Grovel Greg, Grovel Part 3

Do you remember 1976? Madge does.

She was a 15 year-old school girl in that long, hot summer. She remembers the heatwave, the stand pipes in the streets, and the first strains of punk music from her transistor radio.

But she remembers it for another reason too.

For this was the year that her brother Greg disappeared, just five months after starting his new life in London.

Nearly 30 years later, Madge re-traces his steps, and tries to find-out what really happened to him.

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1. Confront the Past

MADGE’S STORY

A strange thing happened to me the other day. In fact, strange things have been happening to me for a long time now: ever since my brother disappeared when I was 15. Later on, there was my childless and ultimately unsuccessful marriage, and the somewhat premature demise of my parents. I like to refer to all these events as ‘strange’ rather than just plain sad. This much sadness would be too hard to bear. ‘Strange’ is somehow easier.

And I cope with such strangeness by confronting it with normality. I always try to be banally, mind-numbingly normal. Thus, I can at least rely on Me, even if my other foundations are set in quicksand. So, when I was married, I had the most normal married life imaginable. We had a archetypal, modern semi in Bury St. Edmunds, of the kind that normal middle-income East Anglians always aspire to. We had a holiday in Spain every year. I joined a gym. My husband joined a golf club. We did gardening. We had a Ford Cortina, then a Ford Sierra, then a Ford Mondeo. My life was absolutely, disgustingly bloody normal. Whenever there was a crisis, I was the calm, rational, normal one. Even during my divorce, I remained civil and normal towards the man who is now my ex-husband.

So here I am today, divorced and childless, and planning to slip gracefully into middle age. Yet, I remain ‘normal’ – surprisingly contented in my little starter home, with a nice garden and lots of friends, and a nice job at the council. Enough contentedness to keep my mind off the past and all the strange things that have happened. And I feel quite happy to tick along in this way. Yes, I’m in a groove, but a pleasant one.

At least, I think I’m contented. But every so-often (as I said), something strange happens. Something that challenges the normal state of my mind. So, what was this particular thing? Well, nothing much, really. Some innocuous little thing that in itself was of little consequence. But when this thing was accompanied by a couple of coincidences, it had the overall effect of being strange. It was a wet Sunday, a couple of weeks ago. I had wanted to do gardening (there is so much to do in the garden in early May), so I was disappointed when I woke up to a wet morning. Mine is only a small garden, but there is no rule that says a small garden cannot be a nice one. My aim is to create the feeling of being deep in the countryside, even though you’re actually deep in the urban sprawl of Bury Saint Edmunds. Furthermore, I am in a gardening club, called ‘The Small Gardeners of Saint Edmundsbury.’ All the gardeners in this club having small gardens, you see (not the gardeners themselves being small). The aim of our club (which I helped to found) is to open all our little gardens to the public for one weekend in August, under the theme ‘Small But Perfectly Formed.’ All the entrance fees will go to charity. We will sell coffees and cakes at each garden, and these monies will go to charity too. Generally, we will have a jolly time. But the real satisfaction is of course hearing visitors say “wow, what a lovely garden!” Now, can you see why I was so disappointed to see the old rain rolling-in that Sunday morning? In protest, I decide to tidy-out the cupboard in my spare bedroom.

I sulk, and chuck aged bank statements and Council Tax bills into a bin bag, tearing them into small pieces as I go. But the acts of tearing and chucking improve my mood, and my mind starts drifting. Isn’t it strange (I ask myself) how I love gardening now, yet when I was a teen, ‘gardening’ was such an alien concept, so far off my radar, that the idea that you could have a hobby based in that space at the back of one’s house had not even occurred to me? Then, the urban scene was all I cared about, it was the only scene. Towns meant shopping, bright lights, clubs and other young people all into the same stuff as me. I would have laughed in your face if you had told me that by the age of 42, my main interest would be some arcane hobby based in the back yard. Then my mind drifts back to the task in hand. Why on earth have I kept cheque book stubs from 1998, or a 1996 receipt for a hairdryer (I threw the hairdryer away in 2001)? And just how old is some of this stuff? I know it cannot be that old, as I had a thorough cull of un-needed papers after my divorce. But then I find a 1995 bank statement, and that was before my divorce, knocking that theory on its head. Next, I find a credit card statement from 1983. 1983! A stare at it for some time, marvelling at how quaint it looks, compared with the flashy graphics you get on modern ones. 1983 though, how did that get here? 1983 was before I got married! I was still at living at Mum and Dad’s then. What else is here? I start to rummage, looking for anything else old. Suddenly I feel anxious, and there is a knot in my tummy. I realise that my normal defences have been breached. The strangeness of the past has broken-through once again.

However, I do not find anything else old. My anxiety retreats, and I hold up the bundle of papers, ready to tear them. Just as I am about to tear, one of the papers escapes from the bundle and flutters to the floor. It is a paper that I hadn’t noticed- a hand-written letter. I recognise the careful hand writing at once: Greg’s! The knot in my tummy instantly returns, and tightens alarmingly. I become angry at myself for having these feelings, and for succumbing to the strangeness so readily. Why did I decide to clear-out the cupboard in the first place? I curse the rain once more.

But I cannot stop myself from reading the letter. After Greg’s disappearance, I had carefully kept all the letters he had sent me. I had re-read each one a hundred times: even now I reckon I could tell you what each one had said, almost word-for-word (though I would prefer not to). Finally, some years after his disappearance, I knew that I needed to return to normality. So I destroyed all his letters, and accepted that he was never coming back. Effectively, he was dead. Then I got on with my life.

So where had this letter come from, and how had it escaped the fate that befell the other letters? As I read it, I realise it is not a letter I have seen before. Maybe it is one that he had sent to Mum and Dad? I check, but it definitely has ‘Dear Madge’ at the top. I come-up with the theory that Mum and Dad had (for some reason) intercepted my letter and decided not to pass it on to me. It had then got itself jumbled up with some papers, which had in turn got mixed-in with my papers, and, against all odds, survived for 27 years.

He has dated the letter 20th July 1976. In it, he talks about a forthcoming interview for a ‘proper job’ at Aural Digest, and brags about his friendship with a girl called Shaccara. Of course, I knew about his articles for Aural Digest, but this was the first time I have heard about Shaccara. As I read, I can feel the old habits coming back to me. Reading and re-reading each sentence, analysing them for clues as to what happened to him and where he might be now. I am shocked at how easily I am taken back 27 years, despite all my subsequent efforts to keep the past out of the present. At last, I tear myself away, and get on with tidying the cupboard. But I do not throw the letter away.

The next day, the rain has gone. I go to work. Everything is normal again. After work, I walk home as usual. Today, the weather is warm, so it is nice to walk. But the warmth stirs a distant memory in me. A memory of hot dry air, and scuffing down a dusty street in my school uniform, wishing I could take my shoes and socks off because it is so hot. That was the hottest summer that I shall ever see, that summer of ’76. Again, I hate myself for slipping in to the past. I tell myself, it is not that warm today, nothing like ’76- so don’t be silly! I walk on, and round a corner. But another guff of warm air blows in my face, and just at that very moment, a Mark Three Ford Cortina goes by.  Just the kind of car that people were driving in ’76. You don’t see them any more- except today here is one, a bright yellow one. It glides by magnificently, mocking the boring little hatchbacks we have nowadays. So cool! I gawp at it: I’m so uncool!

So the picture is complete: the warm air, the old car, the letter from Greg. For  a split-second it doesn’t just feel like 1976, it is 1976. That yellow Cortina is a ghost, or perhaps an acid flash-back, except I’ve never taken acid. And I remember that I cannot destroy the past, it will always be there, prodding at the present, too persistent to ignore. It is at that point I know that I must confront it once again.

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