The Girl On The Swing by Ali Cooper
It takes a while for my eyes to adjust then gradually I see it.
It is a garden of high summer. Where hollyhocks turn their faces to the sun. Where oriental poppies, full and red, grow taller than I have ever seen. Where roses twist and turn over timber archways. Where delphiniums reach from their hiding places to erupt in a surprise of iridescent blue.
I pause and half close my eyes while I digest the scene before me, then I return.
At the edge of the borders pinks spill out across pathways and white alyssum creeps between flagstones. There is a lawn sprinkled with daisies, ready to be picked and threaded into chains, and, in its centre, an old apple tree that groans as though pained by arthritic joints and aching limbs. On the lowest branch of this tree, a rope is looped, its ends knotted through a wooden seat. And here a young girl sits, swaying to and fro, kicking her legs as her lace-edged petticoats ripple in the breeze.
I have been the spectator but now I join the game. I feel the warmth of summer on my skin. I smell the sweetness of honeysuckle and the soporific lure of lavender. I feel the rope, rough against my fingers as I cling on tightly and urge my body to fly higher. I ignore the heat of the dress and pinafore and the tightness of the laced up boots. Instead I savour the joy of childhood and lose myself in a carefree moment.
I don’t know how long I am there. I am in a place where time has no meaning. The motion makes me dizzy and I close my eyes for a second. The warmth drains away and is replaced by an autumnal chill. The scent of flowers dissolves into the moist air. When I open my eyes the garden has gone. In its place is a gravelled yard with artistically placed palms and agaves in Italianate pots. The collage of flowers has become an intense green backdrop of ornamental conifers. The house, too, has changed. Casement windows have been obscured by an out of place lean-to conservatory, and bricks, previously a bright terracotta, are stained dark and ugly with the residues of mining and exhaust fumes. High on the wall, one thing remains the same; a clay plaque announces that the building is called Kimberley Place.
I stand on the grass verge, peering through a knothole in a tall wooden fence. I take a moment to return to the present. Then I hurry to my car and drive away, before anyone sees me, before a worried neighbour fears that I am a crazy person and calls the police.
But I know I am not mad. I used to live in this very house many years ago, in a previous lifetime, when I was the girl on the swing.
Stately arpeggios greet me as I open the front door. They are not fluid, rippling like water, but sombre footsteps, striding up and down the keyboard. I start, guiltily. I hadn’t expected Richard to be home yet. I hang my jacket and scarf in the cloakroom and swap my outdoor shoes for a pair of ballerina-style pumps. The music continues. It takes more form now. Beethoven, I think, lost and mournful. That’s all Richard seems to play these days.
In the morning room I try not to squeak my shoes on the polished floorboards. Beyond the shadows, Richard sits at the grand piano, man and music silhouetted in the backlight of the low, slanting afternoon sun that spears through the French windows. He doesn’t acknowledge my presence but plays on, as I know he will, to the end of the piece. His concentration is intense. His fingers move over the keys as precisely as if they were cutting through a chest wall or cannulating a blood vessel and he will not pause until the last suture is in place.
At last the music comes to an end. Richard looks up as he lingers over the final resounding chord. His dark eyebrows rise questioningly.
‘I’ve been out walking,’ I say, as though I have to account for my movements. I don’t tell him where I’ve been, or why. It isn’t a secret exactly, but rather an indulgence that I keep covetously to myself, like a box of Belgian chocolates or a bath scented with exotic oils. Besides, if I told Richard the truth he’d only worry about me. And he already has enough to think about.
He is silent for a few moments, looking away from me as he rehearses words that I will not want to hear. ‘I thought we could eat out tonight,’ he suggests.
‘Oh! Do you think we should?’ My answer flies back abruptly, impulsively. I am surprised, frightened even, at the prospect. Apart from a couple of informal dinners at the homes of close friends, we haven’t eaten out for months. Eating out is a celebration. And there’s been nothing to celebrate.
He persists. ‘It would save you having to cook. And I’m not on call. Perhaps we should take the opportunity.’
I hesitate, caught off guard. I fumble for a reason to stay in. I tell myself this is not the same as an excuse not to go out. ‘There’s steak in the fridge,’ I say. ‘And salad.’
Richard pretends he hasn’t heard. ‘It’s difficult for me too.’ He feels his way cautiously. ‘But we have to carry on living. We have to resume a normal life before we forget how.’ He doesn’t look at me as he speaks; instead he busies himself folding away his music.
‘I have a headache,’ I lie. ‘Perhaps another time.’
Richard stares at me now. He is a clever man, a doctor of medicine as, indeed, am I, but despite his qualifications and experience there are times when he doesn’t know what to do, doesn’t know what to say. On this occasion he doesn’t even try. ‘There are some journals I should read,’ he says. ‘I’ll be in my study.’ And with this he rises and walks past me without a glance. His footsteps resound decisively on the stairs.
The kitchen is an extensive room, too large for its purpose, too large for two people to be together. I take the skillet from the hook and scan the spice rack, pondering the possibility of a marinade. Then I select a recipe book from the shelf and begin to turn the pages. I can allow myself to relax now. Slowly I breathe out as I hug the safety of the Aga rail. Set in an alcove close to the window, it is a warm reassuring place to be. I can turn my back on the cupboards full of dinner settings that will never be used, the ridiculously long family breakfast table and the cold unnecessary space that still remains, and pretend that I am in a farmhouse, essential and familiar, with a dog, alert on the rug and a cat sleeping on an old winged armchair. I glance at the pictures of exquisite food without digesting the words. The instructions to chop, grind, sauté and blanch scare me with their demands for perfection. Microscopic surgery would be easier. I close the book in defeat, remembering that I used to enjoy cooking – though I rarely seemed to have time to do it justice.
Tonight, I feel I must make an extra effort, having denied Richard the chance to go out. He doesn’t understand how I feel. For a woman, providing food is a necessity, a reason for her to exist; eating out is a luxury. For a man, a meal in a restaurant is simply functional, it is a way of acquiring food and assuaging hunger. I think about what happened earlier this afternoon. For some reason that luxury is allowable.
It was over twenty years ago that I first discovered Kimberley Place. We had recently moved to Nottingham, Richard and I, we were newly married, newly qualified, taking up our first posts as junior doctors, getting used to the roles of husband and wife. It was by chance that I found it. I was lost. I’d turned off the M1 at the northern junction and, trying to circumnavigate road works, had wound my way around the outer edge of town. I remember how I pulled over, first to look at the map, then to ask the way. If I hadn’t got out of the car I wouldn’t have noticed it at all. But it was right outside that house that I stood on the footpath and tried to concentrate as a kindly old gentleman traced his finger across the road atlas that I held between us. There was a sparse hedge back then and I could easily see into the garden. I tried to focus on the directions the man was describing, but out of the corner of my eye I was aware of time slipping away, of decades, centuries of change unravelling. That was when it came to me, a flash of memory. It wasn’t just the sight but the sounds and smells of the past, the whining of the branch as the swing pulled to and fro, the laughter of childhood. My laughter. I had been lost but now I was found.
‘Will ee be all right?’ The man’s voice had pulled me back to the present. I’d nodded, smiled, thanked him for his help. Then, with a nostalgic glance at the modern garden beyond the hedge, I’d climbed into the car and driven home.
We lived in Wollaton back then. Our house was a semi-detached in a comfortable residential area, where calm crescents and cul-de-sacs gave onto avenues lined with cherry trees. I sigh to myself. I still hanker after the pink-blossomed, Japanese-scented springtime. When I arrived home that day I had plenty to busy myself with. I didn’t think much about what had occurred. And that’s how it would have stayed. How it always had before. Because, in the past, that sort of feeling had only ever happened with people I would never see again or places to which I would never return.
I might have forgotten about it, what with the rush of a new job, a new marriage and the surprise, not long after, of an unplanned, though not unwelcome, pregnancy. But chance took me there again six months later, when I made a social call just a couple of roads away. And I couldn’t resist it, just a quick look. And this time I saw it all, the girl, the flowers, the garden. I was overwhelmed by the happiness of that child. Or was I? At the time I was overwhelmed with love for my own, as yet, unborn child. The two events became linked together. I remember feeling a pull, a yearning to live more of that life. I felt sure I would want to go back. But then Jamie was born and of course that changed everything. I had all the things I could possibly want right there in the present. I had no reason to return.
I glare at the book and replace it on the shelf then I take a red pepper and an avocado from the trug, and cucumber, spring onions and an iceberg lettuce from the salad box in the fridge. Chopping them will be therapeutic.
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