Youth was a grand farmhouse on a hill, surrounded by fields of long grass and crops that spread in every direction for miles around, under the clearest blue skies and a strong sun that drove dozy cats into the shade and kept stone walls warm long into the night. It was the air, pure and clear yet thick with a fragrance that lingered on your person. It was distant relatives, or friends of the family, who cooked for large crowds of people from across the valley, elbow to elbow around the kitchen table, shouting and laughing and at peace with one another and with the land they shared. It was young kids stealing kisses in the shade of olive trees and riding bikes alongside the river and newly discovered independence without any of the accountability to come. If it was anything still, it was perfection. The indescribable quality of everything in its right place. Like a blind man basking in the warmth of the unseen fire, fondly felt but never to be seen again. The unspoken but common knowledge that those were better days. The subconscious reaching into the past to grasp meaning yields nothing, instead revealing the same nightly journeys through imagined country, surreal twilight wanderer shambling towards the house, and each visit started in exactly the same way.
A squat man stood labouring in the soil, his sweat dripping onto the very earth he was cultivating, and on approach he stopped and leant on his hoe to listen closer.
Where can I find the old farm?
The man considered the question for a long time. A long time. Then he raised his right arm, a sunburnt arm with thick black hairs, and listed it lazily from north to north-east.
The squat man turned back to his work and did not look up again.
Memories had been formed around the farmhouse but of the surrounding area nothing was certain. Those eyes have changed with responsibility and the irreversible damage of age. As vivid greens were now dull browns and once lush and fertile fields were barren and forgotten. Sand coloured dust tracks were gone and in their place printed tyre treads in the mud. Faraway pylons stood defiant and tremendous in scale, their lines powering the little specs of light in the valley. Would it still exist? The building, but more specifically the feelings it once evoked. If not for him then for some other family, a generation of descendants linked not by blood but by land.
On the horizon, the distant shape of the farmhouse grew and it became clear the place had long been abandoned. Approaching slow in a void silent, interrupted now and then by the whistle of the wind passing through broken windows, and creaks from disjointed frames. Inside the layout was as it had been but the atmosphere was not. It was alien to him. The air held dust, musty and close. Brown wilted ivy and vines crawled over walls and overturned furniture, and paintings and picture frames lay where they had fallen. The people once captured within them blurred out, lost to time. Or escaped. It was impossible to tell how many people had lived in this house after him. To recall its past appearance caused nausea and vertigo, and the walls seemed to pulsate gently. Memories that had never been defined by time felt old and devalued. Nostalgia replaced by loneliness. Leaving the house, he walks out into the dry fields under sporadic shadows of dead and dying trees, and downed tools lay rusting in the soil.
There was still something beautiful to be gained in the isolation, something beautiful hidden in the desolate ruins, and slowly some of the colour began to seep back into the world, but still it felt hollow. And the unintelligible whispers of dead relatives spoke to one another. Of the fond memories that would have been shared? Something like that. And then, clearer: It wasn’t cold here. It was never this cold.
He wakes up.
He delivers papers now. Newspapers and parcels and postcards from far-off places. The city exhausted him, although the war laid the groundwork, so fifteen years later he left and never looked back. They asked him what he could do – he told them since the war his head didn’t work too good, but his back and hands were still strong. They gave him parcels and packages to deliver and the townsfolk took a shine to him, so they gave him the mail too. Now he knows everyone here on first name terms, and he likes that. That’s something you just don’t get in the city.
Some months ago, he gets up early and takes off in his van with the mail, at his own pace as he has always, never driving over twenty, and by midday he is nearly done. It is raining steadily, but he doesn’t mind because it doesn’t rain much here, and God knows the garden is crying out for rain. He has some letters for an old couple on the outskirts of town, their relationship is one of quiet but mutual respect, and he swings open the gate and walks up to the front door. The front door is already open and the old fella is sat on the porch, his shirt off and his eyes closed. He approaches the old man, who is soaked through and shaking, and asks him what’s going on. The old man says that his wife died yesterday. She’s still sat in her chair, says the old man. Placing his sack of letters on the porch, the mailman walks into the kitchen and peeks into the living room. And there she is, slumped back in her chair. He goes back outside and brings the old fella in, gets him a towel and a fresh shirt, then calls the ambulance. When they arrive, he gives his condolences once more, reluctantly says goodbye to the old man, and returns to finish his round.
The following morning the old man is on the porch again, but this time he has a shirt on and the front door is closed. He says morning to the old man and the old man says morning back. Together they stand there for a moment, the old man on the porch, the mailman on the grass. The old man regretfully tells him he will have to cancel delivery of the local paper; not only that, but any letters or mail to be left in the steel box at the top of the drive, not brought to the house. Why not? the mailman asks, clutching his sack of letters with slumped shoulders. It’s nothing personal, the old man tells him, but I can’t bear to see you anymore. You remind me of her. The mailman says ok, he understands, and regards the old man for the last time. Something pains him for the rest of the day, and that evening, and when he gets into bed alone and tries to close his eyes. He tells himself he is okay, but he is not okay. He sees her obituary in the paper a few days later. He’d like to go to the funeral but he thinks it would probably be a bad idea, so the mailman stays at home and drinks whisky instead.
He is grateful to lead a simple life but he will never be as happy as he wants to be. He doesn’t like to remember that he used to shoot a rifle at men his own age, but he has to remember these things because he is scared of what might happen if he doesn’t. Things are better now, generally, he believes. But if he is to dwell on the past he prefers to remember his youth. He remembers his youth fondly. He visited his sister last week. Her memories of childhood are different to his. She recalls people over places, actual events over the broader sensations he feels. Birthday parties, trips to the coasts, bike rides and picnics. He remembers some of this too, but he craves the carelessness, the happiness, the togetherness. He watches his sister when she reminisces, she laughs, she smiles, she feels ‘nostalgic’. He reads up on nostalgia, finds a definition: a pleasant remembrance of past events.
He acknowledges the dreams, now a nightly occurrence, instead of repressing them, he tries to write down what happens and how it makes him feel but the finer details are lost in a sleepy fog. Sometimes he thinks of these dreams when eating breakfast, in the shower, at the convenience store, walking back from the bar. There is little he can truly understand or interpret, but in the dreams, he knows he is not a kid. He is old, irrelevant and fading out of existence. His sister feels nostalgia but this is not nostalgia, he thinks. This is sadness, some unwanted and uncontrollable sentiment.
When he left the army, he was told not to dwell on the past, or you’ll miss the present. His head was in pieces and over time he has been putting it back together again. He has lost a thousand moments in a blind attempt to cling onto something already long gone. Somewhere he took a wrong turn and in his hands, he holds shattered shards that don’t fit anymore, and he has the same dream every night.
“No Tom I need to get back.”
“One more. Can’t expect me to drink here on my own Bill”
“Are you up delivering letters in six hours? Damn you I said no.”
“Tracy? Beautiful? Two more please and thank-you.”
Two men are slumped at the bar on two wobbling stools. It is approaching twelve on a Wednesday night and under the dimming bar lights they speak into each other’s faces like long lost brothers retelling bawdy encounters of their youth, breath reeking of whisky and cigarettes but neither knows nor cares. Through the veil of smoke a heavily tattooed woman peers at them from behind the bar, observing their robotic movements and slurred speech. She fixes up two fresh whiskies and places them directly in front of them. As if encouraging self-reflection through the dark liquor. The mailman takes a sip from his drink then speaks.
“We need to stop drinking so much. This stuff is mind eraser, I don’t remember half the shit we talk about anymore.”
“Lucky for you”, the woman behind the bar says distantly, but they can’t hear her.
“We’re doomed to repeat ourselves in this same bar, every night, for the rest of our lives.” All his friend can do is burp. He continues. “I don’t get is how it only erases the short term. l have no recollections of what’s been said here tonight but when I get home, I remember where I hid the key, remember to take my meds, remember to call for the cat.” He coughed. “Need to leave the top window open so she don’t shit everywhere.”
The friend, his name is Tom, pipes up. “Well Bill that’s your subconscious. Like muscle memory. You need to drink a skinful to override that. Besides, it can’t erase the long term thank God. Even I’d try and cut down if that were the case,” Tom picks up his tumbler and swills the whisky around, watching it close in case it disappears, then continues, “but as it is, we got a pretty good arrangement I think. None of the recent stuff is important anyway. I fear the day I lose my memories. That’s the day I’ll end it.”
The mailman considers this. “I think if drink could make you forget even the older stuff I’d be all for it. And then the beautiful Tracy here would have the pleasure of seeing me every night. Ain’t that right Trace.”
“Sure Billy.” The waitress says amicably.
“But why would you want to go and do that?” Tom asks. He puts the tumbler down and his hand on his friend’s shoulder.
“What about all those good times? Sometimes that’s all that gets me through the day.”
“Well maybe not all. Maybe if you could pick and choose what you could erase.”
“Well sure Billy but I think it’s important, all of it. For instance, Jane was a real bitch, and she wrung me out and hung me out to dry. That’s not much fun to remember I admit. But she was my wife once, and there were some good times. Not many admittedly but they were there. I think you got to remember the good and bad, don’t you? That’s how you learn.”
“Hey Trace, come over here a minute. Come enlighten some old drunks”
She is tired and the night has been long and she doesn’t feel like talking with drunks. But these two are nice enough. Rough around the edges but ultimately harmless. She approaches.
“I’ve been thinking,” he asks her, “what’s the best reason people give you for getting flat out drunk?”
She looks at him with caution, wondering if she needs to get into another inane discussion on another night with these two reprobates. The bar is quiet. She takes the bait.
“Well we get a lot of people flat out drunk in here. Present company included.”
The two men nod with simple smiles.
“People drink to celebrate. To feel better. To forget things. To make other things easier.”
“What other things?”
“Well drinking makes a lot of things easier. Talking to other people. Sex. Sleep. I’ve heard some people swear they think better after they’ve had a quart of whisky but I’ve never seen evidence of that myself.”
“Interesting,” Tom mumbles into his glass.
“What things do these people want to forget?” The mailman asks.
“Oh Billy where do you start? People have a shit day, they drink. They get in a fight with their lover, they drink. They get a parking ticket, lose their job, can’t pay the bills – they drink.”
“Tracy you ain’t exactly making this drinking lark sound good. Maybe we should stop hey Bill?”
The mailman remains solemn. “Do you think it ever works?”
“No. You can’t escape your problems that easy, drink or no drink.”
“Well,” His mind is slow now. The drink has him, it has both of them. “What about people who drink to create new memories?”
“Well yeah you get those too. I’d say that’s probably the healthiest reason to drink.” She looks around the bar. One swaying drunk drops change on the floor trying to operate the jukebox. Another is passed out in the corner of a booth, eyes shut, mouth agape. The door open to the night, the occasional cheer of excited groups of young people floats in off the street, heading off to younger bars and newer clubs downtown. No one is creating new memories here though, she thinks. She leaves them at the bar to attend the sleeping man in the booth. For a while the men sit in silence and one has a head full of ideas waiting to be realised and the other thinks about nothing, yet neither is happier than the other. After several minutes have passed the mailman tells Tom about his dream again.
“The dreams about where you grew up?”
“I told you before?”
“Maybe. It rings a bell. Tell me again, I can’t really remember.”
“Not much to tell. I’m walking towards the farmhouse, until I get there, then I wake up.”
“That sounds nice Billy.”
“It should be but it’s not. Everything is different. Worst thing is – when I’m dreaming – all the while I’m aware of what it used to be like. When I was young. But in the dream, it’s not like that at all.”
“What is it like?”
“I’m not sure. It’s empty, and cold.”
Tom chuckles. “You’re killing me Bill. That’s some deep shit. I guess that comes with age, you old goat.” Tom slurps the last of his whisky and looks around for Tracey. “I’ve been thinking of selling everything I’ve got and retiring out in the sticks. Somewhere real quiet. Just me and the country. If you’re homesick why don’t you move back to where you grew up? Nothing stopping you.”
The mailman speaks into his glass. “I ain’t homesick.”
“Sure you are. We all get nostalgic at times. You said it yourself, you haven’t been back since you left as a kid. Go track down any family you might have left, visit your old place.” Tom pauses to rub his eyes and exhales deeply. “All this talk is sobering me up Bill. One for the road?”
He is scared, the mailman, as he sips his drink and stares blankly into space. Return home, to the place in the dreams? He imagines the scenario of such a return, reenacting the very steps of the repeated dream, but instead of waking up he remains standing under those dead and dying trees, unable to move, crushed under the pressure of his warped memories, fulfilling some archaic prophecy, meeting death amidst the withered crops to spend the rest of eternity discussing the past with dead relatives. The idea flirts with his inebriated mind but he shakes his head. It is hopeless. He lets out a deep sigh.
“Alright, one for the road.”
Nicholas J. Parr lives on Guernsey, a small island in the English Channel. A former student of architecture, he recently rediscovered lost passions from his youth: reading and writing stories. His first short story was published in 404 INK in December 2016, and having just returned from six months travelling through Central and South America, he is hoping to continue writing fiction, drawing on his experiences of places visited and people met.
Five Questions with Nicholas J. Parr:
TD: Tell us a little about this story? Where did the idea come from?
NJP: I wrote the first part of this story, the dream sequence, over a year ago. But without context, what’s the use of an isolated dream? So, I returned to it months later, to expand on the bittersweet nature of the dream, and explore who might be experiencing such thoughts. I discovered a character tormented by, but desperately clinging onto, the fading memories from his youth, and his slow realisation that these memories are ebbing away, soon to be lost forever.
TD: Who is your greatest writing influence?
NJP: Roberto Bolaño, Cormac McCarthy and Franz Kafka.
TD: What is your favorite place to write and why?
NJP: Anywhere quiet with access to coffee is fine with me.
TD: Favorite word?
NJP: Kalopsia: the condition, or delusion, in which things appear more beautiful than they really are.
TD: Do you have a favorite reading ritual?
NJP: No rituals as such – at the moment, I’m just focused on working my way through a daunting backlog of books to be read…