Februaries are made of forgotten things: one glove left on a park bench from overly warm fingers, one lover lying in an empty bed sans the yearly valentines card, one box of Christmas chocolates hidden at the back of the cupboard behind a bag of oats. It was the month l decided to forget you. It’s a difficult thing, deciding on forgetting, because the decision in itself is an acceptance that you were not forgotten, and that everything that passed between us was in fact worthy of memory in the first place.
I started with our bedsheets, I'd washed them since but somehow with every pulling back of the duvet, another of your hairs swayed onto my sheet. Sometimes a black and curly would poke its way out of the cotton and I’d know it was yours because mine were always buzzed short. I washed them one last time to pristine white and folded them away. Bought a new set, expensive and blue, dotted with yellow sunflowers - it made my room feel smaller.
In a blind rush yesterday morning I pulled on your bra instead of mine, my breasts sat in it like oranges in a mixing bowl, feeling distinctly unattractive and loose. Despite my lateness I decided to stuff the bra with socks, imagine what it was like to feel as womanly as you. Socks aren’t as heavy as flesh but I liked the silhouette in the mirror. I saved that bra too, alongside the green t-shirt of mine you used to sleep in and your white slipper socks. Someone else unhampered by heart break might find use for them in a charity shop, besides I wasn’t sure how well polyester burned.
Those items got packed into your bag for life, and driven swiftly over to Dougie Mac. I thought that this momentous achievement in forgetting would be something worth celebrating but the lady in the shop was busy dressing the mannequin and said to “leave the bag on the counter love, I’ll get to it later”. I did and left the shop with a doorbell ring and not even a thank you.
When I got home everything felt wrong. The bed pushed up against my wall, white breeze-block where your hands would rest. Encased in two walls it was too cornered, too cramped. I moved the chipped bedside table out of the way, pushed the bed to the centre of the room, under the window, and placed the table to the left, next to the sockets. The left used to be your side, but now there wasn’t sides just uninterrupted mattress for me. I flopped on top of the covers fully dressed, stretched out and starfished. The cold, crisp sheets soothed my skin.
Next, I tackled the shoe box from the bottom of my wardrobe. After that night I’d grabbed every photo of us from the display on my cork board, taken the receipts you’d emptied from your purse onto my desk, and the endless post-it notes you’d written - shoved them in this box to deal with another day. I promised myself I’d burn everything. Over the next week every time I’d found a scrap of something that reminded me of you, mainly leaflets posted through the door from our favourite chinese, and what felt like hundreds of bobby pins, I’d add them to the box and promise, tomorrow would be burning day. Today, it really was.
You’d bought me a wire bin when you realised I just used a disposable shopping bag hooked to the back of my bedroom door for rubbish. That was the right vesel for forgetting. Everything you bought me had to leave. It wasn’t much, just the bin and a little teddy I’d called Strawberry because she was red, like your hair, and that engraved silver lighter that had your initials on. I packed the box and teddy into the bin and put the lighter in my back pocket heading over to the green behind my place. It was early evening, the light taking on that salmon tinge of sunset.
This was the final goodbye; I aimed for cinematic, so had to clear away a crisp packet and some cigarette buts from the grass first. I placed the bin down, and sat next to it. The ground was damp and I could feel the cold seeping through my jeans but this was a ritual that needed to take time.
Strawberry was first, I balanced her on one hand and lifted the lighter to the pink bow around her neck. At first it was smoke and the smell of chemicals but once the fur had part-melted away revealing the cotton cloud insides I dropped it in the bin and it flamed, followed by a snow flurry of torn receipts and post-it notes. The slow burn that had been seeping my energy for the last month had finally ignited the anger I’d been waiting for, that everyone kept telling me would come. This was your fault.
Then there tears, water filling my eyes and trickling over. I’m an ugly crier, scrunched up skin and snotty nose - everything tasted like salt. I picked up each photo and blinked the blurriness away as I dropped them into the bin. They curled inwards, edges retreating from the heat, the smoke turning thicker, blacker. The last photo was from the night we met, I was rosy faced drunk, hair slicked to my scalp with sweat and mascara smudges under my eyes. You were radiant, glowing skin and bright red curls forming a fiery halo around your round face. The date on the back, only four months earlier made my stomach cramp violently.
By this point I was barely breathing, if someone had walked past they would’ve hurried away fearing me a crazy wailing drunk or rung an ambulance thinking I was in some sort of fit. They didn’t, I was cold and alone. I tore at the grass and mud until the skin under my nails was black and bleeding. After a while, sobs gentled into an uncontrollable shake and the fire was nothing but ash.
I walked in the darkness for an hour until I reached you, bin in one hand, photo and lighter in the other. I thought maybe seeing you after all this time would be closure, but I could barely read your headstone without taking out my phone to shine over the marble. No expense spared on this. You said your mum would make it pleasant.
“I’m sorry I didn’t go to your funeral,” I croaked, my throat was sandpaper sore. The bereavement counsellor I’d got sent to told me saying it out loud would help. It didn’t. I knew you wouldn’t be listening.
“You told me to forget. I found the note - nice touch, the post-it note by the way. It made it worse you know? The I love you’s, the sorry’s, the compliments.” There was a silence that under other circumstances I would’ve found frightening but graveyards at night aren’t what horror movies tell you. They’re just fields full of stone and sadness.
“It was selfish of you to expect me to forget. Just like you though, blanket thief, always taking my food. You know sometimes I wondered if you remembered I was a living thing. If you realised anything outside of you was alive. Now I’m here and you’re... gone.”
There were so many colourful flower arrangements, cards and framed photographs at my feet, I recognised so few names and faces - wondered how many of them even knew I existed, we’d not even made it to the meet-the-family stage. I’d practiced what I was going to say in my head so many times but these harsh words tumbled in a rush from my lips.
“I’m keeping the photo of us. That night in town, you looked so healthy, perfect... I hate you for this!”
I knew I was shouting, sobbing again, that if I didn’t shut up someone from the next door estate would call the police. I was adamant I didn’t care, or maybe I wanted someone to find me, to tell me platitudes that I’d be okay. I wouldn’t though.
“How dare you ask me to forget? Like you would’ve forgotten me, you would’ve done a freaking memorial service every year all champagne and flowers and speeches. You would’ve written poems and had a bloody TED talk about death and raised money for some charity I didn’t know existed. All I’ve got is a bin full of ash.”
I wasn’t sure if the animalistic sounds that ripped through me were cries or laughter but the words were toxic, tasted like bile and smoke - my body forced them out.
“I don’t WANT to forget. You don’t get to take us from me. You’ve taken enough. You don’t get to demand that of me you selfish bitch.”
The cold by now was unbearable and my hands were shaking so violently that I dropped the bin scattering ashes and weird melted plastic all over the grass and bunches of flowers. That was what I’d planned for the ritual, scattering your ashes, saying goodbye. My bin looked pathetic and dirty next to the dozens of messages from other people content in remembering. The laugh that escaped me what loud and clipped, it fell quickly into hiccuping silent tears.
I closed my eyes, pictured you lying in my bed asleep, hair spread out and drool dampening the corner of the pillow - the smile that stretched my face felt foreign but familiar, like deja-vu, I hadn’t used these muscles in a while. Forgetting wasn’t a skill, it certainly wasn’t something you could gift me. I put the lighter back in my pocket and held the photo close to my chest.
“I miss you.”
Elizabeth Kemball is an emerging writer and poet from the UK. Strawberry is her first published prose and her poetry has been published in Black Bough Poetry.