My parents were grocers. For twenty-five years they owned a shop with a green awning and crates of vegetables on the pavement outside, and they worked hard with only Sundays off to go to church, and even on Sundays they went through the accounts after lunch. On bank holidays and early-closing days when other people put on their best hats and went visiting my parents would check stock: sorting vegetables, pulling wilted cabbages and rotting carrots from the bottoms of sacks and setting them aside to be sold as swill. They could judge weight with their hands but they were not educated people and had little time for the things which interested me, for books or for numbers beyond imperial measures and the columns of pounds and shillings and pence. I was their only child, and I have never been sure if I was a source of pride to them or a disappointment, because it is true that I was clever, that I was quick with my mind, but the academic life that I have chosen could not possibly be the one they would have thought of for me, and there is no reason to say they would have judged it better. I showed no interest in the shop, ever: quite the reverse, or perhaps they wouldn’t have sold it.
Two months after my eleventh birthday I passed the exam to go to the grammar school. There I found that the fathers of the other children were not shopkeepers. Instead they were men who rose each morning to walk up the hill to the station and take the train to city jobs. They worked in banks and offices, places whose interiors were unimaginable to me. They didn’t have breakfast in their shirtsleeves before walking down the stairs to put the trays of apples out, or go next door for a pint of bitter in the evening while the dinner cooked. They drank wine from stemmed glasses. The mothers of the other children didn’t work at all. They sat on committees and collected things for the Save the Children fund and their nails were coated with shellac, not dirt from the potato barrel. I loved my parents and I didn’t want to hurt them, but I found in a moment of pre-adolescent revelation that I was ashamed of them; and because I was ashamed of them I found that I was ashamed also of myself, and this muddle made me sly. I told lies, or half lies. I said cruel things to my friends about my parents in order that there might seem to be a greater distance between us, and to my parents in turn I was sullen and I refused to speak about school or about the friends I had made there, other than to point out by mean comparison the respects in which their lives were superior to my own; and then afterwards I would be ashamed and my shame would make me angry and resentful: I felt that it was not my fault that I had been put into such an intolerable position.
Sometimes after school or in the holidays my parents would ask me to mind the shop for them. They had very little time to themselves, and I see now how nice it would have been for them if they had been able to go out together sometimes on a sunny afternoon, for a walk down through the fields past the church to the river; but the thought that my friends might see me in a grocer’s apron twisting shut a paper bag of apricots or cherries appalled me.
I considered it insensitive of my parents to ask, to not know how busy I was, how I had better things to do with my time than mind their shop for them. It is easy now to say that what hurt I inflicted with this attitude was not my fault, that I was a child: but I knew quite clearly how I wounded when I refused them, and so I am unable to escape with such glib sophistry the twisting hook. To my further shame I refused my parents in a way which was evasive, and perhaps it is for this reason that it still sits so ill with me, because I couldn’t bring myself to tell the truth, which was that I thought their shop beneath me. Instead I told them that I had homework to do, that I needed to spend some time thinking about an essay or that I must go and see this friend or that friend who had a book that I must read; but the truth was not well hidden and it must have been obvious to them. I made my refusals in a lofty tone, as if to suggest that my parents couldn’t possibly understand the sorts of pressures I was under when I had to write five hundred words on the repeal of the corn laws by Monday. Then I would put on the tweed jacket they had bought me and I would walk out of the shop, and in case someone I knew should see me I would try to look as though I had been thinking of buying something but had decided not to; and then because really there was nothing at all that I needed to do I would go and sit in the long grass beyond the boundary of the cricket pitch to watch the aeroplanes make white trails overhead.
After a while my parents stopped asking for my help, and when I was fourteen they sold the shop and, having been quite old already when I was born, retired to live by the sea. Shortly after that I won a scholarship to a boarding school and then my two lives could be quite separate. At school I didn’t need to mention the grocer’s shop but only the slightly more respectable address of my parents’ new bungalow, avoiding any more direct enquiries regarding my home life with evasions that had become through practice habitual; and when I went to stay with my parents in the holidays there was no one I knew in the town and so I didn’t need to feel ashamed of them and could go back to loving them simply; but by then it was too late.
If there is such a thing as original sin then I think that this is how it comes upon us, it settles over us in moments of carelessness, and this is why we are taught to act decently as children, to be good and to be polite, because not to do so is to court that instant when one becomes other than one wants to be. For years I had been unable to think of the school and the shop and the town except with pain because of the way my pride had prevented me from helping my parents when they asked for it. This small act of refusal became in retrospect the prism through which the rest of my life was split, laying bare the flaw at the heart of my character, the way that I am neither wholly kind nor wholly honest but at best half-good and in addition evasive, a wriggler-out of situations. Then one Friday evening some months ago I passed through a large railway interchange, and as I stood on the concourse waiting for my train to be called the announcer called instead the name of the town where the shop had been and the names of the towns that surrounded it and which I had not thought of for years. It was a summer evening and there was an end-of-term feeling, a feeling of devil-take-us, and suddenly I was filled with such a powerful desire to abandon my own journey and embark instead upon this other one that I began to move towards the platform; and perhaps I would have gone further still if it wasn’t for the crowd of people between the newspaper stand and the flower stall who slowed me and gave me time to realise how futile such a journey would be, all of my ties to this place being after all ties to the past; but still the station names were so familiar and they had such associations. I could taste holidays when I heard them. I could hear the rattle of the old trains, I could smell the polish of the wooden carriage floors and the dusty fabric of the seats. I could feel the satisfying give of the elastic in the luggage racks when I slung my suitcase into them and how much of a struggle it was to fetch it down again. The thrill it was to walk past the smoking compartment to the buffet car.
Through the weeks that followed I was unable to rid myself of the idea of going back to the town, of seeing once more the market square and the shop and standing again in the streets which in memory still seemed so familiar. The faces of my parents, now long dead, hovered in front of me, and my shame at the condescension with which I had treated them felt fresh. I told myself that I could gain nothing from such a return, that it could not alleviate any shred of my guilt but only cause me further pain by showing clearly all the ways that things had changed but how the past itself could not be changed; but I was unable to make myself believe it. I found myself considering such a journey as one might a pilgrimage, its attendant discomforts a scouring; and then I was appalled, and told myself how foolish, how grandiose, to think in such a way about a day return on the East Midlands Railway and an afternoon’s stroll about a market town. It was pointless anyway, I thought, to hope that such a journey might allow me in some way to escape the shame I felt over my behaviour towards my parents: a penance is not a penance that is undertaken for reprieve, and if I hoped for absolution it wouldn’t come. Such an exercise could be on my part only a further kind of evasion, a small compounding of an existent sin. In this manner it went on and to every argument I was able to find a counter-argument; but still the thought of making the journey wouldn’t leave me. It began to interfere with my work. I was unable to concentrate on other things; my mind drifted always back to the grocer’s shop, and in the end this was why I went: not with any hope of gaining respite from the past, but only to alleviate such irritations in the present, and because I was tired of thinking about it, tired of the internal arguments, and would have relief at least from them.
I set the date of my journey for a Wednesday, because it was convenient, but travel in the middle of the week always makes me feel as though nothing good can come from it. I did not look forward to the day, and when it arrived I made my way to the station not with hope but with stoicism, as in the direction of a thing to be endured. It was both wet and cold, summer having, while I vacillated, given on to autumn, the fine days to a solid equinoctial grey. All through the morning rain slid down the windows of the intercity train and at the stations the wind blew it through the open doors in gusts. At Crewe I bought a cup of coffee and a sandwich which I didn’t eat, and changed on to the branch line. My surroundings were by then familiar, but because this familiarity was not complete I found in it a further source of discomfort. Things were not as I remembered them. The fields, the hedgerows, were meaner than they had been presented to me in recollection, the colours more muted. They were neither pretty nor engaging and they were not that pastoral ideal in which, on Saturday afternoons, I thought my better self had sometimes played, but only working land, churned up to mud by the passage of machinery. I began to regret in earnest that I had come. Once again the arguments against my journey were rehearsed and seemed irrefutable, while those for it appeared both tenuous and coy. The things which had seemed from a distance to be so large – the figures of my parents and myself, the looping dramas in which we had been contained – seemed, the closer I got to my destination, ever more insignificant, until as we drew into the station I wondered if my past had the capacity to mean anything at all.
I had thought that I would visit on arrival those places which I best remembered: the school, the cricket pitch, the church, the fields where I had played and where my friends had played. Now, such an itinerary seemed trivial. These places had never in themselves meant much to me and would now mean even less; besides which I had no desire to see how it had all become so much diminished. I found that what I wanted, now that I was here, was only to stand once more in front of the grocer’s shop, to see what parts of it might have endured and to see also if I could find there any trace of my parents, or of myself. I walked out of the station and down the hill towards the market, and as I went I looked at little, trying not to notice the places where terraced cottages had given way to cul-de-sacs or how three pubs had been knocked down. Although I remembered clearly the route the distances felt wrong, the turnings came in unexpected places; and I thought that it is strange how memory retains the structure of things and the details but so little in between. I felt as though I had on a new pair of glasses and through them the world appeared peculiar, bent out of shape, and I was no longer any judge of depth but must be careful where I put my feet. I felt as though, with each step, I might fall; and I would have turned around and gone straight home, were it not for how foolish I would have looked to myself afterwards.
The market square at the corner of which my parents’ shop had stood was busy in spite of the rain. There had used to be a stall stacked with trays of eggs and above the eggs a row of plucked chickens strung up by their feet, and there had been a fishmonger selling halibut from a table piled with ice and a man who made his own sausages; but now it was all antiques and bric-a-brac, mirrors and candlesticks and broken iron mangles. A woman in a wonky turban sat by a pile of rag rugs and I could, if I had wanted to, have purchased any number of hand-sewn cushions. Dodging through the middle I found that the building where our shop had been was still there, and although until that moment I hadn’t thought that I minded, yet to see it was an overwhelming relief, and I knew that if it had been gone I would have been distraught. It was no longer a grocer’s. The awning had been taken down and the shutters, and the old bottle-glass windows had been replaced, but up above it looked just the same, the dirty red brick and the tiled roof, the bay window where our sitting room had been. Now the shop sold children’s clothes at what seemed to me to be remarkable prices. Through the new plate windows I could see racks of miniature Breton jumpers and bright yellow anoraks. I wondered if I should go in; unable to decide, I hovered on the pavement, getting in the way of people rushing from one dry place to another. After a few minutes it began to seem as if to go in now would be more peculiar than not to do so, and nor could I just walk away; besides which, I felt a kind of peace standing on the cobbles in the rain. I felt as though perhaps I had hit entirely by accident upon the only right thing I could have done, and so in the end it was all that I did: I stood outside the shop all afternoon while people jostled past me, and as I stood I thought of myself and of my parents, and of how we are all formed perhaps more by carelessness than by design.
My coat was a city coat, not meant for more than the rush from doorstep to bus stop, and soon I felt the rain soak through it to join the stream running downwards from my neck. I didn’t have a hat, and my hair plastered itself to my skull. Annoyed by my continued obstruction of the pavement, shoppers muttered and tutted. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the bored stallholders, distracted from their work by the spectacle I made, gathering together to watch me. Inside the shop, a woman in a navy suit reached for the phone and I wondered if perhaps she was calling the police. Someone asked me without obvious compassion if I was all right, but not being quite sure one way or the other I offered no answer. I knew that people were laughing at me but the injury to my pride no longer caused me any pain; I found in my gathering humiliation a kind of joy, to see how little after all it mattered what people thought of me, and it saddened me that I had for so long felt myself to be governed by imagined opinions, I was sorry for it, and I was sorry too for the gap it had caused between me and my parents: I was sorry even though being sorry could do no good, even though it could bring about no reconciliation or reprieve, and I felt that for this brief spell, my regrets being not conditional on my pardon but genuine and deeply felt, I had been granted the charism of contrition. It occurred to me for the first time that my parents themselves had been as proud as I was, too proud to acknowledge my slights for what they were or to try to cross the distance which had grown steadily wider between my life and theirs. I thought that if they had been more humble then perhaps I also might have been, and things might have come out better for us, overall; and such a thought no longer seemed to be a way of eluding blame, but only a thing that was at once both true and sad, and past, and done.
I stood until the market had packed up and gone and until the light had begun to fade and the rain had slowed to a steady drizzle, and then I made my way back to the station. On the train I sat, dripping steadily, in a carriage empty except for myself and some schoolchildren who nudged one another and giggled at the sight of me, but their laughter no longer chafed. The train started and the announcer ticked the stations off, backwards now, and I thought that it was a relief to be returning home and to have the whole thing over with at last, although I wasn’t sure if I meant by that the trip only or the worry or something else again, an arc that had drawn down finally to its long completion. I couldn’t say if I was changed, apart from being wetter; I still felt myself to be overly fussy, to be half good, half stunted and half grown, given to settling on the easy route, but perhaps I had gained some measure of understanding; and I felt that regardless of whether anything was different because of it, still what I had done had been satisfactory, and I hoped too that it might in some way have been expiatory, and that I might have made amends; and perhaps after all I had been afforded some measure of absolution.