by Mike Fox
I’M GOING TO do this because of what I’ve come to realise: that all my life I’ve left bits of myself behind. And because now, much of the time, I don’t even know what they are, or were. They reveal themselves not as whole memories but as remnants of circumstance and vague notions of loss, that nevertheless ache so much they must once have attached to something true and definite.
Because of this, life, for me, has not been an accumulation of skills, assets or love—more a series of sheddings, although that makes it sound as though I had a say in what was being shed. It hasn’t felt like that: it has felt as if things were taken from me simply because I could no longer hold onto them. As a result I am what I am now: different from last year, last week, yesterday. So I will write this diary, not as if I’m the person I was—that chance has gone—but as the person who could somehow have once been like that.
Maybe it’s mistaken to call what follows a ‘diary’. How can fragments of entries with approximate dates, covering events occurring almost five decades ago, that indeed took place in no more than a six-week period, be described as such? Perhaps because they contain random moments that, even now and despite everything, seem to grow in resonance. And perhaps because, however partially they are remembered, they became the template that shaped my life.
Late July 1970—I still think of the day as some sort of idyll. School summer holidays must have begun, because there was nothing specific to do. No-one was afraid of the sun then. We could stay out in it all day. I went to the park with Ed, one of those transient adolescent friends who come and go without leaving much behind. Except, when we’d rowed on the small boating lake, got ourselves banned for staying on the water too long, messed about on swings for which we were already too old,then generally grown bored, he suggested calling on Glenys. ‘She’s nice,’ he said. I seem to think that he had once gone out with Glenys, but at that point her name was new to me. I had no idea I was about to meet my first girlfriend.
In retrospect, the next two hours have a dream-like quality. The picture in my mind suggests that Glenys lived in a neat pebble-dashed house with a side entrance and small gardens front and back. We reached it via a pavement that ran at ninety degrees between two parallel roads. Somehow, on that day, this gave the sense of immediately leaving the town streets for a space that was more contained and private. Perhaps the gardens might have been fringed with hedges, which would have added to the effect. Perhaps not.
Strangely, disconcertingly, I remember only two more things. First that she was very slender, dark-haired, and pale in a way that now makes me wonder if she was anaemic. Secondly, that at some point later any distance between us had melted and, before we said goodbye, she kissed me in a way that almost made me lose consciousness. And Ed wasn’t there anymore.
Circa 1st August—I know there was a gap before I saw her next. Perhaps she went away on holiday. We must have arranged to meet because the next image I have is of myself standing at her front door, literally on the threshold, as if my life had suddenly opened to entirely new possibilities. Or is this something I’ve come to believe in retrospect, because of how things unfolded?
She introduced me to her mother, who looked so unlike her I could make no connection between them. Her father couldn’t have been there on that occasion. Soon after we were climbing the stairs to her bedroom. I recall being astonished that her mother seemed to think nothing of our going there alone on what was effectively a first date. It wouldn’t have happened in my home, where Catholicism and Methodism co-existed uneasily and fifteen was not automatically deemed an innocent age.
After that, once again, my memory grows less exact. If this is the way the mind seeks to protect itself, it doesn’t work. I’m left with a sense of something so deep and intimate it could never be repeated, and yet I have no framework on which to hang this. I do know that even then I was in love with her, the sort of love that comes once and has no previous reference points. Almost certainly we spent an innocent evening together. But if there is such a thing as emotional virginity, I lost mine that evening.
3rd August, perhaps—I now understand she was trying to escape something and, however improbably, saw me as a conduit away from it. It would have been impossible for me to realise that at the time, although as soon as she’d seen her, my mother said: ‘That girl wants to get married’ which seemed the most stupid thing I’d ever heard. My world was so much smaller then. My mother didn’t try to prevent me from seeing her at that point, but she made her lack of approval plain.
6th or 7th August—I have a simple physical memory of Glenys lying across my lap on the sofa in her parents’ living room, her head in the crook of my right arm. I can feel her there now. Both her mother and father must have been out at work. Something had happened between us. I was elated but also disturbed. I’m almost sure we had made love for the first time that afternoon. Almost. Everyone says it’s something you never forget.
Circa 3 days later—The next memory always comes with musical accompaniment, an earworm song about a date gone wrong that was going around at the time. If I hear it now I immediately see us sitting, not quite together, on a park bench with no-one else around. Glenys is explaining to me why she had suddenly gone missing a couple of nights before. ‘Mum and Dad are separating once I finish school.’ I see myself lost for a response because I have no idea what it would feel like to be in that position. The police had been called and she’d been found in a launderette that stayed open all night. They’d interviewed me and there had been a search. After that, my parents, together, forbade me to see her anymore, so now we were meeting in secret. I think this experience was the first time I glimpsed what it is to feel powerless in the face of a wider world.
August 15th—It seems strange now that we could leave our home and go anywhere we chose, but of course it was normal then. London suburbs were villages. Everyone knew you, everyone had an opinion about you. That was thought of as safety. But if you went beyond a mile radius, even half a mile, you could quickly become anonymous. The summer was hot—there was no need to be indoors. We entered a private world together and found places to be alone.
And no-one checked on us. Perhaps my parents assumed that I would do as I was told. They could mostly expect that of me—my first instinct then was to obey any form of authority. Perhaps her parents were too worn down by the prospect of divorce to take a sustained interest in where she was and what she did, even after what had happened. So I suppose you could call what we had freedom. It’s odd to think that. No wonder I feel distanced from the past. We all are.
Anyway. She knew of a small wooded area backing onto a municipal golf course, the sort of redundant space that would be built over now. We reached it by an overgrown path that threaded alongside a steeply sloping waste ground, beyond which stood a block of private flats. As I write, the day I’m thinking of becomes the present moment. I lie beneath her, on the clothes we have spread on the ground in a tiny hidden clearing. I am inside her and she is pressing down on me, jerkily and insistently. Beyond her face, which is tightened into an expression I can’t read, is the clear sky, laced with branches. I’m afraid I’m hurting her. I’m afraid. As she arches her back and presses harder her face seems as far away as the sky. I put up my hands to try to make us still for a moment, but she doesn’t stop until I come. Then she lifts herself off immediately and lies beside me, separate, and for several minutes we say nothing. I feel locked within my senses, alone. Somehow I know she does too. I never thought sex would be like this, but then I’d had only what I could imagine for comparison. Perhaps I thought it would be like that first kiss.
End of August—‘We can’t do it today, I came on this morning.’ I remember her saying this matter-of-factly, although something in her voice suggested disappointment, even blame. Possibly fifteen days had passed, and I have no detailed sense of what they might have contained, except that our time together had become aimless, and that the flavour of this feeling has never left me. I knew by then that she was not getting whatever it was she wanted from our being together, and that very quickly everything had changed. I have always hated it when people say ‘intimacy’ when they mean sex. They’re different. We had one, then the other, and now both were almost gone. There’s a point—I had reached it—when you can anticipate loss with a certain relief. But it doesn’t last.
Circa 6th September—The last week of the summer holidays. I had been going to her house, following her round, doing whatever she wanted to do. She didn’t try to stop me and I noticed she had become vaguely kind, in the way that it’s easy to be when you have ceased to invest in another person. We barely touched now, as if we’d split into two distinct entities, palpably isolated from one another.
I’m left with only two clear memories of these final days, but they’ve come to define everything I think of when Glenys enters my mind. She wanted to visit her sister Megan, several years older and newly married, in the flat she was renting. Of course I tagged along. Megan had never made any sort of fuss about our being together. She was unhurried and careful, an ally, a person you could trust to keep secrets. In my first memory I was standing in her kitchen while she made a pot of tea. Glenys had gone to the shops to get some milk. I can’t remember what we were talking about, except that a point came when she looked at me directly and said, ‘Try not to take things too personally. Try not to take it to heart.’ She had knowing eyes, the sort that suggest they understand more about you than you do about yourself.
‘Has she said anything to you?’ I asked.
‘No,’ she said, ‘but I know her.’ At that point Glenys returned.
The next memory, more than any other, I wish I didn’t have. It’s of Glenys’ face pressed next to the face of a much older man. I see them both looking at me smirking, getting a message across. Perhaps that’s what she felt our situation needed: a full stop that no-one could mistake. Even me.
So that was the end. Of course I stayed away, physically at least. But I thought of her all the time, and I heard things. She didn’t return to school when the holidays ended. They had gone off travelling somewhere together. When they came back they were married and she was pregnant. She could only just have turned sixteen.
It’s difficult to explain what happened to me next. Is it possible to lose your ability to connect with the world? Perhaps that’s the wrong way to describe it. I could still see, hear, smell, taste, touch. It was more that a way of reaching out had gone. To reach out you need trust, or at least hope, in the thing you reach for.
This absence has never left me. The crucial matters of life remain mostly beyond my grasp, and even those I manage to catch I can’t hold onto. I see now that the past has no need to explain itself; no-one can rebuild a tree from fallen leaves.
In my mind Glenys lives in the context of that summer, in my childhood town. I can imagine her in no other time or place. And a part of me is left there too, along with a sense that nothing, however I might seek to describe it, could be other than it was.
Mike Fox’s stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His stories Breath and Outliving the Muse (Fictive Dream), and Blurred Edges (Lunate Fiction), gained Pushcart Prize nomination. His story The Homing Instinct (Confingo), was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story The Fun Police (Fictive Dream) was listed in Best British and Irish Flash Fiction (BIFFY50) 2019-2020. His story Voices (Ayaskala) was nominated for Best of Net 2020. His story, The Violet Eye, was published by Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook.
Connect at www.polyscribe.co.uk or @polyscribe2.