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.
* * *
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.
* * *