THE PARCEL which slid across the counter had the lumpy look of another knitted cardigan. Although she couldn’t see its colour through the thick scotch paper, Iris was confident it would fall somewhere on a spectrum of murky browns. A token of her aunt’s eternal belief that drab knitwear would make everything better.
She leaned her body to find the relief of an air vent above as she waited for the till boy to check her signature. From a maroon wireless perched on the counter a singer crooned his promises to girls everywhere and strummed the kind of melody that moves through your mind like a needle and thread. I’ll find some crowded avenue, though it will be empty without you, can’t get used to losin’ you.
Iris slipped through the doorway with the parcel in hand, swapping places with a man in dirty blue overalls that swallowed his bony body whole. She set herself on the pavement and took in the heavy air. Somewhere beyond this street London swung like a broken chandelier. Women bobbed along the Kings Road under the weight of their hair and let their legs see the sun for the first time. Here, in a part of the city more like a smashed-up brake light, it was the first day it had felt like summer in 1963.
Along the east of the road she could hear the solemn, rhythmic sound of a diesel shunter grinding the sidings of Silvertown Railway Station. Before her the Old Palace Cinema loomed with all the airs and graces of an aristocrat. Smooth grey planes curved around the face of the building, carved like cheekbones into the concrete. A long nose cut at the centre of the facade adorned with chrome letters that glittered in the sunlight. Reaching the mahogany double doors she spotted a sign hanging squint on the handle. Mecca Bingo Hall: COMING SOON.
The melody of the radio song stuck in the back of her throat as she moved deeper into the rhythm of the street. She stepped off the curb at the corner where she always crossed only to dodge a young boy on a bicycle. “Wotcha darlin’,” he called as his skinny legs carried him away, craning his neck behind him for a better look. A newspaper cab raced past dumping bound stacks of papers on the pavement before chasing off to its next drop off.
Iris looked at her wrist instinctively. A line of sunlight waved across the face of her watch. It was a twenty first birthday present from her father, swapped at the pawn shop for his best and only suit. He had worn it just twice in his life, he said, so what was the use in keeping it for the moths. With its cracked leather strap and delicate curly numbers, the watch was both a gift and a message: be on time for work. Her father was clever in that way.
He had started working at Tate & Lyle before she learned to walk, following in the foot steps of his father, and his father before him. He was a security guard who watched out for opportunists who jumped the fences and stole whatever they could. He saw himself as more of a copper than a security guard, policing the factory floor with hands tucked neatly behind his back. Every morning Iris’ father shined his black boots to crystal at the kitchen table as she ate her cornflakes, fixing his hair with enough Brylcreem to grease a ham. He got her the job as a sugar girl and took it upon himself to make sure she kept it.
Cradling the lumpy parcel to her chest as if it were an infant, she widened her stride and weaved through the clutter of people dressed for a sunny day. The number seventeen bus moved through the road with all the majesty of a whale. Smaller fish darted out of its path as it steamed and sighed from stop to stop.
Her eyes drifted over the faces in the windows of the bus until they met one that sent a jellyfish jolt through her stomach. Tom Wright was staring out of a top floor window, dressed in half-buttoned down overalls and with an absent look she took for mysterious. He worked as a plumber in the engine room with the rest of the men. With them but not one of them. He didn’t speak much, but his eyes told a story better than any book she had ever read. They told of someone who stayed up late into the night, small grey windows to a mind that shined long into the darkness. Their wattage even lit up the dark corners of a bright sunshine day.
When she sat at the bus stop after work, sometimes Tom sat down next to her. They didn’t always speak. When they did the conversation was so overburdened by unsaid things they had to drag out every sentence. It got her to work on time better than any cracked leather watch though, the hope that it could be a day he sat down next to her. One of the good days.
The bus moved on and Tom was taken away, not knowing as he stared out at the world that someone was staring back. Not knowing the many lives, the stories he had lived inside her head.
The departure of the bus left a cavity in the road that cracked open the city horizon. Far in the distance steel-framed office buildings lined the sky, as if the occupying forces of an alien race. She always thought she would like to be an architect, able to make the world into the place she wanted it to be. Instead, she sifted sugar lumps for three-ten a week and watched the world pass by on the number seventeen.
The sweet smell of sugar cane hummed as she neared the end of Sugar Mile. It mingled with the exhausting summer air heated in equal parts by sun and machine; sweaty bodies and heavy fumes. It filled her nose with memories, dried and acrid like potpourri. She is bouncing through the reeds that line the path from her aunt’s seaside cottage to the beach, seven years old and a careless child of peacetime. Three years later and she is sitting on her father’s knee as he shakes under silent sobs; her mother’s coffin is walked down the aisle draped in sun yellow carnations. A fitting tribute, everyone always said, to a woman who flowered during the desolate years of war. A woman who worked on the docks, refusing to leave even when half the neighbourhood was eaten-up by fire.
The weight of the memories, of an absence she couldn’t place, stopped Iris on the pavement. Sun pressed down on the back of her neck, a bead of sweat sloping the curve of her back. She should be at the gates by now. She breathed quickly, feeling the air wrap tightly around her skin like a hot, damp cloth. People in oil-stained clothes and floral prints brushed past. Iris was a rock in a fast flowing stream.
She was not going to make it back in time. Her father would be watching the clock and sighing as he passed her empty spot on the line, wishing she was young enough for a jolly good hiding. A threat he had often made, but rarely delivered.
A face in the crowd stopped and met her eyes with a look of affected concern.
“Where are you off to, Iris?”
Iris was not sure how this woman knew her name. Perhaps she was a friend of her mother; she looked about her age although it had been years since Iris had seen any of her mother’s friends. Or was she from the WI? Undecided, Iris explained that she was late to work and her father would be waiting.
“Not to worry, dear,” the woman said, “I won’t be a bother. What have you got there?”
It was none of her business. But the heat kept her rooted to the spot as the crowd lapped in waves around her. She looked down at her hands, seeing that she held out empty palms. The parcel.
“I have lost something,” she said, looking past to find the factory at the end of the street. “I must have dropped it but I can’t think where”.
“Oh well, not to worry”, replied the plump, middle-aged woman with sparrow eyes. “We can get you a nice cuppa and we’ll have a think where it could be. How does that sound?”
The lady didn’t understand that Iris hadn’t time to for tea. The street grew around her as if a giant wood in a children’s fable. She was caught in a net of watching trees searching for the breadcrumbs that would lead her to her father. She couldn’t see the factory at the end of the road anymore. Maybe she was on the wrong street?
“Is this the way to Tates?” she asked looking back into a steady gaze.
“Oh don’t worry about that, Iris. We’ll have someone bring us a cup a’ tea and we’ll put on some of that music you like. You know the one. How does it go? I’ll find some crowded avenue, though it’ll be empty without you…”
This woman wouldn’t listen. Iris couldn’t stop. She did not want tea. She needed to find the parcel.
Another face turned towards her, two kind eyes locking on to her own from amidst the crowd.
“Hello there,” said the gentleman with the broad face and scraggly grey beard. He was handsome for an older man and something in his face, something written in his almond eyes, seemed familiar.
“How are you today”.
“Oh… well thank you,” she answered with an embarrassed smile. “It’s blimmin’ hot though, isn’t it?”
He grinned in return showing a mouth of false teeth.
“Yes, love, it certainly is. You seem a bit lost there. May I join you for a walk, keep you company a little while?” The old man held out a shaky elbow for her to take and she let it linger there a while as she tried to catch her breath.
He took heavy breaths, his chest straining under each inhale. Though he must have been in his seventies, there was a power in face which belied a much younger man and his look was one of complete trust and affection.
“Come on, we can escape matron and her dreadful tea,” he whispered leaning in closer, wafting a smell of wood smoke as he did.
“I can’t be long,” Iris said taking his liver spotted arm gently under hers. “Can you show me the way to the Tates? I’ve walked through those gates a thousand times at least but I must have taken a wrong turning”.
He paused. A shadow of sadness passed across face for just a second. He reached and clasped her hand with his free arm, squeezing it with a force that wouldn’t bruise a peach.
“It would be my pleasure”.
They walked together along the pavement; she was no longer a rock but moving with the flowing current. He asked questions about her past as if she was somebody worth knowing. She told him about her mother and the sun yellow carnations, and he listened and asked whether she thought of her mother often. She followed his question with a question, asking whether he knew her father and he replied that he did once.
“He was always a smashing bloke, your dad,” said the old man, his face glowing with the warmth of the memory. Iris was used to people telling stories about her dad; fables of his kindness and bravery stretched from the battlefield to the Sunday market.
A sense of missing something, of forgetting something other than the parcel creeped in like a city fog.
“Have we met before?” She searched his face for the answer to her question.
“Yes… yes we have”.
The full weight of his age hung in his features for the first time. His eyes which were steady anchors were shaken loose by a wave of emotion she couldn’t identify.
Should she know him? Should she?
“I don’t… I don’t think”.
“Oh please don’t worry yourself, my dear. It was another life ago”. He said this more to himself than to Iris.
The sparrow-woman spoke.
“Iris walks up and down these halls, chatting away about the factory and the docks. It takes me back, it really does. My own mother used to work in that area for a while before she married and the war smashed it to pieces. Eck it’s all knackered warehouses down that way now”.
Iris was reminded of being a small child eavesdropping on her parent’s hushed conversations.
“I really need to go and get back to work now,” she stammered. “It’s got to be late… What is the time anyway?”
“Iris, please don’t worry. You don’t need to go to the factory, no one will be cross. Stay here with me a while longer won’t you, love. Make an old man happy”.
His familiarity was making her nervous. She went to turn but the sharp eyed lady was waiting reaching her arms for Iris’ shoulder.
“Come on love,” she said. “Tell me more about Cornwall and the flowers…”
“No, no. Please don’t. I don’t know you and I really must go”.
“You don’t need to go anywhere Iris,” he said.
“Your dad passed away Iris. I am sorry, really I am, but it was a very long time ago”.
The woman cleared her throat.
“What…what do you mean passed away; what are you talking about? That’s not true. I’ve seen him this morning. It’s not true. Why would you say that? We had breakfast this morning… cornflakes”.
“Sir, I know it’s hard but it really is best that we don’t confuse her anymore than…”
The woman’s hand was still on her shoulder.
“I’m sorry…I know, I know. But I just miss her. I can’t get used to the house empty… her toothbrush is still there… her ring. She would never take it off, never, and now it sits in the cabinet. The house breathes her presence… little shadows of our life together that get me thinking my Iris is still with me. I can’t get used to it. I don’t want to”.
“I understand sir and I’m ever so sorry, really I am. It might be best for you to come back in the morning when your wife is more settled”. The woman spoke in a slow voice reserved for the elderly.
“She is unhappy and confused. I’m not leaving my wife like this. Iris, please, let’s go to the living room. I was talking rubbish weren’t I? Confused you with someone else. Silly old man, eh? Your dad will be at work, you don’t need to worry ‘bout him”.
Iris didn’t know who they were talking about. It sounded like the old man’s wife was not well.
“You… you’re married?”
“We have been married forty three years: three children and five grandchildren, one born just this spring”.
He handed over a picture, glossy and cold under her fingers.
“Three grown up boys. Between them they’ve had four more. And the baby, our first girl, is called Emily. She is a beauty, like her Nan. They would like to visit you, would you like that?”
“Oh, very much. I love children”. She thought it was the polite thing to say, but really she never cared for them.
“I will come back with everybody at the weekend. They will be so happy to see you”.
“Don’t be daft, love, of course. We miss you every day”.
Iris didn’t know how to respond so kept silent.
The woman was the first to speak.
“Why don’t we have a look through her memory box? It always calms her down, helps her settle”.
“If you think it will help,” he said sighing deeply. “The kids all worked on it together at Christmas, Iris. Finding their favourite pictures and looking through our old boxes. It was a hell of a mess; you would have loved to see it. There is no parcel in there. I am sorry. But you might find what you’re looking for”.
He took her hands in his and guided them toward an open box. She lowered her hands, letting her fingers skate across layers of photographs. She traced along the edge of one and picked it up. It was full of people and smiles she didn’t know, gathered around a Christmas tree and engulfed by brightly coloured wrapping paper. She dropped it back into the box and took another.
Iris knew these people; she was there. Her mother and aunt were sitting on a blanket, their legs spread before them in the sand. Both were smiling and neither had their eyes completely open. She was in front, a chubby toddler holding her bucket and spade proudly up to the camera. Her father’s absence placed him behind the camera.
She dug deeper for another photo, but caught something else. Smooth ivory fabric, maybe silk. Lace trimming along the edge. A square cutting from a dress, perhaps.
The old man swallowed hard. “May I?”
She was faintly aware of nodding although she didn’t know what she has consented to. The old man rummaged around the box looking for something deeply buried. Without a word he handed over a small square of thick paper. He handed it to her and she brought it close to her face.
“Is that you? You look young.”
“Oh we were,” he said, closing his eyes. “And terrified. But happy, so happy”.
“Her dress. It’s perfect. I would like one just like it. One day”. She was thinking of how handsome Tom looked in the top window of the number seventeen.
“I think that’s enough for today. You look exhausted, Mr. Wright. You should go home and rest. Don’t worry, I will look after her. She is in safe hands here”.
He nodded. His eyes glistened as they overflowed; a papery kiss touched her cheek.
“Goodbye, my Iris. I hope tomorrow is a better day. One of the good days, like we used to say”.