Red ink

Sometimes we don’t even realise we have memories until they are triggered.

“Red ink”.

Such an innocuous thing to overhear, walking through Cliffe just after a rainstorm.

Two words, but feelings and memories come back strong. Funny the words that ambush us in familiar streets, fall into our thoughts, bloom and break against us.

“Red ink”.

It’s what my piano teacher used to say when I’d made a mistake so often that corrective notes in pencil were no longer deemed enough. In saying it her normally impeccable English became heavily French accented. She’d come to England as a war refugee and had told me once about seeing a U-Boat as they crossed the channel. Hundreds of children lining the deck, looking over the railings into the sea in silence at this threat to their existence.

And yet it’s not red ink for myself I remember most though it happened often. What I remember most is sitting in the side room reading Beano and Dandy albums from before I was born, left there to entertain children amongst all the antiques while their siblings had their lessons, and how I’d sit there hearing one of my brothers playing arpeggios, gradually increasing in complexity, until inevitably fingers tripped on keys and I’d hear them restart and restart. Then there’d be a pause while advice was given, more false starts, a longer pause and then I’d know it was coming: “red ink”. Heard through heavy closed doors and walls dense with old paintings.

My brothers and I would leave and walk home together, when we were old enough to do so without a parent, myself being younger trailing slightly behind, crunching and kicking up autumn leaves, constantly distracted then as I am now. Sometimes we’d cross “the field”, a grassy area that acted as a short cut (long since built on) but our lessons finished late enough that for probably half the year the darkness made the hidden hollows and trenches best avoided. It wasn’t far from where our teacher lived to our home, yet I remember walking home almost as clearly as the lessons, going in through the back gate of our house into the narrow alley between us and the neighbour’s house, the kitchen windows misted with condensation from cooking, my mum a blur behind, busy making sure everything was just right for us in one of those selfless acts of parenting we often don’t even realise is a constant of our upbringing until long after we’ve left home.

Two words and so many memories firing off at unexpected tangents. The smell of old pencil shavings in a desk, the rough feel of leather inside a school satchel when pulling out a conker hardened to unbreakability by age and playground recipes, of walking alongside my dad, not tall enough to reach his waist, the laughter as he gradually increased his pace so I had to run to keep up, memories of perfect days with beloved grandparents, and with my parents who continue to be inspirational in so many ways, and now after that Cliffe rain memories of running home in a summer storm, breathless, laughing with clothes wet-clinging tight as skin.

I walked on through Cliffe and up Chapel Hill, and sitting at the top looking over Lewes I watched as a rainbow stretched from the castle and arced to nothing in a still-bruised sky, and I realised stronger than ever before that we are all the product of our memories, both conscious and unconscious, the apparently small and inconsequential just as much as the obvious.

“Red ink”.