A Penny for Your Thoughts…

by Gurpreet Sihat

I had a dream last night. That’s nothing unusual, I’m sure. We likely all dream every night, though only some of us are lucky (or perhaps, unlucky) enough to remember them. Last night, my dream had me meeting one of my closest friends for breakfast at a little Parisian café. Clean cobbled streets, umbrellas shading us from the onslaught of the sun, the laughter of regulars punctuating conversation in rapid French. We went to Paris last year for my birthday, and I was distinctly aware there was the off chance this was a memory. Until, that is, I looked to my right. Erik Lehnsherr and Charles Xavier sat beside us. They, too, were drinking coffee, though a chess board sat between them. Most assuredly a dream then. 

My friend was eating pastries, delicately pulling chunks off the whole and popping them in her mouth. The smile on her face quickly turning to one of embarrassment when she noticed I was watching her dainty little dance. I, on the other hand, was eating a sandwich. I remember it had grated carrots and sliced pickled onions in it, though I can’t name any other ingredient. I’m pretty sure I’ve had a sandwich with a similar filling. Perhaps in Liege, rather than Paris. Or maybe I’ve simply merged two sandwiches together to create something altogether fantastic. Whatever it was, it was delicious. Or perhaps it was the company that made me think so – after all, it takes extremely good company to stop me from accosting Magneto in the middle of that little café and finding a way to keep him. 

In the hours since having this dream, I’ve finished a book. Sandi Toksvig’s Between the Stops. In my head, it’s her voice that reads this as I write. I stop typing every time I hear her pause. A strange thing, indeed, but I’m quite comforted by it. The past few days have been rather difficult – perhaps isolation is finally getting to me, a month into the coronavirus lockdown. I would go into detail about them, but they’re tiresome and boring. Sandi Toksvig, however, is a master comforter and I’m glad to have her in my head right now. Between her and my friend, I have some wonderful company. Sandi’s book ties together, quite beautifully I might add, the history about the stops on the number 12 bus that runs from Dulwich Library to Oxford Circus, with the memories they stir in her and a helping of quite interesting facts. It is brilliant! I am happy with Sandi Toksvig in my head, and I think anyone with her in their lives incredibly lucky.  

I’ve been painting today too. A paint by numbers canvas kit that depicts an African lion, majestic and proud, with a female caressing his neck. It feels like a Sunday from my childhood today. In my family, Sunday was the day the vinyl records came out of their cupboards. Old Hindi songs from the 1950s filling the air with their poetry as a gentle breeze would blow through the freshly washed clothes on the lines outside. Birds would be singing, as would mum as she pottered about the kitchen. Dad would be sipping on Ribena as he wandered about, fixing things, cleaning things, repotting plants. And my sisters… well, they’d be doing whatever it was they did when I was a child. Today, my sisters have all left home, but my mum is still singing to the songs, now playing on YouTube as she potters around the kitchen, and my dad sits, king of his castle, on the armchair playing on his iPad. There are even freshly washed clothes on the line, and the birds are hopping about between the pots, though it’s been a while since they held pansies and petunias like when I was a child. 

Today is all the more welcome after yesterday’s model debacle. Every few weeks, my sisters and I would find ourselves in Hobbycraft. I cannot, for the life of me, remember why, but I do remember rushing upstairs to the model shop to gaze lovingly at the Concorde and Spitfire MkV kits. Mum promised that when the kits went down to £15, I could have them. I’ve waited eighteen years for their price to go down. Thanks to the coronavirus, they went down to £16. Deciding that inflation meant today’s £16 was £15 all those years ago, I bought them. The boxes were practically empty. Gone are the days where glue and paint and tape are sold with the models, apparently. I didn’t realise this until I tried to build them yesterday. Until after I had waited five long hours for the handwashed pieces to airdry, as the instructions instructed. 

I cannot explain the disappointment. It’s only made worse when I think of my cousins. Entitled and arrogant. The cousins who would receive such gifts and throw them away – paint, glue et. al – while I was forced to clean the kitchen or sit quietly in the corner with a barbie or nothing at all. Who did I think I was, wanting to make a model aeroplane? It’s funny how those memories still have such a profound effect on me. The memories, on top of the disappointment, sent me in a tailspin. I spent the rest of the day locked away in my bedroom with the curtains closed, watching Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera back to back, singing at the top of my lungs and crying my already tired eyes out. I Dreamed a Dream, it turns out, is the perfect song to belt out and release all that emotion. I do wonder about this though. The tears streaming down my face as I sing – are they falling because the lyrics to the song has moved me? Because I’m empathetic towards Fantine? Are they caused by the anger and disappointment of not being able to make models I’ve waited eighteen (perhaps more) years to make? Or are they remnants of childhood hurt that still, to this day, linger? Could they be all of the above and then some?

Last night, I apologised to a friend for almost bursting into tears when I tell her I’ve had a terrible day, and could we please watch a comedy together instead of the three-hour dramatic romance we had planned for the evening. After consoling me, and assuring me that I did not sound, as I had believed, a spoilt child, we watched Oscar, one of my favourite movies of all time. I should add, here, that she dislikes Sylvester Stallone movies. The 1986 movie Stand by Me, ends with the line: “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” If I’m honest, I don’t think I had those kinds of friends aged twelve, but I do now that I’m in my late twenties. I haven’t a bad word to say about my little Pride of Lionesses. They’re all strong, independent, considerate, adventurous, intelligent, beautiful women who I sometimes cannot believe are still friends with me. And my have we had some incredible adventures together in the years we’ve been friends. 

Last year, in Paris, I booked tickets to a tour of the Palais Garnier. We didn’t have time to see an opera, but you can be damned sure I was going to step into one at least. My friend thought I had booked the tour because this was the opera house which inspired Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, which happens to be one of my favourite stories (in any format) of all time. I am obsessed with the Phantom (who, funnily enough, is also named Erik – I wonder if I can merge him and Magneto together, so I don’t have to choose between them. The opera ghost who can control metal…).  My friend and cousin followed me around the entire tour, singing the songs from the musical, calling my name as the Phantom calls Christine’s. In truth, I hadn’t a clue of its connection to my beautiful Erik until it was almost time to leave. Even now, we burst into hysterical laughter about it. 

My favourite song in The Phantom of the Opera is Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again. When I was younger, the lines “too many years, fighting back tears, why can’t the past just die?” were the only part of the song my heart could ever truly focus on. I related to them then, and part of me still does today. Would I not be better off without the memories that hurt? My sister reminded me then, and often reminds me now, that we need to live life with compassion and understanding, even when it’s difficult. She promised that one day I would see things differently. 

Mum was on the phone to her aunt this morning as I was painting. She is the last of their siblings alive now my grandmother’s passed away. When she first died, hearing people speak fondly about her when I had such terrible memories of her, was infuriating. I cried hot, angry tears. She was gone. Now I wanted the memories of her gone too. I wanted the pain I felt every time something related to her appeared gone. I wanted her erased from my life. This morning, I listened to my great-aunt and mum talk. I listened to the fondness in her voice when she spoke of my grandmother. The genuine love they shared, and, for the first time, I was glad. I was happy that there was someone out there who remembered her without pain or anger. The final verse of Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again includes the lines: “Try to forgive, teach me to live, give me the strength to try.” Perhaps I am seeing things differently. 

I miss Sandi Toksvig’s voice already. I miss her stories and her facts. Perhaps I shall listen to her audiobook again. Or perhaps she, like Erik and Charles and that beautiful friend of mine, will appear in a dream. Either way, what wonderous places my mind is visiting this weekend, and what magnificent people are keeping me company. 

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