The Writer in Search of Memory

by Judith Barrington

Once in a dream I found myself in a van filled with strangers. The van was stationary, parked with its engine running in a nondescript street on a hill. I was the driver in charge.

“We’re lost, aren’t we?” demanded one of the passengers.

“Oh no,” I said. “I know exactly where we are; we’re right outside the house I lived in when I was a child. See? Number 26, Benfield Way!”

No longer very prominent amid sprawling new housing estates, my childhood home on the original street, built in the 1930s, gazed apologetically at me across a front garden gone wild, a concrete path that had crumbled and cracked.

“So,” said the passenger, impatient inside her utilitarian brown coat, “if you know this street so well, how do we get back from here?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I know exactly where we are, but I don’t know how to get back.”

And then I woke up.

As a child in Brighton, England, I would point from far away to the tall, red brick house whose gable stood head and shoulders above its neighbors. “Look,” I would say to my friends, “that’s our house—number 26!” And I would wrap myself in the glory of living in the tallest house—the one that intersected the skyline with its confident A-shaped roof. From a distance at least, I was happy about that house.

But the dream reflects my reluctance to re-enter it—my reluctance to take myself all the way back inside, the way one must to write literary memoir. If I walk up the cracked path and push open the green door, will I disappear forever into the rooms that memory refuses to furnish or even to place in their proper locations? If I turn left into the living room, will my tall brother—the one who died four years ago—be there waiting to hoist me up and bash my head on the ceiling while I shriek in mock protest? Will he ever put me down again so my feet can tread the hallways, the squeaky stairs and the worn rugs of threadbare recollection? And what if I creep into the kitchen—the room I remember the most clearly with its big wooden table and its scullery with the deep sink and walk-in larder? Could there still be a sign on that kitchen door saying “Beware of Dogs!”—my mother’s idea of a joke when her miniature dachshund’s three fist-sized puppies kept getting trampled underfoot?

In that kitchen I might encounter my angry, four-year-old self, red-faced and sobbing as I tug at my babysitter’s cardigan. “Phone the cinema,” I will be pleading. “Tell them to come home now. Right now!” Worse still, if I do walk into this appalling scene, I may be forced to witness the unraveling of the story. Perhaps it didn’t really go the way family mythology would have it—the way it has been passed down over the years. Could I really have grabbed the poor girl’s wrist and sunk my baby teeth into her forearm, biting her with a deliberation and fierceness that has grown into all-out ferocity over time—or did I just retreat to the rocking chair with diminishing sobs, resigned to my lack of influence?

Behind that door, I might, too, find my mother sitting at the table shelling peas and not at the movies after all. Maybe she never went to the cinema that night or any other—never once left me with a babysitter. I’m sure I will recognize the doorknob, so stiff and high that I never could turn it by myself. But what if, when I manage to get it open, it leads not into the kitchen but into some other room altogether—the dining room, say, or some stranger’s bedroom?

I know how the house looked from the Old Shoreham Road. The golf course was still there in those days and if I stopped my bicycle near the clubhouse, an expanse of green turf rolled away to a hillside topped by a row of houses, mine included. I can see how it appeared, too, from lower Benfield Way as I trudged up the hill with my satchel full of homework, past the Hallams and the Thomases on the left and Shirley Kipps’ house on the right. But once I reach number 26 and stand right in front of it—there where the van was parked in my dream—it starts to lose focus. The placement of windows eludes me. I’m not even sure if there was a front gate.

The clarity of the view from the golf course is rather like the clarity with which I look back on my childhood: I see it in broad, clean sweeps, always from a certain distance. The stories I tell myself have simple outlines: I rode the bus to school; I bicycled with Graham Potter; I played horse with Shirley Kipps. They are exteriors, these childhood memories—memories that have no windows to an interior life. And even if, by chance, I should stumble in through a doorway, I won’t know what’s to the left and what’s to the right. Worse still, if I should grope my way further inside with no flashlight, how will I find my way back to the door? How will I ever get out again?

Up on the second floor of that first house, my sister, Ruth, had her music room. This grand title was no overblown fancy; it was the room of a serious musician. When I was four or five, she was studying for the entrance exams to the Royal College of Music. Every day she roped herself to a straight-backed chair because her professor had told her she swayed too much, and practiced for hours on the baby grand until the neighbors knocked or telephoned begging her to stop. It was the Bach that drove them crazy, especially in summer when the bay windows, open wide onto the back garden, tossed two-part inventions or preludes and fugues into the sea breezes. Mrs. Humphreys on the downhill side never seemed to notice: she was too busy being eccentric with her twenty-three cats, but the Stevens on the uphill side were persistent in their complaints, even resorting to threats of the police.

I know by heart these stories about the music room, but I don’t remember ever actually going inside it. Since I started music lessons myself while we lived there, I must have practiced on the Broadwood piano but I don’t remember running my stubby fingers up and down the major and minor scales or sitting in an armchair listening to my sister; I don’t even remember standing in the doorway to tell her dinner was ready. And if I try to think myself back into it, the room simply goes white, like an overexposed photograph. Granted, a blurry, washed-out piano over towards the windows and a hint of patterned carpet do emerge, along with the faintest outline of a fireplace. But no furniture. And no people. It’s as if nothing ever happened in the music room except what I was told about, or what I heard from outside in the garden.

Somewhere near the door to that room, also on the back side of the house, was a toilet which I do remember. It was a little room all of its own, and after I learned to use it by myself I found it reassuring to sit there listening to the sounds of the house carrying on without me. Sometimes in urgent need of toilet paper, I yelled for my mother to come and help me. Over and over, I shouted “Ready!” “Ready!” in a singsong, two-note refrain until someone came to my rescue. Funny I should remember that but not playing my first two-handed piece by Mozart.

There was a bathroom up there with a big bathtub on the left as you went in. My very earliest memory is of the large green toy duck which arrived under the Christmas tree and later took up residence in this bath, soon to acquire several large dents in her Bakelite body. This room, too, I picture at a distance. From the far end of the hallway I can see my mother bent forward over the bathtub, her spine in a straight line parallel to the ground so that she looks a bit like a human table. She has a bad back which she calls “lumbago,” and she is stuck. I don’t know how she gets unstuck or how often it happens, but I remember the pleated skirt of her dress hanging down from her hips as she turns her head towards me from this odd position and calls out with annoyance in her voice, “I’m stuck.”

The day we moved to our new house when I was ten, I got the flu. It was winter and very cold. Not only did I get sick, but when the school nurse sent me home early I foolishly caught my usual bus back to Benfield Way. Of course, no one was there and the house was empty—suddenly just a shell. The next thing I remember is being at the new place, though I’ve no idea if I called someone, if a neighbor took care of things, or if my frantic parents searched until they found me.

When I arrived, there was no furniture. Beds, chairs, tables, china and pictures; books, clothes, carpets and dog baskets; records, jigsaw puzzles and eiderdowns, all were somewhere between Benfield Way and Eldred Avenue in a moving truck. While we waited for it to arrive, my mother lit a fire in the new living room and found two blankets for me to lie on. I remember lying on a hard floor in front of a coal fire with that peculiar feeling of being hot on one side and cold on the other—a feeling no doubt exacerbated by the brief fever.

Sooner or later my bed arrived and I moved into the second floor room with the sloping ceiling and the dormer window that looked out into a copper beech tree. The two other rooms on that floor were nominally for my brother and sister, but both had moved away from home by then. My parents’ bedroom was on the ground floor, and so for the first time I was alone upstairs, far away from anyone else.

I quickly appropriated and explored this new house. Even the cobwebby attics that surrounded the upstairs rooms, connected to one another by little triangular passages under the dormer windows, grew familiar. Sometimes I took my friends in there for a flashlit tour, always terrified one of us would put a foot between the beams and smash through the plaster into the room below (but we never did). In my bedroom two black-painted doors opened into this attic—doors which by day invited adventure but by night induced terror as I lay in bed watching for something or someone to push them open from the other side. Often, when I had finally managed to fall asleep, I would walk downstairs in my sleep and arrive in the middle of a dinner party or bump into my parents’ bedroom door mumbling words from my dreams.

I hold those days up to the light trying to make out the shape of rooms, the texture of furnishings, and our various bodies in their anxious poses.

Although this house is clearer in my memory than the first one, still I see it most easily from across the street where, in fact, I stop to check on it every time I return to the area. The black fence is to this day the same fence I grabbed to save myself when my roller skates caught an uneven slab of the pavement. Even the posters advertising upcoming symphony concerts—posters which my mother initially sponsored—stayed on that fence for almost a decade, regularly updated, and I was sorry when a new owner removed the notice board. Rosebushes that my mother planted next to the steps look just as they did when I arrived home from school. But what hides behind the windows? Upstairs, for sure, is my old bedroom. But those French doors to the right of the front steps—what is behind them? It must be the dining room, but, like my sister’s music room at Benfield Way, it remains blurry, populated only with vague snatches of family meals that I remember as tedious but not scary like the attic doors. Tedium imprints little or nothing, while terror’s pictures remain vivid over time.

A long time after I left that second house, I had another house dream. An adult now, in the dream I stopped by to look at it and saw that the house was being remodeled. Since the roof was missing, the friendly owner invited me to climb up the outside on a ladder and look into it from above. When I reached the top of the ladder, I looked down and saw that the house was now one huge room with walkways and rolling ladders around the walls which were completely lined with books. Ah yes! I thought, waking up: I’m turning my childhood into books….

In 1963, when I was nineteen, there were a few days during which it wasn’t clear if my parents were alive or dead after their cruise ship caught fire. As an international rescue effort got under way, we all—my sister and her family, my brother and his, and I—gathered at my brother’s old stone house on Purley Hill. There, over that Christmas holiday, I slept in an upstairs bedroom that belonged to one of my nephews. The window looked onto the back garden where hungry birds swarmed around the scraps that my brother’s wife threw out for them. Every hour we phoned for news, taking turns to enter the little cupboard under the stairs where the black dial telephone squatted on a shelf and all of us except my rather short sister-in-law hit our heads on the sloping ceiling. I remember very clearly hunching over that square telephone and listening to a recorded list of names as more and more survivors turned up in the rescue ships.

Now, years later, I often feel driven to write about those days in that house. I have written about how we went to see the pantomime, Aladdin, with the children; how we talked about what we would do when our parents were brought home—not if they were brought home; and how we kept on watching television reports of the cruise ship which was on fire for several days. I see the ship with its cloud of black smoke and the helicopters circling above. I see us all, young adults and children, gathered in one room, newspapers piled beside armchairs and the television flashing pictures of survivors strapped to stretchers covered with Red Cross blankets. The room where we sit around the TV is wood paneled and strewn with toys; the adjacent sunroom, dense with plants, smells of earth. Over the fireplace hangs my brother’s favorite painting which he calls “The Egg Lady”: in dark oils, a woman with a kerchief over her head holds an egg up to the light. I don’t know why he likes this picture so much.

I’ve been writing about that house, that dining room, and the telephone in the cupboard, for a long time. Poems in books, memoirs in journals, fragments written and rewritten, all scrutinize the details as if an important secret might one day emerge. Like the egg lady, I hold those days up to the light trying to make out the shape of rooms, the texture of furnishings, and our various bodies in their anxious poses. I want to see through the brittle shell to discover what’s going on inside. Always at the center there’s the boxy television set with its polished walnut doors that open to reveal our parents’ story unfolding on its screen. But one shocking day, after I’ve finally published one of these stories, my sister-in-law tells me that I’ve got it all wrong: “We didn’t have a television at Purley Hill that Christmas,” she says. “Our first TV was your parents’ set. We inherited it after they died.”

I will push open the gate—if it turns out there is a gate—and walk up to the front door.

If there was no TV set—and after asking around I have to admit that there was not—was there also no turkey? No tree with presents underneath? No recording on the phone with its alphabetical list of survivors’ names? Perhaps not even a cupboard under the stairs or a phone with a fraying cord. If there was no TV, there might have been no accident after all—although I suppose I could have seen the pictures on somebody else’s television and transposed them into that familiar dining room, where we did, surely, spend some anxious hours. But if there was really no TV, can I be certain that the ship caught fire? There are certainly a few newspaper cuttings in a drawer, but what about all the things I remember that aren’t recorded in those brittle, yellow clips? The real question is: Can I be sure that my parents really died? And if they escaped on a makeshift raft or on the backs of friendly dolphins, as we, their anxious children, predicted they would, then why the hell did they never come home?

Now I see that it is time to revise that first dream—the one about the van parked on Benfield Way. I don’t want to wake up stuck outside in the street; I want to stay asleep and go on with the story. I will push open the gate—if it turns out there is a gate—and walk up to the front door. Finding the house empty but the door conveniently unlocked, I will enter, knowing that any time I want to leave, my feet will carry me back over the threshold and down the hill, just as they did every morning when I left for school and every afternoon when I ran out to find Shirley or Graham. In this new dream I will step carefully on the familiar, uneven bricks of the front path. And because I am a writer and there is no other way, I will enter the house boldly. Then I will open every door until someone with a clear outline and a familiar voice begins to speak.  ■

Judith Barrington’s Lifesaving: A Memoir won the 2001 Lambda Book Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of the Memoir. She is also the author of the best-selling Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art and three collections of poetry. She has been a faculty member of the University of Alaska Anchorage’s low-residency MFA Program and teaches workshops around the United States as well as in Britain and Spain. Her website is
“Interiors” was originally published online in Triplopia, Vol. V, Issue 1, Winter 2006, “Memory.”

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