On an overcast autumn day, my aunt introduced me to a family friend. He wore a scarf and thick gloves, his face bearded with grey. Perhaps he was fifty but he carried time on his shoulders as if he were a child. We visited his terrace house up a long flight of stairs. A mountain bike leant against the entrance hall wall, fine black venetian blinds cut the windows and bookshelves lined the living room.
His house was full, but not cluttered. Treasures from his travels were precisely and artistically displayed while books on music, poetry and art were ordered by subject matter (and probably alphabetically). He could have talked about the most random of things and put his hand to a book on the subject in a jiffy. He spoke of poetry like we were equals, as though I was wiser than my years and I left his house promising to send him some of my writing. He waved me goodbye, his gloves hiding his deformed hands.
I made him cards and sent him my poetry as his health deteriorated. He gave up his mountain bike and moved to a house with handrails not stairs. He spoke frankly about the progression of his disease and how calculated his life had become.
A year after I met him, my aunt handed me a parcel. “Barry’s moving into care,” she said, “He’s cleared out his house and he wanted you to have these back.”
I smiled at his inspiring organisation. Every letter I’d ever sent him, returned to me, neatly bundled with string.
“I got some books back.” my aunt said to my bewildered expression, “These are for you too.”
She handed me a bag. It contained a two folders of poetry and newspaper articles collected from magazines over his lifetime. One poetry folder said, “For Kate, student and poet, from Barry” written in his hand when his writing was still beautiful. He gave me his box of soft pastels, knowing it was my favourite artists’ medium and a framed collection of pressed leaves from around the world.
I still have these things.
The leaf collection hasn’t aged well. The backing paper has yellowed and the leaves have become brittle and slipped within their frame. It still contains Barry’s memories though, a leaf from Notre Dame de Paris, heather from the Yorkshire Moors, wheat from Greece and more – all labelled and dated. It reminds me of his house and that autumn day we met in the park.
And I have those two folders of poetry and articles. At fifteen, I believed their contents would mean more to me as I grew older, but they didn’t. He’d collected the articles because he personally knew the people they referenced and while I came to better appreciate the poetry, their significance belonged to Barry. I kept them because they were his, because they were important to him and because he gifted them to me. He recognised something in me I had not even found myself.
It’s easy for me to find reasons to keep things. The spirit and thought in which something is given is one of the most powerful. So I shuffle these things around the hiding places of my home and inevitably decide to let them go next year. Maybe. There’s always a niggling anxiety to that thought, like it would be disrespectful, like I’d be throwing part of them away.
Except without these memories, I simply own a stack of folders full of random poetry and articles, a set of pastels and a collection of decomposing leaves behind glass. These things remind me of Barry, but I could have written this blog post without them. Even after reading this, you will never know the fragrance of his house, the picture that hung in his bathroom or his sister’s name. Even if he had written books or been famous enough to write a memoir or he’d composed a symphony to be heard 250 years from now – he would always be more than what he left behind because I knew him. I remember him.
This is all I need to keep.
*returns items to storage*
This is the poem I wrote after meeting Barry, in a park (a former graveyard) one autumn day. I share it because it goes some way to conveying his spirit, and the grace and humour with which he faced his mortality. He lost his battle with Motor Neurone Disease a year after going into care.
Often you visit.
The tall sandstone plaques crumble
Under your touch.
Many people sleep here;
Beneath the stones, worn but noble,
Circled with ardent autumn colours
And comforting shades of green.
There are no new tenants,
Often you visit.
Purposely crunching the leaves
Under your feet.
You’ll be sleeping
Sooner than most, as your heart recedes.
When walking by
You waved at one stone’s face,
And you laughed,
“See you soon,” you said.