African Blood

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‘Can I ask you a question? I was wondering about your ancestors; do you have any ancestors from the Mediterranean or The Middle East?’
‘Well . . .’
‘Ah, perhaps you’d like to be there now, in the Mediterranean?’ He was conspiratorial, trying to put me at ease, we both knew about the British weather.
‘I used to live there, the Mediterranean’, I said, not wanting to sound too eager to please.
‘North or South?’
‘Oh, I see.’

The Haemotologist was tall, slim, slightly stooped, as if from deference, rather than age, although he seemed near to sixty, with receding, crinkly hair and a trimmed, greying beard. Handsome face and eyes that looked like he enjoyed being intelligent and dapper and charming. Complexion of coffee colour; you’d say North African, with the clipped accent of the well-educated. He ran through the analysis of my blood at speed, noting where it was less than optimum. Quickly moving on to the next graph or table, always finding ways to reassure. My blood, with it’s laggardly white blood cells, who nonetheless, according to him, managed to get the job done, was universal amongst Africans, he said, wherever they are.

I could hardly keep up with the statistics he generously showed me on the computer screen as they scrolled by. Was it me, or did other patients understand these kind of things, well-versed by the medical pages of the Daily Mirror or Google? I dismissed the thought that all this  — he shared his gorgeously hand-written notes, too — was for the benefit of the young female medical student who sat demurely behind my left shoulder. Kidney, liver, bone marrow and creatures known as the scavengers were his only concessions to my vernacular ignorance. How did he learn all this?

But mostly I was thinking about the journey. Exiled from the Dardanelles, when we got away from the Greeks, us no better than Helots. From Italy to Libya, when the Mediterranean was one, undivided. There we must have stopped off for a while, took on provisions, tarried, we might have called it; the Balearics, leaving behind our cairns; then Morocco, last pleasures and civilisation before the grim Atlantic, with its mist and black rocks and fierce gales, then to the edge of the world, Totnes, our New Troy, so called. Brutus would have left me there; he had bigger fish to fry. And my ancestors? After that we moved only when we had to.

‘So you’re saying that if I were African, my blood would be normal?’
‘Yes, that’s right.’ He was gently ushering me out of his office.
‘Thank you’, was all I could think to add.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said, as I shook his hand. And I went off for another blood test.

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A Small Walk

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I’d done it many times before, the same walk; got the train, gone to The Mound to get my bearings and set my sights on the goal, Mount Caburn, 480 foot up. But the last time, mid-winter, I’d given up, weary, perhaps bored, falling ill; I’d pulled back at the dew pond (the lowest point) and the pair of bald thorn trees; relieved to be defeated.

This day, a season later, coming on to the rise of Southerham I was confident I’d make it. But why was it all so small? I looked to the sky (cerulean, no less). Larks rose, singing; a handful of meadow pipits poked the ground. Gangs of jackdaws chacked and swooped, white-gold in the sunlight. The Downs were high as ever and as open. But small.

Something had happened and I don’t know what it is. Time, the angle of the earth, death.

At the Caburn, on the wooden bench that overlooks the Ouse I was joined by another: taller, younger with two dogs. We talked for a while; the mind, he explained, wants us to think it’s something floating above us (he stretched out his arm, making a span above his head) apart from the body; it’s our task to understand that it’s not. He went on with his pie, we talked about the closing of The Trevor Arms. Then I said my goodbyes to him and his dogs, heading back the way I came.

A small walk, that’s all.

a favorite bench

Seventeen Syllable Poetry

Things I Like, Number 4

List twenty things you enjoy doing (Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: Task 3, Week 2)

Making my daughter’s bed.

The voice inside, the voice of my wife or it could be my mother stops. Time stops in this small room where there is no lack of space and no schedule to complete. There’s a smell, a scent: clean, flowery, warm; it’s the smell of the colour pink.

Then it begins: it’s like a dance when you don’t have to think about the steps. It’s like playing tai chi when you forget about your teacher. And if I drop Snowflake or Ginger or my hand doesn’t quite grip the duvet or the pillow doesn’t plump up there’s no swearing. This isn’t doing the laundry or vacuuming. The next move just comes.

I wouldn’t call it love, it’s not duty or an obligation. No-one — I mean my wife or my mother — will ever say well done, you’ve managed a chore. Not in my head or in my life. Even my tai chi teacher — since he seems to be here too — doesn’t remind me that housework is good for your energy. And my daughter doesn’t thank me either, there’s no need. I haven’t done anything. Besides, if I could find the words, I’d thank her.

But in the meantime, I’ll just make her bed.

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With appreciation to John Gray, who doesn’t like this kind of thing https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Gray_(philosopher)

Angels In Sussex

Notes from a walk.

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Start at the railway station, Pulborough. (Let the train go on to London, without you). This is off The Downs, off the chalk, in a dip, but the Downs stalk alongside. The way leads you over suburban metalled and gravelled paths, then red-green sand, wet meadow, sand again.

Copses where the beech trees have grown free of the serfdom of crop and cut, crop and cut. Pines trees tall and straight like retired officers (whose hearts are in the Highlands, but who look south, seaward). A dull regimented wood where the art of murder is declaimed by cages and barrels and the odds and sods of shooting. A pheasant clacks and belches erratically into the air, then slumps into cover, relieved.

Halt at a church. A high saddleback tower, three tiers of undecorated Norman windows. A yew is black with age. They say that one of the names on the war memorial (of those who didn’t come back from Flanders) is the same as one who fought with Charlemagne. This is a land of names, houses, manors.

The Big House, Petworth: Fuck — the ladies, officious, said I was too late, the exhibition’s closed.  They’re in charge. At The Angel, Angel Street, a local says, in parenthesis,  — oh dear, they are not very — a pause for words —  community-minded. I open Blake at: I have always found that Angels have the vanity to speak of themselves as the only wise.

I thought he meant them, the guardian angels of our culture. But the next day I got a phone call — you can come back another time, free. Perhaps he had me in mind, after all.

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What The Magpie Knows

The Magpie brings us tidings, Of news both fair and fowl: She knows when we’ll go to our graves, And how we shall be born.

How did you choose your parents, Ste? He often called me just that, Ste. He often just drawled out the vowel and left the ve unsounded. Ha! He added a little harrumph for outfoxing me. But he rushed on. I know how I chose mine; I made a mistake, I thought they were bohemians but they were Catholics. This time we both laughed, raised beakers of the same pink resiny stuff, made lurid in the poor fluorescent light of the basement.

You know Finn — he resisted the pun, for once — Finn the yoga teacher, he’s thin — one of his Tibetan teachers told him that they know how to choose their parents. Ha! A lot of good it did them, some of them. Costello’s face was close to mine, opposite: square, just greying around the temples, lively eyes and a narrow mouth that seemed unable to keep up with his intelligence. His sardonic voice brought them back.

We were in the place where we’d tried to steal one of the tables. They’ve got enough of them, he’d said as we made our way down the marble steps into the cigarette smoke and the thick, dense smell of warm olive oil. And the Greeks, in knots of twos and threes, dun-coloured like old woodcock, raising the familiar cacophony that had once sounded like quarrelling. Neither of us remarked that there were only men here.

I’d wanted to go alone, he knew that, but had followed me out of the spiti we shared with the others on the edge of town. Lena was cooking that night; She’ll only make a meal of it, he’d said. Mostly he talked about the day — bloody oranges — but I sensed he wanted to know where I headed when I wandered off by myself.  We went my usual way via the poste restante. There was a letter for me, from my mother. First time,  it was always my father who wrote on behalf of the family. Nothing from Isabel. Costello didn’t bother to check: I wouldn’t want them to write to me. Unless there was money, a lot of it. He couldn’t raise the will to make it sound shocking. In the restaurant, the letter sat there, unopened; I knew what it must say, that my grandmother, my mother’s mother, had died.

There was a surge of half-hearted jeering. We looked up at the tv screen suspended in a low corner, near a grimy pavement light; it showed England battered by gale-blown seas, lashing rain and great snowdrifts. Even the cars were disabled. I might have thought it was smugness from here in the south, but no, the men here, hardened by life in Laconia mocked any discomfort for far away, great, Anglia.

***

He stumbled briefly on the steps as we left. Damn! I’ve forgotten my torch. His nighttime blindness always startled me. We stood alone on the broad pavement of the empty dark street; a few spindly street lamps doing their best to form shadows. Shops were closed now beneath the  dull glare of the utilitarian flats above. No moon; a chilly December in Sparta.

As we were leaving a waiter had come after me, imploring phile, phile. Stupidly I’d left the letter behind. We’d taken another half carafe and Costello had talked on: about trying to outwit his diabetes and all the authorities back in England who connived in its attempt to quell him; and he gossiped about the Dutch girl; he usually called her that, hardly ever by her name. He was proud that he spent much of our working day chatting to her while me and Hari, her boyfriend, were harvesting the bloody oranges. Her parents are Sannyasins, Ste. They meditate in a group in her house. Open marriage, she says. Asked her if they always wear orange, she said it’s more like pink or purple. Ha! So, how’d she get parents like that?

On the pavement I couldn’t tell if he could see me at all. You should see my piss in the morning, Ste; it’ll be solid. I took one of his arms, tentatively, as though under instruction and  manoeuvred us into the direction of home, then, closer, linking my arm through his, as, at last, I felt the cool, stern compassion of five-fingered Taygetus.

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That Was Then: The Bayswater Faith Co-operative

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A whodunit

“Well, it wasn’t me,” Steyne sounded offended, his voice smooth and clear.

“Never is” said Wilson in the kind of cockney drawl he used when he was sexually interested – not in this case – or felt his interlocutor to be beneath him.

“Now, now,” calmed Ghita. She left the “children” unsaid. They’d known each other for years.

Rachel looked startled, although she’d seen scenes like this many times before. Then Hurst threw in: “Maybe it wasn’t anyone?” He seemed to be making a philosophical point.

“So what happened, then?” Wilson was taking control.

“I came in, and the door to the office was open,” Ghita looked at Wilson for approval. “It shouldn’t be.”

“No, actually, you think it shouldn’t be.” Steyne went on the attack, his eyes fixed on Ghita. At sixty he could have been played by the same actor as at thirty, his years carried so little weight.

“We’ve been through that so many times.” Ghita tried not to sound flustered.

Hurst looked round, from face to face, then at the dull blue carpet. He wondered whose job it was to clean it. Sitting on cushions made it feel like a prayer meeting; he didn’t know if that was good or not.  The room was in its perpetual twilight.

“Yeah, yeah,” said Wilson, not much more than grunting. He meant carry on.

“At first I thought . . . ” She looked at Steyne; they all knew what she was thinking. “And, so, I didn’t think anything was wrong. Anyway, I checked the answer machine.”

“Yes, yes.” Steyne said sharply; he wanted to get to the point.

“Was there anything on it, the voicemail?” Wilson was having fun, his heavy face lightening. Steyne laughed: they were friends again. Hurst noted the use of ‘voicemail’, Wilson had an ear for jargon, he thought. Rachel looked blank.

Ghita had to indulge them, she knew. “Then, I went to the top drawer to get some cash and it was open.”

“What was?” Wilson again.

“The drawer, it wasn’t locked. And the cash box. It was gone.” Ghita’s black hair had become even more unruly, as though joining in her disapproval.

“Well, I wouldn’t take it, would I?” Steyne sounded as though he had no need of money, he lived on a higher plane.

“Someone would.” Wilson added; he could have been rubbing his hands together. “What time was that?”

“About one, just before” Ghita, being practical.

“A bit late, then,” Wilson said. It seemed to be a private joke between him and Ghita, and she smiled.

“I know,” said Rachel. They all turned; they’d forgotten about her. “Why don’t we ask Woody? He’ll know what to do.”

“Woody?” said Wilson, disguising his hurt. “What could he do? He wasn’t even here.”

Woody Mathews held an honorary post; unluckily for Wilson he took it seriously. Rachel’s face had the glow of faith: “No, but he’ll know what to do.”

Ghita looked slighted on Wilson’s behalf. “That’s it, then” said Steyne, getting up, drawing the meeting to a close.

“I’ll give him a ring” said Hurst, as they knew he would.

*****

The room was in a semi-basement, light penetrated weakly through frosted windows with bars on the outside. It was odd-shaped, following the contour of the Victorian villa, an oblong with a cut off corner where a potted palm stood. There was no furniture, save some folded chairs stacked against built-in cupboards and the pastel coloured cushions on which they were sitting.  On the cream painted walls were two high-quality reproduction mandalas while the walls themselves gave out a foggy, damp smell that mingled with stale incense. The carpet was enlivened with a wine-red kilim, its elaborate arrows pointing uselessly away from Mecca. Even when sitting on the floor the ceiling felt too low. The whole was like like a sanctified cave set among the flux and flow of desirable, capricious inner London.

Woody’s face was uncorrupted and incorruptible; the ageing choirboy who believed the words he sang. He looked around; beside him the others seemed careworn, all except Steyne, steely as ever. None of them had had a good weekend.

“What about Simon? Wasn’t he about?” asked Woody, when they had all settled. He’d been waiting for a while.

“The yogi? No, he wasn’t. It couldn’t have been him.” Rachel was sure; even if he’d wanted to, he couldn’t, her face said.

“How much was in it?” Woody played the doctor, getting down to practicalities.

“Well,” said Ghita “there was the mindfulness course on Thursday, most people paid cash, they don’t have cheques, they think we can’t do cards . . .”

“We can’t, can we?” Woody wasn’t sure about the ‘we’.

“We can, actually, yes.”

“The wi-fi’s very bad.  It’s very slow, we should get a new router,” Wilson put in firmly.

“Yes . . .” Ghita continued, “so most people paid cash. And there was the addicts’ group on Tuesday, they put something in.”

“Yes. But how much? How much was in it?” Woody was trying to be patient.

“I borrowed some, on Thursday about £20” said Hurst. He meant ‘took’.

“About?” growled Wilson.  He was keen on semantics.

“Well, yeah, twenty, £20.” Hurst slurred slightly, but no-one paid him any attention, they moved on with only a murmur. He tried to forget about the drawer, which he’d left unlocked.

Ghita was leafing through a ring binder, at pale grey  sheets of paper, photocopied and overwritten in different coloured handwriting. She was the only one who had brought along anything business-like; thoughtfully she’d also put out a large jar with a selection of biros, markers and pencils. The others glanced at it from time to time, but didn’t take from it.

“I don’t know how much from the addicts’” she looked briefly at Hurst, “but there were nine people on the course, three paid the full amount, and there were four concessions . . . it looks like two didn’t pay. There’s nothing here.”

“They arrived late. They paid me” snapped Steyne, reddened, continuing: “the usual amount.”

“He means concessionary,” said Wilson and Steyne looked at him gratefully.

“So, how much was that, altogether?” Woody pressed on.

Ghita had a ledger of some kind, it was scribbled with figures, notes and initials. It looked out of place, like money-changers in a temple. “And we sold a book,” she added, looking at Woody.

“But doesn’t that go into the bookshop safe, upstairs?”

“No, because it was from the library.”

“The library?” Now Woody was shocked.

“We don’t really need a library,” Wilson was sharing his superior knowledge “It’s all online. We should just sign-up to one of  the  universities.”

“It was Steve,” Ghita was determined to go on.

“Steve?”

“Steve Wednesday. The musician”

“What does he want books for?” Woody knew he sounded ridiculous, but he couldn’t stop himself.

“He’s into films, too,” Rachel piped to everyone’s surprise.

“It’s his wife” Wilson said with authority. “She’s very middle class. Catholic. A therapist.” He spoke as though he could handle them all.

“She did a session here. Last year” Added Ghita, to her own annoyance.

“Yes. It was packed” Rachel looked up, her face clouding with the memory of the lovely scents of the smart women, their intelligent voices and their shoes  lined up neatly outside the therapy room, assured in their wealth.

“He wanted to buy the Waugh on Campion, the signed copy.” Explained Ghita, then added quickly, for the benefit of Rachel and Hurst: “Evelyn Waugh”. Woody stared at her.

“Christ!” hissed Steyne.

“At least it didn’t get nicked” said Wilson; Steyne suppressed a smirk. They were enjoying themselves. No-one added they needed the money.

Ghita tried to force some kind of order: “He said, well he gave us £240, that was cash too. He said he’d get us a replacement, too, you know, a modern paperback”

“Hardback” put in Wilson. “From Amazon.”

“Amazon?” Echoed Woody, perhaps surprised by their  initiative.

“There was  card from them, this morning.” For Rachel it was like a message from another world.

“Yeah, they tried to deliver them today. But there was no-one in. It’s at the post office. I’ll . . . “ Hurst’s voice trailed away.

“And a friend of yours came by” said Steyne, looking at Ghita, “on Friday.”

“The day . . . ?” she sounded alarmed. “What friend?”

“So you were here, in the morning?” Wilson spoke slowly.

“Yes, yes.” He wanted to get it over with, quickly. “I was here.  Then I went out, to the gym. I thought you’d be here, too” he looked at Ghita and was suddenly very young again as she stared back, stoney. “Early, that is  .  .  .  a chap came to the door” he sighed, “he asked for you. The Asian lady who brings the flowers, he said, he seemed a bit upset, and you know, I thought you would’t be long.”

Ghita tried to take it in; she didn’t just ‘bring the flowers’ and she wasn’t really ‘Asian’, she considered herself ‘Anglo-Indian, actually.’ She composed herself: “So you just let him in?”

“Yes, yes . . .”

In the silence, they each  began to fill in the story: the doorbell rings, Steyne, answers and a man  – he’s in his early 20s, younger than most of the regulars, wearing a dark padded parka, zipped up –  he says he’s come to see the Asian lady. Everyone knows her, she’s lived around here for years, shops in the market, puts out publicity.  Steyne lets him in, it would’t be good form to ask for a name; he doesn’t show him into the reception, with the locked cabinet of books, the Buddha statue (a family heirloom, brought in by Ghita) and Rachel’s soothing  semi-figurative paintings. Instead, with patrician friendliness, he leads him into the office, in the sub-basement.

The young man calmly takes his place in the comfortable battered office chair behind the desk, ignoring the two plastic ones. Steyne goes to make them tea in the small kitchen next door. He whistles to himself,  uses the nice tea, the Darjeeling  he keeps hidden.  He has his own pot. But the milk, does he call out  “Only soya, I’m afraid,” or root around to find Hurst’s little carton of full-cream? The man grunts back, indifferently.

After a while, Steyne returns and tries to make small talk: “She’ll be in soon” or “Have you done many events here?” but the man is abstracted, he doesn’t drink the tea. He gets up carefully, saying he’ll come back later; he pulls a small day bag over his shoulder. Steyne emits a few relieved pleasantries and the man sees himself out.

*****

They sat there, on their cushions. Hurst stared stupidly at the carpet, as though for comfort. He realised Steyne was gazing too at the same spot, his eyes lost.  Hurst opened his mouth, words, a question, began to form: was – he – black? The others were  all silent, as though at that moment receiving a benediction. He closed his mouth again.

“So. That was it, really,” said Steyne, shifting on his cushion.

“Why would anyone steal from us?” Rachel hoped for an answer, but she knew it would never come.

“Yes. I see,” said Woody with weary finality.

“I think we should all meditate,” offered Rachel.

“I’ve got to go and do some work,” said Wilson, briskly. Then added, as they looked at him with amazement “On my book.”

They muttered assent, as if to some higher mystery.

“I’ve got to go, too. I’m giving a talk tomorrow,” said Woody.

The rest looked on in wonder as the two men rose and sauntered side-by-side to the door. There was a brief business as Wilson ceded and let Woody leave first, then he passed through and shut the door firmly from the other side.

They gathered themselves into a circle, Steyne snorting audibly to re-assert seniority, then they sat there, like children determined to prove they could behave when the adults had left.

 

The Man With The Pink Newspaper

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1. Istanbul

I was in Istanbul when my mum died. It must have been my day off. The long, narrow dining table was laid out with an ironed white cloth, waxed for easy cleaning. At one end, where I sat alone, were dishes of pale cheese, dark olives, tomatoes and cucumber alongside a plastic basket of roughly cut white bread: a typical Turkish breakfast.  I’d left bits of shell from the hard-boiled egg at the side of my plate. The room was still, its plumped armchairs dozing like diurnal creatures in the bright sunlight that seeped through the drawn blinds. A burr of traffic rose from seven storeys below. From behind me, from the kitchen I could hear a purposeful clatter as my wife and her mother cleared up. From time to time one of them would enter to offer me more tea.

I was skimming through the BBC news online when my Skype app rang. It was my brother. As his face came into focus he said: “Well, you know why I’m calling.”  Mum had been in a nursing home for some months. After a brief silence I asked “How’s Dad?”

We talked on for a while, and as we did my wife came quietly in to stand at my shoulder, with her hand on my arm, a few tears in her eyes. A little while later, as I was finishing eating, her mother shuffled in and made something like a little bow, then said a few words in Turkish, nodding towards the closed laptop. Normally she never spoke directly to me, apart from to shoo me out of her kitchen when I strayed in there. I attempted a bow back and said “Teşekkür ederim, Anne.” Thank you, Mother – almost all I knew of Turkish.

* * *

“Oh, you’ve made it then.” It was neither reproach nor rejoicing.

I’d taken my time, unconcerned about missed buses from the airport and slow trains stopping at half-remembered stations. I’d walked from the station, too, stopping off briefly at a pub which had no pretensions of welcoming strangers. Knowing all the words I heard – in Istanbul I’d made no effort to realise more than a few set phrases – all these English words, seem to prick uncomfortably, like insects crawling on skin. And after the long journey, from London to this small seaside town, England already felt behind me. From here its tail fell away into the turbid estuary of the Severn. Across the muddy waters was sight of Wales; then emptiness.

A week before, a few hours after I’d got the news, I’d found myself on another shoreline, an open and grubby shingle beach facing the purple hulk of Asia.  Some local lads – urchins whose parents had doubtless migrated from  far in the east – were splashing and horse-playing in the oily water.  From there I made my way to the small Palladian church of San Stefano, where a terracotta Virgin looks down, suspended, from her niche.  I sat in a pew near the back. Half-closing my eyes, I was in Rome, once again surrounded by the corporeal images of belief. A place that would disgust my Mother, I knew.

From the shallow portico behind me a woman entered, wearing a charcoal pencil-dress suit. She made an offering of a lighted candle to the stricken Saviour, crossed herself and turned to leave. Our faces met; we were the only ones there. Her eyes were shielded by dark glasses but I wanted to call out: “My Mother is Dead!” or some words to find some kind of consolation in our shared futility.

There was a bar, a small restaurant really, probably Greek or Armenian judging by its blithe attitude towards alcohol.  A few narrow steps led down into a crypt-like basement, still empty at this time of day. I chose to sit outside at a round metal table, facing towards the church and  the sea. I ordered a raki from the proprietorial waiter. On the other side of the thoroughfare, in direct sunlight, students thronged a glass-fronted cafe, drinking tea and Coca-Cola on the terrace and chatting animatedly. I felt a gentle elation – perhaps that’s what death does, at first. Once more I felt the pleasure of being cocooned, like a spy without a master, in a culture I had no share in.

Two girls sauntered by, arm looped through arm, one wearing  a silky headscarf in lilac or pink, the other with her blue-black hair falling free to the mid-point of her shoulders. Their hips indifferently brushing, their heads leaning in confidentially, I watched as they made their self-assured way through the bustle of the broad pavement. The waiter re-appeared. “Another?” he asked in English. “Evet“, I said.

* * *

As I entered the bungalow I could see my Dad had been busy. Mum’s things were stacked in formal piles around the kitchen and hall. A few remaining clothes were heaped on the bed in her room. “I took a suitcase full of ’em to the charity shop” he said, as though fearing reproach. In the front room, which seemed more cramped, stale and dusty than before, he ran through the arrangements he’d made, then repeated them, in the same cycle. Most of the practicalities were being taken on by my other, second brother. But Dad seemed to be checking them off with me, with added asides and digressions.

“The lady from number 14 came up and said she was sorry, you know, gave me her condolences for my loss. Your Mum. I didn’t know she knew. That was nice of her, wasn’t it? And I stopped the paper, your Mum’s paper, The Sunday Post, they were very nice, too, in the shop, when I told them.” He must have guessed he’d already told me that. “But, do you know what?” he became animated, both arms jerking in supplication, knees squeezed  together, his face beaming, “I went back the next day and asked could I still have it, you know, every week and they said yes of course. That was good of them, wasn’t it?” He waited for approval, then went on: “No, I don’t think it was the next day, it was the day after that, two days later.”

He tried to press on me some of my Mum’s jewellery, for my daughter or my wife. I resisted as firmly as I could; it was mostly cheap costume stuff, undistinguished and impersonal, none of which I could remember my Mum wearing, though they were marked and tainted. “What about this one?” he said as he fished each piece from the  frayed box. In the end I accepted an imitation Wedgwood brooch. I determined to drop it into the charity shop, so I didn’t register who it was destined for.

There were two rough stacks of books, all paperbacks, one in the kitchen, and another, which had toppled over, in the hall, near the front door. “We could take all these to the charity shop. It’s open tomorrow. I kept your Mum’s Bible, I don’t think they’d take that.” I began to look through them, shuffling them into a neat cairn, feeling the embossed, glossy titles, broken spines and thumbed pages. A tart mustiness seeped from them.

I was aware of him watching me from a little way off, standing attentively as though observing a ritual he was unfamiliar with. “Always reading, your Mum was, lately. I used to find her, in the kitchen, you know, just reading. No telly or anything. I had to put the telly on, in the kitchen, when I went to make my hot chocolate. She used to tell me to turn it off, you know, when I’d finished. Always telling me what to do, she was, your Mum.” He smiled an uneasy, confiding smile, as if worried he’d been indiscreet. “Then” he looked to me for reassurance before going on, “Then I used to go and sit in her chair, your Mum’s chair, and have my hot chocolate.” Another pause, then looking at me intently added: “I think she knew. I don’t think she minded. She was like that.”

Among the books were a lot of Catherine Cookson, and some Josephine Cox and other women writers. There always used to be at least one book in the bathroom. The covers promised journeys into sepia escapes and romantic freedom. Many were secondhand, still with their price sticker from the hospice shop. I flicked through a handful of the nicotine coloured pages, holding aloof from falling under their spell. I felt a touch of disdain which I suppressed but couldn’t quite  overcome. Looking back, I should have taken a Cookson. But I was too much concerned with creating my own memories, or intimidated by my Dad looking on.

Nonetheless,  I put aside three unexpected finds. These were Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brien, Dr Zhivago and The Spy Who Came In from The Cold. Master and Commander looked unread and I was unwilling to cast it off with the rest. Dr Zhivago I thought I’d watched on TV with my Mum but had never thought to read; now it drew me like a semi-precious stone, alive with its cover of a colour-tinted photograph of Cossacks, over-slashed by a ruby script. The most dog-eared of the lot was the John le Carre. This was an old Pan edition from the sixties, bold red capitals on black, creased from use, with a blurb about the film and the enticing Pan logo, suggestive of something forbidden. I had my own copy,  a recent edition, but I wanted my Mum’s.

I didn’t try to explain anything to my Dad, just a few words as I steered the books away from their mother-cairn. He said “Yes, yes, of course, take whatever you like,” in a voice that clearly didn’t understand.

* * *

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2. At The Church of The Nazarene

My Dad showed him in, hesitated then left us sitting awkwardly at an angle to each other in the bungalow’s crammed front room. It was the minister from the Nazarene chapel, my Mother’s church, who was to lead the funeral. “I’m Gary” he said, enclosing my proffered hand in his.

He wanted to get that out of the way, I sensed, conscious of his name’s cosy lightness. He made the room shrink; the easy chair he had been forced into had wooden arms which held him in like stocks. He spoke the jargon of loss and bereavement courteously, with precision, like a studiously learnt second language. Yet all the while his deep, almost black eyes were searching mine and his broad chest yearned to break into its mother tongue: the fires of hell, sin and redemption, the saviour’s blood.

“Is there a hymn you would like,” he enquired, slowly “on behalf of the family?” I was was being asked for my passport to this other land. Like a pupil who relies on one answer to all questions I could only offer “Abide With Me?” hoping he didn’t catch its interrogative tone. He accepted, satisfied. He added another hymn, whether one of his or my mother’s favourites, I couldn’t be sure; the exchange was becoming vertiginous, but I grasped that it had Lord in the title. “There will be eulogies.” He paused, letting the new subject settle. “Who will be giving the eulogies?”

“Me and my niece.” I felt on firmer ground now. For a moment I savoured the possessive ‘my’ – I was in charge, leading, but I could see that I had failed him. “Only the two of you?” It pained him to spell out his disappointment. “Yes.” I was sure. It was my family. He held the door open for more, saying that others could come forward, “if they are moved so to do.”

* * *

The small chapel was tucked behind a semi-detached house, where a garage might be. It had a pleasant, but reserved open frontage, prefabricated grey brick cladding with practical glass double doors. Inside the light was surprising; the roof was windowed almost its whole length. I’d entered a sunny glade not the dark cavern I’d braced myself for. Bottle green, metal-framed chairs were set out in rows, I took one, near the front with my Dad and my two brothers. Just behind sat my mother’s sister and her two sons, both in their fifties. I looked round from time to time as the sunlit room filled, a few of my mother’s friends I thought I recognised – they’d always been old to me and I hadn’t seen them since I was a teenager. Names floated into mind, Joan, Brenda, Dot, but I couldn’t quite anchor them to the faces. About thirty souls in all, almost filling the place.

The minister – I couldn’t think of him as Gary – enjoined us to begin. Solemn words intoned towards us.  Then the first hymn – Lord of All Hopefulness – the opening notes wrung out of a willing upright piano, and I was back at school assembly but without the tension of suppressed antagonism. Here we were merged in a tepid pool of casual faith and polite disbelief. Respect for the dead or a weary truce. At the front, facing us, the minister burnt black, his low tenor urging and sustaining our hopeful effort. The hymn stumbled to a close. We sat, then with a brief glance to re-establish our bond, the minister commanded “Stephen will now come forward to share some words of remembrance of his mother.”

I stood at the business-like lectern, my new John Lewis suit respectfully ill-fitting. I  could see my Dad sitting slightly hunched, his features pinched and faraway. To either side sat my two brothers; one, anxious and for once willing me to succeed, the other as relaxed as on any day off; all the hard work had been done: dealing with the hospice, the undertakers, sorting out, as far as was needed, the estate and the bank, and he’d been responsible for it all. This was the mere gilding. Somewhere I could see his wife and daughters. My aunt’s face swam into focus; she was beaming, jolly and winsome. I realised then she didn’t know where she was or why. My cousins, in formal black ties and white shirts appeared to press against her, grimly guarding her as best they could.

What I said could have been said by any son of my age of any mother of her generation. She shared their virtues. Honesty, hard-work, humour. My notes were lucid, a way post through my image of her life. I didn’t stumble – should I have? – just the odd fiddle with my spectacles or tie to staunch the flow and it was soon over. My niece took my place. She swept aside my baleful homily with a lively counterpoint that could have been rehearsed.

Relieved, I replayed my speech. I’d something about my Mum’s fondness for a good-looking man in a uniform. “She respected authority, so long as it was held responsibly and fairly.” I think I intoned, before adding, “Especially if it came in the shape of a handsome young man in uniform”. I’d meant to refer to the War, to Americans on t.v., even to my Dad, in that photo of him during his National Service. But while the rest of the congregation murmured a recognition, he’d looked blankly ahead: of course, I then realised, my parents hadn’t met until later.

My niece’s breezy renditions of her grandmother’s gruff ways and sayings came to a finale. For a moment the audience, as we had become, held our breath, restraining an urge to applaud. The minister took over, “Would anyone else like to come forward to say a few words of appreciation and remembrance?” With compassion, he cut the pause short. “Our father, which art in Heaven . . . ”

* * *

In the dim, almost lightless kitchen sits a young policeman. The window sucks in a meagre sun through the cramped grey coombe of a back terrace, glossing the man’s clipped brown hair.  On the wooden draw-leafed table in front of him is his helmet; he’s jotting down notes in his pocket book with a thick pencil. He’s a youth of 22 or 23, nearly ten years younger than my mother who’s seated opposite, attentive to his questions. They each have a cup of tea near at hand; the teapot midway between them. The interview continues for some while; her voice takes on a keenness and formality I’ve not heard before.  Her ‘aye’ and ‘yes, that’s right’ have the confidence of a legal disposition.

As he rises to leave he grows even taller than he’d first seemed.  I watch as he stoops through the kitchen door into the cave-like hallway, past the out-of-bounds lounge, into the porch where tinted light influxes through the glass panels and then he’s away, without a glance back, into the street. “He was a bit of all right, wasn’t he?” My mother seems to glow, confidingly. “He can come back any time he wants.”

The man the young officer wanted to talk about, I knew, was a paying guest.

* * *

3. The Paying Guest

It’s my room. The room I had as a boy. The window is all but closed, just a tiny gap between the lower sash and the jamb, as if it wouldn’t quite shut properly. Through the cloudy pane is the remnant orchard, its trees extending high enough to obscure the back of the houses I know to be there. The dull gold leaves fade into a blue wooded hilltop, letting in only a narrow strip of colourless sky. There’s no sign of the jolly seaside town, unless, with the sharpest of eyes you pick out the wind-blown slant of the woods. Hidden outside, below the sill, I can sense the rusty rain tank with its blackened green water.

There’s a red curtain, the only bright colour permitted, it seems, and only just long enough for its task. Wallpaper. It’s scattered  with tiny impressionistic flowers overlaying an embossed pattern of what could be birds. To me, they always looked like pigeons, a flock of them twisting in a panic towards the slit of sky. There’s a sturdy but battered dressing table with a central mirror and two wings.

In front of the dressing table, the back of his head, where the smooth skin peeps through the gleaming hair reflected in the far wing, sits a man. He’s in a wicker chair. His belly – I wasn’t allowed to use that word at that age – is unlike any in our family: round, plump, full. A belly at home with itself, padding out its waistcoat. He’s in a three-piece, salt and pepper suit. But more than the belly it’s his face, no, his eyes, which fascinate me: alight, sparkling, amused by my presence. He holds my attention. He radiates a vitality and charisma. Yet somehow we’re complicit, so that if my interest slipped he would be as depleted as me. He’s like a magician about to perform a trick.

His stocky legs are crossed, left over right. A sliver of skin gaily escapes between turn-up and navy blue sock. The brown brogues are new, I can tell by the unworn sole. Glancing back to his face I see he sports a speckled moustache. There’s a smell – for my mother ‘smell’ was always pejorative, something that shouldn’t be, but she never used that in regard to him – it’s a sweet, spicy scent of hair oil, or – another word far in the future – cologne.  But to that most critical and exact of all distinguishers, class, he was elusive, enigmatic. He was both far above any class I knew of and also unspeakably below. My mother never gave any indication, either; no “he thinks he’s too good for the likes of us” or, most damning, “common.”

And the trick?  He takes a torso-length, flesh-pink newspaper, almost as wide as the span of his short arms,  flicks it open and reads with unfeigned concentration the minuscule type. Then, with a deft motion, and a glance towards me, brings the pages together and, with a shake of surgical neatness opens it up once again. Beside him is a fist-size magnifying glass, this he selects from time to time, carefully holding it at distance from the page, peering closely through it and setting about some detailed investigation I can only guess at. The whole procedure is performed with accomplished elegance which cannot conceal a reserve of violence.

* * *

“Amen.” The minister’s benediction ended. The man with the pink newspaper slipped from sight.  The echo of God and His Son faded. Next to me, my Dad began to shuffle. Ahead, the minister, began his metamorphosis into Gary. I thought of some words of thanks, stepping out of the row of chairs. I was already uselessly worrying about cars, sandwiches, tea or wine . . . all settled and organised by my brother. I just had to look the part.

* * *

4. A Pilgrim

A prim file of poplars lined the far boundary, wringing their leaves fastidiously, as though cleansing themselves of any corruption. Their neat alignment was disrupted by a pair of tall willows whose cracked limbs were distorted by pain or ecstasy, remnants of a time before before all this well-ordered death. Their dagger leaves cut the still air; I remembered the ones at school and the way they were spotted with scabs like dried blood.

“It’s lovely, isn’t it?” My father, stretched himself up and leant his head back to take in the sky. “Your Mum would’ve liked this weather. She wasn’t much of a walker, you know, she more liked sitting in the garden. She’d have loved this.” “Yes, I know” was all I could say.

We were in the crematorium. The sky was a luminous harmony of blues and silver velum clouds, casting its light generously on the compact marble tablets, neatly set in well-kept lawns.  It was spring and a year and a day since my mother’s death. We must have met up before that, all of us, around Christmas, but not here, not in the little suburban town. Somewhere on neutral ground. From family I heard he was doing well, that ‘the spring brings out the best in him.’ Yes, there was a quickness to him you could have called ‘spring-like’ yet I preferred to see something of that other, shadow spring, the lammas growth that pre-figures the fall of the year.

“They’ve done a nice job, haven’t they?” My Dad was straying off the neat gravelled path, edged thoughtfully with boxed borders of viola and geranium, and towards a kind of arbour, hosted by a squat Japanese cherry, cheerfully arrayed in pinkish bloom. A blackbird scuttled from one hybrid oak to another, its yellow bill flashing  across the shaded walkway.  A robin began a reedy whistle, trying to find its voice. Maples with glistening bark and intricate foliage stood by.

He tottered on the ankle-high grass and had to use his stick to steady himself.  I took his arm, lightly, near the elbow. “No, it’s alright, you go on.” He said, as though he were holding me back. A crunch of gravel and the purr of limousines saved me from having to reply.  We both turned to watch an incoming cortege, silently observing it pull up at the crematorium centre; a dignified 60s building  of slate and amber bricks and almost windowless.

“They’re busy today.”  He sounded pleased. We watched the mourners exit the three cars, greeting and gathering in black and white knots. A lad, about eleven or twelve, wearing dark grey cargo pants and chunky black trainers, wandered away, trying to tuck in his tie-less white shirt, seeming not to know what emotion to give in to. Beyond this scene was the wind-formed beechwood I’d known as a boy and from where crows or jackdaws now rose, swooping and cawing.

I found him standing at a smooth brick-sized headstone. It wasn’t my Mother’s. My Mother wasn’t there at all; he couldn’t decide what to do with her ashes, and no-one knew of anywhere she wanted to be. Her remains were still in the cask in her old room.

“It’s my nephew.” He pointed with his stick, tapping it inadvertently on the side of the marble.

“I didn’t know he’d died.” My cousin, not just your nephew, I thought: black leather jacket, black greased back hair, tight black jeans.

“No, they didn’t tell me.” He headed off again, mooching among the other stones.

After tea in the bungalow I went to the small box room I always used when I stayed. I’d left the books there after the time of the funeral. Maybe I’d had second thoughts or hadn’t wanted to be seen carrying things away.  The room was damp and neglected. I could hear my Dad tidying up in the kitchen. My offer to help had been turned down: “No, no, I’ve got  my own way.”

The books were still there, piled on top of each other in a glass-fronted cabinet. I went straight to the le Carre. I played back the scene of the man with the pink newspaper: I could have only seen him like that if I’d been in the room, sitting upright on the single bed or somehow floating above it. I needed some proof, some provenance. I flicked through the two hundred odd pages, looked at the flyleaf, looked at the title page, half-title. The inside cover. Nothing. No mark or signature. Just a thumbed, worn paperback.

“Oh, there you are! What’re you doing, looking at the books?”  Before I could say anything he added “That’s alright, I don’t mind. I’m just off out for my walk.”

“Would you like me to come?” I was kneeling on the floor, looking up at him.

“No, that’s alright, you stay here with the books.” Then, added, looking at the paperback I held limply: “Oh, that one. About spies, is it?”

“Yes.” I wanted to say it was really about more than that, but couldn’t find the words.

“I thought so, someone gave it to me years ago” he drew out ‘years’ so the word seem to cast back deep into the past. “But I couldn’t read it myself so I gave it to your Mum. She liked it, I think. Anyway, I’m getting late for my walk.”

He drew away from the doorway, turning cumbersomely in his thick anorak and heavy shoes. I heard him clomping steadily along the hallway, humming or talking to himself. I heard the rattle of the chubb as he opened the door and the click as the door shut  firmly behind him.

* * *

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 © Stephen Moore 2016