Hello everyone, I hope you’re doing well.
Today, I gave in my final piece of work. My dissertation is complete and my university journey is nearing it’s end. I’m not sure how I feel if I’m honest. I feel a bit lost and a bit sad that my grandad isn’t here to see it.
This is a short story I wrote for a competition that I haven’t heard back from. The brief was along the lines of ‘life writing’ a piece that is intended to be true but also fictional. It was confusing so I chose to write about regret. This short story is based on real events that I experienced and have never been able to forget.
I hope you enjoy.
I was so ungrateful. Teenagers are awful sometimes. I still can’t believe, even after all these years, that I behaved in such a way. But belief has nothing to do with it. He was probably expecting some form of gratitude and I did feel it, I just couldn’t show it.
“I’ve got us tickets to Brighton Sky, I’m gunna take you so we can have a look at your Uni, how does that sound?” You said, in your usual light and friendly way. It sounded terrifying. For years University had seemed like a distant-future abstract idea. But in that moment, reality demanded to be acknowledged, and with that came the dread.
“Thanks grandad” I mumbled, though I remember trying to smile. I wanted to be excited, but your kind gesture only served to provoke the fire of fear that burned within. The fire I could often contain and manage, but not then. It erupted and threatened to incinerate me completely. You simply smiled, chuckled and exited the front room I was lounging in.
“Do you want a hot chocolate?” You called from the next room. You’ve always been so good like that. I often spent many days of the week at you and nan’s house. It offered a sense of safety and tranquillity, something I struggled to find anywhere else. Every morning, you would bring me up some cereal and a hot chocolate in bed, or if you were feeling fancy, a full English breakfast. I was always thankful. I will always be thankful for those mornings.
When the day came, I was awoken by black butterflies that had managed to infiltrate my body overnight. Sleep is not a friend of mine, it evaded me mostly. Even when it decided to play nice, it was underhanded kindness. My dreams were tormented by the butterflies that swarmed like bees.
“Here you go girl, be quick we have to catch the at 8.09 and then change at London Bridge and get the 8.59 to Brighton. It’s a fast train so we should get there by about 9.57.” You said while handing me a bacon sandwich and a hot chocolate. I devoured it, hoping it would boost my energy levels since we were up at such an ungodly hour. You were always an early bird.
“Have you got everything you need? Your phone, your Oyster card, your purse, your money, your sense of humour? Or did you leave that at home?” You teased. I was always forgetting things. I remember you’d stand at the door waving me off to school or wherever I was headed, holding something I had forgotten.
“What’s so funny?” My nan asked you once, as you sat on the sofa giggling to yourself.
“I asked her if she had everything and she said yes…” Then you held up my Oyster card and you shared a playful laugh.
But I was too worried for jokes that day. Too worried for laughter, or joy or even a simple smile. At least that’s what I told myself. It was days like that, that made me yearn for confidence. I wanted to be like you in more ways than one. You could speak to anyone, unafraid to ask questions, or directions. You’re unapologetically loud, unique and present in every situation. Whereas I would often disguise myself in the background, amongst the dusty shelves and ornaments. Unseen and unnoticed.
After a surprisingly short journey, we set foot in Brighton for the first time. I was shocked to see the ocean just at the bottom of a road that was so long, it seemed to bleed into the sea. The sun was burning hot, I remember because I’d dressed in all dark clothes, sporting black jeans and one of your hoodies. I felt like a slob which only added to the terror of confronting a future I wasn’t sure I wanted.
“The bus driver said we need to get on a 25 to get to your halls, so let’s find the bus stop.” It sounds ridiculous now, but I had an unhealthy aversion to busses. Especially busses you couldn’t simply tap a card and walk on by without an exchange of empty words.
“I spoke to him about the busses here, you can get a single or return ticket with cash, or you can get a day ticket” you said, handing me my paper ticket and reading the bus stop sign we came across. I felt fear clawing at my throat, but I also felt safe knowing you were with me.
After a short bus ride, we jumped off where the bus driver told us and there it was. My halls of residence. It was hidden amongst a long row of trees that I later realised was a lovely woodland walk, of which I only ever visited once during my time there. What a waste that was. We crossed the thin road which led to the entrance of Varley Park.
“Look, Chalvington Close, that’s your one ain’t it?”
“Yeah, that’s crazy” I managed to say. There was another bus stop situated just inside the entrance, and it was full of students. The sight of them made me suddenly feel like an imposter. As if somehow, they would know I wasn’t a student yet and send security over to escort us out.
“Do you want to go in?” You said while you scanned the buildings and grabbed your phone from your pocket.
“No, we’re not allowed in probably”
“Don’t be silly, what’re they gunna do? Shoot ya?” I laughed but it did nothing to soothe the blaze that kept me stationary, for fear of it spreading further.
“No grandad I can’t. There’s too many people” I insisted, though you were already halfway up the hill by that time. I stayed where I was, frozen in my sweaty converse’s. You took a few pictures of the buildings and returned to my side. Silent tears swam in my eyes, though I tried my best to hide them. I must have failed , you put your arm around me and gave my tight shoulders a reassuring squeeze.
“Don’t worry girl, it’s alright if you don’t want to go in.”
Your kindness softened me, and I smiled the first genuine smile of the day. With that, I got my phone out to get directions to my campus. After changing directions multiple times, you’d had enough of going in circles.
“S’cuse me mate, do you know the way to Falmer?” You confidently asked a man about your age, who was walking his dog. I felt bad for the guy, he was probably just wanting a bit of peace and quiet and there we were, disturbing him. I stayed a few paces behind as the man told him the quickest way to get there, as well as an alternative route on foot. To my surprise, he was more than happy to help.
Once again, we were met with the intimidating presence of the University, of which overlooked beautiful rolling hills. Remember when you spotted a map and led me to it? I had no clue where my lectures would be held, but you wanted a picture of it. Even worse still, you wanted a picture of me in front of it.
“No grandad I look horrible, there’s people coming down the stairs as well.”
You simply tutted and positioned the camera. I felt embarrassed, but not of you. I was embarrassed of myself, of my behaviour and of my feelings. They always seemed to take precedence over what was right. It would have been right to be happy, I’d been given the chance to visit my future city. It would have been right to walk in, look around and make the most of the day. To make the most of it being just the two of us. But instead, I wore a long face and a bad attitude.
“Right, shall we go in and have a nose around?” You asked me once again and once again, I was rendered immobile. I looked upon the towering glass buildings, imagining the intelligent people it hid behind it’s walls. I felt like even more of an imposter as I faced what was now expected of me.
“Are we allowed? Surely you have to be a student to go in?”
“You are, that’s gunna be you in a few months”
“I don’t think we should grandad” I said after a short while. You tried to gently convince me, but it was as if I’d tuned you out. So, I decided to take a closer look at the map, in part to distract you from my childishness. I knew it was pathetic, but my anxious mind had already been made up.
“We’ve come all the way here, and we aren’t even gunna go in?” You said light-heartedly, as if you knew I would be like that. The guilt washed over me and drenched every facet of my being. I wanted so badly to be strong. To ignore the butterflies.
“I’m sorry grandad. I don’t know why I can’t just – I want to, I just can’t. Maybe we can come back again before I start?”
“I can’t, I’m gunna be working. Don’t worry. You’ve seen it now, and I know where you’re gunna be don’t I?” I smiled at my loving grandad, who’s only priority was to keep me safe and happy. The rest of the day flew by as if someone had pressed fast-forward. The horror subsided as we guzzled coke and burgers in town. We walked along the shore for a while, taking in the scenery as we strolled.
“I’m sorry grandad. If I could go back, I would have swallowed the fear, expelled the evil thoughts and appreciated you more. Every time I pass that sign, my heart drowns in sorrow and guilt” I say, as I wipe heavy tears from my eyes. I’m momentarily distracted by an older couple who have undoubtedly come to pay their respects to their loved ones.
“I hope you’re listening grandad. I know you’re not here, but I wish you were. I’m sorry I was so ungrateful. I’m sorry I didn’t go in. I regret it every day.”
With that, I kiss the plaque that says Richard Patrick Lee, 1958-2017, and get up from the bench I’ve been sat on for over an hour. The sun is shining, like it does every time I visit the cemetery. It lets me know you’re here, listening and silently protecting me. Just like you always did.