L ook, let's get this straight from the start, I'm a city girl, through and through. All right, not so much of a girl any more, but a Londoner, yes, born and bred. Brixton's been my stamping ground for I don't care to tell you how many years. Through thick and thin, black and white, you name it, if it's down Lambeth way, I've seen it, done it and got the tee shirt.
We're down-to-earth people. Mum and Dad survived the War and I survived the changes round here, just as I'll survive the city types moving in with their wine bars and four quid cup of frothy coffee with a bit of cocoa on the top.
Oh yeah, cocoa. That was what you wanted to hear about, wasn't it? Well, I must say, that shook me up a bit - Lizzie and the whiff of cocoa on the boil. I can smell it now. Pshaw! It takes me back, I can tell you. Not that I'm superstitious or anything. Never had any truck with that (what do they call it?) that paranormal. But Lizzie and the cocoa still gets me still thinking about all that again.
It was in the early '50s. I remember Uncle Frank had taken me on one of our regular Science Museum jaunts. He was great! He'd show me fancy card tricks. "It's all in the technique, love," he'd say and show me slowly, move by move, how he used sleight of hand. I can still do them.
He told me about how Houdini rumbled fakes and spiritualists, how Rasputin took in the women in the czar's court, about hypnotism and Pavlov's dogs. He read to me from books by T H. Huxley and articles by J.B.S. Haldane. He taught me the word 'sceptic'.
I admired him and adopted his way of observing and thinking.
We had a special game. We played it over and over again. He'd point his finger at me, pull a pretend stern face and demand, "Now then, tell me about - " He'd wait a bit and then he'd whisper, all excited, say, "Einstein's special theory of relativity!" And I would answer, quick as a flash, "E = mc2." Then he'd quiz me.
"Yes, but a parrot could say that. What is E?"
"Energy, Uncle Frank."
"Good. And m?"
"m is mass."
"Yes. And c?"
"c is the speed of light. It's fixed."
"And what about the general theory of relativity, my little scientist?"
"Well, Uncle Frank," I might say, "Einstein made predictions that you could test. And they were tested and they were true."
As a reward, he'd put his arm around my shoulder, pull me close to him and laugh, "That's my girl! You tell 'em!" Then he'd hold up the palm of his hand and say, "Verification! That's the rule. Verification."
"Yes, Uncle Frank."
Years later I found out about falsification as well, all by myself. He'd have liked that.
Anyway, back to Lizzie.
It was in that fancy tea shop near the Science Museum I first met Uncle Frank's lady friend, Maureen, Lizzie's big sister. While Maureen was powdering her nose, he whispered to me their father died of TB and then, a few weeks after, their mother went as well.
I can see now it must have been out of grief she died. It's taken me time to find out for myself the power of an invisible force like that. Grief. I'd never seen Uncle Frank cry until the day Auntie Annie died. He was never the same. Then when Uncle Frank himself went, it was like there was a big hole in my stomach. Since then, I lost Dad, then Mum myself. And when the kids grew up as they do and moved away, well, there was that hole again inside all over again.
Anyway, I think Maureen's mum must have died because her old man had.
To come back to that day in the Kensington tea shop. Just as Uncle Frank, Maureen and me came out, it started to rain with a vengeance. It was pelting down, straight as a die, bouncing off the pavement and splashing up all over our legs. We ran, heads down, for the bus to Victoria Coach Station to meet Maureen's little sister, Lizzie. The coach from Edinburgh (Edinburgh, mind you! All the way from Edinburgh!), it got in early and we were late. For ages, we couldn't find her. It was Maureen spotted Lizzie first. The kid was shivering in a shop doorway, her suitcase gripped tight in her little white hand. Her school hat was sodden, navy blue velour it was, I remember the brim dripping. Her bare bony knees stuck out under the hem of her school raincoat (that was in matching navy). She had long grey woollen socks turned over at the tops. Drops of rainwater were beaded on the polished toecaps of her sensible black shoes.
She looked sad. Her skin was pale.
When I think of Lizzie now, I think of 'waif'. She was wafer thin! We were both thirteen. She was a month younger than me to the day.
I tried to feel sorry for her, but I was excited about being out with Uncle Frank and Maureen, and I didn't understand.
Lizzie and me, we came home together. She came to live with my family. She moved in with me, in my room.
It didn't take long before we got to be friends. That's how it seemed to me, and still does. But then I didn't know anything those days about losing somebody. There I was at home, happy as Larry with my own Mum and Dad.
I liked being in charge and showing her round. I used to take the Mickey out of her funny accent, repeating what she'd said on the bus that first day, "I've never been to London before." When I teased her, she just smiled.
As I remember it, we got close.
When I went back to school (to the Girls' Grammar) and she started her new one (the local secondary mod), I started to feel sorry for her. I sort of realised she'd lost her friends, her classmates, her netball team, the village she came from, everything that was familiar. But I didn't know. I couldn't really know.
Then one Saturday morning, I began to learn something. I spoke in all innocence at first, not knowing it was to do with experience. Hers.
Saturday and Sunday mornings were our time for talking in the big old double bed we shared. There was a real closeness lying on your back, looking up, tracing the cracks and stains on the ceiling, watching the changes of light and shadow, talking and listening and sharing, your face unseen.
I'd woken up with a clear memory of a dream, I mean really clear. Until that day, at best, maybe something slippery might've stayed in my mind of what'd been going on in my brain in the night. But on that morning, I could describe my dream in every detail, even though it made little sense to me.
Now, nearly sixty years later, the dream is still as clear and bright as it was then.
I was standing looking at a sunny landscape completely unfamiliar to me. Close by was the bright green of a flat, marshy field and up, to my right, a wooded ridge loomed. The trees were in early bright green leaf and, it seemed very strange to remember at the time, the trunks and branches were shining, purple. Yes, purple. On my left, was a square of meadow, vivid green, sloping towards me. Above all, two things struck me. I felt a warmth inside, a sort of contentment. All was well with the world. It's here now, glowing in me. I was loved. Loved. The other striking thing came from a small stone building, by a hedge. The roof was missing. And I could smell chocolate. Chocolate! No mistaking it, lovely and sweet.
I had to tell Lizzie every detail.
The silence that followed was so long I turned to look at her. She was very still, staring, her mouth open. I could see that her scalp was pulling her forehead and eyebrows up, making her stare, unblinking.
I presumed she hadn't been listening, that she was caught up in her own thoughts. She looked worried.
"Are you sure what you smelt? In your dream." She was speaking quietly.
I said, "I ought to know chocolate when I smell it! It was all milky, like cocoa."
Then she told me.
I had described exactly the view from the back of her house, the Midlothian home she'd left on that May morning.
In a hillside meadow, above a waterlogged field and beside a wooded ridge, a local eccentric, an elderly recluse, lived in an abandoned bothy. Lizzie and her friends used to creep through the woods and play truth-dare-kiss-or-promise there. For a dare, she'd dashed across the clearing to crouch against the bothy wall under the window and spy on the old man. As she peeped through the window (there was no glass), she saw him leaning over a saucepan balanced on a Calorgas ring. He was stirring with a wooden spoon. What Lizzie told me next made me hold my breath and listen even harder. I remember the skin on my spine sort of contracting then a shivery glow spreading from the small of my back up to my neck. Lizzie had seen, and smelt, cocoa. That's what was in the pan.
Lizzie and I knew she had told me nothing before about the place, the old man, or the cocoa.
That weekend and over the following weeks, we talked a lot about the dream, in secret, at times all excited, sometimes with wonder, and again in whispered fear. We decided that as we were sleeping, Lizzie had passed on something of herself to me. She had transmitted and I had received. Like radio or the telly, only more so, with feeling.
Now, as I recall the dream, me describing it to her and her telling me her memories, I have no reason to change my mind.
When we started work, we went our separate ways. Lizzie travelled. I got an occasional card from the some exotic place, I moved and we lost touch.
Sorry, I'm a bit...
No, I'll be all right.
Right then. Anyway, it was early in the May, the year I was forty, I drove my daughter to Edinburgh for her interview at the university there. On the big day, I had the morning to myself and, as it was a bright and sunny start to the day, I planned to go shopping in Princes Street. Over a second coffee, I heard thunder. It began to rain hard. Idly, I turned the page of the hotel guidebook to discover that the place where Lizzie lived all those years ago before she came to stay with us was a short drive away in Midlothian. I set off to find it.
It was no more than one straight, narrow road, lined each side with terraced cottages and one or two smallholdings. In seconds, I had driven through the place to the other side, tyres swishing on the wet tarmac. I was a bit miffed with myself for giving in to a sentimental whim.
The sky was heavy and dark, but the clouds were moving fast, and with a sharp sudden brightness, the sun shone again. A double rainbow appeared.
At a lay-by, I turned the car round and drove back, more slowly this time, along the one street. Between a row of cottages and a chapel on the right, there was a clearing. I turned into it and then again left onto a track running along the back of the cottages.
I stopped the car and got out.
In front of me was the view very nearly as I'd seen it in my dream twenty-seven years before, bathed in the sunlight of another May. I was standing looking at a bright and familiar landscape. Immediately before me lay the bright green of the flat, marshy field. Up on my right, the wooded ridge rose. The trees wore the fresh green sprouting leaves of spring and, yes, the wet trunks and branches had a purple sheen.
To my left, sloping towards me, I saw the square meadow, beads of rain on the blades of grass catching the sun.
By the hedge, was a low stone building. The bothy was painted white with a neat pinewood pyramid of a roof with a dormer window.
I don't know how long I stood there breathing it, drinking it in. Lizzie's childhood home.
The picture in my mind right now as I talk to you tallies with the scene before me on that day. I close my eyes and I can see it. Sure, the bothy had changed and there was no smell of cocoa, but it was definitely the place in that dream. Which was exactly the same as the place Lizzie had lost, dericlit bothy, cooca on the go and all. I'm sure of it. Yeah, I can feel that warmth inside right now, contented, here in my tummy. At home, loved.
Lizzie's Midlothian home with her mum and dad when she was a kid, my dream lying beside her in our family bed in Brixton, my visit to Lizzie's old stamping ground when I was forty and, and sitting here now remembering, feeling it, oh, yes, feeling it all. Still. And me in my seventies.
Time, place. Mass, light. And energy? I don't know what Uncle Frank would make of it all with his explanations and verifications.
I can only tell the truth as I know it. Can't say any more than that. It's real.