Life writing: Smoke still rises

Colour photograph of a calm sea and pale blue sky

It was almost thirty years ago.
Almost a lifetime for me.
Four lifetimes for you.

The day my parents told me, we had been to the museum to look at the dinosaurs. I had stood next to replica skeletons and marvelled at their size, wondering what it would be like to have a triceratops as a pet. I had touched fossils, trying to grasp the meaning of millions, the feeling of that much time passing and something still being left behind. Something still surviving, even though it hadn’t really survived. Even though it was only stone now, ghosts in stone.

I had a new pen, a souvenir from the museum. It was red and white and instead of having a lid that came off or a button on the end that clicked, it had a sliding mechanism that allowed the entire body of the pen to shift and turn like a machine. I don’t remember which of my parents spoke, but I remember them both kneeling next to me. I turned the pen over and over in my hands, memorising how its mechanism felt and wanting to break it. I didn’t break it. I used it to write a letter to you.

I described the night before you left, in case you didn’t remember. We had built a fort from couch cushions and thought that if we hid well enough, no-one would find us and you wouldn’t have to go. I wrote about how the lorry had crashed into the back of the car, about how you weren’t wearing a seatbelt and had been thrown through the space between the two front seats and how your head hit the dashboard so hard that you died straight away. They said you hadn’t felt a thing so I was worried that you wouldn’t have known how it had happened if someone didn’t tell you.

I carefully tucked the letter between the logs on the fire and after it was lit I ran out into the garden to watch the smoke rise from the chimney, carrying my words up to you. I was still at an age when life and death could be equated to altitude. I made a promise to you, so important that it needed to be spoken out loud.

I promise that I will do everything. You can’t do anything any more, so I will do everything. For both of us. Forever.

Fossils are still ghosts in stone and I still write and smoke still rises. And I have kept my promise.

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