How do we live with the spectres of the past: lost loves, lost children, years wasted in bitterness and regret? And, in living with lament, do we become ghosts ourselves?
This is a tale of how we haunt ourselves, how the torment of the past can desiccate us. It’s also a tale of unlocking self-imposed shackles.
Grace’s long-dead husband, Pete, has always been the dark shadow at her side, captured eternally in her memories of his initial love for her, and of his physical and emotional abuse; now, she believes he’s reappeared in the flesh.
Looking back, to four decades earlier, we hear: ‘…with each blow, her love for him diminished. She would say she loved him but she felt it less and less.’
Jonathan Kemp has a talent for evoking a moment through a single image. Grace recalls: ‘pegging out their bedsheets for the first time and feeling as if she was pitching a flag on the summit of her happiness; declaring her joy to the world.’ He shows us not only a husband hated, but adored, and therein lies a tangled web.
There are memories too of a teenage daughter, who was lost emotionally to Grace long before her fatal drug overdose. Jonathan Kemp shows us the power of grief to place us out of joint with the world, disoriented, a form of madness, memories clanging a jarring bell.
Grace is adrift, failing to cope with the pain of the past. Her strategy of denial and containment has left her brittle. She’s barely breathing when we meet first meet her: a ghost of the self she once was.
Her cage is uniquely her own, but we all have our cages, inhabited by lovers long-ago-kissed, friends discarded, family members lost to us. They are the patterns woven into our personal tapestry, folded and put away, for what we avoid looking at we think we may forget.
Grace thinks: ‘What happens to all the pain you refuse to feel? Does the body store it perhaps, for a future date?’
I defy your heart not to ache for Grace and, in reading of her grief, to ache for yourself, for we are all haunted by the past, and by the transience of this life.
As Grace ponders: ‘Life happened. Only I feel like it happened without me, and I want it back so I can do it differently.’
As in The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Grace sees a woman crawling through the wall, trying to escape: a metaphor for her own effort to be free of what constrains her.
Kemp leads us through the female mind with insight, dark humour picking its way through dark themes. Grace wonders at what point her frustration will rob her of self-control. She recalls a friend of her mother’s who would carry a china saucer wrapped in a tea towel in her handbag, alongside a small hammer, ready for extraction in emergencies, to allow her to vent her anger. It must ‘go’ somewhere, or she’ll descend into madness, so she fears.
She pictures her thoughts as fishes, swimming inside the bowl of her skull; pictures herself ‘casting a line to catch them.’
At last, the mysterious apparition turns out to be Luke, whose youthful vitality and daring helps bring Grace back to life. While she locks her torment away, Luke uses performance art to purge his. Through their growing friendship, she realises that only she can release herself from grief’s burden.
Grace is: ‘becoming herself, and daily casting aside that fictitious self that people assume like a garment in which to appear before the world.’
The tale ends with Grace leaving behind her past, dropping her phone into the bin. She no longer feels the need for safe shelter. She’s ready to step into her future.
Grace notes, on visiting an art exhibition, that art is ‘a way of seeing’ and ‘a process’, ‘more than a product to be sold’. Some stories are told to enlighten us, to shine a small flame in the darkness of our haphazard ramblings, to show us the way. Kemp’s story is one such, urging us to recognise the pain we carry with us and to set it free. The pages are ‘a product to be sold’ but they are also a personal message, of encouragement to heal, and step into our own tomorrows.
Jonathan Kemp teaches creative writing and comparative literature at Birkbeck College, London. His first novel, London Triptych won the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award in 2011 and was shortlisted for the Polari Prize and the Green Carnation Prize. He is also the author of a collection of short stories, 26.
“There is a deceptively relaxed quality to Kemp’s writing that is disarming, bewitching and, to be honest, more than a little sexy… As a writer, Jonathan is somewhat akin to the Pied Piper if only because there is something magical you cannot help but follow.”
– Christopher Bryant, Polari Magazine.