In Belfast airport this evening, on the return leg of a work trip, I was confronted with my son’s first love. Sophie The Giraffe! There she was, a tiny statue version of herself, dancing on a music box in a tourist shop. A last minute gift for a busy parent like me to grab at; she’ll be gone by Christmas Eve.
I let out a gasp and said, ‘Hello Sophie!’ with such an air of mad recognition that two assistants asked if I needed any help.
Our Sophie, so important once, so key to my baby’s happiness that I felt jealous of a plastic toy, is now forgotten, her squeak no longer heard, her rouged up cheeks and rubber neck no longer needed for nibbling. She’s been usurped by Fireman Sam and the fine upstanding members of Pontypandy’s rescue service and it almost makes me sad.
Kids are so casual with their passions. Time is theirs to waste; they can’t imagine a life without love and discovery around every corner. I am less confident and elastic. I hoard my memories.
I suspect newborn wouldn’t know her name if he found her behind the sofa – but I can still feel her, spit sticky, chewed up, consumed, adored.
She’s on the list of cast aside toys. Next to trains and big red buses, Iggle Piggle, the colour blue, the poster for The Lion King. Things my sons loved so much that I fell for them myself now treated with crushing indifference. Perhaps one day I will feel like this about their partners.
But I was feeling maudlin anyway. I’d slipped into the Titanic Experience on my way out of the city. I didn’t go all the way around, I just got to peep through the artfully glistening dark glass, to check out the educational 1:1 scale drawings of bolts and chains and wrenches (as big as shire horses some of them) lining the silky corridors down to the loos. And to eat a White Line muffin and ponder the gift shop.
Usually gift shops are my favourite bit of any museum or gallery, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve skipped an exhibition to loiter with the merchandise. I should be ashamed but I don’t care. I like to see the rainbow rubbers and over-priced tea-towels, the piles of tie pins, the plastic boxes of pencils.
Here, I felt odd though. My appropriate-o-meter was on overload. Is it okay to buy a Titanic rubber duck? Is the lack of iceberg imagery proper or disingenuous? Will I forgive myself for not buying a replica Heart-Of-The-Ocean necklace for £4.99?
I’ve been in Belfast city for three days. I’ve asked every cabbie whether I should go, and heard every view: yes, no, life-changing, meh. I’ve been told it is stunning, a respectful tribute, something for the ladies, a weird celebration of failure.
The building itself is a heartbreakingly beautiful thing. Massive in impact and height, simple in design, it cuts through you as it slices the afternoon light and shimmers. It dares you to remember a night a century ago, it ripples your gut with the recall of a stunning achievement, an enormous feat, a terrible, terrible end. I could hardly bear to leave it as the sun set. I wanted to stare at it at least until darkness fell, to feel the chill of it, watch the jagged edges fade into a stark monolith.
I say I didn’t have the time but I suspect I didn’t have the stamina for all that loss and memoriam. Fittingly at George Best Belfast City Airport some little poppies shook their heads, wilting by the pavement, drowned out by the over-zealous crunch of unnecessary salt on the tarmac. They shamed me in my idling over the ship building.
I am torn apart by Poppy Day these days, mostly by a blush that lasts November through. I’m shamed by all the years I didn’t really try to understand what those lists of names meant. All those little boys and people left who were no different from me.
The past is not a different country after all, grief is just the same. I can’t believe I did so many Brownie Sundays and never really felt as sorry and appalled as I should have done, wrote all those essays on Sassoon, wept at all the novels and films but never had the grace to acknowledge that time does nothing to change the banal and horrific loss of it all.
Like geographical distance time brings the worst privilege: a suggestion that being in the olden days when death was closer made things easier. As if the fact that there were so many left behind was easier. As I send a plaintive text reminding my husband to spend my death in service on luxury items should my plane crash (a ritual of mine) I can only think of mothers catching memories of their boys. Of rooms haunted by toddlers crouched in love and concentration over their latest passing fancy, blond heads flashing in the corner of an eye, like a mouse by the fireplace, vanishing to dust on a second glance.
I was so glad to come home.