You think you know your own history, then a moment passes and something you’d closed down long ago and almost forgotten returns from exile. The catalyst to the retrieval of the memory isn’t always obvious. It might be seconds of someone else’s conversation you hear as you overtake them crossing the road; it might be an advertising billboard that you pass for weeks on your way to work and then one day something about it triggers an idea that ricochets down a tunnel of life; it might be the sight of seven bullfinches attacking a crab-apple tree at the end of winter. Then, quite suddenly, the minutes are rattling by and the streams of memory are flushing in thick and fast, and you are terrified by the fear that you no longer know who you are. What else is waiting to return? Will age and its partnered dementia release more of these truths, or is this down to a leakage of fact? You want to stop it, to damn the flood if you can, but you can’t decide whether it’s an incoming or an outgoing of movement. You will have to sit it out until it subsides and hope for recognition.
‘I’ll bring some cushions too, if that’s alright.’ And then he hangs up. Half an hour later, he’s outside my front door, knocking expectantly. I canter down the wooden stairs, hoping he’ll hear the determination of my mood. I decide to do everything energetically. Keep him in check, I say to myself as I swing the door open. His face is closer than you’d expect, as if he’s been stood with his nose against the glass. His left arm hugs the waist of a large white sack at his side. They look like a couple. Just married, I think. He says, ‘I’ll bring this in then, shall I?’ and like before, on the phone, he doesn’t wait for an answer, but pushes past, dragging the sack of cushions along the floor, taking the doormat and the rug with him. I wonder about his wife. Does he treat her the same way? I know he’s got kids — four of them — so there must be a woman somewhere. Within a few seconds, he’s pulled half the cushions out. ‘I used to sell ’em on the market,’ he says. ‘But with the kids…’ He doesn’t finish the sentence; I’m not sure what he means. The cushions are nice enough though. ‘I wouldn’t sell that one for less than forty,’ he says. ‘It’s proper killim.’ It looks a bit faded to me, like something you might have bought in Liberty’s in the 1980s and then left in the line of the sun for too long. ‘It’s beautiful,’ I lie. ‘It’s a good price,’ he says, sharply, ‘you can have it for forty.’ I return to the phone call earlier: ‘Like I told you, we don’t really use cushions. They end up becoming cat beds.’ Now he wants to know how many cats I’ve got. He seems to think that if he can keep me talking, I’ll buy something. He’s wrong. ‘Two,’ I tell him. ‘Nice,’ he says, and continues pulling out more cushions. The sack’s been tossed aside now, lying at the bottom of the stairs like a homicide case. ‘Which one would you like?’ he persists. ‘The stripes would look good in here.’ ‘No,’ I say, ‘I’m not interested.’ So he suggests I look at his rugs. He starts stuffing the cushions back into the sack. When he’s done, he leans it against one of my chairs, and marches back to his car. I follow him out, dragging his sack behind me. I lean it against our garden wall. He makes a point of staring at it, irritated that I’ve taken control of his sack. ‘I need to get on,’ I tell him. ‘Yes, but first the rugs,’ he says. He pulls one from the back of the car. Lies it on the pavement. ‘Mongolian, that one.’ He lifts a corner. ‘Real Soviet stuff,’ he adds. ‘Right,’ I say, still trying to be polite. ‘Nice colours, but it’s not right for me.’ ‘Cost you three hundred,’ he says. ‘Right,’ I say again. He pulls out three more rugs until the temptation is too much for the neighbour’s cat, Nugget, who comes to sit on one of them. Then Nugget lies down and rolls on the rug, his long Persian hair catching on the wool, marking his pleasure for ever.
We are surrounded by reclaimed doors, stacks of them, each one at least a hundred years old. ‘That one’s probably a hundred and fifty,’ he says, rubbing his hand up and down the pine. ‘And d’you know what that is?’ he asks, pointing to a groove in the wood. He pats me on the upper arm when I tell him I do. ‘Proper joinery,’ I say. ‘Good girl,’ he replies. ‘These days you pay hundreds for that sort of work, but mostly they use glue.’ He pulls out several doors for me, so I can take a good look and decide which one to buy. ‘Thirty-five quid they’ll cost you,’ he says, and points to the price written in black felt-tip along the side of the door now in his hands. We stand together, side by side, feeling the old wood, rubbing our fingers up and down, searching for damp, and sticking our nails into cracks. He says things like, ‘Nothing better than the Victorians’, and I respond with clichés that I never normally use like, ‘They don’t make ‘em like this any more’. I try to hide my accent by dropping Ts and running words together in curious loops that feel unfamiliar between my lips. He must notice, but he seems not to mind. ‘Your man’s a lucky one,’ he tells me when I end a telephone conversation about one of the doors. ‘Where did he find you?’ He laughs when I tell him we met in Hackney, or Finsbury Park, or thereabouts. He tells me that he thinks women are wonderful. ‘It’s us lot who do all the damage,’ he says. ‘Men. We’re an awful bunch.’ We talk about war and I give him chapter and verse on men and soldiers, but he says I shouldn’t pity them. ‘Women are the ones who really suffer,’ he says. And then he starts talking about breast-feeding and how awful it must be for women to have to breast-feed. ‘Not bad at the beginning when the thing pops out, but you wouldn’t want to be doing that for months on end would ya?’ He seems to know I don’t have kids. I wonder how he can tell. He says he’ll drop the door off but it’ll cost me a tenner. I tell him I’m not sure. We shake hands and I wander back through the village looking into people’s front windows, their front rooms full of reclaimed furniture and Victorian doors and fireplaces and retro light fittings. The old man waits for the bus to Loughton.