Grief and Peace
Sometimes I come here just to think, it’s so peaceful. Usually, I head straight to Pockerley, wander slowly round the cool, dark rooms of the house or sit out in the landscaped garden. There’s something about the simplicity of the life represented here that helps me to slow down and relax. I know there’s no phone signal, no one bothers me or asks me how I am. I could and do pass hours just like this, just sitting and breathing, trying to let my mind go blank and getting through the day.
In the beginning, when I first discovered the tranquillity of this part of the museum, I used to ask endless questions of the staff. They must have thought me mad but I envied them. Thinking that somehow their costumes, the roles they were playing, their time spent here, gave them access to the peace I was seeking. After a while, I knew everything there was to know.
The first time I came here, it was painful. I could feel her presence here so acutely, in every child who laughed, delighted at the trams, grabbed the home-made biscuits, ran and jumped and I couldn’t bear it that she would no longer do those things. Seeing all these other families, so happy, so alive and bursting while all inside me was black and inert.
I actually burst into tears at the fairground one day, remembering watching her on the ride, her chestnut hair flowing behind her, her laugh ringing in my ears as her dad hugged her tight, keeping her safe as the horse went up and down and around. I can picture so vividly the blue dungarees, a hand-me-down from my nephews that she loved and lived in, the bottoms rolled up to stop her falling as she ran this way and that. Not just here but everywhere. She was always so curious, staring intensely as she listened or watched, her mouth tight shut but twisting as though the questions were trying to seep out of her pursed lips. I imagined all the things I would tell her. Everything I could learn and then repeat to her, seeing her excited eyes and waving limbs as she became animated, tugging at me to tell her more, tell her again, take her to see. The knowledge that I would never be able to made the ground shift below my feet, the sadness and grief rushing forward, drowning me in their combined weight right then and there. I don’t know how I got out of the museum, simply that I did and the next few days passed in a blur of fitful sleep.
I continued to return to the museum, bargaining that I would take the pain for the brief glimpses of my life before, a sense that she could be just behind me still. At least with pain there was the reassurance that I was alive. Eventually my visits became longer, the panic at arriving subsiding more quickly and I would find myself walking quickly to be in the gardens, looking out over the Waggonway, letting the sounds around me fade until they were merely a background as my mind began to empty and my breathing slowed. I brought food so that I didn’t have the leave the spot, occasionally a book though I no longer have the concentration to read for long. One day, I brought one of Anna’s books, one that I had read to her while she was undergoing treatment and this time the tears that roll are not so unhappy but a sign of relief that I can still bring her face so clearly to mind. I began to come to terms with my reality.
It must have been a few months after that that I spoke to her father and we came here together. I thought I would have to work up the courage, one day push myself to contact him, but in the end it felt so natural. I had remembered vividly the first time we brought her; the tantrums and wailing in the car, a fear that she would be too young to enjoy it and very nearly turning back. And then the sudden quiet as we entered the museum together, through the dark room; the soothing voice of the man describing previous ways of life and then the bright light of outside and the clear bell of the tram. It was as though just breathing this untouched air, brought with it peace, into her lungs, pumped around her little body into every vein. This place would be forever hers. I knew he would remember too for we had talked about it often and so I punched his number in, no flinching or anger, but just as though we were back in time and I was ringing to remind him to pick up the milk or to put the bins out. We talked a few more times, and these conversations were harder, sometimes filled with long silences unable to read each other over the phone. We alternated between overly bright calls filled with unimportant daily trivia and endless stretches of simply listening to each other cry, not wanting to hang up for a fear that we would lose something all over again.
I think it was him who suggested we should visit the museum together. He said he hadn’t been back since, said he would like to, with me. It was heart breaking to see him experience all I had that first time, see his legs fail, have him grasp for my arm and cough quickly to hide the cries bubbling up in his throat. We only made it as far as the coffee shop, grateful for an obscured corner table, the silence filled with kitchen noises, coach trips and the bustle of the entrance. We shared stories of her – together, separate, some I’ve never heard before. All the times we’d been to the museum together, when she’d ridden the trams, cried at the dentists, bought sweets from the sweet shop. And then wider. Her first day at nursery, learning to ride a bike, dancing, all three of us together in the kitchen. We talked about her and us, us without her and us without each other. I felt like a traveller who has been wandering an empty landscape, coming upon a stranger, and knowing that however bleak the setting, I could take strength from company. We would have to get to know each other again, heal the pain together and undoubtedly endure more in the process, but I knew that we would make it.
One day, when I was here by myself, when the grief seemed like mine alone, I got talking to a lady who lost her mum. She told me that some of her belongings were here in the museum, given as a gift after she passed and that she liked to visit and see them, to see some part of her mum’s life preserved, acknowledged. When she looked at me, I found that I was crying. She apologised for upsetting me, not knowing my reasons for being there. She was the first person outside family and friends that I told about Anna. And she didn’t say she was sorry, didn’t try to change the subject and erase Anna’s image. She reached out and held my hand, asked me about her, laughed when I laughed even though tears were still streaming down my face. We sat in silence for a time and then she pulled me up, hugged me and left. I can’t remember if she said anything but I hope to see her here again. It was a strange relief to know that someone else was grieving, and in pain, to know that I am not the only one who misses someone. It made me think how a beautiful a thing it is to have the courage to keep someone alive in that way. That weekend I gave some of Anna’s toys to charity. Not all of them, but a few bags. It makes me happy to think of another child playing with them as she did. I think, now, that perhaps all of us are missing someone, something. That in some senses we all have one foot in the past. But that that’s okay. That perhaps it is that foot, that stands where so many generations have stood before, that doesn’t hold us back or tie us down but rather grounds us and gives us the strength to carry on into our future.
It was on that day I found that Anna remains with me, lives with me, through me; in all the stories that are passed on, spoken aloud and shared. The images forever imprinted in my mind. I talk to her and about her. I no longer hide the few precious belongings I have kept, the photos I pushed into drawers. It is in this way, as with the tales of others’ lives that I experience on my visits here, that she is kept alive. And more than that, that her life is made to have mattered. Maybe she will never be a tale in history but she is the narrative of my history and more than that, forever in my present.
Halloween at Beamish and there’s a festive, end of term feel to the office. I’ve been to have my face painted; dark green all over, with the arched eyebrows and boils of a cartoon witch. As I change into my costume I keep catching sight of myself in the mirror and am surprised again each time. I have on a black top, that is somewhere between a shirt and a jacket and feels like something out of a Dickens novel. With that, a full length black skirt, made of flowing chiffon layers and a heavy black velvet cloak. I know I’ll be outside for the night so underneath I wear leggings and thick sturdy boots. On my arm is a wicker basket, filled with sweets. The spirit of the evening is tingling through me. It’s only 4 o’clock but it’s cold and already dark outside and the wind is beginning to pick up. Despite this, I decide to walk the long route round to the briefing. The museum has closed early to prepare the buildings and I want to take the chance to have the site to myself in the early evening lull. I am taken, not for the first time, by how easy it is to transport yourself to another place and time here. Walking on these pavements, there are no cars, no flashing lights and intrusive noises. At this moment, not another living soul. A shudder runs through me and I laugh at myself and how easily I am spooked.
The night is black and the breeze around me blows with an increasing energy. Walking down the hill, towards the pit village I feel my cloak billowing behind me. Looking ahead I see the smoke rising from the chimneys, the windows lit up and glowing with life and I can’t help but feel excited for the night ahead. The buildings seem alive with these stark blocks of colour, each one an inviting doorway to another world. Figures pass behind the glass, creating shadows and catching my eye. In one, a woman is frozen in silhouette, all her attention turned to a task I cannot see. It is an odd sensation to pass so close by each of these people, who might at any moment look up and out and connect my world with theirs. And yet, I am able to pass by unnoticed, completely on my own in the surroundings. I want to linger, to see what unfolds with these Halloween shadow puppets, but I don’t want to be late and so I push on into the woods. After the animated buildings, the deadly still of the trees is unnerving, and I feel a sense of unease. The wind whistles and then howls, reaching an animalistic pitch as I hear the crunching of leaves and catch a movement between the trees to my right. I practically run the last few metres to get back out into the open. Catching my breath I steel myself to look behind me and of course, there is nothing there.
I am now at the top of a hill, on a path that will eventually lead me to the 1920s town. From this vantage point I can see others on the road ahead; a couple emerge from Pockerly to join them, and there feels to be a sense of purpose, a common destination. To my left, fairy lights adorn the fence, stretching away into the distance, drawing me forward. With each step and each light that disappears behind me, new lights appear at the end of the line in front and with the town not yet in sight it has a hypnotising effect.
My mind wanders to the beat of my boots on the path, my skirt flowing out and in with every stride creating ripples of movement. My wicker basket hangs from the crook of my arm and my cloak feels as though it carries a sense of importance, a recognisable uniform that marks my tribe. I imagine myself on the way to a meeting of the coven, feel myself shift into that character, feel the spirit enter my body and bones as I walk. New figures emerge from the shadows to join the procession, all in black and flaunting the disfigurations that mark their faces, sporadically illuminated in pools of light. Each with the knowledge of some shared goal, a determination in their stride. The feeling intensifies with every step and I have to draw my cloak tighter around me as the wind lands cold ice kisses on my face and neck, sends whispers of hair wild around my face. It is a sudden and chilling feeling, like waking from a nap during which day has turned to night, to realise that I have been walking for some length of time and yet seem no closer to the town than when I started. I look at my watch for fear that I might be late but helpfully it has stopped at dead on 12 o’clock. I have no way of knowing how long I have walked in my day dream.
I quicken my pace, try to mark time with the lights I pass; counting, measuring, the small bright dots continuing to appear in front and disappear behind, following the curve of the pavement that makes me feel disorientated. I am sure that I should be there by now, that it has never taken me this long before. My heart beats a little faster and I find myself struggling to take hold of the thoughts and visions that are crowding my mind. I walk faster, try to push down the panic, looking desperately for landmarks in the merging shades of night that surrounds me. Light after light continues to appear on the path in front, daring me to choose between racing forward and turning back. It is too much and I try to look behind me but only see more of the same and as I do, I trip and nearly fall on my skirt or cloak. It was only then that I realised there were no longer any other figures on the road. I was, in all senses, alone. My basket weighs heavy on my arm and I feel as though I am in free fall. I continue to walk. With no other choice, I worry and wonder, think myself hallucinating and outside of myself. Who knows how much time has passed, how long I have been chasing the end that never came, before accepting this, my fate. A never ending limbo, with legs that grow tired but are never still; that pull onwards drenched in a desire that they had never started on this path on this night. And so it is, that one cold evening at the end of October, on all Hallows’ Eve, I found my purgatory.
It’s the 1950s
The rations are going
In ’52, it’s the tea,
Sit down, have a brew,
’53 eggs and sugar,
Have a cake with that cuppa!
Even better, ’54,
We’ve got margarine and butter,
And last but not least
June ’54 is the meat.
And the fashion of the fifties!
So colourful and bright
Gravy browning up your stockings
In the double seat, back row
It’s the 1950s
And anything could happen.
I am a green dress. I have a high waist and sleeves that come to just below the elbow, with five gold buttons down my front. I have a strip of white fabric at the bottom of my length which skims the floor as I am worn. I came into the world in the costume department, made by skilled hands, nimble fingers and creative minds. Into me they stitched thoughts of the past, present and future. Since then, I’ve had many owners, many outings, glimpses into many lives. Rain, mud and dirty hems. Sunshine, heat and dry, dusty soil, kicked up onto me as they walk.
The first feeling I experienced was one of discomfort. A young girl, awkward and uncomfortable. She stood looking at me for a long time in the mirror. She tugged my waist and hem. Rolled my sleeves up, then down. As she walked with me, the tugging, adjusting and fidgeting continued. But then a strange thing happened. We reached a beautiful building, through fields and past a waggon way, which I would later learn was to be my home, whoever I was with. And she relaxed. The movement stopped. I felt her breathing slow and her body stretch up straight. She paused outside and I felt the cool air circle us both. She was as at home here as I was. I stayed with her for several months, watched her confidence grow, heard many and varied conversations as she told the visitors about our home, its age, it history. On occasions she even talked about me. I was tugged now by small curious hands of children running in and around, had dough wiped on my apron and dirty cleaning water dribbled on my fabric. Together we learnt the routines of this place, these buildings.
Then one day, I found myself back on a hanger. I was bustled in amongst other clothes, waist coats and trousers, long black skirts and white shirts with high necks. I thought that was it until a pin was pushed through my shoulder. In time I would recognise this as my reassignment. A new name, a new claim to my fabric.
This time there was sadness and grief. The same routines of the house were observed but slower, more methodical. Conversations with colleagues were limited and stilted. In time I learned, with them, that I was worn by a widow, the pain and loneliness seeping through my folds. I adapted to this new feeling, this sense of stillness and quiet. But I was also aware of small changes. Of a satisfaction when the table was scrubbed clean, of a growing faith in the familiarity of her surroundings. The sadness was still there but it was mingled with a sense of peace, eventually. I was well cared for, washed and starched, fixed by her own hands when a seam began to unfurl or a button loosen. There was a sense of pride in our combined presentation. We were together for a few years and when we parted I was happy knowing that there was a lightness in her leaving that was not there when we met.
I lose track of all my companions in my time but I remember those who’ve worn me the longest or with the strongest feelings. I remember a young woman because, through her, in my travels to her home I was worn, very briefly, by a man for the first and only time. The room rung with laughter as he tried to make his arms fit my narrow sleeves, as she tied the apron round his waist and added the bonnet to his head. Their house was full of laughter and love. I enjoyed our time together – she was happy and energetic. She walked briskly, linked arms and hugged, even danced once down past the church, with two others, encouraged to join in until they were breathless but delighted. After a few years, I noticed a different change; an even greater sense of purpose. I was returned to costume, where my seams were let out, bit by bit to give her space to grow to accommodate the new life growing inside her. It wasn’t very long after that that I was back on the rail but the memory of that time has stayed with me.
Aside from those few, I remember snippets of my other owners; the smell of the perfume they wear or the washing powder they use, the changes to my size and shape made to fit with theirs, the emotions I felt and the changes they encountered. I absorbed the stories of our house in the museum, ghosts of the women who would have, could have worn me and what that life would have been. And now, I’m worn by a writer, trying to find the secrets in my seams.
Notes: This story was inspired by conversation with Beamish Museum’s costume team