Some years ago, standing by the buffet at a family occasion, I witnessed a brief encounter between a middle-aged woman and an old flame. As they turned towards each other they both seemed to soften, and although the years didn’t quite fall away from them, it was possible to glimpse their younger selves.
I didn’t know anything about the history between them, but then, I didn’t really need to. It was a public moment that was also very private; it was quite clear that whatever was involved in that exchange was none of anybody else’s business.
Inevitably, the time came for them both to move on, and be reabsorbed into the social scene going on all around them, with its greetings and small talk and introductions and catchings-up; and it was almost, but not quite, as if whatever had passed between them had never been.
The hideous lilac bridesmaid’s dress
At the beginning of my new novel, After I Left You (out July 31), Anna, the heroine and narrator, has a similarly poignant conversation with Victor, her first love. Their paths cross in a London bookshop. She is not looking her best, having come in to shelter from the downpour outside; she is drenched, her hair is dripping, and she is carrying a hideous lilac bridesmaid’s dress over one arm. They talk, briefly, and part with much left unsaid.
The past may be behind us, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone for good.
For Anna, this meeting does more than stir up memories of love. She hasn’t seen Victor for 17 years; she cut off all contact with him and their group of friends from university when she left. He reminds her of times she would rather forget and the secret she has never told him, and she is not at all sure that she is ready to face up to the past.
But try as she might, she can’t keep away from it. Before long her story jumps back to the early 90s and she is eighteen again, arriving at university and meeting Victor for the first time. The novel moves between two timelines – her student days and her present – and gradually reveals exactly what it is that Victor doesn’t know.
Back to the 90s…
That’s part of the power of secrets. Truth has a way of burrowing up to the surface, and a revelation can break down the distinction between then and now, and bring what happened years ago right into the spotlight of the present. The past can change us and change with us. It may be behind us, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone for good.
I’ve always loved the idea of time travel, and until someone finally invents a suitably modified DeLorean for real, novels are the closest we’ve got. Like Anna, I was a student in the early 90s, when it still seemed yuppie to have a mobile phone, only geeks had email and you left messages for people on a sheet of A4 blu-tacked to their door. (Very public.)
The Conservatives seemed to have been in forever, pub interiors were havens for smokers (and there were many of them), ciabatta and cappuccino were sophisticated novelties and if somebody made you a mixtape you knew they really liked you. It increasingly seems like another world, and working on After I Left You gave me the chance to revisit it.
I have since had the strange double experience of walking into a scene that I had already written about from Anna’s perspective. Earlier this year, I went to a college reunion. Mine was much less dramatic than Anna’s. There was no Hollywood glamourpuss having an illicit fag in the ladies’, and nobody ostentatiously flirting to provoke an ex-spouse, sobbing in the chapel, or dodging a confrontation in the bar. (Not as far as I know, anyway. I left at midnight.)
But, like Anna, I did find that in some ways twenty-odd years really don’t make a lot of difference. Everybody’s younger selves were still there, and became more visible the longer you looked. It was a vivid reminder that the past is always out there somewhere; chances are that sooner or later, whether you seek it out or not, you’re going to walk right into it.
A version of this blog post recently appeared on The Page Turners Facebook page.