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.