Friday, November 19, 2010

A Handsome Man

Sunday, I came back from London. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. Things didn’t make sense. On the train home I read the spiral bound diary of a relative I couldn’t place – no name on the cover, only a date: Aug 6th 1938. I wasn’t even sure if the author was a man or a woman. They’d taken a train from London to Basle in Switzerland, (‘Train reservations wrong… terrific electric storm and rain all night through France’), and then on to Lucerne, and finally, Lugano. I traced the journey as my own carriage shuttled through East Croydon and Gatwick, aeroplanes humming overhead. I ate chocolate with hazelnuts. Then I flicked through some photos I’d taken away with me from my sister’s flat – of my mother and aunts as children, of my grandparents and great uncles, and my grandma’s semi-detached house in Shotton. I read a newspaper cutting about my aunt’s journey to Nigeria to teach at a local school, and two Easter cards I’d made in infant school for my mother. I’d also brought with me two photocopies: one, a newspaper cutting noting the funeral of my great uncle Preston, who died at sea, and the other, describing my great uncle Tony’s bravery as a ship’s officer in helping rescue the crew of twenty-four men of a Portuguese steamer, abandoned in a fire in the Bay of Biscay. 
     It is strange thinking of all the men on my Mum’s side having had distinguished Naval careers. Generally speaking, I remember nothing of their lives - only dirty red brick terraces, a Woolworth’s and a butcher’s, fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. I remember Shotton steelworks pumping out grime; the whirr and clump of skates on Deeside ice rink. Yet even my Grandpa, of whom I have no memory, and who my mother described as a dour, emotionally blank man, sailed a clipper ship up and down the River Dee.
     My Grandma and Great Aunts were the kind of women you’d expect from that period – born just after the turn of the century – strong, solid women with large shoulders, striding purposefully in flat, ugly shoes and black furs, handbags tight under their arms, hats propped neatly atop iron-waved hairdos. They kept house, and they kept each other going - proudly, and without fuss. Whenever I stayed at Grandma’s, despite her being up, without fail, at five-thirty each morning, she’d still open her curtains before we climbed the stairs to bed. I’ll not have her-next-door saying I can’t get out of bed of a Sunday morning.
     I’ve always run from the family line. I think myself autonomous, born anew, escaping the ghosts of my past. But we can never finally stand apart. Can a box full of images really give me back my history, restoring my sense of belonging somewhere? These men and women who went before me, who lived and died, the images of their births, marriages, deaths, are as transient as moments of my own life, which seemed so important at the time yet now are lost in a blizzard. As I get older, what marks me diminishes; the significance of things punctures the skin less and less. When I was young, I opened my arms to it all, and life crowded in, promising so much. I seized it, and the bruises seemed worth it. Now, most are not. 
    On Saturday, in a London restaurant, over pizza and pasta, my sister passed me my mother’s gold wedding ring. I slipped it on, not expecting to feel much; I’ve done my best not to feel much this last year. But as soon as it was on my finger, I felt a circle completing: Mum was all around me again, as though she’d never left.
     I always cringed when she told me that had I been born a boy, she’d have named me Preston. Now my Uncle's picture is on my wall: in his white peaked cap, stripes across his jacket arm, gold buttons down his front. A handsome man, they said, and a brave one. A right charmer.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Under The Influence

I was in the upstairs spare bedroom singing along to Mary Coughlan's Under The Influence - Fifteen or Ice Cream Man, I don't remember which. It was my sister's LP, dragged from a dusty blue case beneath the dresser; slipped from its case and onto my old Rotel turntable. After twenty years, it still had hardly a scratch on it. I've been sneaking Under The Influence in and out of my sister's room since I was thirteen, back when it was a guilty pleasure - sleazy Irish ballads ill-fitting with the rest of my record collection. Coughlan's voice, to me, sounded like burnt treacle. The album must have reached a rousing chorus because when the phone rang I didn't hear it. Emma was shouting up the stairs. When I finally turned it down, walked out onto the landing, and saw her face, I knew that Mum was dead. 
     A week after the funeral, I was back in Brighton and at work, decorating the house of an eight-and-a-half month pregnant financial adviser who, after we’d finished, stood on a chair checking each doorframe to ensure it was painted correctly. Perhaps I shouldn’t have gone back so soon. But the alternative felt worse: sitting around my flat, staring at my computer screen, listening to gulls rip up bin bags outside my living room window.
     So I drove myself crazy at work instead. I sweated at the top of a stepladder until ten-thirty at night, listening to bad Experimental Jazz on Radio 3 or crouched in low-ceilinged bedrooms, cutting in skirting boards. I didn’t particularly want to think about Mum. I certainly didn’t want to talk to anyone else about her. I wasn’t particularly sad; in many ways I felt relieved – joyful, even. But friends told me I was vulnerable. That I needed to take care of myself. Stay grounded.
     Staying grounded was the last thing on my mind.
     That week, someone new came to work with us. Within a day I’d fallen in love with him. A man already in a relationship, a man with a disastrous psyche. Click-clop-thump— I ran into mess as fast as my Converse pumps could carry me.

But that’s another story. Eighteen months later that same man and I are decorating together again. Things have moved on; the affair long ended, the emotional entanglements of the previous year smoothed out into clear separate strands. It’s autumn and we’re painting a mansion in West Sussex. It’s a country idyll. During tea breaks I stroll down the path towards lush gardens and an orchard with trees hanging with apples and pears. Every so often white horses in the neighbouring field break into a gallop, tearing across damp grass under Wolstonbury Hill. We are painting the windows of a once internationally famous actress – the kind who always seemed to be semi-nude in films, and who was once declared to be ‘one of the most beautiful women in the world’. She smiles at me from her doorway, her un-manicured fingers on her hips, her heavy-lidded eyes free from make-up. Cats curl their tails about her ankles. I take heart in her crumbling beauty and in the wild lawns that surround us. There is now friendship with this man, and the pain of what happened to Mum – those salmon-coloured hospital walls, canteen tea in its polystyrene cup, the hum and beep of life support machines – has faded. I can almost forget how, before Mum died, each time I’d looked from the nursing home window a bird would be hopping about on the frozen earth, or in sunshine, as if to show me my mother’s own soul – how it could be if only it was free to go, leave; exit the building.

Two weeks later, the weather turns, the job ends and the orchard, the summerhouse, the galloping horses all get washed away by a black, pounding rain. My friendship with the man dissolves into mud, accusations hurtling through mean damp air. Again I sit alone in my flat, a little more worn and once more with time to write. I’ve heard it said that grief and sex are inextricably linked: two sides of the same sharp knife. It’s true, the summer after Mum died, I was a bird flying into a shut glass window. But after such a cruel three year period of glacial stasis, I felt finally free. And that meant I was free to fuck up my life however I chose. Because of that, I couldn’t regret a thing.

    Soon I’ll put on my parka, step out into the shuddering rain and head up to the Post Office to collect my recent purchase: Mary Coughlan’s Under The Influence. We can’t recapture what was beautiful about the past, but we can let it call out to us again.
      I am glad that when the phone call came, I was singing.