sharp about this song. Who is that on guitar anyway? It goes on and on, builds and changes and builds like it won’t end so you are compelled into its fold. Those raw edges stop stinging and begin to feel satisfying. And of course, you walk around with it in your head afterwards anyway. Reassurance to go.
After hearing a healthy dose of Bowie, I return downstairs to watch a bit of television with my parents. They aren’t talking about anything volatile now. If fact, nothing is said. This is the more acceptable expected state of affairs. Perhaps the plan was my own hallucination. Perhaps it has vanished into someone else’s dream. As a rule, routines around my home are rock-solid stable. As I get accustomed to this, I demand this sameness from the future. Unfortunately for me, that isn’t how life generally proceeds, as my future insists upon striking an antagonistic pose.
After about an hour of the tranquil anglophile murmurs of the BBC, my parents start up again with serious conversation. We will apparently need to reunite with our genealogical connections of which I had no previous knowledge. Back to our surname, as it happens. Is that what this is all about? Our surname is embedded here! Somewhere in faraway Canada, there does not lie a series of gently sloping hills, trickling rivers interrupted only occasionally with a pub and a corner shop. This rural nest spotted with puffs of sheep has always appealed to my quiet sensibilities in fact defined them. Not so much so for Mum and Dad, apparently. I sense an undercurrent of hidden text in their words. Their greatest incentive is almost entirely based on escaping the family we have here at home. The proposed adventure is simply an exchange of old family for a different chunk of genetic matches very far away.
Over the next four to six weeks, my panic came in waves. I could forget about “The Move” for a day or even two at a time and then it would return with a vengeance. I would cry in bed at night and beg my Mum to reconsider. Then Dad would come up to say good night and tuck me in and I would repeat my heartfelt speeches. I was quite an actress really. Not that it was deceptive. My feelings were painfully genuine but I remember being aware of how this ‘performance’ might come off to my parents. Are they buying this? Am I credible? My weak and passive appearance had to persuade them that this could not happen. Who needs adventure when you were in the correct place from the start? If I failed to persuade them with my victim’s role then a more aggressive, litigious approach would have to convince them without doubt.
After that summer had nearly faded into a new school term, everyone was exhausted. Over the past six to eight weeks, we had all stated our positions over and over and finally it was Dad who officially conceded defeat. He wouldn’t quite say “never again” but it was off the table for now. This was perhaps the only year that I did not have any fear returning to school. I embraced it. I was a free agent. I could enjoy my sheep-naming, my bird lists, my friend from down the road. Everything looked mighty fine. Of course, that level of carefree existence didn’t last all that long but still, it was a unique time where nothing was taken for granted. It was a truly happy chapter for me.
I return to this juncture in my early life surprisingly often. I ponder what would have happened to me, to my brother, to my parents in that new land if we had become brave explorers. And as I got older, the fact that some of my family was in Canada was more interesting to me and filled me with wonder. I did in fact visit once on the occasion of Aunt Joan’s funeral in Toronto. I never met her and that still makes me a bit sad. Mum told me all about their lives as kids in Morecambe. The usual trouble that kids get into, the friends they had and the games they played around the pier under the watchful eyes of my grandparents. The Bay used to frighten me as a kid but Mum reported that she and Joan were wholly unaware of its disguised warnings about mortality. Mum insists that my thinking has always been too morbid. And my trepidation tends to limit my options, you could say.
Today is a thoughtful day for some reason, as I revisit my younger self. Overcast skies and gusty winds sweep me to a pensive place. I drive down to the Bay to enjoy its wistfulness and my own. It is just warm enough to walk barefoot in the sand. I walk backwards to watch my growing collection of footprints. I end up out further than I planned, deep in thought. I start to slow as my feet begin to give in to the sand and I find myself more and more submerged. Exactly how far out have I walked? The sky is that deep blue that will suddenly drop to black. I see the lights begin to ignite inside the cozy shops and homes along the Bay. Fewer and fewer people mill about and I let myself sink a bit more, nearly to my knees. Today, this is interesting. I am not feeling any panic. I start to pull my left leg up and out and rest it into a kneeling position while I pull out the right leg. So here I am kneeling in the sand while the dark hovers nearby ready to swallow. I am reminded that it's the biggest change that causes the biggest hurt but it is that very excruciating hurt that can yield top utile results. Push forward.
My cell rings and it wakes me out of the other place I had been. I stumble myself properly upright and quickly pad my way in the direction of the car. It’s my Mum. She wants me to come by for dinner tonight. My brother is coming too, with his wife.
“I can be there in 30 minutes or so. What’s the occasion?” I ask.
“Actually, your Dad and I are thinking of moving to Toronto again. He is ready to take his early retirement. We wanted to talk to you and your brother about it.”
Here is a new prospect. I stay. They go. I pause unsure what to say into the phone.
“I'll be there soon, Mum.”
The moon is visible now. It concedes to reassure me. No matter where we are in the world, it continues to look down, seemingly to fulfill our need for constancy. I arrive back at the car and dry off my legs and feet. An acoustic guitar begins the first song on my shuffled playlist, probably a 12-string. I play myself now, and appreciate the depth of its sound. “...cause I'd rather stay here with all the madmen…” I must learn to play this one when I get back home.
About the author
Kathleen Langstroth has been published in The Radvocate where she was runner up in the So Say We All Literary Prize. Online, she can be found at Cold Coffee Stand, Submittable (guest blog) and The Galway Review. She was shortlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize.