THE DIARY| When Julia comes home for Christmas, she decides to destroy her teenage diaries. But in doing so she comes face-to-face with her former self – and who she still is. A short story by Flora Willis.
by Flora Willis
Julia shredded her diaries covering her life aged seventeen to nineteen on Christmas Eve, just over twelve years after her final entry.
For years the diaries had lain there, rarely considered, not quite benign, in the drawer beneath the single bed in her room at home. Now was the season when people were moving on from the past and into the future, gathering themselves up and preparing for a new year; a time of progression, of renewal, of rebirth.
Moreover, Julia’s mother owned an electric shredder.
‘Are you absolutely sure you want to get rid of them?’ her mother had asked.
Julia had polished her response: ‘I’m not going to enjoy them any more at fifty than I do now. Which,’ she said, ‘is not at all.’
Of course, she’d mulled it over. She’d imagined keeping the diaries where they were, a sad ghost shackled under the bed; imagined herself dying, her future children reading her words and cringing. No. The mere thought of the diaries made her feel anxious and heavy; all those words that had spilled out of her mind and onto the page all those years ago, page after page of writing with no filter.
To her mother she said, ‘They’re not day-to-day diaries, the sort that would one day be useful to museums. They just contain emotions.’ Even this felt a bit much so she rolled her eyes and said, ‘Teenage emotions. The very worst.’ She could acknowledge that the diaries had been a helpful outlet at the time, somewhere to put that surplus energy, all those insecurities and concerns you have when you were young. But now Julia was thirty-one.
The diaries had to go.
It wasn’t a simple task. The notebook was thick and her writing was dense. The shredder became full quickly and then had to be emptied into a black bin bag, thousands of wriggling worms that jumped and danced over each other, spilling to the floor. She was trying to be quick (before she changed her mind? Before the diary realised what was happening; turned itself to stone?) but it couldn’t be helped: a phrase caught her eye.
Everything is good news
it said. Had anyone ever said that, ever? They had, and here was the evidence, marked in blue biro, in a hand barely different to the one she wrote in today, just a little rounder, a little less joined up, and little less consistent. She read on.
It is only good news
I can’t believe he likes me back; am I making this up
I thought maybe I’d made it all up
He is perfect
It is all I wanted
Shocked, Julia stopped. She closed her eyes for a moment but saw the words glowing in the darkness like a neon sign: It is only good news. She heard a voice, young, with a northern accent, saying the words, Nicky Nicky Nicky, how can this be real…
Then quiet. She opened her eyes. From the kitchen came her mother’s voice: ‘Raw beetroot is delicious, but only when eaten in very–thin–slices.’ Into the pause Julia inserted an image of her father nodding, compliant, eating the piece of beetroot her mother will no doubt have placed before him, her little puppy. ‘Too thick,’ her mother continued, ‘And it is terribly clumsy.’
Julia closed the study door quietly and sat down with the remains of her diary in her hands. Her eyes went to the page, though her stomach felt queasy at what she read. It was all so trite, the very cliché of first love. It was saccharine, sickening. It wasn’t her; she was strong, practical, pragmatic. She lived on her own and had not one but two savings accounts and could flip a double mattress by herself, thank you very much. Ask her for the most efficient cycle routes, the best value restaurants, where to get your laptop fixed – she had the answers, and she’d lend you her electric drill, too, if you needed one.
Hadn’t she always been like this?
Hormones! Of course, it was teenage hormones that had gleefully kicked up a whirlwind inside eighteen-year-old Julia’s body. It was fiery, voluptuous Goddess Oestrogen surging in the veins, swelling the breasts, kneading the womb, scattering spots across chubby cheeks, plunging her needle into the young heart and flooding the bloodstream with her raucous daughters, Desire and Urgency. And here in the diary was evidence of her reign: not just in the melodrama of love, but in the burden of Julia’s physical insecurities: Why do I have to eat so much? read one entry. It’s ridiculous! I’m so FAT! Thea doesn’t eat anything, and look at her, her figure is amazing! She doesn’t even try. Tomorrow I will eat this: Apple for breakfast. Soup for lunch. No snacks. COME ON.
Julia’s negative feelings about her own body were almost as strong as her wildly positive feelings for her first love. Nicky Nicky Nicky. Fat fat fat.
Both accounts were as painful as the other to read. Why, Julia wondered, aghast, did she have to be such a documentarian? She’d bet her friends didn’t have reams of teenage outpourings under their beds. She’d bet they’d just been normal kids, who got drunk and kissed boys when they felt like it, and didn’t waste so much time inside their own heads.
“The mere thought of the diaries made her feel anxious and heavy; all those words that had spilled out of her mind and onto the page all those years ago.”
The door rattled. Julia shut the diary and looked up to see her mother’s head poking into the room.
‘How are you getting on?’ she asked.
‘Fine,’ Julia said.
‘Oh!’ said her mother, looking at a photo on the floor. ‘Would you look at Nicky.’ She leaned down. ‘Look at that. So young and fresh-faced.’
Indeed, the Polaroid on the floor showed Nicky looking – there was only one word for it – pure. His face was pale from the flash, smooth, too young for stubble. Streaks of gold ran through his curls; he used to put this stuff in that made the sun kiss it blonde and the wax he used to set it in place smelled sweet and warm, like honey. In the photo he was lying on his side on her single bed, head propped up on a hand, eyes cast to one side. So effortless. Julia could remember exactly how that cotton t-shirt felt, how soft the skin was underneath. It was, after all, the first skin she’d known besides her own.
Julia laughed to show her mother she was not sentimental.
‘You should see him now,’ Julia said.
‘Heavy,’ Julia said. ‘Beardy. You’d barely recognise him.’
Julia’s mother nodded. ‘It happens to men.’ She held a hand up to her mouth and said in a stage whisper, ‘Look at your dad.’
It was four o’clock when Julia tore out the final piece of paper. Unlike the others, whose writing acquiesced to the lines provided, this one was crammed with writing which became smaller as it went on, the lines closer and closer together, as though the author had thought there would be no more notebooks left in the world once this one was used up.
Julia had avoided reading too much along the way – really, what was the point? – but now she held the diary’s corpse in her hands, the covers two stiff wings held together by a ring binder spine, and her heart pounded. Laying this skeleton on the carpet, she took up the final page. She read:
I love him
I know I love him
I’ve loved him for two, three years
I know I’m fat but if he thinks I look good then I must do
He is hardly real
I want him so much I ache all over and I shake
I feel sick with happiness, full of glitter and I couldn’t stop my teeth aching and my heart fluttering
He is so beautiful
He’s away for two weeks, a lifetime!
I can’t believe it’s finally working out
I miss him already
What is the point
I can’t bear this
I wanted to kiss him all over
There’s not one part of him I would change.
He has the best freckles I’ve ever seen, smattered like specks of rain on his chest
I feel so horribly inadequate. I feel everything he is not. I look at myself and now I think this is it; it was fun while it lasted, I’m glad he came, I’m glad he liked me and thought I was attractive once upon a time, a time before last night.
I will never need anything else but him
Everything was good and nice and funny
Even though the spaces exist, they do not need to be filled
Had she really written that? Had she ever felt that strongly about anything? Before she could answer herself she heard the voice, and it was young, and it had a much stronger northern accent than it did now; but still, she knew it was hers. Not had been, but was.
Even though the spaces exist, they do not need to be filled
The black bag beside her was full. Panicking, Julia opened it, delved her hands in but found only worms, thousands of tiny worms wriggling all over each other, each one covered in letters, half-words, broken clauses and collapsed thoughts, whispers of disbelief and glee and fear and judgement and yes, all the painful, romantic, exquisite, unspeakable expression that happens outside of words, liminal. In the black bag the worms moved against each other with a shushing sound, shhhh, they said, shhh. Julia stared into the bag as though by looking she could summon something, summon herself, maybe. She wanted to sit next to herself and put her arm around her and tell her I’m sorry. Tell her, I am not ashamed.
‘Please, darling,’ came Julia’s mother’s voice from the hall. ‘Shut the door when you’re playing that wretched instrument.’ The sound of a door closing gently, a quietly tinkling piano. Julia’s mother’s footsteps on the stairs overhead, the familiar creak of the floorboard by the bathroom and thud of something being put down on the landing.
You felt, Julia said. She spoke to the diary’s lifeless body, whose covers were laid out like wings on the carpet, ringed spine white as bone. You felt. You will feel again.
Shhhh, went the worms in the bag.
Ch ch ch, they said to her.
Flora Willis has been writing stories since she could scratch them into her parents’ banister and blame it on her three year old brother. Now she has graduated to a laptop and a local cafe where she continues to write on weekend mornings.