Vicky’s Box was written for Hannah Griffiths’ now defunct website The Sleevenotes: Writers On Records and published there on October 26 2003. The site took the form of an anthology where writers used a memory of one particular song (this being the one I used here) as the material for a recollection or short story. Within that, the only rule was that no piece should run to a length greater than 1500 words.
Sometimes it takes a long time to leave. With hindsight, I could see that my Grandad was beginning to slip away even in 1983, when I left home to go to Aberystwyth, almost 200 miles away, and take my place in the world. Even then, he’d tell the same story three times during a single afternoon, usually the one about the Jack Russell Terrier he used to have, the one that ended with the words: “…it fetched blood on me three times, that dog!”.
As was the custom in 1983, my place in the world turned out to be the dole queue. Days passed lounging in people’s flats, drinking mushroom tea or skinning up endless reefers on the covers of old LPs, going nowhere, and even there slowly. Things began to happen and then collapsed, usually through spliff-induced apathy, lack of money, a loss of confidence that anyone would be interested, a generalised despair about the way the idea of prospects we’d had drummed into us for all of our schooldays had abruptly turned into a sick joke the summer we’d left. The wreckage of various ambitions piled up behind us: a theatre company, a band, the odd poem in a little magazine.
By 1986, it was time to get away, back to Derbyshire again. My Gran was nudging me to apply to train as a nurse, a teacher, a journalist. To get myself one of those jobs that can be summed up in a single proudly-flourished word:
“What’s your Wayne doing these days?”
“Ah, he’s a…”
And there the conversation would end, no awkward hedging or lengthy explanations, just a concise, authoritative title. It was going to be a long haul.
I was sleeping in the spare room at my Grandparents’ bungalow, everything I owned packed away in storage. I’d started a job that September, working as an illustrator in a freezing Portacabin, inking in fine detail while wearing fingerless gloves, huddling over a Calorgas heater, listening to daytime radio, where the songs came round every hour, again and again. I missed my records.
My Grandad was getting worse. He’d talk increasingly about the past, life down the pits, his regret at being barred from wartime service, his even greater regret at being invalided out of the mines by dust on his lungs. His life had never been the same after that, he’d say, repeating the same fragments and stories over and over. I’d spend each Friday night with him, talking, watching TV, my Gran’s one night out.
That particular Friday, November 1986, I’d bought my first record since I’d left Wales: Throwing Muses by Throwing Muses. The record had sat in its bag by the door through a tea of chips, gammon and egg with white sliced bread, Coronation Street meandering incomprehensibly through its plotlines in the background. My Gran had gone out when it finished, over to her friend’s house to do their regular Keyword puzzle in the local paper, and my Grandad had told me one of his favourite stories – the one about the man who used the screened off section of the communal showers at the pithead, ending “…so we always wondered what he’d got that we hadn’t!” – several times.
My Gran returned, they went to bed, and I finally slipped the headphones over my ears and put the record on, sinking into the armchair in front of the gas-fire, listening to the warm sound of the run-in groove, going with the swerves, turns, changes of tone and feel, that drove the songs forward. A woman’s voice, whispering, screeching, on the edge of a breakdown, then abruptly gentle, beautiful.
Yet there was a flaw, a niggling stick in the groove on one track that made the needle click and repeat its half-phrase over and over. The click, the words ‘…where you prepare…where you prepare…’, the music stalled on a crucial build, held off its crescendo until, tap, a nudge on the edge of the stereo, and the song exploded, all at once, into a glorious burst of careening noise.
I must have nodded off in the chair after the third or fourth spin, because the next thing I saw was my Gran in her blue candlewick dressing gown, her teeth not in, shaking me awake, a look of fear and panic on her face.
“Come here”, she said, turning immediately to get back into the bedroom. “It’s your Dada, he’s not right…”
He was thrashing in the bedcovers, foaming slightly at the mouth, having some sort of seizure. I went for the phone. The ambulance was going to be fifteen minutes. Keep him from hurting himself and watch he doesn’t bite or swallow his tongue. When I got back he was lying still, blood around his lips. My Gran was cleaning him up with a tissue, straightening his limbs.
“You’re alright?”, she was asking him, over and over, as much a statement as a question. He was breathing heavily, his eyes moving but only slightly. His mouth gaped open. She smoothed the few strands of grey hair down around his ears, barely taking her eyes from his face where it lay, expressionless, on the blue floral pillowcase. I felt like I was intruding on a private moment, and went outside to look for the ambulance.
Out there, in the absolute silence of 4am on a residential estate, before even the birds were waking, I watched my breath billowing out in white clouds, heard the buzz of the streetlamps, the occasional whoosh of a car what seemed like miles away. The blue flickering light of the ambulance was turning the corner, driving so slowly it seemed at first to be making no sound at all. I walked towards it, waved it towards the bungalow where all the windows blazed with electric light.
A stroke, they said. It could be bad. My Gran was dressed already, her dentures in place, her specs on and face cleaned up, but still puffy around the eyes. She was going with him in the ambulance. I was to call everyone, send his things on later. As the ambulance slammed its doors and began to pull away, everything was suddenly surreal, standing in the street at 4am, the house wide open, everyone gone but me.
After that, those stories were rarely repeated. He forgot them, along with names, faces, everything except a few songs. Jim Reeves. Richard Tauber. He forgot where the toilet was but still sang along to those old songs of his. He’d left already, but took another seven years to close the door behind him.
I went inside, unplugged the headphones, put the record on again. The click in the vinyl, the repeated half-phrase, the song that becomes all that’s left of you.