Vanilliinia Tabernacle

They were both in a single bed against the wall with a thick white duvet ruffled over them like a cloud, distorting the shapes of their bodies underneath. It was a small plain room with wooden floorboards and, from the light that came from behind the closed curtain, it was the middle of the day. She lay on the wall-side and her sister the edge. They were laughing. In the corner was a dark wooden cabinet with a porcelain sink inside, a large oval mirror above the taps. There may not even have been a door. I was out of the bed wearing only my underwear. It was not cold, it was warm. A sentence ended, something someone said. In my hands I held a framed photograph of a landscape, blue & green. I, too, was laughing, just tailing out into a chuckle, when I leaned over them, over the bed and, balancing finely, hung the framed photograph from a nail already in the wall. The sister said—‘He does have very good quads.’ And H—, watching me, said—‘See, I told you.’

I woke up. It was half-seven. Even without my alarm, I wake up at half-seven. When I go to bed late, still I wake up at half-seven.

She says I am not yet over her. I believe that I am, and then, from nowhere, a thought or dream of hers occurs to me, and I accept it without bitter taste or sadness, without resistance; regardless, dreaming of her impacts upon me a feeling for the rest of the day that I cannot articulate. There are so many niches in the mind, a million places for memories to hide; memories that were born in broad daylight or the red lamp of a bedside, a sofa glow, tube station, or middle of the Baltic sea, recede into the shadows of consciousness, chased or retreating, afraid or ignored, they end up there somehow. The subconscious welcomes such memories with open arms. I understand that my subconscious owns a chain of B&B’s on the outskirts of my mind, always vacancies, always a warm bed and a hot meal. It has one of those signs posted in the bay windows and is run by a friendly old woman with an unfolding perm and no chin. She is embarrassed by the fact that no two of her coffee mugs are alike. ‘Don’t go into town,’ she warns her guests. ‘I’ll let you stay here on credit. You can pay me when you get work.’ In the hallway is a bowl of green apples that never sour or stale; she polishes them during chores.

She was the only person who sent me a birthday present: a book and a chocolate bar, and a note of course, in trademark scratched handwriting. I blame my mother and Oedipus for my fondness towards women with terrible handwriting. I read the book straight away. On the book, too, I attached memories – subconscious or otherwise – of my journeys to work and a graveyard in Mile End. On the book I attached memories of purple and orange mornings, of skies filled with peach and coral, thin mists over the estuary and the water tower on the hill of Colchester that lends the town the appearance of an upturned breast. For reasons undefined, I did not eat the chocolate bar straight away. Perhaps because I kept it in my bedroom, it was never to hand when I felt like eating chocolate. I would save the chocolate bar for a special occasion, but I did not know what. Reading the book seemed like an act of time and space, but consuming the chocolate bar was sentiment, and I wished to save it for a moment of note. What note, I could not decide. What great event would cause me to finally devour it, and how would I feel as I did so? It could have cost no more than two euro, but there it sat on my bureau, undisturbed, waiting to be eaten, as though it were a sacrament in Monday morning’s tabernacle.

[FI Maitosuklaata (35%) ja mantelia (5%) kaakaonougattäytteella (60%). Ainekset: glukoosisiirappia, sokeria, kasvirasvoja (palmu, shea), rasvatonta maitojauhetta, kaakaovoita,manteleita, täysmaitojauhetta, kaakaomassaa, vähärasvaista kaakaojauhetta, herajauhetta (maidosta), hydrolysoitua maitoproteiinia, suolaa, emulgointiainetta (auroingonkukkalesitiiniä), aromeja (mm. vanilliinia). Saattaa sisältää pieniä määriä hasselpähkinää. Maitosuklaa sisältää kaakaota vähintään 27% jakaakaovoin lisäksi muita kasvirasvoja.]

I am grinning like a monolinguist over the Finnish affectation for repeating vowels, doubling the size of the word, as many vowels as consonants, lending my untrained eyes & foreign ears the impression that any native reading it is not quite certain they are pronouncing it right themselves! As someone who appreciates the written word and language, I have a great deal of respect for a nation whose tongue bears so little in common with any other. And when I see those words – transcribed from the back of a wrapper – I am inclined to remember signs above shop entrances, advertisements about town, departure boards, building names I saw during my time in Helsinki. Having forgotten all the Finnish she taught me, I hear the words, as I imagine them, in her voice. The sound of her is a memory that is crouched in a corner of my mind. Early in the lockdown, flustered by stress and uncertainty, I found myself forgetting the sound of her voice until one day she sent me a video of her calling after her dog who was barking at a canoeist. Back then I watched the video more for the sound of her voice than the smile on her face as she beckoned; the memory, fogged into a nook of my nostalgia, raised its nose and crept forward, out the sharp edge of shadow to expand vividly in front of me.

So, I kept the chocolate bar without eating it, kept it on a tray next to a small pile of money (accrued birthday gifts from my grandmother I had not spent), a tub of Vaseline and a note from my eldest niece. Every time I clean my room, I clean the chocolate bar, too, lest it become caked in dust. The wrapper has been perfectly preserved so that I could, if able, replace it on the shop shelf without anyone noticing or being able to tell it had travelled one thousand miles and kept for seven months. Often I thought about eating it, but the situation never seemed important enough. I sought an occasion to enjoy it. On Sunday the twenty-first of March, I cleaned my room and, for no reason whatsoever, checked the best-before date: ninth of March. That was my dog’s birthday before he drowned to death. (It was also Bukowski’s death. Usually, I try not to remember an artist’s death, but in my teenage years it struck me that my dog was born on the same day as my favourite writer had died, imagining the soul had drifted from one body into another, but I had the years mixed up and they had indeed coexisted (peacefully) for three-hundred-and-sixty-five days.) It had passed its prime. Double-checking the date, I wiped the chocolate bar with a cloth, then put it back next to the pile of money and tub of Vaseline. The chocolate kept through the last hot summer month of my birthday, the eventual ‘I’ve been dating someone lately’, through the second wave and then beyond Christmas, the start of spring. Perhaps the chocolate reached its peak at some point, like wine, yet still I did not eat it.

Waking up at seven-thirty, I saw that my phone was still on what I had been watching as I fell asleep, the frame frozen. At some point during the night, it ceased and stayed there. My back pained me, something like elbows into the gang of brown organs I keep there. Rolling, I saw the featurelessness of the ceiling, the pale of the blinds, the ghost of a dream echoing itself to me. Jesus was lying in a cave, so I could afford myself another few hours of sleep.

It was a miserable day. A cold wind blew. The cold wind usually blows off the sea, and I feel it as I am walking, but this cold wind was blowing off the land. Going for a walk as something to do, thinking it might cheer me up; it did not. I cooked a large dinner for everyone, thinking it might cheer me up; it did not. I watched a film, thinking it might cheer me up; it did not. I took the chocolate bar downstairs, drank and wrote down all the ingredients, thinking it might cheer me up; it did not. The next morning, Easter Sunday, the chocolate bar was still there, displaced from where I had kept it next to the tub of Vaseline and pile of money. The inside of my skull tasted like a sour apple. Spotting the chocolate bar, I went over and scooped it up surreptitiously, afraid that someone might recognise it as a foreign object. It was my secret. Carried it upstairs, straightened the wrapper, held it to the light, looking for imperfections, then set it down where it belongs, next to the tub of Vaseline and pile of money.