A late June night. I’d picked her up from the tram, and we were driving back along York Place. From there, we drove down Leith Walk, briefly passing through Haddington Place, before we turned onto Montgomery Street. She lifted her hand, an involuntary action, she didn’t seem to know she was doing it, and pressed her sternum as though to hold herself intact. Twenty-five years before she had lived in Edinburgh as a student and I., her then boyfriend, lived on Haddington Place. A few years ago, I. died. ‘I think it’s because I don’t come here often,’ she said, ‘but every time I do, I pass a spot with a memory and I feel winded by the permanence of his absence. It’s as if a child has jumped out from their hiding place in the cupboard and shouted ‘boo!’ and my heart stops.’
I know what she means. I have experienced places being haunted by the presence of those absent. Places can lure you in, then suddenly trigger what you think has been neatly tucked away. Starched and folded memories, safe in their drawer, can, in an instant, be ransacked and rumpled, strewn from your sub-conscious by ‘place’ – a street, a doorway, a café – giving you a sharp poke in the ribs. To anyone else it is an innocuous and insignificant place, but to you it speaks: ‘Hey, I bet you thought you’d buried the memory of this place along with him/her, but I’m here to remind you of what was.’ The fickle memory sprite might even serve up familiar smells and noises to exacerbate your invisible pain explosion. As bright as an optician’s torch being shone into the back of your eye, the memory is illuminated, opening into view, presenting you with, as Patrick Kavanagh put it, ‘a quiet street where old ghosts meet.’
Hardly surprising then, that after the death of a loved one, some people avoid particular places for years, maybe abandoning them forever. The sadness and poignancy of the memories activated there are too much to bear – too affecting, moving, distressing – the deep yearning to turn back the clock too powerful and corroding. So, you can either shun these places and protect yourself or revisit them and dilute (if that’s possible) the power that old places hold over you. I’ve done a bit of both. When my husband died, I made myself go back go to places that held stores of memories, often walking a street with my hand pressed to my sternum to stop my body from opening like the peeling bark of a birch tree. And then I did the opposite: moved to live somewhere that was new to me, a place to where I have carried the absence, rather than meeting it on street corners. As time goes on, I have no idea which approach is better. Seems to me, whether you seek it out or avoid it, absence will find you.
Absence, by Elizabeth Jennings
I visited the place where we last met.
Nothing was changed, the gardens were well-tended,
The fountains sprayed their usual steady jet;
There was no sign that anything had ended
And nothing to instruct me to forget.
The thoughtless birds that shook out of the trees,
Singing an ecstasy I could not share,
Played cunning in my thoughts. Surely in these
Pleasures there could not be a pain to bear
Or any discord shake the level breeze.
It was because the place was just the same
That made your absence seem a savage force,
For under all the gentleness there came
An earthquake tremor: Fountain, birds and grass
Were shaken by my thinking of your name.