We had nothing but rags Bags of old costumes Piled in the corner Of a dusty room Discarded scraps Of forgotten dreams So I taught myself to sew Building a tapestry Of my patchwork life Knees folded on the Chilly bathroom floor Its cracked blue lino Like ocean waves The tattered curtain Tucked up over the rail Learning to navigate By feel and intuition As I frowned Squinting at my needle Trying to get the thread Through a tiny hole In the mushroom-coloured dusk At the awkward age Of thirteen years and one month I wore them out My colourful creations And people stared Admiring and mocking In equal amounts When I grew Good enough That you could see Design in my skilful Manipulation Of throw-away stuffs I sold some For coin, or bartered favours Tailors can be born And they can be made I took commissions If you could describe it The perfect dress I could draw it in my head Then threading your dream Through my careful fingers Seam by seam I could make it Come alive
Looking up the ancestors
Tracing a family tree
Am I in search of them, my love
Or really in search of me?
Finding pairs of twins who married
Sailed off across the pond
Only to find in a generation
Home was what they’d scorned
Trying to cram onto scraps of paper
Names and dates and more
Wondering why they had chosen to scatter
Themselves from shore to shore
Picking over the bones of stories
Scraps of my family lore
Wishing I’d asked before someone passed
A couple of questions more
Chuckling over the old intrepid
Tales of derring done
The girl who ran guns in place of her brothers
As they’d only blab to mum
The lady highwayman; army driver;
Girl of a thousand smiles
The one whose paintings went down with the ship
The ones who ran quite wild
How would I fit, these elderly legends
How would I measure up?
Putting myself into clogs and sabots
Filling old boots with luck
Knowing the secrets that spring from boxes
Hidden on dusty shelves
Of births and deaths and marriage and proxies
Chicken-scratch bibles and tombstone kells
The hideous source of a score of quarrels
Love letters from the wrong side of a war
Black sheep and politics; actors and brothels,
Family heirlooms and so much more
Mystery facts are now uncovered
A lady who lied for years
Pretending to youth and no old lovers
To soothe a new husband’s fears
Learning why some names were missing records
During a time of strife
Who had migrated and waited and waited
For news of their family’s life
Postcards and poems and brochures and programmes
From concert and theatre and prom
Knicknacks and geegaws and troubles and trinkets
Collections they handed down
Sepia prints and chemical glass
My ancient faces scowl
Melancholic in rented clothes
They are caught dead in now
There is a world of difference
Between those who seek the
Company of women
To bask in it
Hanging on their every thought
As one transported
By the beauty
Of a strange and fantastical mind
And those who fancy
A quick in-and-out
Zipping their feelings,
Upping sticks and moving on
To the next conquest.
The difference is obvious
Even to the most casual observer:
One is the stuff of
Fantasy and freedom
Of late-night talks
And deep discussions
Long philosophising over
Maybe with a bit of
And a casual pinch of laughter
Thrown in for good measure.
On encountering the other,
I will take the lonely
High road to nowhere
Hiking in stupid, pretty,
Risking my own skin
To preserve sanity
Rather than share transportation,
Food or drink
In exchange for temporary
I enjoy womanisers
Who enjoy women
In all their complexity,
But have no time
For bed-notch chasing
Straw for brains
And cloth for ears.
My grandfather died last week at the age of 100. Unfortunately, thanks to the French law requiring cremation within six days of death, and to generally poor timing, I, along with several other members of the family can’t get to the funeral. Only a member of my family could manage to die in the middle of a European football tournament, my cousin’s GCSE exams, immediately prior to the collective insanity of our EU Referendum, and find his funeral being scheduled abroad at the whim of a disinterested foreign bureaucrat, on the day of a national transport strike. (To explain my mild cynicism, another member of my family was once genuinely late for their own funeral when the hearse got lost… some days my more theatrical relations do seem to be living in a situation comedy.)
As I cannot be there in person tomorrow for Harry at his final send off, I wanted to write something expressing what it meant to me, growing up, to have this person in my life.
“Not everyone can be bothered to charm a child. For someone who loved an audience, Harry was, rare in a musical obsessive, also someone who knew when to be quiet.
I have fond memories of long walks in the woods with a battered basket, hunting for edible mushrooms, my sister getting her wellies stuck in a bog and needing to be rescued, then watching in fascination as he insisted he cook and eat what we had picked. Other adults wringing their hands, forbidding us from partaking, convinced he would suffer the consequences of his own stubborn refusal of natural caution.
I remember piggybacks and very serious games of pooh sticks using the stream at Hope End. I remember visiting Mr Pumblechook, looking for sweets in hollow trees, and I remember my earliest form of musical education, when Harry used to ask me to help him find all the Cs on his piano.
A lot of people knew him as a serious, charming, professional musician. I knew him as the charming joker who taught a shy, seven year old girl to clap polyrhythms and tend bar, and who preferred his favourite music, clothing and even footwear to be loud.
He surrounded himself with laughter, and enjoyed wine, women, and orchestral music wherever such delights were to be had.
Little doubt that he will start organising some sort of a gig surrounded by friends, old and new. Woe betide the third desk violins if they miss the F sharp in the third bar of the second movement. The maestro’s grimace will not balk at halos.”
Harry’s Desert Island Discs episode can be found on BBC iPlayer Radio here.
Push me to places
I ain’t seen before
I’ll paint on some faces
To look like your whore
But deep in my mind
There’s so little you see
I keep it locked tight
Holding onto what’s me
The terrible things
That we do in this world
Are only a symptom
We pass off – absurd
So I’ll do my worst
‘Til I’m hailed as the best
You’d think we were cursed
But we’re just like the rest
And I can breathe magic
Just give me the word
It smells rather tragic
But haven’t you heard
The twisting of sisters
And mothers and misters
Is brotherly love
With a burning that blisters
It’s time for my act
So get ready to listen
My mould has been cracked
I’m the last one to glisten
With genuine feeling
That’s cheap by the dozen
You’re welcome to healing
But no kissing your cousin
I’ll take you to heights
Just to jump off the top
And tell you of sights
‘Til you beg me to stop
There’s nothing to do here
And less I can build
But I’ll keep my mind clear
And my body filled
With poisonous substance
That’s hardly substantial
You’ve really no beef
The whole thing’s circumstantial
It doesn’t make sense
When I come from this background
But who cares for pence
When you’re far from the fair ground
The going was rough
I thought I was a goner
But nothing says tough
Like a second-hand Doner
I don’t mean to pry
But why are you still reading
When you could be flying
And fucking and speeding
So what if I get careless
I’m doing my thing
And it’s none of their business
You just keep paying
The price of my ticket
It’s cheaper than praying
And you know you can stick it
Giraffes do not grow on trees, well, not according to my Dad, anyway.
I miss the colourful hilarity of childhood, way back when the height of misery meant the red crayon had rolled under the fridge and I couldn’t reach a wooden spoon to poke it out again. I remember being excited to the point of hysteria by a new yellow umbrella, and feeling no guilt at toothbrushing sans-paste when it had mysteriously fallen off the brush and gone down the plughole, not stopping to greet the teeth on the way. Mum always knew when the fluoride had reached its destination as I would spend at least half an hour spitting like a camel and dramatically gargling water all over the bathroom floor to try to rid myself of my new, abhorrent ‘minty-fresh’ breath, then stomping downstairs bad-temperedly to demand something to ‘take the taste away’.
I remember halcyon days in shades of orange with such wonderful sports as ‘puddle-jumping’, and wading through wet, smelly piles of leaves, kicking up clouds of muddy mulch as we marched; long, dusty summers when we drew epic masterpieces on pavements with a sharp stone.
Old age makes fools of us all, and even our childrens children will believe that fifteen is the height of senility, with older siblings’ faces resembling an Hawaiian pizza, preferring to sleep all day, locked up alone in a darkened room, listening to angry white noise, rather than braving the warm violence of sunlight and risking untravelled hormones loose in the outside world.
Ah, adolescence, that fun-filled decade of emotional turmoil, strange sensations, sights, sounds, smells and swellings. Bubonic plague condensed to 5’4″ and made to suffer the indignity of sharing a bathroom with no lock on the door. Discovering that Christmas brought nicely wrapped, clearly expensive zit-medication, a baggy jumper in bottle-green from Aunt Matilda (nothing too tight, dear, while they develop), and pink fishnets from Uncle James.. thinking Uncle James was cool for all of five seconds before Auntie Rose started on him with long words like ‘inappropriate’, and ‘juvenile delinquency’ and you realised that pink fishnets were only being worn this season by 45 year old moustachio’d Bank Managers known as Mandy on weekends..
Kids grow up so fast, gushed some family friend who hadn’t bothered to drop in and see you since you were five, as you cringed, sighed, and tried to get comfortable in clothes held together by far too many safety pins on the lumpy chair you had insisted on throwing yourself into. You may never have gotten around to actual nose-removal, but self-imposed discomfort through spite was a common theme among the terminally uncool.
I look back these days and I even reminisce over my agonies of exams. Three hours spent scratching away in yesterday’s unwashed, unironed school uniform, with dirty hair and inky fingers, wondering what sadist ever thought up slow death by sports-hall sock-smell suffocation and quadratic-equation-queasiness.
And the hell didn’t end with results day. Work experience was to follow. Three weeks of sheer pointlessness pretending to be learning about the world of work while not reaping any of the benefits of the Saturday job you’d had for the past three years (no pay packet for starters, and having to make endless hot beverages for strangers).
Ah, how we suffered, the agonies and indignities both in the name of education. But it was all worth it, that glorious day of liberation. University arrived, and we were so very ready for it, anxious to throw off the restrictive shackles of clean sheets, enforced hygiene, regular, balanced meals..
On we charged, returning home in the holidays to discover that life had somehow gone on without us. Siblings had claimed any items we had rashly abandoned, and what corners of the parental home we had once called our own had been painted and filled with the ‘tasteful’ (unwanted) Christmas presents no one had seen for years, and a lot of cheap shelving to house them.
Most worrisome of all was the seeming lack of caring of our recently-bereaved of our presence-parents. Those bedrocks of familial pride, who after a cursory search for drugs, and a declaration that we were old enough to do our own washing, didn’t bother to go so far as to raise their voices to impose a curfew. And these the carping adults who had brandished the whip all through school, driving us ever onward to new heights of geekery in the name of learning!
What now feels like a very long time ago, I said an unwilling goodbye to a friend of mine. Not one of those ‘I’ll see you when you come to your senses’ goodbyes, but a full-on, permanent, ‘Nevermore in this world’. The boy in question had chosen, without telling anyone, to shuffle off this mortal coil. I had just moved house, so I got given the good news several months after the event via his mother, who in the chaos of her own grief, had managed to lose my address.
For various reasons, for which I later felt extremely guilty, I was unable to visit. I had missed the funeral, and in any case, I didn’t really know his family that well, so I wasn’t comfortable intruding on their grief to assuage my own.
Mourning is a strange, and very personal process. People do it in all sorts of different ways. The letter I received from his mother on black-edged notepaper was testament to how well she was faring under tremendous pressure. It took me three hours to decipher the handwriting, let alone allow the meaning of her words to sink in. I spent those three hours in the laundry-room in the basement of the building, with a pile of rapidly diminishing dirty washing, deafened by the noise of the industrial-sized machines, slowly coming to the realization that I would never see my friend again. Life would not be the same without him.
Letting go of someone who has been an almost daily long-distance fixture in your life for several years is difficult. As we were living in different countries, we mainly spoke via the net or by post, usually in the evenings. That year he had been transferred by work to another location just before I moved house, so there had been a break in communications while we both sorted our lives out, during which we sent each other a couple of brief postcards, but nothing serious in the way of deep and meaningful communication. I had no clue he was depressed. None whatsoever. His actions came as a complete shock to me.
You read all sorts of stories about suicides in the papers, usually villifying their so-called friends who were too wrapped up in their own lives and problems to notice someone they cared about was losing the struggle with theirs, and you wonder whether they chose the path they did because you were a bad friend…?
Survivor guilt is not limited to extreme situations such as war or genocide. It occurs in daily life as part of the grieving process. You wonder about the strangest things. ‘There but for the grace of… what? Why wasn’t it me and not him?’ You puzzle over personality traits, ponder what makes someone strong, whether suicide means strength or weakness… These internal debates can last a lifetime without you discovering the answers, and if you let them, they can take over your life.
His mother gave me some strange advice at the end of her letter. She told me to forget all about her son, to ignore what had happened, and to go on with my own life, to live it to the full and to follow all my dreams.
I read her letter over and over for three weeks before I replied to it. I couldn’t find words to say what needed to be said, and nor could I reconcile what needed saying for the sake of convention with what I wanted to say.
I was angry at her for telling me to forget my friend. I couldn’t understand why she would demand that I obliterate all trace of someone who had already left the land of the living. I wondered at the time if she was ashamed of what had happened. I wondered if she was worried as a Catholic about the eternal damnation of her determinedly and avowedly atheist son. I wondered about a lot of things, and I took his photos off the wall in my study and put them in the back of my diary.
I carried him with me for five years, occasionally taking them out to look at them and remember. To remember his advice, his smile, the crazy things he did when he was drunk. To try not to forget, not to let go. I wanted some memory of him to stay with me, a souvenir for this world of a friendship long since dissolved.
And now I have put the diary in a drawer. Somehow I know that I no longer need to carry these physical remnants from the life of someone who is still very much a part of me. I have memories (albeit blurry ones these days) of him which will eventually fade, and I am content to let them do so. I know that he made his mark on the world because he made his mark on me, on my personality, and I need no greater reminder. The way that my mind continues to work is tribute enough.
Goodnight, mon chevalier,