A sheet of A4 is pinned beside the bar. It hangs loose against the stone wall. There’s an image of a four or five year old in an orange sundress. I notice a plaster at the top of her arm.
My eyes flit between the picture and the text – letters done in bold, centred on the page.
Last seen getting into a light coloured van.
I have to back away, shake myself. It’s taken me over three hours to cycle here. I’ve covered two valleys. The wind was so strong that by the end I was hardly moving – peddling hard just to maintain my ground. This poster was the last thing I expected.
I order food, but can’t stop thinking about that little girl. I keep exploring the sickly feeling inside me. Without the van there might be a chance, but its presence is too ominous. There’s also something about the photo. Even when I try to look away, I’m drawn back.
A few years ago I wrote a story that went through various titles. It began as An anniversary of sorts, which sounds like something in a women’s weekly where a neglected wife thinks her husband is only pretending he’s forgotten their anniversary. This is the worst title I could have chosen because it’s actually about a married couple, coping with the disappearance of their son.
The story starts with the mother in her son’s room, twenty years on.
She steps towards the bookcase and runs her finger across Sam’s notepads, which she has read again and again. It’s the doodles in the margins she likes the most – wondrous confessions of boredom, caricatures of teachers whose real faces she has forgotten now. That’s where she finds him, for brief moments each day.
She turns at the sound of footsteps. Malcolm’s head appears, his hand on the banister, drawing him up – that bad leg of his. But, life is not as clear-cut as growing old. As well the things one anticipates, there are the things one doesn’t. She sees girls as young as fourteen on the streets – drunk, or worse – and she wants to grip hold of them, ask them do their mothers know, tell them children can be here one moment and gone the next.
I can’t, she says as Malcolm comes into the room. He’s still holding those paint samples. She gestures to the largest patch of wallpaper where a red train speeds towards her.
I had trouble with this story. My writing group thought the language was decent, but disliked it for treating a subject in a way they didn’t believe.
The idea began, driving through the town where my parents live, seeing the bare interior of a fish and chip shop. I’d imagined a couple bound to this place.
They stare into the dazzling interior of the take-away from the car.
Sam had fish and chips and a coke. That’s what Ray said. Though he wasn’t Ray then, he was just the owner. She has an unusual love for this man who was able to tell the police that Sam turned left out of the door – which is the way to the bus – so that when she lies in bed, listening to the darkness, she can comfort herself that Sam did his best to come home to her that night.
Blue, plastic chairs are scattered around haphazardly. Ketchup bottles are glossy under the striplights, labels stained and peeling. Posters hang limp on the walls, their colours dulling in the greasy air.
It’s odd to be here, isn’t it? she says, and then quickly, wafting her hand: I don’t mean here…or maybe I do. Maybe it’s all odd. Even that word. Odd.
Malcolm kisses her. Are you ready? he asks.
She nods and climbs out of the car. Her breath holds itself briefly about her face, before being pierced and scattered by the rain. They navigate the road together, around puddles that grip the city beneath their slick surfaces, a city that looks up at them, intensely coloured yet distorted.
I wanted to draw that fine line between absolute, raw tragedy, and having to move on, having no choice – simply moving on from the very fact that time cannot be stopped and the days continue, and therefore, somehow, so do you.
But I knew that the story needed something – or lacked something – but it wasn’t possible to know what I was trying to put into words.
Why do you want to write this story? my writing group asked as we went round and round discussing the piece, trying to get at the heart of it.
The urge for a story can come thick and strong even before you know what it’s about. Often, a first draft is a search for what’s there. It can be excruciating, going about in the dark, with only your hands stretched in front, feeling, hoping.
I was experiencing something similar in the pub. There was something of the face of that girl – the painful normality of her round cheeks and tiny chin, the plaster on her arm – which drew me in, yet wouldn’t explain itself.
I thought of her stepping up into the shadows of a van and my body felt grey with dread. The feeling was so deep there were parts I couldn’t reach and name. I couldn’t stop glancing at the poster, overwhelmed by sensations that kept eluding me, yet which I was compelled to interpret. It was exactly the writing process: how we write to fight our way through from confusion into understanding; how consuming that exploration is.
I didn’t know why I wanted to write that story about the grieving couple. It was something of the fact that even though the tragedy of something as powerful as a missing child can fade from the public eye, it will always be vivid for the parents; the agonising jumble of emotions, which change so often yet will always be there, forever changing. Strange, how something in perpetual motion can feel like limbo.
Ray stands by the counter in his apron and cap. She wonders if he dreads their coming as, in a slightly nervous flurry, he asks about the dogs, their golf.
They fill him in.
Retired? he says, glancing at Malcolm.
She is reminded of how, to Ray, they are frozen in time until each visit. Something hovers nearby, something in the corner of her eye.
Are you all right, love? Malcolm asks as she moves to the window.
I’m fine, go on and order.
The road is silent, shop fronts dark, rain splattering. She stares down at the cracks around her knuckles, the loose skin on her wrists, and thinks of her youth, buried beneath posters and newspapers and the sound of children who aren’t hers.
When did we get old? she asks as Malcolm moves towards her.
We’re not old.
We’re not young! she says, adding: I think I thought we could all go back to how it was. One day the phone would ring and we’d all be as we were.
She looks at Malcolm, but he’s staring at the floor.
My writing group said she would never go back there, year in year out, but it was impossible to imagine rewriting the story without that. It was the place I’d marked out for my ‘search’, where I made my discoveries, like the moment the wife suddenly confesses: sometimes I wish Ray would tell us to stop coming here.
Ray is at the table laying down their cartons of fish and chips. She doesn’t remember when he stopped asking whether there’d been any news.
What are you thinking about? Malcolm asks.
That sweet girl. What was her name?
She smiles. That’s right.
Do you remember…Malcolm says, but doesn’t continue and they eat in silence for a while.
Not as good as last year, Malcolm whispers and she grins, touching the corners of her mouth.
Ray! Malcolm says you’re losing your touch.
Ray laughs. Perhaps I should sell up! He stops and gawps at her.
For a moment nobody says anything.
It’s OK, she says finally. You probably don’t remember him.
I remember, Ray says. He was a nice boy.
And words like that will always bring her down. She sees him running across the lawn to her: Mummy, I can go fast! he calls. Mummy, Mummy, look at me!
In the end, they do repaint Sam’s bedroom.
Borrowed Light is the colour they use, and eventually became the title for the story. I think the reason I’d struggled with the title for over a year is because I couldn’t pinpoint what I was writing about. Sometimes those discoveries can come in the most unexpected way. For me, it was looking through a paint sample booklet.
Borrowed Light speaks of how people live after the tragedy of a vanishing. Everything – happiness, the will to live – is on loan because heartbreak has hollowed them out, leaving nothing. A flash of lightness comes, like a gift, but unfortunately pain remains, and will rise up again.
They dress in old clothes and open a tin of Borrowed Light, a bright white with hints of blue and green: the type of colour she imagines Sam imagining himself coming home to. They paint straight onto the wallpaper. After one layer, they stand back and stare at the trains.
It will take three coats, Malcolm says. Maybe four.
Her chest burns at this reluctant yielding. Do you mind? she asks. I’m sorry.
Don’t be silly. It would have been wrong to steam the paper off. Aside from all that scraping and pureed rubbish, it would have been wrong.
He picks up his roller and she gazes around the room, panicked.
How can we do this? If we wait for him every day, every day hope for him to be found – alive – how can we do this? she says. I couldn’t have done this last year, or the year before, or the year before that. Don’t you see? Yesterday this would have been unthinkable!
You mustn’t! Malcolm says, giving her a shake. He’s grown out of this. He wouldn’t want it. That’s all this is about. Nobody’s giving up!
She moves over to the window and looks outside. The sky is an immaculate blue. It’s beautiful. The world is beautiful, and yet she’s sure it shouldn’t be.
There’s a short story by Raymond Carver called What we talk about when we talk about love. In it, two couples discuss what they believe to be love. Terri tells about her ex, dragging her around the living room by her ankles so that her head keeps knocking on things.
I love you, I love you, you bitch, he keeps saying.
What do you do with love like that? she asks the others.
Mel her husband says, that’s not love and you know it.
Then he adds: I don’t know what you’d call it, but I sure know you wouldn’t call it love.
Later, the wife of the other couple says that she and her husband know what love is. But neither of them seems to be able to put it into words.
The story, for me, ends with a powerful sense of how it is to feel deeply, to reach a point in that intensity where we are outside of words, nevertheless drenched in some powerful form of insight.
I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.
It is the experience of this insight that I believe we write about, each draft going deeper, searching more and more thoroughly, until we find the centre, and the words, and our search is over.