FICTION: Buried Diary by Julia Molloy

Kenny found the diary buried in his grandmother’s garden. The cover had a gold floral design, the shiny material glinting in the sunlight. Standing his shovel in some rigid soil, he wiped his nose with the back of his hand, crouched down and took the diary in his hands. The year embossed on the cover made his skin tingle.

His grandmother’s garden had wilted over the past few weeks. Dahlias, carnations, sweet peas, and a dozen other varieties he couldn’t name had shrivelled up in the hot weather, dying of thirst now that their carer had gone. Kenny looked at the pile of soil he’d dug up. Even that had dried up. When his muscles started to cramp from crouching down, he stood up and headed back to the house, the diary in his hands. The breeze had dropped. On the air he could hear the slam of car doors, the screams of babies, the shouts of couples trying to keep things together for their accidental kids. He trod through his grandmother’s lawn, once trimmed and neat, now growing in wild yellow patches. The wooden table and chairs on the porch had blistered and bleached in the heat.

Inside, Kenny put the diary on the kitchen table next to his grandmother’s ashes. He filled a glass with water from the tap and plopped in a few ice cubes from the freezer. He leant back against the work surface. The taste of cold water on his tongue mixed with the sweat from his lip. When he was little, he remembered playing in the garden on his own, angry at the lack of other children on the estate. Most of those original occupants had gone now. All that was left was a diary and the urn containing his grandmother’s ashes.

When Kenny had come to live with his grandmother, the first thing that struck him was her habit of writing. Each night, before getting Kenny ready for bed – a time he never enjoyed – his grandmother asked for ten minutes’ shush while she sat in her chair and wrote. The third night, when his grandmother made the request, Kenny sat on the arm of her chair. He watched while his grandmother pulled a book and a pen from the magazine rack and settled herself. The book was covered in purple flowers. His grandmother dragged her fingernails across it and Kenny shivered. This close to her, he could hear the soft ‘in out’ of her breathing. He imagined it tickling the hairs on his arm. The smell of her perfume scratched the inside of his nose. He wondered what she’d do if he sneezed.

‘Watching tonight, are you?’ Kenny’s grandmother peered over her glasses at him. He nodded and stared at the black squiggles on the page. They looked like the worms he’d pulled from the soil in the garden earlier that day before his grandmother slapped his calves for making a mess.

‘Haven’t learnt your ABC yet, I suppose?’

Kenny shook his head. ‘I tried.’

‘With your mummy?’

Kenny nodded again. He wasn’t sure it was completely true, but sometimes he could remember coloured letters and a voice shouting at him.

‘Well, it’s no wonder you didn’t get very far, then.’ His grandmother continued moving her pen across the page.

‘What do you do?’ Kenny’s voice was small. His bum hurt from sitting on the arm of the chair.

‘Do? You mean write? Well, nothing really. Just a little record of the day.’

‘To help remember?’

His grandmother smiled. ‘Something like that. Though there are always some things you don’t want to remember.’

Standing in her kitchen, Kenny smiled a little to think how he’d watched her, sitting on the arm of her chair, every night while she wrote. She never said what she was writing. And even when Kenny did learn his ABC, he never once read over her shoulder. Neither of them spoke. For those ten minutes, Kenny’s grandmother got her shush.

After she died and Kenny moved back into the house, he’d discovered boxes of the diaries in the attic. Even the most recent one was up there, the diary she would never finish, though Kenny couldn’t imagine how she’d managed to get up to the attic. His grandmother had barely been able to get out of her bed at the end. So he’d been told.

His grandmother had had requirements for her diaries (as Kenny had found out on Christmas Day one year when he’d mistakenly decided to buy her one). There had to be a page for each day, it had to be filled, and there had to be flowers. It didn’t matter what hue: pinks, blues, purples. Golds. Just as long as there were flowers.

Kenny put his glass in the sink then sat down at the kitchen table. Birdsong fluttered through the open windows. He put his hand on the diary and stretched out his fingers, his sweaty palm extended as far as it could go. The digits shook. The fingernails were black with ingrained soil. The diary glinted at him.

He stood up, scraping the chair back across the kitchen tiles in a way his grandmother would never have allowed, and went into the hallway. He pulled down the stairs to the attic. He climbed up, boots ringing on the metal, head ducked to avoid the ceiling. At the top, he took his phone out of his pocket and turned on the flashlight. He dragged a box towards him and searched through the diaries until he found 2017. A twitching in his limbs made him open the diary immediately. A stale smell emerged from its pages. The same smell that had lingered in her bedroom when Kenny had moved back in. His grandmother had somehow found the strength to continue writing until the very day she died, though as Kenny read the entries he could see she wasn’t making much sense. He flicked back through the days, his grandmother in reverse. Dying. Alone.

Two months before she passed, around the time Kenny had received a phone call from her doctors, one entry filled the whole page. Kenny read it closely. He noticed his name. He felt the guilt in his stomach, remembered the argument with her several years ago, just before he moved out. Even now he could recall the exact beat of her voice in his head. There are always some things you don’t want to remember. Kenny kept reading. Stopped when he couldn’t take it anymore.

He put a hand on his eyes, pressing harder and harder until it hurt. Sometimes that was the only way he could carry on. To embrace the pain. When he opened his eyes again, he backed slowly down the stairs and into the kitchen again. He sat down. And, taking a deep breath, he read the diary his grandmother had never meant for him to read.

‘There are always some things you don’t want to remember.’

‘What sort of things?’ Kenny asked. His bum really was hurting now from his awkward position on the chair. In fact, he thought he might never feel it again. He considered what his grandmother meant, and from somewhere inside him said: ‘Like mummy?’

His grandmother paused in her writing. She took off her glasses, and Kenny saw for the first time just how old she really was. Wrinkles, wrinkles and more wrinkles. But there was something in her eyes that Kenny liked. Something soft.

‘You know, your mummy loved you once.’

Kenny rubbed his cheek. When he couldn’t take his grandmother looking at him anymore, he jabbed the page of her diary. ‘Write now.’

His grandmother smiled. And Kenny watched her write.

JULIA MOLLOY

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Julia Molloy is a short story writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming at The Fiction Pool, Fictive Dream and Crack the Spine. Her work was shortlisted for the Fresher Writing Prize 2016. She is based in northwest England and works in the public sector.

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