We walk to the harbour bay in the drizzle, like I did so long ago when I was twenty something and you were just a twinkle in a future I was walking towards. We’re now thirty and two and the ghosts are an accumulative one-hundred-and-eighty-nine. I used to keep track of their ages in the back of my diary, wedged fat with receipts and post-it notes.
This harbour is not the same as the one I lived by so long ago, with its vast vanilla flatness, the narrowness of the sea on the horizon – you had to run a mile to reach it. Salt would find my tongue and I would lick my hands all evening, finding each tiny speck of it. I could have wrung my hands over a chicken supper and seasoned it beautifully.
You run now towards the decking with the rocks you’ve painted in the hope someone will paint you back. The ghosts behind me mutter to themselves and I sip at the fresh air, tasting sweetness now rather than salt; what keeps you going changes.
‘I can see fish!’ You cry and I marvel at how I can’t see them and you must have really good eyes. Who am I to judge what is and isn’t real? If you could only see behind me, maybe we’d understand each other better. The sea brings us all together.
It’s was always cats I sensed first. Even at night when you were sound asleep and your father kept snoring and my earplugs were wedged in – I would always find them loose in the bed come morning – I felt them enter the room. Padding paws and the scratch of their claws as they knead my ribs. I could reach out into the darkness and remember how they felt, the softness of their fur and where they loved to be petted. Your father never understood what having a pet could mean, the last cat died the year the I met him.
They are closer to you than many human relatives. They don’t judge. They don’t break away when you are sobbing. There is an innocence to that kind of love. I guess that’s why we have babies over and over, it’s the same kind of love, basic and instinctual, until they learn to talk and set the terms.
‘I’m going to be a dancer!’ You jump up and down on the decking, your trainers flashing bright pinks and purples. ‘Look at my twinkly lights!’
Yeah twinkly lights that cost £30.00 a time, I want to say. But I smile and I watch. It’s Nana who comes next, she died before any of them, but she doesn’t like to impose by coming first. She didn’t live like that, so why change? She’s faded and fuzzy round the edges, but her rusty-red beehive wafts about her head and her smile is also just so, her M&S plain jewellery always polished. Mine discolours with lack of use. Having a kid means you spend the first six to eight years wearing nothing they can choke you with. Nana forbid us to see her three weeks before the cancer forced an early goodbye, that’s why she’s fuzzy but also why she’s smartly dressed. We recorded a message for Mum to play at her bedside, my brother and I. Something cheerful and stupid.
You dance around and around in circles and wave, ruddy-cheeked from the wind and sparkling in the rain. It’s nice here, your Dad picked a good spot. Southampton where old and new mingle with the tramps and the druggies, but with enough students to keep independent shops open and the local art scene buzzing. The house is a terrace brick with two bedrooms and a big kitchen, which he doesn’t use but I always wanted.
Grandad comes next and I begrudgingly acknowledge his presence. I want to remember him as funny and fierce and riding me around in a wheelbarrow as a kid, or playing pirates in wine boxes while he marked his student’s papers. But it’s the old fat man on crutches, sagging with the weight of his ego, dragging himself onwards. He killed himself with pride in the end, poisoning his body with fatty food and inactivity. I still can’t forgive him for what he put us through. But the ghosts that follow don’t hear your thoughts or resentments, they just wander ever on after you.
‘Daddy! Come look! A ladybug!’ You cry, looking up shore where he lags behind with your paternal grandparents and aunt.
We’ll go to a pub after this, somewhere with simple, unfussy food. A meat and two vegetables establishment, and begrudgingly has a vegan option at the bottom corner of the menu.
‘She looks just like you’ Nana mumbles. ‘Little bit of your Gran in there too.’ Gran isn’t here, my memory wasn’t strong enough to keep her with me. But I’m sure Nana can see her and her father, maybe her aunts and their husbands. Grandad can see his parents, who I never met, and they could see theirs, so on the chain of ghosts continues. ‘Daddy!’ You pick up the rock with the ladybug painted on and run through me, forgetting me in your fun. I watch as you race up to your Daddy and hear him laugh over the rock, but the laugh has a shallowness to it, just skipping over the tears still just below the surface.
I know it won’t be long before I go fuzzy too.
Haley Jenkins (she/her/hers) is an experimental poet & writer living in Surrey, UK. Her debut book ‘Nekorb’ was published by Veer Books in 2017 and she runs Selcouth Station Press. In her spare time she procrastinates, seeks to lower her plastic waste, drinks far too much tea and adds to her quirky sock collection. She is honoured to have been published in many journals/magazines.