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Fifty-four bricks by Carol Cook

The stones felt cool under Anna’s fingers. Watery rays of late September sunshine had made no impact on the rough surface of the wall. She moved her hand across to the ivy-covered bricks, their once smooth terracotta now weathered and scarred. There were fifty-four, Anna knew this without counting. She had helped her grandsons learn their numbers counting these bricks. How strange that this fact had stayed with her when so many others had been lost.

The bricks sat between the gateposts at Rock Street, neatly sealing the space that had once been the entrance to Anna’s home. Inside, the whole plot had been reclaimed by plants. Dense, anonymous shrubs grew unchecked, their leaves turning to shades of yellow and brown. The patches of faded grass were dotted with rubbish. Wilf would’ve shaken his head at this, Anna knew. Tutted at the state his once pristine lawn had fallen into.

So familiar was this place that it had long ago become a part of her extended family. Anna liked to visit Rock Street as if she were calling in on an old friend. Passing by on her way to the shops or church, she would pause for a moment to lean on the wall, take a breath and remember.

Anna and Wilf arrived in Sheffield from Jamaica after the war. Newly married and ready for adventure. They had expected cold weather, stiff upper lips and cut-glass accents. What they found was different. Cold, yes. But also warmth. Warmth created in the community that grew around these streets. Warmth in the dropped consonants and long, drawn-out vowels of the Sheffield tongue that soon blended with their own. Warmth they built themselves as their family expanded.

Anna flexed her fingers and noted the resistance from her joints. Stiffer each year and worse as summer drew to a close. Her hands no longer looked like they used to. The skin appeared thinner, shinier, more fragile; as though it would break. The veins running across the back of her hands had become large and uneven, the knuckles raised. Her wedding band had settled into a slimmer section of her ring finger and Anna knew she would never be able to remove it. Not that she would ever want to.

She ran her thumb up and down the gate post seeking out the familiar map of lines engraved there by her sons nearly fifty years ago. Michael, her eldest, was the first to carve his name into that post. As with everything, the others followed. A rite of passage. Did they know it would last for fifty years? Did they think it would be there forever?

The house on Rock Street had been noisy, full of bodies and belongings and life, when Wilf sold it to the council in the 1970s. It had also been slowly falling down and was soon demolished, deemed unsafe. Anna knew she should be able to recall the day they knocked down the house. She fought to remember, she always did. Forgetting made her feel unsteady, detached, as though she was watching herself from a distance. Eventually defeated by time, she gazed across the space once more. Nothing had been done with the plot of land since the house came down, save for bricking up the gate and filling the space left behind with earth.

Anna felt tired. She inhaled deeply and leant her fragile frame against the wall for support. With eyes closed, she saw their home as she wanted to again.

Michael bursting through the kitchen door with hands sticky from penny buns. Drawing pictures in the ice that swirled inside the window panes on winter mornings. Wilf holding her in their first bed, buried under a mound of blankets. Anna wondered where the memories of these things would go when she was no longer able to remember. Years ago, collecting Vivian from school, she would walk with him past this place. If she hadn’t stopped and told him of its history, he would never have known. She had showed him where his daddy had scratched his name in the post, made him laugh with stories about his uncles growing up here.

They were building a new school up the hill now. Another change. It was a struggle to keep up. New shops appeared and disappeared, new families came and went. New children would be walked down Rock Street by new grandparents, past the same old bricked up gate, but they would have no reason to stop.

All the changes made it harder to find this place. The streets around had altered so much, all the houses and other familiar landmarks had moved. It seemed to take longer to find her way each time. Sometimes she wandered the streets for what felt like hours before she arrived. At those times her chest tightened and fear rose up in her throat as she walked. She could not ask people the way because they had changed now too, she did not know them like she used to. They did not understand that she just needed to get home. They shook their heads and walked on, eyes snapping back to their phones.

The sun had moved lower in the sky and was beginning to cast long shadows across what was once her garden. The day was getting old. The border of stones filled with Anna’s memories seemed to absorb the final moments of sunlight. It would soon grow dark.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a hand being placed on her shoulder, firm and warm through her thin blouse. She turned and took a moment to take in the face. It was familiar, yet hard to place at that moment. Michael. Though surprised by his unexpected arrival, she instantly smiled. Her heart swelled with pride to see the fine man he had become. But Vivian did not smile back. Anna looked up into his clear, dark brown eyes to see pain reflected back at her. Was he not happy to be home?

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