The crack of sunlight drove gentle tendrils of gold through a gap in the curtains and stroked Ivy’s cheek until she stirred awake. She stretched and shifted her frail body. The bones which had felt so heavy of late seemed lighter somehow. Stronger. Fiercer. The frayed edges of her diminished vision pulsed with colour and shadow. Thoughts which had lain dormant, trapped in the tangled snare of ageing sinew, trembled into life and swarmed through her head.
For the first time in months, Ivy felt like going for a walk.
She swung her mottled legs over the side of the bed and her bare toes searched for the floor below. Taking small, birdlike steps Ivy slipped towards the door, pausing only to softly brush the hand of her sleeping husband with her fingertips. If only she could channel the strange healing forces that she felt on this curious morning to share with him. But instinct whispered that this gift was for her alone, and Ivy agreed not to pull him from the peaceful arms of sleep just yet.
She glided down the stairs and to the front door where her boots and jacket waited patiently for her like a quiet invitation for secret adventure. Once her nightdress was enveloped in generous folds of cotton and suede, Ivy stepped out into the cool green morning and headed for the fields. Her feet quickly remembered how to navigate the uneven country paths and she marvelled at the unfamiliar dexterity vibrating through her limbs. Filling her lungs with rich late summer air, Ivy let herself be overwhelmed by tranquility.
As she walked, she became increasingly aware of an unexpected bulk beneath her coat. Puzzled, she reached into her inner pocket where her fingers detected a foreign article. Ivy delicately withdraw the package and stared at it in wonder.
Claude tumbled from black to blue, soft pink to vivid grey, until he fell out of his surging dreams and into an empty bed. He rubbed the lingering shards of slumber from his eyes and extended a cold, weathered hand to where Ivy should have lain. Her lack of presence rippled and radiated from rumpled sheets. Claude eased himself up and scanned the dawn-tinted bedroom for his wife’s invisible trail of careful movement. Like a raindrop in a river, Ivy was gone.
He heaved himself free of the bedclothes, which suddenly felt obstructive and unwelcome. He squinted at the sliver of hallway visible through the unclosed bedroom door and his ears laboured to quieten the tinnitus that had kept silence at a distance for more than twenty years. Beyond the incessant drone, Claude could not hear the footfall of his wife and muted unease began to rise in his throat. Why would she have risen so early?
With rasping muscles, Claude pulled himself to his feet and fumbled for his glasses before slowly creaked out of the room. The dusky house was devoid of smells which might indicate a breakfast in progress; the perfume of tea, the dry warmth of toast. Whilst the physicality of Ivy was absent in every room he searched, the ghost of her glow hung in the air and permeated the spaces between familiar objects.
It became apparent that Ivy was no longer in the house and Claude ventured into the garden, a battered overcoat slung hastily over his pyjamas. Scanning the tidy, well-tended lawn, a flash of colour winked at him through distant trees and drew him towards the fence. A small figure crowned by silver hair grew smaller still as it wove past branch and leaf towards open fields. As Claude watched, recognition gradually ignited. He hesitated only briefly before treading towards the garden gate.
As daytime slurred into life, the patchwork hills rose quietly to surround the elderly lady striding through a glistening haze of green. Ivy’s feet continued to step, step, step as she examined the package in her hands, and now she realised what it was. A bundle of photographs.
She gently plucked the first picture from the top of the pile and brought it close to her face. A little girl’s solemn gaze drifted out of the sepia fog and locked Ivy in a hypnotizing stare. More than eight decades had passed since the photo was taken, yet Ivy recognised herself immediately even though the portrait was an unfamiliar one. It took her by surprise to consider that she had ever been that small; a blank canvas yet to be imprinted by the joys and dreams and fears of growing older. The little girl with the solemn stare encapsulated in an eternal childhood was a world away, and it had been a long time since Ivy had paid a visit.
Squeezing her eyes shut for a moment, she opened her fingers and let the photograph float away from her hand. The gentle breeze tossed and whirled the memory until it came to rest in the dew soaked grass.
The next photo from the top of the pile showed a slightly older Ivy making daisy chains in the garden with her two big sisters. Even though the picture was devoid of colour, Ivy could clearly see the blond hair, rosy cheeks and hazel eyes of the three children. She could almost hear the melody of their voices. Squeals of laughter echoed and reverberated in her head, and Ivy was filled with warmth as she remembered with a rush the friendship and affection that knitted them together. She’d forgotten how much she missed those simple days before the deceptions of adulthood had begun to interfere.
Like before, Ivy let the photograph fall from her grasp. She continued her journey across the fields, leaving behind the quiet ricochet of children’s voices.
Hurrying along the path he knew his wife had followed, Claude wished that he had taken the time to change out of his slippers before leaving the house. The soft soles snagged easily on stones and twigs, and within a few minutes the dew had soaked through to his bed socks. Each step felt clumsy and hindered, and Claude fretted that his slow progress had caused Ivy to slip out of view. He adjusted his glasses, imploring his eyes to slice through the expanse of trees which monopolised his vision and infringed on his consciousness like an unwelcome visitor.
Like Ivy, Claude loved the rural landscape and normally felt awash with contentment when immersed in the sanctuary of the hills, but today he struggled to place himself within the atmosphere. He felt like a stranger, his presence an intrusion on some cryptic natural power. Claude couldn’t figure out what it meant. If only he could catch up with Ivy, he was certain that the universe would rebalance itself.
Whilst trudging through the fields, something winked at Claude from the path ahead. He squinted, trying to work out what it could be, and felt compelled to investigate. He folded his tired bones until his fingers grazed the tips of the grass blades, and retrieved the time-stained photograph. It took a moment for him to recognise the child looking back at him, but once he noticed the elfin ears and saucer-shaped eyes there was no mistaking the infant Ivy. She looked so serious as a child, but Claude knew that the clever humour which drew him to her as a young woman must be lying dormant in her soul.
He pondered briefly the strangeness of his find, how a baby photo of his wife should be waiting for him on this pathway, when he noticed a fluttering further down the field. As he approached, the glistening shape murmured noiselessly and he had a feeling that he know what it might be.
Claude collected the second photograph and stepped back in time once again. The love between the three sisters seeped from the image like flour through a sieve, falling delicately from the paper to be quickly absorbed by the hungry earth.
The picture seemed to nourish Claude, and he picked up his pace in the hope that Ivy was just a few steps around the next corner.
Ivy devoured photograph after photograph, pouring over each one and letting herself melt back in time. Snapshots of her youth danced happily in her hands; family, friends, the blue-doored cottage where she and her sisters lived for more than 14 years, the neighbour’s grumpy black Labrador which Ivy spent many determined hours trying to befriend through the garden fence, school uniforms, birthday cakes, a battered red bicycle with a wilting daisy chain threaded through the spokes. A world of misty nostalgia descended to swathe Ivy in its kindly embrace.
Each picture absorbed, each picture discarded. The memories fused with her consciousness and she did not need the physical reminder. They would never again be forgotten.
Ivy watched herself mature; features sharpening, coming into focus. Flowery dresses superseded by pencil skirts. High school girls replaced by college friends. She thumbed her way through the pictures into adulthood and suddenly, there was Claude. A lopsided grin twitched on his freshly shaved face, a trademark trilby nestled in a mass of chocolate curls. She remembered the lithe, energetic man who had quietly, carefully seized her heart and suspended it in waves of love. As a young man and as an old man, Claude’s capacity to set her heart thrashing against her rib cage with a few simple words was absolute, though he had never realised the power he had over her. Ivy let herself be consumed by the lifetime of love stored up in the fibre of her brittle body.
As the morning sun yawned higher into the sky, its heat warmed her bones and she prickled under the heaviness of her coat. Still clutching the remaining photos, she shrugged it from her shoulders to bare the lilac nightdress underneath. The coat dropped in a crumpled pile, now nothing more than another part of the undeniable trail she was leaving behind her.
Claude’s breath quickened as he pushed himself to increase his pace; his exertion countered by the anticipation of catching up to his wife. He marvelled at how far from their home they had both travelled. Recently, their mobility had not extended beyond a gentle stroll around the blossoming garden. He was unprepared for the pilgrimage which was wrapping itself around him.
He had collected, examined and carefully stowed each discarded photograph which illuminated his path, every snapshot of a story reminding him who he was so desperately searching for. A narrative unfolded from the pictures; a young woman’s life laid bare and retold through frozen glimpses. When Claude himself became part of the chronicle, he swam through deep caverns of memories, surfacing only to remind his feet not to stop moving.
Their wintery wedding day, the miniscule rooms of their first rented flat, the proud but tired smiles of new parents returning from the hospital to a life unrecognisable from everything which had come before. Fortified with fear and joy. A bigger house, enriched by games and crayons and tiny handprints. Parks, beaches, caravans, snow, Christmases, parties, craft projects, school uniforms, gap toothed smiles. Claude could remember teasing, reprimanding, comforting his family so many years ago more vividly than ever before. Is this how Ivy feels right now, he wondered?
He had stumbled when his feet caught in Ivy’s abandoned coat, lying damp and forlorn amongst the still-moist blades of grass. Yet more pieces of herself she was leaving behind. Suddenly, he began to feel her slipping from him as if the rules were shifting, the unquestionable tether of more than five decades of marriage growing frail and opaque. Startled and uneasy, he broke into a lurching jog and filled his heavy lungs with air.
‘Ivy!’, he bayed at the stoic, swaying trees ahead. The trees regarded him silently, and gave him no comfort.
Ivy had already grown old once. Now she watched herself grow old again as the photographs abandoned the energetic young mother, clearing a path for crow’s feet, grey hair and sun-spoilt skin to emerge. Her children towered above her at every gathering, and eventually she saw their own youth seeping away. While she and Claude still shared their unfaded smiles with the camera, she knew the mortal strains that their faces concealed; aches, deficiencies, unwelcome lumps, tentative remission and slowing organs.
Despite the betrayals of their bodies, their world was still woven with fortune and blessings. Retirement in a chocolate box country cottage, chubby grandchildren bouncing on knees and dancing through the garden, peaceful breakfasts consumed to the soundtrack of bird song, jigsaws and crosswords completed in front of a real coal fire. These photographs were just as welcome to Ivy’s hungry eyes.
The stack of memories in her hands grew smaller and smaller until Ivy realised she was clasping the very last one. Less than an hour old, she cradled the image of Claude asleep in their bed as she had left him before she started walking. This image had not been captured with a camera, but Ivy didn’t question it.
She was starting to understand.
Claude’s painfully slow run was fraught as he battled with his old bones, and broken as he still tried to stoop down for photographs as they fluttered and glinted. Some he managed to seize, other slithered through his fingers and fell behind. Those which he snatched were gripped hard, and he tried to steal glances as his vision bobbed up and down.
He was pursued by the sensation that Ivy was being pulled from him, moving further into the distance. As if he was travelling through water, each movement felt dragged and hindered by a rushing force. He wheezed out Ivy’s name as often as his burning lungs would allow, but it was as if someone had turned the volume down. His voice was as muted as his physical progress.
He rounded a corner, and realised he could finally see her. His heart leapt and his muscles felt revitalised. Ivy was no longer obscured by nature’s landscape, he was almost there. All he had to do was get to her.
The path rose in front of Ivy and her legs worked harder to match the incline. She was dimly aware of a muffled sound…was that her name floating up on the breeze at her back and trying to invite her attention? Maybe it was, but she had finished looking backwards; she’d relived her life already today, the rest of her journey could only take her forwards.
We are only the sum of our memories, she thought to herself. Everything we experience becomes a reflection which is absorbed and retained. The people we touch, the places we visit, the rhythm we live; it shapes us, moulds us, scars us and heals us. This is how we have been created; each breath composed and immortalised in recollection. Without our memories, what would be left?
The sun peeked curiously over the brow of the hill, blooming larger and brighter with every step that Ivy took towards it. The breeze played cheerfully with the folds of her skirt and pushed casually at her back like a guiding hand. She reached the top of the rise with a lightness of spirit that swelled and threatened to overflow.
The trees nodded encouragingly, and she continued down the other side of the hill.
Claude’s throat stung with the effort of shouting, but Ivy was not responding to his breathless calls. He was gaining on her, but not fast enough. The frustration gathered in his eyes and spilled over into tears.
As Ivy stepped over the hill, he was only a few metres behind. Surely she could feel how near he was? As her silver hair disappeared over the slope, he thrust himself through the ice and fire of expired, devastated muscles to just keep going for a few more paces. He could almost touch her. He crossed over the brow and…
…Ivy was gone.
The shock threw Claude sideways. He faltered, stumbled and crashed noisily to the ground, his sweating hands sliding painfully through the dust and gravel of the track. From where he lay, he frantically scanned the landscape convinced that his misty eyes must have missed her somehow, but the soft green landscape held its secrets and Ivy was nowhere to be seen. Where there should have been two sets of footprints, he was distraught to notice that he could see only one.
Claude did not get up for a long time, even after his breathing had returned to normal. Scattered around him, the fallen collection of photographs winked and shone but did not blow away. When Claude eventually felt strong enough to move, he reached out his arms and gathered the pictures to his chest. He stared at the images of his wife, whom he had felt slipping from him as he followed her trail, and let himself be overcome with her loss. The pieces of Ivy that he held in his hands were all that remained.
He rose heavily to his feet, and clutched her tightly on the long walk home.
I grew up in the wilds of the Northumbrian countryside where I developed a fondness for reading my books halfway up a hill, with only a decrepit walkman for company. I'm now happily settled in Newcastle where I work as a trainer for an organisation which doles out cash to charities, which is quite lovely. I'm lucky to have found myself a tolerant husband and ginger Labrador to share a home with. Currently cooking up our first baby, which we're excited to welcome to the world in October 2015. I can't wait to share my love of literature with a little person through bedtime stories :)
IVY'S TRAIL copyright © Katy Luscombe 2015