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.

1 comment:

Marta said...

Reading you is like reading tales. Don´t stop writing, please.

And have yourself a merry little Christmas...