The past beats inside me like a second heart.
John Banville, The Sea
The old Birmingham Canal Navigation day boat Eileen is seemingly, and at first glance, an inanimate lump of wrought iron and new steel, a ‘hole in the water’.
But that – by no means – is her complete story.
Some ghosts are so quiet you would hardly know they were there.
Bernie McGill, The Butterfly Cabinet
Eileen is a quiet ghost. Her history and my history seem oddly intertwined and her role in my life is more crucial than I sometimes care to admit.
I feel that there is much to be said for the Celtic belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, and so effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison. Then they start and tremble, they call us by our name, and as soon as we have recognised their voice the spell is broken. We have delivered them: they have overcome death and return to share our life.
And so it is with our own past. It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.
Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory–this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?
Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past
It was the postcard below (of Cromford Church and the bridge over the River Derwent, Derbyshire) that prompted in me a Proustean madeleine moment. A memory came to mind immediately I saw it. Memories are like that. They lie dormant and untouched for years and then there they are again – vivid and complete – and utterly uncertain (was the memory fact, ’embroidered fact’ or fiction?).
This is the memory:
A walk. One school-day Friday evening. Two friends in mid-teens, before pubs and girls challenged the innocence. A routine walk.
Friday nights were ever thus and ever would be, there was no hunger, no hurry to change.
A chilly January evening. Dark all day. Ice in the field edges. Freezing fog muffling sound, muting colours and blurring buildings.
The walk took them out of the small town. Not far. Just into the nearby countryside. Two lads scaring each other to mask the fact that the dark felt uncomfortably close.
At the wharf beyond the church we dared each other to leave the lights of the lane and head out along the canal.
Slow motion movement of mist on the still water. Small scurryings in the hedge. The drip, drip of water. The evening drenched.
Conversation that began light and loud gradually fell away. Two lads walking in companionable silence.
A sound shattered the silence. A cry echoing against the wall of mist, sounding again and again.
A lambs birth.
It’s sudden terror at the cold grey enormity of the world. It’s cry into a formless mist-hung void.
No, not a ghost story, quite the opposite, it was a start-of-life story.
It was also the night that a ribbon of still water for the very first time entered my consciousness.
People leave strange little memories of themselves behind…
Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood
A version of this post was first published in October 2014