Short Story: A Pilgrimage.

Usually getting on a train was something that Sally planned very carefully, but not this time. When she took the first sip of her morning coffee she didn’t know that she would be going anywhere. By the final gulp her decision was made. It was a beautiful summer day with a clear blue sky, the kind of day that made things easy. The kind of day when anything might happen. She put on her soft green dress and comfortable flat pumps, clothes that could go anywhere, packed some toiletries and a change of clothes in her smallest bag and unplugged the kettle. Her mobile phone was placed carefully on the kitchen table where Jonathan would see it and the door was double locked behind her. If he didn’t have his keys when he got in that was not her fault. She left no note. How could she when she didn’t know what to put? She might be running away, or she might not. A note would have made the decision for her and she wasn’t ready for that. All she knew was that she didn’t want to be here any more, looking at the same tired walls. She wanted to be somewhere else. Wherever that was.

It wasn’t easy buying a train ticket when you didn’t know where you were going to get off. There were only two options at Scarborough station. You went down the coast by Northern rail towards Hull, and ended up in Sheffield or you crossed the country by TransPennine express and ended up in Liverpool. She chose the second. More options. A ticket right through to Liverpool- a single- so that she could get off anywhere that she wanted. It was going to cost a bloody fortune but she was in the state that her grandmother used to call “past caring”.

As she settled into a table seat she thought about the fact that nobody knew where she was. Nobody at all. It was a good feeling and she hadn’t felt it for years. She had rarely felt it at all. Mothers, fathers, teachers, husbands, children, work. There was always somebody who knew where you were and usually they were looking for you. Not now. She wasn’t even looking for herself. The pain au chocolat from the station buffet could be eaten without getting complained at and when the trolley came, just after Seamer, she asked for two sugars to be put in her coffee. Bliss. She watched the young guy who sat down opposite her as he got out his ipod. He had a long fringe that needed cutting, soft beard fuzz and a wooly hat and he reminded her of Jack. She didn’t know where Jack was now. Well, not exactly. He had almost finished his third year at university, so he would be in Durham, she knew that much. When they had taken him back to his shared house there had been more stuff in the car than she had ever thought possible and she had realised that he didn’t want them to hang around after it had been unloaded. She had cried about that, but Jack hadn’t seen her do it, which helped. All those teenage years of wanting rid of him and now she’d love to have him back. Her friends were all boasting about their jobless graduates who had come back home to roost………….. some hope. He’d been talking about Singapore. The young man sat back with his eyes closed and a quiet fizz of music drifted out from his headphones. He wasn’t Jack. She watched him intently, slowly changing his features in her mind and giving him Jack’s checked arab scarf to wear round his neck.

A lot of people got on at Malton, all going somewhere, doing something. There was a nice cafe in Malton. She had been there with Jonathan and eaten a slice of Victoria sponge which was even better than her mums used to be. At her mum’s funeral there had been Victoria sponge which had the texture of rubber and she had cried about that as well. Too much crying. She had cried because it had felt like an insult to her mum and she knew that she could never make that right. Nobody could. Her mum’s Victoria sponge was a small part of the world gone forever, along with her mum. It had only been a few weeks she told herself. No time at all. She was bound to be upset still. Getting older was hard, she was just starting to realise that, and it was going to get a lot worse.

When she got out at York, almost without meaning to, she was angry with herself. She had wasted money and it felt like a cop out. Only she could end up running away to York as an adventure- somewhere that she knew like the back of her hand, the place where she had grown up and been to school. Show a bit of imagination for God’s sake she told herself. Get on another train at least. See somewhere new. She looked at the flickering boards showing arrivals and departures. Wakefield- her eager young self pulling a huge case back to college. No fond parents with a car to mollycoddle her back then. Peterborough- where she used to change trains when she first left home. Dismal place. Carlisle- where she used to visit her friend Laura before they moved. She would probably never go there again. Edinburgh- long windswept days of theatre, music, colourful crowds and solitude. It all seemed too much effort. She turned away and merged into the crowds leaving the station. She didn’t even notice the man as he fell in step beside her.
“Excuse me?”
She glanced sideways and smiled. He was a visitor. You could always tell.
“Am I heading in the right direction for the centre of town?”
An American.
“Yes. Just head for the minster.”
He frowned.
“The Minster?”
“The cathedral. It’s big enough.”
Sally pointed and they both grinned. He shook his head.
“Imagine being able to see something like that every single day. History like that.”
Sally had her own history in York. Memories appeared one by one, draped over the white stone of the West front of the Minster- flashbulb memories they called them and it was a perfect name for them- while the man talked on with the cheerful confidence of someone who knows from experience that people will listen. Finally her polite smile sent him on his way. She walked on over Lendal Bridge, pausing to look down at a medieval tiled roof that had always fascinated her and to watch the River Ouse drift beneath the bridge. Faces from the past floated in its grey, wavering depths. Some things in York didn’t change. It was a very different place now, a tourist parody of the place that she had grown up in, but its heart was still beating.

She was hungry now. Almost every Saturday when she was growing up she had been to the fish and chip shop at the end of Petergate with her mother. There was always a queue and when they were finally allowed through into the small cafe at the back they would talk to Pam while she took the order. Pam didn’t need to take the order of course, it never changed, but this was all part of the ritual along with the small pad and stubby pencil and the extra scraps which would be put onto the plate without them being asked for. Crisp crinkly chips. She tried to remember what she and her mother would have talked about. All those hours. Probably nothing. Such a waste. She would have plenty to say now.

Not Petergate anyway, not today. It wasn’t the same any more. Not even the chips. She decided that she would go to Betty’s. Her mother had never allowed them to go in there. She had claimed that it was too expensive but really it was just one more thing that was “not for the likes of us”. Jonathan wouldn’t go in there either, he just said it was “too poncy” but Sally liked it. She liked the hats on the waitresses, the trolley full of tiny cakes, the way you could stare out of the huge windows at the crowds of people wandering across St Helen’s square, the blue mountain coffee, the teapots and the chocolate animals in the shop. Betty’s was a place where you could be looked after without anyone asking any questions, a place where you could be swept back into the past and persuade yourself that nothing bad had happened since 1922. No depression, no second world war, no loss, no pain. An oasis outside time. She needed that.

The coffee was as good as ever. At home there had never been coffee. Well almost never. One sweet syrupy bottle of thick black goo had sat at the back of the cupboard with sticky residue around its neck. It had a Scottish army officer, dressed in a kilt and busby, being served coffee by an Indian servant on the label. She couldn’t remember ever seeing anyone drinking any of it. That was probably just as well. If only she could open that cupboard now and see it there, along with the big glass bottle of sugar, the metal box of oxos and a little tin full of the carnation milk that her grandfather used to put in his tea. She used to have to stand on her own small chair to reach in. Her mother had been different back then. Young, slim and happy. Always out gadding her grandfather used to say. Sally liked the thought of that. It wasn’t how she remembered her mother. That version of her mother was someone that she had never known. The only proof of her existence was a few small black and white photographs. Her real mother- the one that she knew- had become tired and hopeless. At least it hadn’t always been that way. One way or another things changed.

She bit into her scone and watched a family settle into their seats at the next table. They were well off regulars, not visitors enjoying a rare treat. The children were quite small but they were looking at the menus as if they knew exactly what to do, which of course they did. Slowly but surely they were already being given a head start in life, one dainty cake at a time.

Jonathan had changed. Middle age was a time in life when you ended up having to deal with the consequences of things that you really didn’t sign up for. A time when chickens came home to roost. A time when you had to stop running and turn around and face whatever it was that had been chasing you. A time to stop blaming everybody else and pay the bill that life presented you with. Jonathan couldn’t see that yet and his distress was sometimes painful to watch. Sally caught the waitresses eye and mouthed the word “bill”. She came over.
“Was everything all right for you?”
“Lovely thank you. Could I have my bill.”
“Certainly.”
There would be no surprises. It would all cost exactly what they said it would cost and she alone would decide the size of the tip. Everything should be as simple as that.

Sally made her way down Coney Street looking in the shop windows as she went. Bright, beguiling fantasies showing you things that you didn’t need. Another scarf, another necklace, another pair of shoes. This was where she had found her first Saturday job in W H Smiths when it had been a long thin shop crammed with books- a real bookshop in those days. She had come home with piles of books at sale time and her mother had told her not to waste her money on them. Mothers weren’t supposed to say that. Her mother had never understood her, never shared her interests or really been able to appreciate what she had done yet she had still demanded a closeness that Sally didn’t know how to give. Flying the nest hadn’t been about growing up, it had been about survival. Her mother meant well, even in her thoughts Sally always made sure to tell herself that, but it hadn’t helped. She had wanted something from a daughter that just wasn’t there in Sally to give, and what she could have found waiting for her was way beyond her reach. Two people who loved each other and remained dutiful enough to spend a lot of time together had ended up waving at each other from a great distance.

So why was she here? Was she about to turn around and face a demon that had been chasing her? That was hard work, but then so was running. As she walked around the side of the contemporary Art space that had once been St Marys church a sign caught her eye.

The Matter of Life and Death.

The matter of life and death had always been that buildings job but now that God had been ejected and the church had been deconsecrated it was left to Art rather than religion to make an attempt to get people to think. Sally still had no clear idea where her mother had gone but the fact that she might have gone nowhere at all was both too simple and too vast an idea to take in. The few times that she had turned and allowed herself to face that demon she had ended up in a miserable heap. It was best kept at a distance while you still could. There was no way she was walking through the door of that space. Not this time.

She walked up Coppergate through the crowds outside the Yorvik centre. A smiling man dressed as a Viking held out a leaflet towards her. York had once been a real place but now it was reduced to selling a version of its past to visitors. A past which had to be remade, sanitised and packaged until it became bite sized chunks of history for people to stare at for a few seconds as they passed by. Real experience and real joy and pain had become an illusion of smells, sets and words spoken by actors, but were her memories of her real life any different? How did she know, how could she know, whether what she told herself about her own past was true? We all rewrite our own lives to make them more comfortable and build a story that we can live with, a story that excuses our mistakes, magnifies our joys and salves our regrets. It’s how we cope. Bereavement takes away your sense of security in the future, if you can’t rely on the truth of your memories of the past what do you have left?

The present. Of course. She pulled her thoughts back into the reality of a busy summer day as she walked into the open space of parliament street. People were still waiting under Marks and Spencers clock, just as they had always done and the sun was shining. It was time to do what she now realised she had always meant to do. She felt for the plastic card in her pocket anxiously.

You shouldn’t have to go through a checkpoint and pay, or show a card, to get into a place of worship. Whether Sally had a faith or not York Minster was her cathedral church and she had a right to be there at any time that she wanted. So the fact that she was using a dead woman’s free entry card was OK. Absolutely OK. The man sitting behind the desk smiled at her and waved her through without checking the name. She walked out into the nave and sat down in the centre of the great space. It was cool and clean, filled with light pouring down in coloured shafts from the high windows. A still space, with sound muffled by the high roof and the soft stone walls, a space that could swallow people up and lose them in its dark corners and demand silence from even the most jaded of tourists. She was glad that she had used her mother’s card to return because, in a sense, her mother would never leave. This cool air had received her final breaths and the afternoon light sweeping across the solemn figures lined up along the choir screen and illuminating their golden crowns would have been the last thing that she ever saw. Death had come in some style for her mother, rapidly and with only short and sudden pain. The kind of death that everybody would want- eventually. She wanted to do something. You couldn’t pray if you weren’t sure that there was anyone to pray to, but you could light a candle. That was something real.

Sally got up and walked around the edge of the nave and along the side of the choir, examining the faces who stared out from the walls. None of these people had died here, they had all had to pay their way in after death. Her mother’s memory was here by right, and always would be. For the short space of time that a tea light took to burn out this memory would be made visible. She completed her circuit underneath the five sisters window and gazed upwards at one of the most beautiful and ancient expanses of stained glass in the world. Five long thin towers of glass in grey blue tones sprinkled with tiny flecks of red, subtle, abstract patterns which arranged themselves into a set of complex repeating images as you came closer. It was as if the medieval craftsmen had simply thrown up the shards of glass and they had been ordered by God into shimmering perfection. Of course it had actually taken years of hard practical work, persistence and supreme artistry by real people. People who had the same worries, the same hopes and dreams as she had, but who lived in a world with very different rules and very different values. The faces of the men who created it were nowhere to be seen but their heart and soul was clearly visible.

The candle flame took hold and burned among the rest in its rickety black frame to the left of the window. For a few hours the memory of her mother would burn bright alongside that of the anonymous craftsmen. That brief moment was all that Sally had to give her. It was time to go home.

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