The Birthday Party

Pic Credits: mopsografie

One hundred years old.

How can one imagine living that long? My fiftieth was a discomforting milestone. Old age creeping up unnoticed, stealthily, sniggering in the background. One husband, two sons. Alive. Limbs and faculties intact. I got away with it? Mirror, mirror on the wall pulled no punches:

“Look at yourself. How much longer? Will you outlast your father?” No. Never. I approached his birthday with considerable trepidation, my emotional baggage heavy. But this day was his. As were his memories. A hundred years of them.

His CV:

Born in Gowerton, South Wales, to a poor family. Stole coal to keep the winter fires burning. Got to Grammar school, studied Latin, played rugby, kept fit, fit, fit. University. World War II. Squadron leader, the youngest almost ever. Married teacher in Milford Haven Grammar School. Taught, taught, taught. Latin, history, PE. Two children.

“You stand at the blackboard, Daddy, in the picture I have of you.”

Like Sylvia Plath’s father, he spoke German, learnt it in the war.

Didacticism and pedantry still run in his thinning blood even after all those years of teaching. Barking orders, correcting grammar, asking endlessly about my boys’ exam results. As a teacher he put in extra hours, unpaid, for those he felt shared his passion for Latin and Greek. His methods verged on the tyrannical – no benign Mr Chips character he. Renowned for throwing the wooden duster at those hapless enough to mix up their ablatives with their datives, he was also known as the one master likely to get you into Oxford.

I finished my Latin O-Level exam, taken a year early, in half an hour, because, for me there were no “unseens” – I’d seen them all before, with him. Colette, the invigilating teacher, thought me stupid for having left so soon. I got a grade 1. It made me really popular! His delight was marred by my sulking all day as a means of revenge.

Do you remember saying, “I don’t want any fuss on my birthday”? But I know you. If nothing had happened there would have been trouble, some obscure Ciceronian recrimination I would have had to research.

All those years of checking obituary columns and saying, “Ah, I’ve outlived him.” And there’s the rub. They’ve all gone. Mindful of that I gave you the chance to see, reminisce and say farewell to those who played a role in your life.

On the occasion of your hundredth birthday, Daddy, I presented a funeral party for the living.

Marks and Spencer are indispensable on these occasions, as was the wonderful carer who gave up her day to help cater, make tea and keep the peace between visitors and my brother, unnerved by an occasion made more stressful by his Asperger’s Syndrome.

You never did make time to understand him.

He’s always been scared of you, Panzer-man.

As a family we dealt with verbs and conjugations, not feelings. Mens sana in corpore sano and all that. Still, we had good holidays, touring Europe with you convivially speaking with the natives in their own language, whether French, German, or Italian. We would look at Latin inscriptions in churches and cathedrals, you translating the bits I didn’t get.

Do you remember those walks across the fields, with our cat, following us with dog-like devotion? You sang about the “tit willow with the rather tough worm in his little insides” plunging into his watery grave. It always had me heaving with sobs.

I was amazed by the forty-six birthday cards. I read each message as we tried to work out who, actually, had sent them. The Queen’s card was particularly impressive, a lovely photograph, quality paper festooned with gold braid.

And she had teeth.

“Daddy, daddy please, put yours in and your hearing aid…”

“What? Enunciate girl! Leave me alone, I’m perfectly capable of masticating with the teeth I have left.”

And so, tired of arguing, I dutifully cut up your food.

Daddy, you can lie back now.

Aneurin, the retired farmer from my mother’s side of the family was the first visitor. He brought a box of butterfly cakes, exquisitely made. I stared at them, remembered childhood, mother. She was beautiful. Aneurin stayed a while, asked about you but didn’t want to see your bedridden self. He explained, “I’d rather remember him in his full vigour.”

I respected that. And understood.

Every woe and frustration, every feeling of helplessness and frailty that you have uttered are magnified to me as I feel equally helpless in turn. When you sobbed I have raged against the dying of your light.

The mayor came to visit, in his glittering regalia, heavy chains almost down to his knees. A short man, made me think of Mussolini and Napoleon. Same height as you. His face fell when I explained that they would have to see you in bed. Our local councillor and childhood acquaintance, invited to the party, had not told them that.

But then everything changed. They saw the photographs. You, young and handsome in your squadron-leader uniform looking down from the mantelpiece at the gathered few huddled tightly in the shabby bedroom. The mayor honed in on it at once, for he also had been in the RAF squadron. His chauffeur took a picture. And you came alive and spoke. Your conversation, animated, enthusiastic as you reminisced and laughed with the mayor, was as a Lazarine conversion.

The young man in the picture speaking through the old wreck in bed.

I was so proud of you.

Of all the cards received, one stood out the most, the one from the ex-pupil who became Head of Music for BBC Wales. A message of heartfelt thanks to his old Latin teacher:

“For awakening my interest in etymology and Roman culture … for giving me a range of English vocabulary which meant I could hold my own in skirmishes with Eton/Oxbridge heavies in BBC London … for holidays in Italy, visits to Pompeii and Ercolano and appreciation of the work of classicist Mary Beard. For always making clear your irritation with schoolboy sloppiness of any kind: of verbal expression, dress or failure to meet deadlines … for preparing me for the discipline required to achieve some measure of success in later life…”

How well he knew you.

I had no idea.

And so, following him, I write down what I cannot bring myself to say in person. I love you, amo, I have loved you, amavi, I will always love you, amabo, and when you are gone I will remember how I used to love you, amabam.

What more is there to say than just that?

The Birthday Party was all going swimmingly. A group of twenty-five were gathered downstairs, waiting to pay their respects. The chauffeur asked for a picture of you with the mayor. Waving your arms, you airily declined with a stern:

“No, no publicity please.”

The sandwiches, the votive offerings of homemade cakes, gradually disappeared with the visitors, leaving me and a few others to recover from the exhaustion of the day.

My father did well, did himself proud on the occasion of his hundred years.

There was one last thing:

“Will there be an article in the Llanelli Star?”

“Well no, you asked for no publicity, remember?”

The answer came, more as an instruction than a request:

“Write something … something modest!”

And so I did.

Daddy.




Unity

Flag of Latvia
Picture Credits: RonnyK

In memory of Juris Arturs Zarins, 1944–2019.

There is a small nation in the north-east, where cold and dark rule for most of the year. A country that’s spent most of its history in unions with other empires, and freedom has been recent. It’s a country still divided by ethnicities and languages, but united in patriotism. Each year fewer people stay who were born there, but each year some return who never lived there. In 2018 that country celebrated its 100th anniversary as an independent nation, despite spending nearly half that time inside the walls of largest Union in the world. The whole year was one long Latvian birthday party, because freedom is worth celebrating, and democracy is worth protecting.

But freedom comes at high costs, and requires plenty of responsibility. In the first few years after declaring independence, and in the twenty-seven years since it regained it, Latvia learned this the hard way. And it is a lesson, and a price, my adopted home country of the United Kingdom, is learning, and paying, through Brexit.

*

For a small country of barely two million inhabitants, Latvia has an enormous diaspora, of which I am part. My paternal grandparents left Latvia in 1944, when they were thirty years old and their homeland was twenty-six. This was at the end of three years of German occupation, and their army, civil service and civilians were retreating at the approach of the Red Army. Alongside them, many Latvians fled the returning Soviets, who had ruled the country for a year known as the Year of Terror before the German invasion. The Latvian Army and national guard had been deployed as “voluntary” regiments under German command to fight the USSR on the eastern front. My grandfather had been one of them; he lost his right hand in a grenade explosion at Stalingrad. He, and thousands of others, did not want to face the wrath of the conquering Soviets, and so decided to leave.

Two routes were available for their escape: the official one, to Germany proper, on ships provided by the German navy to ensure a willing workforce after the war they knew they were losing; and the unofficial one, in fishing and leisure boats arranged by non-violent resistance groups, to Sweden. No one knew before they went which vessels would be safer; the German ships were larger and stronger, but also an easier target in the busy Baltic Sea. No one could know what was waiting on the other side. Sweden was neutral, and Germany was losing the war, but Latvia had belonged to Germany. As history would have it, more Latvians died on route to Germany than to Sweden, but more also made it there alive. In Sweden the diplomatic resistance continued, but the Swedish government also gave in to USSR demands for the mass extradition of Baltic soldiers, on the motivation that having fought for Germany, they were war criminals belonging to the Soviets. The overseas efforts to free Latvia were silenced until the 1980s. No one knew this then, of course, so as my grandparents stood on the western beaches of Latvia and decided where to go, nothing was certain, and everything was dangerous.

They went to Sweden. My father was born there, and thirty-three years after that I was born there. Latvia was still part of the Soviet Union, but the white and burgundy flag hung in our house, and a large map of Latvia hung like the portrait of Scarlett O’Hara in the hallway. National identity can be strong for a people in exile, even for the generations who weren’t born there. Latvia was our promised land, and when the Singing Revolution came, we sang along with it. For freedom.

My grandfather died shortly after my father was born. My grandmother died shortly after Latvia became independent. A few years after this, as a result of a referendum where my mother let me tick the box for “yes”, Sweden entered the European Union. Latvia’s rapid financial growth in the 1990s and early 2000s, following reforms and an embrace of market economy, led them to EU and NATO memberships in 2004. At last it was a true independent nation, free to join whichever union they liked, on equal terms and in the national interest. Because freedom is precious, and democracy is not to be taken for granted.

The financial crash of 2008, however, hit the small nation hard. The EU membership had made investments and subsidies possible, but it also made it possible for people to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Latvia now has the highest annual population loss per capita in the world, with low wages and struggling markets keeping poverty levels increasingly high. Freedom comes at a cost, and Latvia is a nation struggling between the benefits and consequences of union memberships. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, NATO has increased its presence in the Baltic states, and Latvia has called for action on Russian cyber interference. Freedom is threatened. Which means there is even more reason to celebrate it.

2018 was a year of Latvian celebrations, and I took part in as many as I could. In July there was the Song and Dance Celebration, a tradition that not even the Communist rule of the 20th century could extinguish. On 14 November, I went to a concert[£] hosted by the Latvian Embassy at Wigmore Hall in London, that celebrated Latvian culture, independence and long standing diplomatic relationship with the UK. EU flags stood like comrades alongside the Latvian ones on the stage, in case there was any doubt. Only a few days later, I went to Riga to celebrate the actual Independence Day, on the 18th of November. A flower-laying ceremony and speeches by the President, light shows and a torch bearing procession, with a finale of spectacular fireworks over the river Daugava were on the agenda. But the most political part of the day was probably the military parade along the 11 November Embankment in the early afternoon. Participants from all aspects of the Latvian army and its NATO allies, were on a long display through the city, with military aircraft, vehicles and weaponry to complete the image of a country prepared and capable. The parade was a message, just as much as the burgundy and white flags were, just as much as the singing of the national anthem was. 18 November was the highlight day of a monumental year, with promoted patriotism and pride the likes of which I have never seen. To not be swept up in it and feel pride of my link to Latvia was impossible.

Other eastern European nations, like Estonia, Lithuania, Poland and Finland, also celebrated their centenaries in 2017 and 2018. They are young nations that still remember being on the wrong side of the iron curtain. For them, being free and part of international organisations such as the EU and NATO, under their nation’s own name and flag, is not only about diplomacy, but of survival. From liberal Balts’ perspective, the UK’s departure from the European Union is not only incomprehensible, but possibly disastrous.

However, isn’t it hypocritical to celebrate one’s own independence, and simultaneously condemn another nation’s fight for it? Regaining control of borders and laws and financial expenditure in the name of a beloved home country was what drove both Latvian independence and Brexit. As a young European enjoying all of the four freedoms in a country different from that of my birth, I am a staunch Remainer who didn’t get to vote. But singing for one independence whilst screaming at another has made me reassess them both. My relationship with Latvia has been accompanied by the developments of Brexit. I first visited Latvia in June 2016, a couple of weeks before the referendum. In July 2018, I attended the Song and Dance festival and travelled around Latvia on the same day as the Chequers deal was published. On the night that I attended the Latvian concert in London, the government debated and signed the final deal only a few kilometres away, before further cabinet resignations. And exactly one week after the Independence Day festivities in Riga, EU leaders endorsed the Brexit withdrawal agreement. And now, the consequences of Brexit remain uncertain while the future of Latvian independence remain threatened.

It’s a fine line between patriotism and nationalism, and its placement seems to differ depending one’s perspective of it. The rise of populist movements across Europe, from the Sweden Democrats and Alternative für Deutchland to the Five Star Movement and Front National, has given love for one’s country a bad reputation amongst liberals and lefties. The populist party in Latvia is also Euro-sceptic, anti-establishment and prominent; but instead of nationalistic it is pro-Russian.

Some of the reasons why people in the UK are keen to leave the EU, such as free movement and financial contributions, are some of the strongest benefits of the membership for countries like Latvia. Cooperation and unity are in the national interest, particularly when the threat of an absorption into a different kind of union again looms over its borders.

To be patriotic, to worship freedom for your country, might be linked to a nostalgia for something that might never even have existed; a myth passed down between generations. That’s certainly the case for me and Latvia; I don’t know anything about what it was like to live in Latvia under occupation, or what its independence truly means. Neither did my grandmother. The political and economic difficulties the country now faces is the reality of a dream housed by us in the diaspora. It is easy for us to be patriotic for Mother Latvia, living with university degrees and job prospects and the world at our feet in London, Berlin and Stockholm.

I imagine it’s the same for some Brexiteers. The inherited mythologies surrounding the Empire, tough and free in the weathered landscapes of the island nation that rules the waves, become stronger in times of hardship, when one might feel ruled by the waves of Brussels. To be patriotic is to want freedom, no matter what that dream is built upon, and regardless of what the reality of Brexit means. To be patriotic, might also be to be nostalgic. I find myself empathising with those Leave-voters there.

So in the same year that Latvia celebrated its independence, the price of the UK’s independence has become evident. Perhaps the only way to be truly free is to challenge our own double standards, in order to respect other people’s wishes and opinions. If individuals are allowed to be free, they are able to create unity. Only through unity and respect, can we be truly free.




Where Are We Now

The ongoing project, “Where Are We Now”, is a series of linoleum cut prints in comic strip format in two matrixes, one in a comic-strip style and another in repetition of the strip. The series is about me and my dad’s struggle after my mother’s passing in 2009 in Los Angeles. As an immigrant family to the United States, overcoming emotional and financial damage wasn’t easy, especially when other families and friends were living far away in our homeland. Through comic prints, I portray the confusion and depression my family went through and how we dealt with my dad’s alcoholism after loss.

My works overall reflect on past experiences and feelings. In my prints and comics I have been working on the concept of “a black room”, which comes from memories of a dark room in childhood and as a young adult after a series of traumatic events. Lack of privacy and the need for my own space, from constant moving and room-sharing, have made me create a small room in my head. “Black room” is a physical and spatial visualization of where feelings and memories stay. The idea of “a black room” is often illustrated in the “Where Are We Now” prints.

 

Rain

 

 

dad, you didn’t mean to say that because I didn’t

 

 

One Afternoon

 

 

In the Shower

 

 

Lost in Translation

 

 

My Dad

 

 




On Culture: Parenting, Reading, Emigrating, Love

Photo courtesy of Fezbook American Language Center.

Last night I took a train away from my mother. She had been visiting her parents in a village right on the Hampshire/West Sussex border, sheltering under the huge green curve of the South Downs. She came for ten days that coincided with Spring Break at the college where she teaches. I saw her on Mothering Sunday, I saw her this past weekend, and she flies home today.

For Mothering Sunday, I bought her a book. It was Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death, a crime novel set in twelfth century Cambridge featuring a female anatomist whose knowledge of corpses must be concealed lest she be branded a witch. I’ve never read it, so to gift it to someone else was to break my own rule of book-giving (give nothing you haven’t sampled yourself), but it seemed to fit her perfectly: a meticulously researched historical thriller, for a professional academic historian whose current literary obsession is the Canadian crime novelist Louise Penny. I hope, in any case, that she likes it.

Mum and I spent a lot of time sparring about books when I was younger. As a teenager, I was determined to conquer the entirety of Western literature, beginning to end. The gory, the cruel, the experimental, the daring, I considered challenges to be overcome by the birthright of literacy and critical acuity that I possessed and, frankly, took for granted. I read violence in Cormac McCarthy, disturbing sexual power exchanges in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden; I read the beginnings of the novel in Tom Jones and theological disputation in Paradise Lost. I started to keep a reading log in June 2007, just before I turned fifteen; the first entries are On the Road, the Communist Manifesto, Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, and the Book of Genesis. (It didn’t occur to me then to count how many women I was reading; my awareness of structural inequality in the world of publishing and high literature, of the canon wars, would come slowly, during my first year at university.) My mother wanted, understandably, to protect me. It was an instinct that tended to backfire. When I was nine, I became obsessed with Jude the Obscure, at least in part because I had been strictly forbidden to read it. This didn’t happen often in our house: I was prevented from checking out books from the Young Adult section of the school library until I reached the mature and reflective age of ten, but rarely if ever was a specific text prohibited. I got around the YA embargo by borrowing books from friends, which my mother knew all about and didn’t really mind. Jude the Obscure was on another level entirely, tempting mostly because of a plot point that was so horrifying, Mum wouldn’t even describe it to me. (Eleven years later, I read it, and had to admit that, although it’s relatively tame in comparison to, for instance, Outer Dark or Crash, my mother was almost certainly right at the time. I was, after all, a child capable of wailing with fear and mistrust at films as innocuous as Mr. Bean’s Holiday. Things bothered me.)

In contrast, my mother’s literary tastes through much of my adolescence adhered to a formula that she defiantly described as “heart-warming and life-affirming”. These were things like Jan Karon’s Mitford books, Alexander McCall Smith’s cozy mysteries set in Botswana (and, later, his Edinburgh-based Sunday Philosophy Club novels), and a whole parade of lesser writers whose efforts put them in the position of minor courtiers or hangers-on: they were accorded space on the shelf, but more because they weren’t actually awful than because of any particular virtue. With the arrogance and incredulity of adolescence, I was merciless about these books, and about the very idea of “heart-warming and life-affirming”. The phrase has become a running joke in my family; my brother and I like to deploy it, mockingly, about anything well-meaning and drippy.

It didn’t occur to me until last Christmas, as I hugged my family goodbye in Washington’s Dulles airport at the end of the holidays, that there might have been a better reason for my mother’s adherence to the cozy and non-threatening than mere weakness of will. She has, after all, got a Ph.D; half the reason that her reading choices used to bewilder us so was that she was entirely capable of tougher stuff. But I thought, as I shuffled through security trying not to cry, that perhaps there was something else. My mother and I have done a sort of delayed-response life-swap; she came to the US when she was twenty-three, and when I was eighteen, I went back and settled in the UK, not returning even when I graduated from uni, planning to make my career and my life happen here. That’s the sort of decision that you don’t really understand until you’ve already made it, and even so, I’ve been discovering over the past few years that the implications, the emotional fallout, from that choice keep happening. You don’t just move across the Atlantic and then everything carries on as normal. It’s oddly like grief; your feelings go round in circles, stagnate, make a great leap forward and then a great leap back.

No one tells you, that’s the thing. No one tells you that it’s going to hurt. No one tells you that you’re going to miss your little brother growing up. No one tells you that you’ll feel a strange sort of distance from these people who were once your whole world–a distance that means you can breathe and expand, but also one that makes your parents’ faces look oddly unfamiliar even in the photographs they send you. No one tells you that the choice you’ve made is bigger, broader, deeper, than you expected. Or if they do tell you, you don’t understand. You go away when you’re eighteen and you don’t come back and only after a couple of years do you start to realize that you have actually done it, you are doing it, you are separate and far away and that this entails loss, and fear, and loneliness, as well as joy, opportunity, thriving.

She did this. She went away, married my father and didn’t come back, and no one will have told her all the things you end up learning, and no one will have said you’ll worry about your parents as they age and your children as they grow and you’ll have to be a dutiful daughter from three thousand miles away. No one will have said the humour is different here and your syntax will change even though your accent will remain and some people will love you just for being English and you’ll be glad they like you but in a way it’ll feel like a freak show. She’ll have figured it all out for herself, and maybe even anticipated some of it, but you can’t anticipate it all. You can’t anticipate thirty years’ worth of expatriated feeling.

But you can read through it. You can read it away, and you can read to pull it towards you and understand it better. You can read things that comfort you by reminding you of your past, and you can read things that help you by parsing your present. You can draw a line in the sand to protect yourself, and label it “heart-warming and life-affirming”. You can also cross it, as she has increasingly been doing since I left home. I’m sure that my tumultuous adolescence did not lessen the pressure that she felt, and I’m equally sure that, although she worries about me and my brother both, things are a lot easier now.

On the train last night on the way back to London, I read The Unvanquished, William Faulkner’s collection of linked stories about a Confederate family in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. For a minute or two, as I turned the opening pages, something in my stomach flipped over and over, and my heart rate sped up in response. It was sadness; it was helplessness; it was determination; it was the expectation of missing someone. Then I plowed into the story of little Bayard Sartoris, and his slave and playmate Ringo–a story about adapting to a world whose parameters you don’t yet know, a story about tenacity, a story I’d last read in America.




It’s Alright, Meaning Just Admit It

Photo by Volvan UK, taken from Flickr
Photo by Volvan UK, taken from Flickr

My mother would describe her gynecological problems to strangers. I would be trying on a pair of jeans, and I would hear “womb” or “spasm”  over the curtain. The more overpriced the jeans, the more symbolic they were of my escape.

My parents ran a seaside B&B. When I think of it now, I experience a kind of vertigo. You can already picture the wipe-clean tablecloths, the awful framed watercolours, and the semi-permanent fog of fried egg. I blame my social anxieties on this set-up.

Frank surfaced during my last year or two. He was my father’s friend from school and the kind of person who found it funny to raise a carpet stretcher above your head. He and my mother had fun identifying these and other reasons for my distaste. Why he surfaced I don’t know. He had a stiff leg and the sense that he knew something about himself he wasn’t letting on. Though my mother could have been quite clever, she had a habit of attempting to disguise her feelings with an act of airy disinterest. ‘Frank has an appreciation of Y. For your father, it’s just about Z,’ was a typical formulation. My memory of my father then is of a man in torn trousers, stinking of creosote, slamming his metal toolbox here and there; grunting and opening doors with the sore air that no-one was helping him out. Still, her observations bored me.

Frank appeared in the kitchen, or on the stairs where I was forced to wait for him or else attempt to go down as he was going up. He was an offensive person and he found his own views self-evident. I see now how these things could have come to bother me less. How I could have seen them as expressions of a socio-cultural moment in history and then, even better, as anecdotes. Frank had been to Spain and bought my mother some perfume. ‘Some of the women over there, you wouldn’t know they were, …’ he nodded. What, Spanish? I thought. He was a racist of course, but had he lived a few years more he would have been a sex tourist on a plane to Thailand. He wheeled past me on his bad leg. ‘Did you want some perfume too?’

I don’t remember what I said.

‘I can get you some perfume when you’re sixteen,’ he said. ‘You won’t know how to say thank you until then.’

‘Right,’ I said. Probably I did so well at school because I always carried a book so I could disengage from conversations like these. Why my mother was standing there listening was unclear to me, but not entirely out of character.

I don’t remember what happened next, probably I made my dinner and left: that was usually the only reason I was there.

I went to university.

The boys below addressed each other over the girls’ heads and the girls flicked their hair and looked at the boys. None of them saw us. Some of the girls had fat calves and when the wind blew their gowns this was obvious.

One of the boys started singing. Sally rolled her eyes. We had a king-size bar of dairy-milk between us, Sally broke a block with the heel of her hand and ate it in one go. The song was theatrical, but not operatic. Conor, who bought all the chocolate and pastries, was rolling a cigarette. He rolled me one too. We leant out of the window. I blew smoke, wondering if any of the boys in the group would look. I had imagined boys like that looking at me as I talked about Giotto, and if my background were ever mentioned I would have waved my hand. I was ready not to bang-on about having been to state school.

Conor leant out of the window, balancing on the ledge below with his hand.

Wankers!’ he shouted.

Conor had been to a minor public school where he had read The Morning Star ostentatiously in the common room.

Conor looked at me, ‘What?’

I tried to re-light my cigarette.

Conor brandished a two-litre bottle of pink Lambrini. I made a face.

We loved our bar. The smell of dust and bar-bleach felt comfortable. Each year someone would graffiti a hammer and sickle on one of the red walls and it made us proud. Why do people congratulate themselves on having had a gap year? we asked. Someone from another college would be talking about saving an English girl in India and Sally would laugh, ‘I used to walk home from school through Peasdale park. Every evening at the gates there would be the same gang of boys. “Take nex’ lefht luv, take nex’ lefht”, they’d say as I went past. The joke was that the next left was a dead-end and there they would rape me.’

That Summer I worked in a hotel bar where the clientele came in with fancy hair-dos and sheer, sequinned scarves wrapped over fat crimson arms. I came back near midnight, microwaved chocolate over cheap cakes and ate them in my room. My mother had moved out, taking the computer with her. I checked my email in her rented living room. She read to me from legal guides on assessing your partner’s assets and magazine articles about hair-dyes implicated in ovarian cancer. I got my exam results. I left.

It is a fact I do not often tell people that my mother was a product of rape. When I say fact, I mean that was what she told me.

You could fall down dead outside Kings Cross and no-one would notice: I tried to explain to my mother what was great about London but of course I shocked her.

It is not important to me that my parents like or approve of the things I have chosen in my life, but I think my mother likes John. He is a much livelier than I am and much better at entertaining parents. She appears to enjoy his company and laughs at his stories, sometimes in a way that seems to give her own partner pause.

Last year my brother got married. My mother is always on edge when my father is around, though she never acknowledges this and always acts as though this is not the case. While my brothers and I were gathered under my father’s instructions she took some photos too, in the way people take photos of Niagara falls, or the Eiffel Tower; because they are there. Perhaps it is only because I am a photographer I notice these things. I know I could say when I take photos I am looking for a moment of truth, but I’m not sure I believe that anymore. For whatever reason these thoughts pre-occupied me as we sat there. I leant into John and he squeezed my arm and I gave him one of those smiles that being in the couple you imagine no-one else sees, but probably everyone else does.

‘That’s a good one,’ my mother said, flicking through her little digital camera, ‘though Nicky, you’re not smiling.’

We were backed against a window. I had not said anything about that, about the light, but now I did. Her eyes widened. ‘Do you remember those photos you used to take?’ She turned to my brothers, then to John, then to me, ‘of your friends on a night out? They were all blurred.’ She looked around smiling then she wobbled, holding her small camera, in illustration. ‘It’s alright,’ she said. I don’t remember what I did then, whether I stared at her or looked away. I suppose that is because at the time I attached no importance it. I remember finding it tedious, but that is all. John did though because he remarked on it later. Without that I’m not sure I would have noticed.

After my mother met John she did things to embarrass me – she drove us past a Mothercare to ask pointed questions, she sent him a guide to sizing your fiancée’s ring-finger. I do not really mind: nothing can be read into these things since they are so awful. I enjoy telling them as anecdotes to new acquaintances; I have found them useful ice-breakers on a long journey with a new team: few people can beat them, and if they can, I am always impressed.




Chino

Chino

Buying a house in the San Francisco Bay Area was filling Jessica Chang’s head with financial acronyms and 3D maps searchable by schools’ average test scores.  When she was in her twenties and dancing at New York trance clubs in sweaty barely-there outfits, high on a mix of drugs cadged off willing strangers, moving to the suburbs with a yuppie husband and toddler sounded like a death sentence.  Now that she was thirty-seven, and in the back of a midsize SUV trying to comfort her son Kirby who was screaming “Out! Out!” while strapped into his child seat, she felt like a different person had lived that blur of strange men and pulsating dance floors.  She and her husband Stan were headed into the lawns of Sunnyview that afternoon with their realtor.  Jessica hoped to find a quiet place to settle into, though she was nervous that her Korean American family wouldn’t fit in well with the gymnastics studios and pumpkin patches she saw on her last visit that far south of San Francisco. 

“You lived in Manhattan, so I didn’t expect you to have sticker shock, but I get the feeling you’re disappointed by what a million and a half buys out here,” Deborah, their twenty-something agent, said as she glanced back from the passenger seat while Stan drove.  “This house is spacious and modern, so it should be more to your liking.”

For the past few weeks, Deborah had provided much-needed professional guidance on the insanely competitive real estate market they had moved to six months ago.  With her yoga-toned body and long blond tresses, she reminded Jessica of the intimidating Wall Street junior execs she used to serve when she waitressed in New York.  Stan seemed to take every opportunity to catch glimpses of the young go-getter’s legs when he thought his wife wasn’t looking.  Despite that, Jessica liked Deborah from the first interview because she was smart enough to smooth over the uncomfortable issue of race by using code phrases that got to the point without being offensive, like “low to moderate income” or “rising rents.”  

Deborah continued, “The part of Sunnyview we’re headed to today has recently become much more international and has rapidly improving schools.”  Jessica felt at ease, as she guessed Deborah meant new money Asians were moving in, probably replacing lower middle class whites and Latinos.

Disappointed after getting outbid by foreign real estate investors and venture capitalists for houses near San Francisco that resembled glorified trailers, Jessica had heeded Deborah’s advice to be “more realistic.” Jessica let Stan extend their search much further south since he wanted cut his commute to Silicon Valley, giving him more time to fiddle with some entrancing new gadget on the couch.  Not having earned a paycheck since her wedding, she didn’t feel like she could complain much.

  “We’re hardly cool club kids who need the city,” he had said to convince her to move out of the cramped two-bedroom they’d been temporarily renting downtown.  Jessica had only smiled.  She had never told Stan about her past, afraid that he’d look at her like she was shameful, as the peppy women in his social circle of young professionals always stopped after two glasses of wine.  They had met in a Manhattan church she had joined after a coke overdose scared her into rethinking all the nights she’d snuck away from her father’s scornful eyes to meet up with smoldering rock-star wannabes.  Desperate for a change, one Sunday, she smiled back at a brash Korean preppie with a military haircut who wouldn’t stop staring at her across the pews.  When she learned that Stan was a lawyer planning to move to California to do technology deals, she started dreaming of a new life far away from the mess she’d made of herself.

When they arrived at the Sunnyview house, Jessica was surprised to see a recently renovated two-story that had panoramic bay windows and a three-car garage.  It looked like one of the dream houses featured on real estate websites that Jessica pined for.   She climbed out of the SUV thinking something must be amiss.  As Jessica lifted Kirby out of his car seat and set him down to let him walk around a little, he wandered onto a verdant front lawn that could comfortably accommodate a stick ball game. He screamed with his arms raised, “Grreeeeeennnn!”   

As Deborah led them up a red brick path to the entrance, Jessica noticed an elderly Latino man sitting on a rocking chair in the porch of the much smaller ranch house next door.  His only companion was a green oxygen tank pumping life into his skeletal frame through a dirty plastic hose in his nostrils. 

He smiled knowingly at Jessica.  “Chino family over there.  Chino family over there,” he said in a scratchy voice, pointing at each of the houses on the block.  “Chino family over there, too.  Chinos, taking over.”

As her imposing husband shot a warning glare across the driveway, Jessica put a hand on his tensed shoulder.

“Ignore him.  He’s just an old man,”  she said.  

Jessica caught a flash of uncomfortable worry on Deborah’s face as she quickly unlocked the door.

The old man continued, pointing at the desirable house in front of them, “No Chino in that house.  Nobody wants that house.  You know why?  Bad Feng Shui.” 

As he laughed, Jessica shook her head.  She didn’t care about Feng Shui any more than she cared about Wicca or Rastafari.  Kirby, however, giggled in Jessica’s arms, apparently tickled by those new strange words.  He tried them himself, yelling “Feeen Shuuuuweeeee!”

Jessica quickly forgot what had happened outside when she entered a gigantic open floor living space with vaulted ceilings.  She stepped onto hardwood floors as smooth as an ice rink and followed Deborah to an expansive family room staged with a three-piece sofa set and a giant flat-screen TV.  Jessica thought they were better off with one crazy man next door than with the warped roofs, termite-infested add-ons or closet-sized “bedrooms” that had disappointed her in other $1.5 million dollar homes.  But given all that she’d seen in San Francisco real estate, she suspected something must be wrong.

“There’s a catch, isn’t there?”  Stan said to Deborah.  As a mid-level associate at a law firm, Stan negotiated deals all day and was nicknamed the “Ball Buster.”  He didn’t know how to turn off his graceless bark, often irking Jessica, but at that moment, she appreciated that he could be so blunt, so she didn’t have to be. 

When Jessica brought Stan home for dinner four years ago, she was amused by the wide-eyed surprise on her parents’ faces as they sat at the shaky kitchen table over steaming bowls of rice.  Jessica knew her aging parents never dreamt their wayward daughter, nearly a spinster by their standards, would bring home a Korean guy with two Ivy League degrees.  She had been at war with her stump-like father as long as she could remember, staying out late since her teens, refusing to go to college, and barely hiding her drug use.  The switch beatings stopped when she hit puberty, replaced by stiff slaps to her face that barely stung by the time she was in high school.  A couple of times she had run off with scruffy white men she’d chosen for the seething red they’d put in her father’s dark eyes, only to have him relentlessly hound everyone she knew day and night until she finally gave up and returned home.  As she sat beside a Korean man who promised to take her three thousand miles away, she noticed her father beaming a smile at Jessica that was full of pride, an emotion she could not ever recall seeing on her father’s granite face.  All she could think about was her freedom.  She’d finally be allowed to go far away with his blessing, instead of being forced to carve little corners for herself in his presence.

Deborah tried to skirt Stan’s question, replying cheerily, “This is a tremendous bargain in a neighborhood on the rise.  There are a lot of professionals from diverse backgrounds here so I don’t think you’ll feel uncomfortable.”  Yuppie Asians, Deborah confirmed to Jessica.

Stan repeated himself, “But there’s something wrong, isn’t there? What’d that guy outside mean?”

Jessica watched Kirby run around the family room with his arms stretched and laughing.  Then, he gleefully hopped around on top of a fluffy white shag rug that covered the floor. 

After a few uncomfortable seconds, Deborah replied, “There’s nothing wrong with the place physically.”

Stan rolled his eyes in a show of two Ivy League degree condescension that enraged Jessica when directed at her. “Come on, Deborah.  You’re not telling me something.  We both know I can find out what it is soon enough.” 

Deborah looked at Jessica for sympathy, but she simply looked down at her son, who was now attempting the pull the rug over his head, and waited. 

Deborah spoke some lines she seemed to have rehearsed in the mirror for a moment like this, “The former owner of the house was arrested a few years ago for child molestation, and is currently serving a long prison sentence.  The mother moved away with her daughters after he was convicted. They tried to sell the house before, but when the news was fresh and the market was down during the recession, no one would buy.  Since the market is now going crazy, they decided to try again.”

Deborah paused, her eyes nervously moving back and forth between the couple to gauge their reaction.  Stan pulled his iPhone out of his pocket and fiddled a few moments.  Jessica could feel a cold seed take hold inside of her as Deborah’s words sunk in.  She looked over Stan’s shoulder, and saw a headline, “Sunnyview Man Charged with Child Molestation.” 

“Is this it?” Stan asked as he showed Deborah his phone’s screen.  She nodded.  

Jessica looked around for Kirby, who was now rolling head-first into the rug, getting little white threads stuck into his black hair.  As she went to pick him up, the house no longer felt fresh or impressive, but like a neatly coordinated deception. 

While Jessica held Kirby close to keep him from flailing his way back onto the rug, Stan summarized the rest of the article out loud, “They had three girls who were between seven and twelve years old.  He had his daughters hold sleepovers.  During the sleepovers, he’d touch them and their friends.  Happened for months until one of the friends told her mother.”

Deborah said, suddenly sounding as aggressive as Stan, “This is a terrible tragedy that’s making buyers pause a little.  If you look beyond this incident, this is probably one of the most undervalued houses in the Bay Area right now.  However, in this market, even this house will get snatched up within days if we don’t move quickly.”

With the air seeming to get colder, Jessica imagined a broken woman, probably not much older than her, who fixed and modernized every last bit of a poisoned house, hoping, as the housing market boomed, she would have the chance to unload it.

Jessica shook her head.  “I don’t like this,” she said as her hands started to feel numb.

Deborah replied, “I know this leaves a bad feeling in your gut but this happened to people you will never know.  As the neighborhood changes, everyone will forget what happened.”   

Stan took Kirby out of Jessica’s arms, and motioned for her to follow him to one of the bedrooms at the end of the hallway. 

He said over his shoulder to Deborah, “We need a moment.” 

The room contained a twin bed in the shape of a race car and dinosaur pictograms covering baby blue walls.  To Jessica it was another lie, perfectly staged for a little boy though the house had been full of girls.   Stan plopped Kirby on the ground, and the boy immediately threw himself on top of a green foam play mat with multi-colored balloon shapes. 

“No way,”  Jessica said to Stan, coldness taking over her body.  She couldn’t do it.  The old man next door, or even neighbor children who knew the house’s secret, might feed Kirby’s nightmares with horror stories about what that monster had done to those girls.  When she was a child, as she’d clutched her blanket in the dim moonlight coming into her bedroom at night, she saw shadowy ghosts of immoral girls from cautionary Korean fairy tales her father had told her before bedtime.   Kirby’s fears would be far more incarnate, an evil man sitting in prison fantasizing about what he’d done in that house. 

Stan said, “Let’s think about this rationally.”

“I don’t want to start out in this house.” 

“You think we’re ever going to find another house like this?  We keep getting outbid.  We’ve got a shot at this one because everyone else is a little scared.  Well, I’m not,” Stan declared.  Though she wanted to stand firm, she felt herself allowing him to overbear her.   

Before Jessica could respond, Kirby ran out of the room, running out of sight as he turned the corner into a family room at the far end of the hallway.  Jessica and Stan chased him, catching up as he looked outside a sliding glass door which led to a spacious backyard with a playground set.  Stan scooped the boy up as he was on his tip toes pointing at something in the distance. 

“Hut,” Kirby said.

Jessica looked out the window and saw a dilapidated windowless storage shed by the fence at the end of the grass.  Made of dull grey wood and nearly covered by hedges, it was the only part of the property that didn’t shine with pristine newness. 

In the Queens apartment she grew up in, there was a little coat closet by the front entrance that her father threw her inside as punishment whenever she talked back or refused to study.  She would struggle and scream to be let out, but the door was usually blocked by a chair from the outside.  When he saw her talking to boys he didn’t know, he hit her with a wooden stick on the back of her legs, hard enough that she’d scream as she felt needles dig into her calves and then little streams of hot blood roll down her ankles.  Her mother did nothing but shake her head as he’d then barricade her inside that dark tomb for hours.  Cold and terrified, Jessica would rub her bloody legs as she quietly wept, praying to God or whoever would listen for any escape from her hellish father.   Sometimes, feeling totally isolated, she would cope by taking one of the wire hangers in the closet and digging small grooves into the back wall.  By the time she was in middle school there were more grooves than she could count, and she would take comfort in feeling them with her fingertips in the dark, knowing she could get through another few hours in that closet, because she’d done it so many times before.  She hated her father, hated him even as he walked her down the aisle on her wedding day.  She hated him so much she thought of him when she had a tramp stamp of an orchid tattooed to her lower back, because he had told her orchids symbolized purity in Korea.  She didn’t even know how many men saw it before she married Stan, or how many times she’d said I love you even though she’d usually been too high to even know if she’d meant it.  She hated him so much she thought she’d never marry a Korean man, until she met one that offered her a new beginning. 

“Where are you going, Jessica?” Stan demanded as he wrestled with Kirby.  The toddler was pushing his father’s face away and crying, “Down! Down!”

She walked toward the shed, feeling she had to know what was inside.  Jessica could feel her husband’s eyes follow her as she walked past a manicured lawn.  When she pushed open the rickety wooden doors, she was hit with the smell of sawdust.  She looked around and, through the thin sunlight from the doorway, she saw splintery walls that looked unsafe to touch.  After a quick scan of the interior, her eyes stopped on three sets of initials lightly carved into one of the old wooden boards on the ground: KL, DL, EL.  There were three girls, she remembered.  Did those girls carve themselves into that property, in places where no one would think to look? Did they leave themselves elsewhere, perhaps some untouched crevice where only little hands could reach?

Jessica slammed the door shut.  She wanted no part of that house, not if she could find reminders of what had happened there.  She stood in front of Stan, who was attempting to distract Kirby with an app on his phone, and said, “We’re not living here.” 

He responded, “Why’d you go out there?”

“It doesn’t matter.  We’re not living here.”

“Every house has something ugly in the past.  We just don’t know about it.  Once we move in here, we make it our own.”

Jessica thought, You think you’ve made me your own, don’t you?  You don’t know what I was like before you.  You don’t know anything about me.  You don’t know what I’ve been through.  I don’t tell you because you couldn’t live with it if you knew. 

But all she said was, “No.  We’ll find something else.”

“So you think that old guy is right?  This place has bad Feng Shui?”  Stan rolled his eyes the way he had at Deborah earlier. 

“Don’t you ever roll your eyes at me!” Jessica shouted, putting a finger in Stan’s face.

Furious, she grabbed Kirby out of Stan’s arms and walked out the door as the boy started to cry.  She didn’t look back.  Without saying a word, she stormed passed Deborah, who was checking messages on her phone. 

Jessica couldn’t stand the thought of her son finding a relic of abuse in her house.  She had moved here to begin anew.  Everything had to be like the baptized, free from the pain that came before.  

When she got to the front lawn, the old man sat up in his rocking chair and stared at her like a bird dog spotting a carcass. 

“You know now, don’t you?” he said with a nod.

Stan followed outside and stomped to the driver’s side of the SUV.  As the old man retreated back into his chair, Jessica got into the backseat with Kirby.  While they drove back to San Francisco with Deborah searching through more house listings on her iPad, Jessica clung to her boy’s squirmy hand.   They would go far south or east or a “not yet gentrified” part of town if need be to find their son a blank slate to live in.   At that moment, she only wanted a place where nobody knew who she was, and where, as far as she knew, nothing bad had ever happened.




Anything Could Happen Here

Photo by Lorette C. Luzajic, taken from http://www.ideafountain.ca/.
Photo by Lorette C. Luzajic, taken from http://www.ideafountain.ca/.

“Grandma, it’s as fresh as new paint,” whispers Trudy. She edges her big, pliable body into the uncomfortable chair. Trudy’s flesh smells of synthetic strawberries, is soft as spreading butter. The room in the Bellevue Retirement Home is too small; there is only enough space for a chair, for Trudy, for a bed and for Grandma Violet.

“Grandma Violet,” Trudy continues, a smile stretches across her flour-white, moon-like face, “I started my new job today.”

Trudy’s feet ache from standing eight hours at the All Day Breakfast Grill of the OK Restaurant, at the Take Time Services situated on Junction 56, on the M7 heading North. She wore her new blue shoes, as navy as the sea.

“I’ve got to look smart,” Trudy insisted to her best friend Carol, gripping a bag bulging with new clothes. But, Carol wasn’t listening. She was thinking about Marvin, her twelve-year-old son, who had been caught on porn Internet sites at school.

“Grandma Violet,” insists Trudy, “I’m working as a Catering Assistant. We have to wear a uniform and I’ve got a badge with my name on it, but they spelt Desborough wrong.”

Trudy blushes slightly. She recalls Richard, the middle-aged manager, pinning plastic onto her broad chest, winking and calling her,

“A big girl.”

Richard likes “his girls big,” yet is married to a woman as light as a feather, as nervous as a kite. Trudy has always been large, steady.

Last night Trudy slept on Carol’s sofa. After sunset, she multiplied and subtracted, structured her existence. She likes the feel of numbers, she can smell them as she counts, taste their shape. In the dark, she weighs figures on the scales of her tongue.

She has been here since Violet went into the Home. Four months ago, Trudy met the woman from the Council. She explained to Trudy in a very loud voice,

“You have to leave dear, we’re transferring this accommodation; your Grandma has been relocated.”

And she insisted on this word, relocated, like it was something understood, essential. Trudy stared at the woman’s earrings, large hoops strung with dozens of tiny wooden beads, which quivered and swayed as she spoke.

Trudy had been living with Grandma since she was twelve, since Mum left with Dave, an evangelical Christian, to spread the word of the Lord. Trudy’s bedroom had a poster of a kitten on one wall with the slogan God Loves You and Iron Maiden opposite. There was a yellow bedspread, and a tiny china dog that Mum had bought in Bangor.

When Grandma went into the Home, Carol and Marvin helped a tearful Trudy pack. Carol chucked the posters and the china dog, but Trudy held onto the bedspread.

Carol said,

“You can sleep on my sofa.”

Marvin laid the yellow bedspread on the sofa cushions.

Carol’s sofa feels hard against Trudy’s gentle flesh; she winds herself into the yellow bedspread. Trudy likes the endlessness of her body, is comforted by the yielding rolls of flesh; they are a trophy to her existence. Layers of overlapping skin, delicate and white like snowdrifts.

Marvin says goodnight and wonders how it would feel to venture between Trudy’s thighs, to seek out the opening like the explorer of a pyramid, to discover a jewel or a curse.

In the Home, Trudy explains to Grandma Violet,

“I caught a staff bus to work at four this morning.”

In the empty pre-dawn gloom, the mini-bus headed for the motorway services. The bus drove past Trudy’s old school and the vacant shopping precinct. It travelled through the new estates, past gravel drives, ponies and hot tubs and out onto the virgin territory: the motorway. Moving along the blankness of the tarmac, Trudy was as happy as a lamb, anything could happen here.

In the Home, Trudy reaches for a packet of crisps. There are seventy-six crisps inside each packet; that’s the average variation calculated by Trudy. Except for packets of cheese and onion crisps, which, she approximates, average on seventy-three. It’s inexplicable; but Trudy need not to know why, the important thing is the calculating; the numbers are as pretty as pink.

“You’re a dreamer,” Grandma Violet said. In the afternoons before the relocation, they would eat custard creams; dip the pale biscuits into milky tea. Trudy’s mug was pink with hundreds of tiny dots, sometimes she and Violet tried to count them.

“I reckon about five hundred,” guessed Violet.

“Not sure,” said Trudy. “You have to take a sample area and times it by the whole surface area.”

Trudy learned this in Maths at school, but no one ever realised she understood. She loves the shape of numbers, especially square roots, what the teacher called the numerical element. Maths are beautiful in Trudy’s mind, they contain a kind of truth, as ivory and pure as her skin.

“I met the forecourt manager,” Trudy tells her Grandma, wiping crisp crumbs from her lap. “He took me around. It’s really posh grandma, spanking new.”

At four-thirty, Richard shows Trudy the Take Time Services. The building smells of stale fat and cleaning products. Almost empty, in the half-light, it glowed like a forgotten spaceship. A figment of a planning god’s imagination, the Services were nowhere, belonged to no one, were unburdened by history. The only relic left for future generations was congealed fat in plastic pipes.

“Take Time Services are like villages,” Richard explains to Trudy in the darkness, “there are shops, garages, the forecourt, hotels, the Game Zone and, of course, catering outlets. We’ll be trying you out at the All Day Breakfast Grill of the OK Restaurant.”

Richard introduces Trudy to Bob, the PSCO, the Police Community Support Officer.

“I met Bob who does “front-life staff security and fights against gang crime.” Trudy recites to Grandma Violet. “He had a uniform and a hat.”

Bob is an ex-SAS man, now in private security.  He tells Trudy that the real challenge,

“Is dealing with the anonymous nature of the Services, as criminals like anonymity.”

Trudy smiles and counts the buttons on his jacket; there are seven, including cuffs.

“Hundreds of people come through here everyday,” Richard explains. “Eighty million people a year visit Take Time Services across the UK.  Some get petrol, most eat and shop. Some gamble, a few sleep. Nobody stays.”

Richard imagines the mass of hands and feet that have walked on the fake marble floor. Faces recorded on CCTV cameras. Skin on metal.  Sometimes, he dreams of a deluge of dismembered toes and fingers, lost in the Service Area, stranded inside the perimeter roads, unable to find their way home. He awakes, terrified, by his tiny wife, so light she barely seems to be there.

At five thirty, Trudy is introduced to Colin, the chef. He explains about preparing the All Day Breakfasts. He shows her the piles of frozen bacon, sausages, tins of beans, hash browns, mushrooms, eggs, tomatoes and loaves of bread.

“It’s all about timing and keeping things hot,” Colin says. Trudy nods. She likes time.

 “Grandma Violet,” Trudy declares, crunching on a salty crisp, “I cooked one hundred and twenty-seven eggs this morning.”

Trudy counted them, golden globes of yellow; precious secrets surrounded by a sea of white. Standing by the heat of the griddle, she watched the chef Colin, felt her face flush red. She saw him flip eggs with a metal spatula, his large hands bright beneath the hot counter glow. Colin has spiky hair.

“The chef looks like a pop star,” Trudy tells Grandma. Trudy has decided she will fall in love with Colin; they will marry and have two sturdy little boys. Trudy does not want a girl, she would be afraid that a princess would break. Colin’s hair frames a pale face, brown eyes and a sudden smile. He has a wife and a little girl,

“Called Madison,” he tells Trudy, as he fries the eggs.

Yet, Colin’s family do not feature in Trudy’s plan, they float at the edges fuzzy, unreal; faces blurred out of the picture.

“You need a man,” Trudy’s friend Carol tells her. Carol is much older than Trudy, they met at college doing ‘Basic Skills’ training: Reading, Writing, and Maths. Nobody can imagine that Trudy can understand. She can barely read and write. Trudy is a virgin,

“White as snow,” says Carol, screaming with laughter after alcopops. But Trudy knows how sex is done. Marvin has shown her the porn videos that Carol’s brother Phil sells on eBay.

“I served two hundred and thirteen truck driver’s breakfasts,” Trudy says cramming more crisps into her mouth. She has almost finished the Salt and Vinegar packet. She sticks her little finger into the corner to reach the last few salty crumbs: sixty-seven crisps, an average number.

At seven o’clock the flow of customers at the All Day Breakfast Grill increases. Trudy watches Colin working fast until nine. She slumbers back and forth, brings Colin sausages, eggs, mushrooms and bread. She drops a packet of bacon, fumbles with the lock of the fridge. Colin does not imagine that she will stay.

“The morning is the busiest time of day,” Colin explains. “Then, we have a break until lunchtime. All sorts of people eat All Day Breakfast’s: lorry drivers, sales people, retired couples on holiday.”

Trudy looks at her Grandma in the Home. She is hungry. There are chocolate bars in her new handbag. She bought the bag from a cheap shop where Carol says,

“Everything costs nothing.”

Trudy thinks about calculating these quantities: everything, nothing.

“They give it away,” Carol says.

Colin cooks the breakfasts, Trudy watches.

“Today you observe, tomorrow you’ll be frying,” says Richard, at nine thirty, winking. Colin sighs when he sees Richard flirting with the new girl; he doesn’t like the manager.

“It’s all swings and roundabouts,” Colin’s dad told him too many times, dying just before retirement. Colin has worked in the Service station for several years, is looking to get a job as a chef in a pub. He has a dream, but it seems to be melting. His wife says he should be on the television.

“You’ve got to believe in yourself,” she tells Colin.

At ten thirty, Colin and Trudy have a break, drink a coffee.

“I had a cappuccino with two sugars,” Trudy tells Grandma in the stuffy room in the Home. “Colin had his black with no sugar.”

Trudy sips her hot, sweet drink, slips off her new shoes, which are giving her blisters, hopes that her feet don’t smell.

“Wear extra deodorant,” Carol warned her, “You don’t want to sweat like a pig.” Before leaving the house that morning, Trudy enveloped every square inch of her skin in strawberry body spray.

“The last bit of the day was the lunches. Well, I mean, breakfast as lunch. All day breakfast,” Trudy explains to Grandma.

At eleven thirty it started to get busy again. Trudy and Colin worked until two.

“You get some regulars,” Colin tells Trudy. “But mostly it’s all new faces. You know, anonymous.”

Trudy still doesn’t know what this means, maybe it’s like enormous, which means very big. She likes all these different, large faces; she counts them as they arrive. She calculates that twenty-seven of the men who order a Full Cracker Jack Breakfast with chips are wearing dark-coloured fleece jackets.

At one thirty, Richard asks Trudy to come into his office before she catches the staff bus home.

“I just want to evaluate your first day,” he says, winking. Trudy smiles.

“I like big girls,” he says. Trudy looks at his eyes, his middle-aged spread and remembers Colin, their two sturdy little boys, their wedding plans, the princess girl that they will never have. Trudy closes her eyes and numbers floods her mind. This occasionally happens to Trudy. The figures integrate, reduce and map. Shapes dance in algebraic extrapolations, permutations and perform calculus of variations. Trudy opens her mouth and the numbers fall, like snowflakes, on her neat little tongue. They taste lemony, bitter and slightly sweet. Richard watches the fat girl standing, eyes closed, mouth open. He moves away, embarrassed now. Trudy opens her eyes, smiling, slightly exhausted.

“Well, we’ll ring you if we need extra staff,” says Richard brusquely. Trudy leaves the Take Time Services. Her heart is beating fast. She gets the staff bus back to town and walks straight to the Home to visit Grandma Violet, stopping on the way to buy chocolate and crisps.

Trudy glances at her Grandma, lying in the bed, staring at the wall.

“I’ll be off now, Grandma,” she says. She’s eaten the last bar of chocolate and finished all the crisps.

“She can’t see or hear anything since the stroke,” the nurse explains at the Home. “But they say people can feel your presence.” Trudy strokes her Grandma’s hand, says goodbye. She wonders if Grandma will come to her and Colin’s wedding; she thinks about relocation, movement, and home.

That evening lying on Carol’s sofa, Trudy cannot see the sky. The milky yellow light from the street lamps muffles the extraordinary astral truth, the beauty of the stars.




Q&A: Jo Gatford

OrsayWriter and Litro alumnus Jo Gatford’s debut novel White Lies was published in July by Legend Press. The non-linear story shifts perspectives between Matt and his dementia-stricken father, Peter, as they grapple with both their difficult relationship and the death of Matt’s half-brother, Alex. Her short story Dead Leg appears in Litro #104: History. Visit her website, Twitter and Facebook.

What have you been up to since Litro #104?

 Yikes, that was three years ago – I was busy creating a small human with my body back then. He’s now two and three-quarters and the circus of parenthood has become even more ridiculous. White Lies was longlisted by the Tibor Jones Pageturner Prize, won the 2013 Luke Bitmead Bursary, and was published by legend Press in July this year.

What are the last two books you read?

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, and Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig. Oryx and Crake was a research-read of sorts for a post-apocalyptic story I’m planning — and Atwood is the master of making the ordinary seem extraordinary, and the bizarre seem familiar. Blackbirds, on the other hand, is like being repeatedly kicked in the literary nuts while someone shouts made-up swear words at you. The book reads like the most electrifying, fast-paced screenplay you could ever hope to see, and I’m unspeakably excited to find out that it’s recently been commissioned as a TV series.

As a writer of both short stories and longer fiction, how did your process change when writing your first novel?

White Lies is actually my second novel — the first is still in a drawer feeling sorry for itself — so I’ve been flitting between short and long fiction for about a decade. At first, I wrote shorter pieces as a productive method of procrastination when I 6a00e54f0e675e883401a3fca4f6fe970b-320wiwas elbow-deep in novel editing and wanted a break. I joined a flash fiction group which runs a timed prompt session each week, which helped me to write regularly, learn to critique others, and develop my own work, all of which benefited my novel writing, for sure. It can take a lot of effort to put across a story with brevity.

What were your favourite parts about writing White Lies?

I loved writing Peter’s sections, agonising though they were at times. Writing an older character means there’s an entire lifetime to sift through, and it was voyeuristically intriguing to pick out his best and worst moments. Some of my favourite parts of the book are those that that wander into magical realism as Peter becomes more and more affected by his dementia.

There’s an almost uncomfortably intimate sensibility to the novel — how did this come about?

I definitely subscribe to David Foster Wallace’s assertion that “fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” I enjoy being inside a character’s head, especially if they’re somewhat unpleasant or difficult to sympathise with. I try my best to draw out the kind of thoughts they would never say aloud. I suppose when you start delving into grief and depression and difficult memories, an uncomfortable intimacy naturally comes to the surface.

Is this the novel you always wanted to write? 

I think it emerged as a development of some of the ideas in my first (shelved) novel, which was about the treatment of schizophrenia. The initial premise for White Lies was a man trying to work out how to grieve for a brother he hated, and the awkward contradiction of that situation. From there, Matt’s storyline was born. Peter’s experience of dementia was actually going to be a different book completely, but somewhere along the way the two narratives fitted together. It definitely wasn’t the novel I had expected to write, but it’s probably the novel I needed to write.

Was the story designed to be told from different narrative perspectives from the start?

I had always planned on switching between Peter and Matt, but initially there were a few other third person perspectives in there too. It soon became overcomplicated, however, especially with the non-linear timeline, and it seemed sensible to cut it back to just the two POVs. I do feel a little bit sad that the female characters don’t have more of a voice — they deserve a couple of books of their own — but I also think it was important that they are only seen through the eyes of the often grossly self-absorbed male characters.

What’s next?

The never-ending loop of submitting, editing, and hopefully publishing short stories. And of course trying to promote White Lies, which feels very odd because suddenly it’s a tangible thing. I’m also hoping to get some sort of funding this year to write my next book – or, you know, win some massive literary prize. That would be just fine.




I Remember: Brothers

www.joelmacphersonillustration.comI remember flicking the curved segment of an orange peel into traffic. It looked like a boat, and I was certain it would sail like one, floating three neat stories to the ground from the top level of the parking garage. I remember, instead, how it tumbled and slewed on the wind, topsy-turvying along for the better part of a block. I was nine or ten, my brother six or seven, and “Dang!” he said, as if I had impressed him, though the two of us didn’t often impress each other in those days—brothers but not brothers.

I remember the thump the orange peel made as it struck the windshield of a car, or at least I seem to, but that can’t be right as the wind was blowing and I was far away. I must be imagining the sound, or else I must have imagined it back then. I remember, though—I do—the shriek of the car’s brakes as it veered from its lane. What did the driver think he’d seen: a small fish flapping its tail, a leaf that had grown curiously heavy, or just something spilling across the glass, a piece of trash, some blown-by bit of garbage shaped like a smile?

I remember the way my scalp prickled as the car corrected itself and then drove on, as if I’d been caught breaking the law. My brother made his basketball noise: “Swish!” I remember knowing exactly what he would say next because he always said the same thing at that age. “Two points!”

I remember nothing else about that day. I’m more than thirty years older now, a middle-aged man staying in a house that’s not my own, in a university town where the winter keeps reaching into spring, and last night the book I read ended like this: “All I want is to know what happened—I want somehow to grasp every detail of the events of that day, that one day like a tiny dewdrop … but now it’s all engulfed in the profound darkness of time.” I remember so many stories, you see, but there’s not enough of this memory to make it one of them, not enough even to make it an anecdote. There are only a few stray images, a few stray phrases, two boys who once existed as children and no longer do.

I remember something that I call my life: a long string of incidents and all of them connected, like the strokes of an oar propelling a boat through the water. But is that—has that in fact been—my life? Because I remember something else, too: motions and colours, wisps of feeling, a thousand loose moments floating free of my history. And more and more it’s these fugitive glimpses of otherwise forgotten days, tumbling and slewing on the wind, that seem to give my life its meaning.

Kevin Brockmeier's autobiographical A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip was released in April.
Kevin Brockmeier’s autobiographical A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip was released in April 2014.




Protection or Privacy: Observation is Futile in This Dark Road to Mercy

opensource.com (copied from flickr)
opensource.com (copied from flickr)

Lib Dem Hubert’s speech caused a stir when he pronounced that issues of online privacy and security would “come to define the 21st century”. Of course, he is right, but our lives are constructed around the need to watch one another. Prior to the Met we had London’s ‘watch-men’ to keep us safe. Nowadays we have CCTV as a commonplace urban necessity so we don’t have to. Even God is traditionally perceived as the omnipresent moral ‘observer’. However, at what point does the protective eye become a prying eye? The recent phone-tapping, email-hacking, room-bugging trend that has emerged through competitive journalism is an example of where privacy was ditched in favor of the public demand for private knowledge. Cyberspace allows us to look further, effortlessly, accessing previously unseen windows into how we browse; being online creates a virtual railroad that details a traceable train of thought.

In Wiley Cash’s This Dark Road to Mercy all characters are guilty of breaking the appropriate boundary of privacy: Wade appears first as a strange man watching a children’s home; Brady obtains the private message that Easter sent to her boyfriend Marcus; Easter goes through Wade’s things to take some money for her and Ruby. Although This Dark Road is ostensibly about keeping Ruby and Easter safe (particularly from Pruitt), what becomes increasingly apparent is that Ruby and Easter can be hidden but they can never be safe from the world outside, no matter how heavily one watches them.

There is a continued emphasis on bringing Easter and Ruby ‘home’ despite the fact that they have never had a home to return to. They are raised in a neglected home, with no food, three pieces of furniture and “mattresses on the floor that had mismatched sheets”. This is barely an inhabitable environment for children, let alone a homely one.

This absence of ‘home’ is further supported by the dangerous insecurity of other peoples houses: Brady Weller works for the appropriately titled ‘Safe at Home’ yet has previously run over a boy in his own front drive. The children’s home is almost too easy to gain access to, as Easter is approached by both Pruitt and Wade on the baseball field, and their bedroom window is where Easter meets her boyfriend Marcus and through which Easter and Ruby are lifted out by Wade. Couple in the mother’s death in her house and Wade’s mother’s murder in Wade’s childhood bedroom, and we are shown that nowhere is really safe. This message is hammered home in the final chapter where Wade sends Easter a wad of cash in the teddy bear: a final reminder that Easter needs some autonomous ‘security’.

Wade’s and Brady’s past also lead us to question their sincerity as vying guardians of Easter and Ruby. Wade kidnaps the girls supposedly to keep them safe yet it also provides the opportunity for him to alleviate the guilt he felt at being a part-time father. In turn, Brady’s role as the girls guardian stemmed from his need to do something good after his ‘accident’ led to his tenacity in tracking down the girls and his own attempt to alleviate past failures.

The only person taking real responsibility for their own safety seems to be Easter herself. Her uncertainty of Wade is reflected in her continually fluctuating opinion of him throughout, she calls Marcus at the first opportunity, and when she finds the money in Wade’s bag she lifts a wad for her and Ruby, “just in case”. However, these acts of defiance are coupled with acts of affection. She occasionally calls him Dad, and acts in his aid, such as when she soothes Ruby after Wade leaves his mothers covered in her blood.

Easter’s reservations are mimicked in our own reservations about Wade. Is he a dead-beat dad trying to turn it around? Or is he just a deadbeat? Wade’s ‘goodness’ or testament as a good or a bad character is never fully decided: the water never clears. This murky image stems from his absent narrative; through every other significant character we are provided a narrative viewpoint that defies or corroborates external perspectives.

Wade’s shadow is constructed through others and we are denied seeing the man himself. We cannot know that Wade did not kill his mother, even though Pruitt ends his narrative advancing on her with a baseball bat, we only see Wade leaving her house covered in blood. We assume with Pruitt’s previous record of violence that it is him, but we have no way of knowing. In turn, we never hear Wade’s side of the story with regard to Pruitt and his past; were Wade’s actions deliberate? Wade’s commitment to the girls seems incongruous with the observations of others: one must be untrue. In this way, Cash shows us again the limits of observation: without seeing into the mind of Wade as we are shown the minds of Easter and Brady and Pruitt, we can never be safe in our judgment of Wade.




The Barbarossa Express

Photo by Ian Broyles (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Ian Broyles (copied from Flickr)

That Christmas was my first with money in my pocket, and I wanted to spend it. My sisters were married and gone now, and my mother was in the middle of some heavy empty nest depression. Over the last couple of months she’d called me several times, begging me to move home. “You can enrol at USCS,” she said. “You won’t have to work, I’ll pay for everything. Please, I’m so lonely.”

That was the first time I realized just how my much mother invested in me. For half of her life her children were everything, and then we turned our pretty heads and walked away. All those years of groggily talking me through my nightmares, slipping Tooth Fairy quarters under my pillow, and late night Santa raids on the Christmas tree. Between the three of us kids, my mother didn’t sleep for eighteen years.

And all those years playing diplomat while my father and I battled. And what about him? In the final analysis the old man had done his best. He held down a steady job to pay for all those Santa presents. He tried, maybe it was time to forgive him.

I couldn’t move home, but maybe I could repay some of their kindness. I knew their stories of Christmas gifts that never arrived, and I knew their current interests. I was all over Savannah the week before Christmas, filling the wish list that my parents never wrote.

***

Tradition holds that Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is the busiest day in retail, but my experience was the Christmas Eve was busier. This is the day that all of the asshole boyfriends and husbands rush to any open store to buy anything that might get them off the hook for forgetting about Christmas.

My record store’s 12″ wall was stripped bare by the end of the day, as if ravaged by DJ Locust. We sold all of the incense and the tape head cleaners, and almost every popular tape that was on sale. We jammed CDs, albums, 45s, and posters into Starship Records bags as quickly as we could and wished the poor bastards a merry Christmas as they hurried out the door. Anything that had any the slightest chance of conveying some sort of sentiment was gone by the time we locked the front door at 6:00. Also, Rockwell.

The Quincymobile was gassed up and loaded, so I pointed the beast North on I-95 and headed home. I arrived at my parents’ house around 11:00 in the evening, and we had a brief chat in the living room. My mother nodded in and out on her end of the couch and my father and I made small talk about the Quincymobile’s gas mileage. “Well, I better get your mother to bed,” he said. “Don’t stay up too late.”

I waited until the belching and nose blowing and other aural signs of the end of the day stopped echoing down the hall, and then I tiptoed on little Grinch feet out to the car.  Then I quietly circled my parents’ Christmas tree with my father’s new choo-choo train tracks. This wasn’t just any train, though: this was a steam engine that actually smoked, just like he always wanted. On its way around the track it would pass my mother’s new doll, a stack of Shel Silverstein books, and a vintage Erector set in a lithographed tin. The only nods to modernity were a few cassettes and a device that promised to enable my TV-addicted father to watch his VCR from the televisions in both the living room and the bedroom.

I placed cookies on a plate and ate half of one, and I left the rest next to a dirty milk glass. All that remained was to draft a note:

Dear Santa,

How are you? I’m good. I hope you haven’t lost any elves to polar bears this year. Once they get the taste of elf meat they just can’t stop themselves. Maybe it’s the minty aftertaste.

Anyway, I was thinking about it and you’ve always been really good to me. Remember that time you brought me a pinball machine? Man, I bet the reindeer were ticked off about hauling that.

How come you never bring my Mom and Dad anything? This year instead of bringing me stuff, what I want for Christmas is for you to treat them for a change.

That’s all, hope you liked the cookies.

I went to my old bedroom and nestled all snug in my bed while visions of elf meat danced in my head.

***

When I came upstairs the next morning my father was already seated on his end of the couch, television blaring. My mother busied herself in the kitchen. The gifts were unwrapped but remained under the tree. I sat down and stared at the war documentary on television.

“Those VCR duplicators are pretty neat,” my father said.

“I thought you’d like that.”

“Did you keep the receipt?”

“No, why?”

“I bought one last week.”

We watched the Germans dig in against the harsh Russian winter. They looked miserable.

“Where did you get that Erector set?” my father asked.

“At an antique store down in Savannah.”

“It’s missing a lot of parts. Can’t really build anything with half the parts missing.”

“It was the best I could find,” I said.

“This one’s a little past my time, looks like maybe early sixties. That’s about ten years too late.”

On screen German tanks failed to start in the extreme Russian weather. The narrator described how many soldiers died that winter, frozen and starved, because Hitler was too stubborn to retreat.

“That steam engine is mostly plastic.”

“Yeah, that’s how they’re made all right,” I said.

“Not when I was a kid. The one I always wanted was all metal. That sucker was heavy. When you held that thing you knew you were holding something.”

“Yeah?”

“These plastic ones don’t last. I bet half of them break the day they leave the package.” I stood up. “Where are you going?” he said.

“I’m going over to Lee G.’s.”

“Can’t spend any time with your family, huh? Your mother is making breakfast.”

“I’ll be back in a little bit,” I said.

“That’s a little rude, don’t you think? You come to visit us and you run off with your friends.”

My mother stopped me at the kitchen door. “Thank you, Jim. That was very thoughtful,” she said.

“Thanks, Ma,” I said. “Merry Christmas.”

This essay first appeared on James Stafford’s blog.




Family: Evergreen

Photo by Ryan Berry (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Ryan Berry (copied from Flickr)

In collision with a 3-inch-thick plate-glass wall a toddler’s head makes a dull thud which audibly resonates for less than half a second. Lasting much longer are the groans, gasps and ‘oh my gods’ of the public in the bar of the theatre that the mum was anyway reluctant to visit but conceded, as long as he was paying, to the father’s assertion that the family did need cultural outings together, and, now far past wishing that their marriage didn’t need an armoury, in later arguments enjoyed its use as ammunition.

When unconscious not all three year olds will convulse. Not all fathers will sink to their knees and whimper as if those lids will never again open on green.

Contradicting the theories of parental care described in the science documentaries that years later they watched on Sunday nights while Mum ironed clothes, and the now conscious kid and his brother with their tongues poked the congealed skin on the surfaces of their hot chocolates until, over the hiss of the iron’s exhalation, the mother spat at them to drink it properly – contradicting those theories, most parents will not ignore their unconscious son to yell at his conscious brother that she had told him to be careful, how many times had she told him to be careful, not to swing him round like that, what was he thinking, did he think he knew better than her, the stupid little prick.

Almost all six year old brothers will cry, but not all fathers will ignore the shuddering chest or crumpled face that just a second ago was so smooth and unwet in fear and shock at his unconscious tiny brother who he was just trying to entertain while his mum and dad hissed and pointed at each other across the small plastic table that held his and his brother’s apple juices, a tea, and the latte that was supposed to be cappuccino.

Few children when awoken from a faint to find their parents looming over them will begin hyperventilating not because of what just happened but the fear of what is about to. A knot of emotions that chokes the throat the same way a noose does.

Skies and trees and the drone of engines now will always seem like film sets for lonely characters until they don’t. An americano costs two ten and is paid for with coins that are unreal and weightless but screech across the counter when you slide them to the cashier.

Most children don’t remember their early accidents unless as adults sitting in a cafe trying to syphon onto a lined page of paper the gush from an emotional reservoir rent by a single precise blow they see the event re-enacted before them, though differently: the dad is now absent and the mum, on her knees, strokes her son’s head and holds the brother’s hand until the toddler comes-to, his eyes widening and face re-animating, crumpling to cry with fear and confusion at the tiny time he just lost that no one can assure him wasn’t an age.

From their position on the floor, looking up at a crying man who seems to have come from nowhere and asks if he can help their little kid who a minute ago was unconscious, some mothers might feel intimidated or even scared, but all crying men sat at tables just watching will hate themselves for ignoring the urge to ask.

Strangers in a cafe will worry over a crying child even if it’s with its parents, but no one asks an upset adult alone at his table if he’s okay. Most adults right now anyway wouldn’t want that hand on the back, the dipped head and low voice of concern, the offer of a tissue or a hot cup of tea, except the tiny grain of their soul that right now needs these more than anything.

Not all chair legs are uneven and rattle and shake as you sob. When wet, all paper becomes translucent, all ink spreads.

All funeral speeches deal in euphemisms of love and respect, of bright young things with abundant potential and the peaceful aged who lived their lives to the full. Words layer on like the clay and earth that buries the dead who no longer can challenge the truths of the living. All drafts, with their scratched out honest sentiments, resemble the choked stumble they will be spoken as.

Some words you could write have never been spoken, words as children you always dreamed you one day would. A pen held for too long digs a recess in the finger that you worry won’t heal but will. Why do people tell themselves to remember to ask the person they can’t. This will have to do but will never be enough.

Each parent comforts the other that they always did their best, though not all parents believe it. Somehow all faces are the same when they cry, adulthood undone, stripped now to how they were as wounded infants. Dregs of coffee bring saliva to the mouth the same sour way as when you’re about to cry because you’re being screamed at. Words are wet caves of betrayal. All full stops are failures.

If everyone knew how to say why then maybe they wouldn’t have to.

Not all suicides will first cry for help like they did when they were just scared kids lost in the forest of a national park that daddy had decided was important to visit, and which forest was suddenly almost lightless as clouds covered the sun, and the kid who had walked away from the path where his parents were ten silent metres apart was nudged from his interior world that always was more precious and exciting than the exterior one, and became aware of the pine, leaf and moss carpet of the ground, the trees, the silence and the twilight; that he couldn’t see his parents or brother or even the path, was tiny and alone amongst all these rowed uniform evergreens that in the distance were darkness, and though he didn’t want to be found by his family was more scared that he would never at all be found by anyone, and so screamed as loud as he could, which in the forest caused no movement or sound at all, not even of insects or birds, a scream heard only by his brother but ignored.




Family: Vignette – The Colonel and His Wife (Catterick, North Yorkshire)

Photo by Fanch The System (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Fanch The System (copied from Flickr)

The Colonel pottered about the kitchen, dressed in his Singaporean housecoat (which was not yet threadbare at the elbows). He wore his headphones-radio set. The Colonel was five-foot-three with his slippers on; the telescopic antenna of his head-gear added another four or five inches. He scuffed and stepped about the room – quick, short, staccato movements – an uncooked egg in each unsteady hand. The headphones-radio was him being considerate: he wore it so that the sounds of today’s Today show would not wake his wife. Had he used a regular radio, it is likely that the walls between the kitchen and the marital bedroom would have reduced the radio chatter to a soft white noise: not enough to disturb sleep, but enough to muffle the clatter of trays, teacups, sauce pans (for the oiled beggs, a pet spoonerism that would become something of a family heirloom), and other breakfast paraphernalia, which were moved percussively about by the Colonel’s quivering hands and quickstepping feet. As it was, his attempt at hush served only to amplify.

At some point, his routine will lead him from the kitchen into the narrow, L-shaped corridor, The Forge’s connective artery. He will hang a right, almost immediately, into the large, open-plan family room. This is the original smithy; wrapping it on two sides are the kitchen, bedrooms, and garage (in which a linked series of four-gang strip plugs allows one twin electrical point to be the power source of no less than eight devices, among them a chest freezer). These three rooms are the result of a cost-effective, flat-roofed extension, put up some time in the seventies. The Colonel will enter the family room, the bright orange thrift-shop-painted walls of which seem always to glare. He will set himself at his Yamaha Clavinova, which he bought a decade, perhaps more, ago; which – due to its relative compactness, guarantee of maintained perfect pitch, and range of pre-programmed rhythms – almost immediately superseded the old upright piano, now long gone; and which has a line out running to the amplifier of the matt black Sony stereo system. The stereo will be turned on, the output dial turned to AUX 1. The Colonel will select “Bosa Nova 1” (or perhaps “2”), and, after something in the region of a four-bar lead-in, he will begin hammering out “Strangers In The Night.”

This, not the cacophonous preparation of oiled beggs, will draw the Colonel’s wife from their room. The Colonel’s renditions of “Strangers” and other pop classics of yesteryear, bolstered by the light tripping of a metronomically perfect bosa, have over the years become The Forge’s Reveille. Mrs. ____, the Colonel’s wife, will ricochet up the long stem of the corridor’s L. She will use the narrow width of the hallway to her advantage, bouncing wall-to-wall as she nears the source of the music. Something more than twenty years ago, a riding accident left her with two fractured vertebrae, and a prognosis of being wheelchair-bound within the decade. (A few years hence, she will have these vertebrae fused; and will, on returning home from the hospital, mark her relative relief from pain by getting drunk on white-wine spritzers with her sixty-something-years-old daughter.) She still walks, however precariously, using as she goes whatever is ready to hand as momentary support. An old hand at the controlled bounce and rebound, Mrs. ____ has the spatial awareness required of a gymnast or free-runner. She is a proud woman; her carriage says as much. Never mind that her torso pitches forwards at forty-five degrees from true, or that, in addition to her injured spine, her ankles offer her increasingly less support: her back still describes a perfectly straight line. With age, many of her friends have begun to curl and curve and tuck and involute. Not so Mrs. ____. She is hinged at the hips; legs and torso are two perfect planes, converging at a vertex.

If all this happens more or less as predicted, it will be no more than the familiar run of things. But today something is different. At the turn in the corridor is the door to the guestroom: in it, twin beds, unwanted cots salvaged from the nearby Garrison; the mattresses are as old, if not older, than the cots on which they sit, and boast the consistency and lumbar support of rice pudding. Currently, a grandson and his wife occupy the cots and, thereby, the guestroom. They have had open invitation to visit only since their wedding, which was about a year ago. The soon-to-be-oiled beggs are for the Colonel and his grandson (whom the Colonel long ago identified as a good trencherman); Mrs. ____ will likely have a meagre bowl of cereal. The granddaughter-by-marriage will trade breakfast for a few more minutes in bed, a decision that will to be impressed upon the Colonel.

The Colonel accepted the refusal of breakfast easily enough as a form of words – she will probably just wait for lunch, Grandpa – but had trouble acting on it. Perhaps he understood the information as merely a postponement of the day’s first repast; a postponement which, sensibly, could be one of only a few minutes, given that the party were soon to leave for a driving tour of the Butter Tubs. The tour would occupy them all for two-or-so hours, after which they would take lunch at a local pub, favoured for its competitive prices and its serving of traditional roast dinners in oversized Yorkshire puddings. From here, there was one more scheduled stop en route back to The Forge: a hotel pub run by a man named Alan, whose pints of Black Sheep were, to the Colonel’s knowledge, the cheapest in Catterick. The Colonel had already counted out the exact change required for three pints of the ale and a white-wine spritzer, and had left it loose in his coat pocket (left-hand side). He looked forward to stacking the modest collection of coins – a graphic illustration of the superb value offered by the North generally and Alan’s pub particularly – on the bar and sliding them towards Alan in exchange for the drinks. With Part One Orders (as the Colonel’s jobs and activities rosters had become known in the family) so clearly posted, and with all that they entailed, breakfast had best be eaten soon if it were to be eaten at all.

The Colonel’s grandson, insisting that it was not unusual for his wife to forego breakfast in favour of sleep, twice succeeded in stopping his grandfather from personally checking and double-checking whether or not a third oiled begg would be needed. The two men sat down to their eggs and tea; they chatted for a while. The grandson gave assurances that shortly he would look in on his wife and encourage her to prepare for the morning’s tour. The Colonel nodded approval of this plan, insisting all the while that we’re very relaxed, here, and that it mattered little whether they were to leave in twenty, twenty-one, or twenty-two minutes’ time. He also gently reminded his grandson that, should he or his wife require a shower before leaving, The Forge was on a water metre rather than a flat rate.

Flatware and cutlery were cleared away, and the two men took leave of one another, for the next twenty or twenty-two minutes. The grandson went to the guestroom. The Colonel headed for the Clavinova.

When a shrill cry punctuated the low rhythmic thud of Mrs. ____’s progress along the corridor, it is possible that the grandson thought his granny had fallen. That she had fallen was plausible, given her age, her back, her ankles. In fact, she had remained upright. Her cry was not one of surprise, betokening an accident; rather, it was one of mild and humorous annoyance at the familiar. “Strangers” was, by now, filling the bungalow, marshalling all to readiness (though the Colonel himself was still in his housecoat). At the conspicuous sounding of a bum note – the same bum note, it should be said, as was sounded always; a learnt error now firmly a part of the repertoire – the Colonel’s wife had answered with a sharp falsetto rebuke. On rushing out into the corridor to check on his grandmother, the grandson would be informed that such polyphony was not unusual in the a.m. in The Forge.

The Colonel finished his tune, with the aid of one of the Clavinova’s programmed codas, and went to dress himself. Mrs. ____, the grandson and his wife: all three waited in the family room, the original smithy, for the Colonel. In a few minutes, he would return, dressed neatly in burgundy corduroy, wool, and polycotton. He would shrug on the coat with the loose change in the left-hand pocket, and he would fix in place his flat cap. The weather would be pleasant during the drive; the Yorkshire Dales would fill the tourists with the sense of beauty; the Yorkshire puddings would more than fill a hole. At Alan’s, the Colonel would discover that the price of Black Sheep had risen by tuppence a pint, and therefore that his left pocket was light – by sixpence.




Family: Memorial

Photo by robertivanc (copied from Flickr)
Photo by robertivanc (copied from Flickr)

Dear Brother,

“Where are you going?” your son wants to know.

“Brar Square,” I shoot back without thinking.

Instantly, I regret my thoughtlessness.  Barely six weeks ago, he saw you collapse on the floor never to rise again.  A day later, he helped cremate you.  Four days after that, he held the urn filled with your ashes in his small hands before emptying it into the Ganges.   Already he knows far more about death than he should at eight.  The last thing he needs to hear about is a visit to a cremation ground.

Luckily, his mother calls him away before he can question me further.  I use that moment to make my escape.

Today is Mom’s fifteenth death anniversary and I have to go to Brar Square, because that is where you and I planted peepal trees in memory of our parents after Dad died in 2004.  (Mom had already passed away in 1998 during a visit to Seattle.)  Barely ten feet from where we performed Dad’s last rites was a patch of clear lawn that seemed the perfect place to go and remember them.  For more than eight years we went there to mark birth and death anniversaries, to see how the trees were doing, or to simply feel closer to Mom and Dad.

Today I am going alone.

Silence crowds the car.  Neither I nor the driver, who has been with the family for almost twenty years, is in a mood to talk.  On the other side of the car window, Delhi seems uncharacteristically subdued as well.  The pavements are empty and there is very little traffic.  We don’t hear a single horn.  Neem trees droop listlessly to our right and left and there is no breeze to tap on the car window.  I can’t remember a morning where I saw Delhi depart so much from its normal riotous self.

We reach Brar Square in fifteen minutes.  Normally, it takes close to half an hour.  The driver asks to be excused right after we park.  In the past, he’d come in with us to pay his respects.  But today he’d rather stay in the parking lot.  He looks visibly relieved when I say okay.

The tall gate outside is open.  I walk through it to make my way over the cement walkway to where the four peepal trees stand.  There hasn’t been a cremation this morning and the place looks serene with its sprawling trees and carpet of lawn and ducks frolicking in a small pond at the back.  If it weren’t for the white-roofed enclosures meant for burning bodies, it could be mistaken for a park.

The skinny dogs that live there have sensed something is wrong.  They cluster close to me, their heads wagging.  One of them lets out a bark as if to ask, “Where is he?” before the caretaker shoos them away.

The caretaker asks about you as well.  I start to tell him, but the words jam in my throat.  I cringe at the thought of reliving your death and parrying the questions it spawns.  How could it happen?  Was there really no warning?  He didn’t have a history of heart disease, did he…? I deflect the caretaker’s question by asking him how the trees are doing.  I can see they are doing well.  Three of them have grown big and are thick with leaves.  The fourth one, planted later on your son’s behalf, is coming up well.  But it’s all I can think of to evade a question I’m in no mood to answer.

No sooner has the caretaker finished telling me about the trees than I thrust five hundred rupees in his palm.  He is taken aback; this is far more baksheesh than what he is accustomed.  A smile cracks his grizzled, white-bearded face.  He thanks me profusely and leaves with folded hands.

A little later, one of the caretaker’s assistants arrives with a steel bucket full of water and a plastic mug.  In the past, I’d use about half the bucket and leave the other half for you.  Today I have to water for both of us.

The trees appear contemplative as they loom in front of me.  The breeze that has sprung up doesn’t ruffle them.  The caretaker’s assistant helps with the bucket as I move from tree to tree, watering the dark trunks and the brown earth that surrounds the base.  Once I am done, he lights a sheaf of incense sticks and hands it to me before leaving with the mug and the empty bucket.

I place the incense sticks on the earth in front of each trunk.  Normally, I’d count to make sure that no tree gets any more or less.  But today I don’t bother.  By the time I reach the last one, I have run out of incense sticks.  I could call the caretaker or his assistant and they’d gladly furnish more.  But I don’t.  I simply pick one from each one of the first three trees and make do with them.

You would have lingered to pray.  All I do is fold my hands in a sign of respect and walk away to collapse in a stone seat.  So many times we sat there after paying our respects and allowed the memories wash over us.  Today the seat seems colder and harder than ever, even though it is the height of summer.  I can make out a coffin, with a name lettered in white on the outside, waiting in the enclosure where we cremated Dad.  There will be a cremation there later today.

I try to think of Mom; of her warm smile welcoming me home from school; of her chicken curry and chocolate cake; of her visit to the temple to implore the gods to watch over me when I left for college in America; of her on that night, fifteen years ago in Seattle, where she sensed her time had come and grasped my wrist with whatever strength she could muster to say, “Don’t ever forget me,” in a breaking voice…

I can’t.  All I can think of is you.

I rise to my feet.  The dogs watch me as I make my way slowly from the cremation ground.  The caretaker meets me at the gate to ask if I have any more instructions for him.  Before coming, I had thought of telling him to earmark a spot where we’d plant a tree in your memory.  But I no longer have the heart.




Family: Feature Film – Nebraska

Alexander Payne returns with another sensitive portrayal of fractured family life

nebraska

As Family Week at Litro draws to a close we take a look at a cinema release that deals with issues of the family. Nebraska is about family, it is about the breakdown of it. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is an elderly, gullible father whose mind, often encouraged by drinking, has lost its footing in reality – he absent-mindedly wanders the streets and struggles to remain attentive in conversations. He is married to the strong-willed and outspoken Kate (June Squibb), and has two sons, David  (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk). Woody has won a million dollars, or so says his fake sweepstakes ticket that he has got in the post, and he must make the 750-mile journey to Nebraska to collect his winnings. David, sensitive to his father’s age and state of health, grants his father this one last wish and they embark on the journey that takes them back to where Woody grew up.

The film becomes a father-son road trip, a sentimental genre, but Nebraska is not a sentimental film. Much like the other Alexander Payne films that deal with broken families (The Descendants, About Schmidt), in place of nostalgia and sentimentality are authenticity and an exposure of characters’ errors and misjudgements that have had long-lasting repercussions. Take David, Woody’s sensitive younger son, whose mother once says that when he was a child people used to think he was a prince made of porcelain. He works a job that does not fulfill him in the least, and has just been left by his girlfriend, after a 2-year relationship, it is suggested because he can’t make a decision about her and their future. His character smacks of a man who lacked and still lacks a positive male role model in his life.

Many children hold onto the belief that their parents are infallible or omnipotent right up until teenage years when they begin to contest their parents’ authority, but for David, this was shattered at the age of 6 when Woody first offers him alcohol. There is no relationship between the two to speak of, the bond they share is more an empathy for each other’s ineptitude at life. The journey is more about David than it is about Woody, and it satisfies his need to express the unsaid things before it is too late, things that Woody is either too incapable or unwilling to hear. Along the way, he meets people from his parents’ past and hears stories that are great revelations to him, either because reticence or alcohol has prevented Woody from speaking out about them.

There is an interesting portrayal here of the generation gap that exists between fathers and sons, whereas Woody lived in a world where men were stiff and solid and suppressed the emotional sides of their lives, David has grown up at a time where men can express themselves more freely. This creates a difficult dynamic between the two. Woody can seem brutish at times, particularly when he has an intimate discussion with David over a few beers; in response to David’s personal questions, he cannot register any intention behind marrying his wife or having children, “I figured if we kept on screwing we’d have a couple of you”. However, there is a sign of tenderness behind Woody’s actions, the admittance that his desperate seeking out of the money is because he wanted to leave his children something. He represents all the ineffective fathers; the drunks, the emotionally distant, the emotionally incapable, the rarely present, those who haven’t grown up, those so wrapped up in their own lives that they forget their duties as a father, or aren’t aware that those duties exist.

The script and humour sometimes tries too hard and some of the scenes between the Grant family and their extended family is slapstick and unbelievable, showing all the stereotypes of the American hick. However, the film draws on what are important themes and explores how the modern American family survives amidst joblessness, religious divides, infidelity, alcoholism and tedium.




Broken Homes and Broken People; the Meaning of ‘Family’ in This Dark Road to Mercy

Photo by Eric Ward (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Eric Ward (copied from Flickr)

“We must face the uncomfortable truth that turmoil at home all too often accounts for the turmoil we end up seeing spill onto our streets and schools…”
‘Sons of Divorce, School shooters’ The National Review Online 

Wilcox suggests that broken homes equal broken people, and that broken people break others. Although this particular article focuses on the idea that boys without authoritative role models are well placed to get caught in the Sturm und Drang of adolescence, it seems the issues these children develop can be teased to a more widespread problem; perhaps it is a perceived brokenness of the normal familial network that creates the sense of injustice and turmoil that fuels the actions of these children. Perhaps it is the social expectation of an American Dream-styled belief that two parents, a healthy marriage and two children, who go to college, plus some sort of pet is what one should receive whilst growing up, despite that this is not only a difficult balance of relationships to maintain but not the ‘norm’ for most people in America. This sense that one has been ‘left out’ or done out of what they believe that everyone else normally receives perpetuates a sense of injustice that often translates into violence within society.

Unlike Easter and Ruby, divorced children are let down by this vision more severely because they witness the breaking down of this family unit, whereas Easter and Ruby never really had a unit to lose, and therefore are not haunted by these memories of ‘normality’. This might explain the passiveness of Easter and Ruby, who, despite being surrounded by everyday violence, drugs and crime throughout This Dark Road to Mercy are the only two non-violent primary characters. Pruitt is a torturer and a murderer, Wade has committed a multi-million pound robbery, even Brady Weller is guilty of slamming Tommy Broughton’s head down on the table when he refuses to tell him about his hit on Wade. Although Easter has lemonade thrown over her hair by older children, this is more innocent high-school teasing than a serious act of provocation.

So why are these girls not more violent and bitter at the world for the awful situations in which they have been placed? Easter and Ruby built their homes in each other. They are aware of the ‘normal’ family unit; Easter nearly cries when they dye their hair brown thus making themselves look more like a normal family; the matching outfits too corroborated this sense of belonging. When Easter’s and Ruby’s mother dies, Easter is struck by how they do not match up to the ‘normal’ family lifestyle and is embarrassed of being discovered by the public services as ‘abnormal’. Easter obviously desires to obtain some sense of normality, she later tells Marcus that she wants to go to college, even though she does not really know what college would entail because it is what a normal girl would be expected to do when she reaches eighteen. When the girls move into their new foster home Easter looks round at all the things that ‘should’ be in a little girl’s room. However, the fact that they were never exposed to this family unit in the conventional sense means that Easter and Ruby are not haunted by what they think they should have because they never had that family to lose.

This led them to re-build the previous elements of their family within their relationship to each other. As discussed previously, Easter emulates a motherly function throughout the text as well as a sororal function to Ruby. This recreates the family unit of which they had become accustomed; Mom, Ruby and Easter (plus whoever ‘Mom’ was with at the time).

This shadow of a fatherly figure which so often changed shape, becomes Wade for the duration of this text. There are moments where Easter and Wade team up to ‘parent’ Ruby, such as the time that Easter partakes in Wade’s lies about what had happened to his mother in order to subdue Ruby’s anxiety, the fact that Easter and Wade discuss his stolen money, and the real versions of events whilst Ruby is absent (out of the room or in the back seat of the car). However, Easter’s and Ruby’s family unit does not have room for a permanent male figure; hence Wade’s departure at the denouement of the text, where Wade is forced to leave them to when they move in with their grandparents. The image of Brady Weller taking Wade’s seat at the baseball game when he is only absent for a few minutes is a symbolic reflection of how the male figure to Ruby and Easter, even one as ostensibly important as their birth father, can be so easily replaced.




Family: To Become Immortal

Photo by Hubble Heritage (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Hubble Heritage (copied from Flickr)

1.

You’ll want to grow up in a loveless house and lose your two best childhood friends. Chakana will need to go first. The last time you’ll see him is for coffee outside City Bistro on the downtown mall. A year from now this will be last February and you’ll remember him lounging there with his eyes the colour of an avocado nut, his long arms resting on the chair back and him saying something like “the transitory nature of everything makes current conditions irrelevant” and then up and drowning over spring break, on the coast of Limón, in a plastic baby pool.

Celia-Rose—with her red lips orange hair, and jittery hands—will need to go next. Probably in the basement with her stepfather’s .22 target pistol, the only item bequeathed to him by a grandmother who, after selling the last of her furniture, said “Nothing is forever” and then let her legs swell up and go purple before dying in a Sarasotan DNR care facility.

As to the visions—the dead with their blue lips, creatures lurking beneath the ice in the deep oceans on Europa, Andromeda cannibalizing the Milky Way—these are far less important than thinking of Earth as an inert sphere of metal, rock, and gas arranged in layers. Avoid, at all costs, realizing it’s not inert, that it’s a whole intertwined system of spheres (atmo, litho, hydro), that it takes a continuously operating machine to harbour lives such as these.

2.

Next, at the funeral of a distant relative, you’ll need to be embraced by a big woman in a floral dress, with circular sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat. In her eyes you’ll see the renegade comets of the Oort Cloud. Ignore them.

“Don’t worry, dear,” she’ll say with her lips to your ear as people file out of the church. “It’s not like someone’s targeting your friends and family, is it?” You’ll know it’s her because she’ll smell faintly of kitty litter and creeping thyme and because when you don’t see her at the graveside service no one you ask will remember such a lady.

After that you’ll rent an apartment in the city. Let a year pass and then another. Wear your father’s fedora. Fail at your relationships. Go out for drinks with friends you hate. Watch them plummet into marriage, gain weight, and post pictures of their ugly kids. Unfriend them. Go out for drinks alone. On the New Year’s Eve following your parents’ murder suicide, get drunk on White Russians while playing nine-ball at Miller’s and go home with a car salesman named Dennis. Throw up from balconies. Make appointments with realtors, but don’t show up; develop a sense of irony, then dial the out-of-service numbers of childhood friends.

What will happen next is this: you’ll be eating eggs benedict at Mono Loco. Make sure it’s Sunday, that you’re sitting outside, that nobody loves you, that the edges of the sky are burnt orange. That’s when it will happen. If the conditions are right, you’ll feel that pustule of bother move in your gut.

3.

From there the final steps are easy: Break your lease, leave everything behind and use your inheritance to buy a cattle farm with a pond in Appomattox. There will likely be an old doublewide on the property. Move into it. Since neutrinos are passing through your body, through entire planets untouched, no one will blame you for ignoring cows. Nourish that pustule, coax it along with regret and insomnia.

Collect trinkets and do-dads via the internet from distant countries. Buy lots of stuff and stack it unopened. Become a hoarder. Tell yourself only Celia-Rose and Chakana could understand. Cut the fences and let the cattle roam, let your dreams be plagued by a fat woman in a big hat. She’ll want to sit on your chest, force kitty litter down your throat, hold your mouth shut and pinch your nose. Let her. It’s like this: Because your mother was gay, because she cried at the sink with her back to everyone—tears smaller than a ladybug’s wing—because she was in love with a planetarium guide named Maxine, because your father once said “misery is a city with more roads leading to it than people to visit” and really meant it, because they aged to become exaggerated versions of their own worst parts.

But you’re above all that now. Even death—theirs, yours, the friends you hate. All that worries you are the peripheries: Celia-Rose surrounded in that basement at her passing not by loved ones, but the odds and ends of her mother’s failed nostalgia shop—Danish salt and pepper shakers, mouldy Raggedy Anne and Andy dolls, how they found her on a replica of a tapestry purportedly woven in Brussels, during the middle ages, for Charles V. What bothers you is knowing how cola de chancho fritas floated in the little pool with Chakana, how the only other attendees at his drowning were a crumpled pack of Galouises, a decorative Sarchi oxcart, and the faded photo of a seventh grade girl who years ago had moved away. Sure it’s depressing, but what this will show you is liberating: it’s the details that open portals for death to crawl out.

4.

Once you’ve acquired and jailed in unopened boxes all the little details you can and once the doublewide is too full of those items to get to the bathroom or kitchen, it’s finally time to travel to Lynnhaven Used Boats in Portsmith and buy an old trailerable Aqua Casa 16. Get the blue one with the missing seat cushions. Have them deliver it. No matter how they look at you, insist that they put it in the pond.

Take up smoking, if you want. Menthols. Sit on the poop deck and swill warm malt liquor from a tin cup. Who needs friends or parents—any models of happiness to follow—when you have a houseboat, Wi-Fi, instant coffee. Do buy a cockatiel, but store everything on the tiny dock. The boat must be clean and bare at all times. Watch the signalling of afternoon light on the water, the flashing of it on the twisting aluminium foil surface. Ignore the handful of malnourished cows that haven’t wandered off, that come to lower their mouths to the pond and glower at you and your little floating kingdom. Tell yourself you never wanted to marry anyway, that you can’t be fooled by pain anymore, that you know how it’s for its own benefit, how it’s like the way fire will burn everything it can, how it wants more of the stuff that keeps it going, that keeps it alive.

Rub your stomach. Name your bother and wait for it to emerge. A bother change everything. The sun rises and sets. Years will want to pass. Let them. It’s up to other people now to worry about why the songs of children still linger over burned down houses.

5.

The last part is fairly simple: Float in your circlet. Bump gently (and frequently) against the shore. Reach for items on the dock as you drift by. It’s like an orbit, if you think about it. And if you concentrate, you can feel the moon’s gravity pulling at the edges of the pond. You can eat when you want but don’t sleep too often—you have your little bother to think about. Peer through the windows to check the seals on the boxes in the doublewide. The purchases want out, after all. They want to populate your background, to become peripheries, to open a portal big enough for a fat lady in a wide hat.

Sure, it’s frightening, but you can prevent it now. Wave to the items on the dock—the coffee, tin cup, the cigarettes, the despondent cockatiel. There’s nothing around you. Bask in that power, in your resulting immortality, in the fact that you can remember, without feeling, the day your mother took you to the planetarium. How, when she thought you were watching the light show, you were really watching the guide hold your mother’s hand in the dark. How, when Maxine said, “Whole galaxies are moving away from us at ever increasing speeds, Lucy, some so far out they’ll soon be gone forever,” your mother said, “I know, but forever still has to do with time. And what’s forever compared to this?” and then turned to hide her tears.

Tonight, though, there are no stars visible above the Aqua Casa, and it’s happened. You’re finally holding your little bother in your arms. The gestation was so long, but now you can touch it, kiss it, get to know it. You have nothing but centuries ahead. You have forever. It’s amazing, isn’t it? How such a tiny thing can shrink the world, how there are no connections, how nothing really can be forever.




Family: Fairytale

Photo by latteda (copied from Flickr)
Photo by latteda (copied from Flickr)

You are my angel, but your bed is not a cloud.  The thoughts in my head belong to both of us, because the thoughts that dance from your tamarisk lips do not belong to you, and I am here to keep you safe.  To keep you alive in the memories which make you beautiful; you are beautiful, even as you fade from asphodel, to muted primrose, to fairyflax.  It is youth that we searched for, all these years but the answer is not there, amongst the young.

I was a young lad, young indeed, when I was twenty.  I thought I had the cares of the world but I knew not the world. This is youth. Eyebright and larkspur, I thought that the silky, cream-frothed pint which stood on top of the bar I was proudly tall enough to reach was a key to the world, as though it was mine for the taking. A key to my own future.

Once, once upon a time, there was a girl.  A girl and a boy.  Once upon a time there was a girl and a boy and they were given what they believed might be love.  Once upon a time there were two people and they found themselves together and entwined and legs and arms and hair and beauty.  Beauty in the eye of the beholder, but beauty all the same.  Once upon a time there was me and there was her and there was us.  Once upon a time, there was happiness and joy and tying of knots, around and around and around until those knots were so great that they stuck in throats as a candytuft prince and a sweet-cicely princess walked down an aisle.

When I was thirty I found, in my hands, a small boy.  Mine forever and forever.  I had believed that I knew love but this, this so small, so huge, scrap of the flesh and bone and fingernails I – me – had given to him, taught me that I was but learning love’s impractical wax and wane; pull and push.  I was but young.  And, for the first time, I was glad I was young.  Glad that what lay ahead of me was new and exciting and different and that I would not understand any of it, nor pretend to understand any of it.

And my princess, my once upon a time, eyes of lupin and hair of goldilocks-buttercup, princess.  My  butterbur-skinned angel, with your murmurs of love, and of washing days and milky muslins draped across your shoulder in the morning, when we were still plumped and rounded by sleep, teasel-headed clover in the cracked fadings of the first dawn.  It made you more beautiful on those mornings when sleep had come to you but not our snuffling, fat-thighed baby, when you smiled  and made my toast anyway because that is what princesses and princes do.

When I was fifty, the aches and creaks of age, the sagging of the rigging, fooled me into believing that youth was mine no longer.  That twenty years ago I was young.  You simply grew into yourself.  The hair, once so vibrant, so tumbling, morning light through the dapple of trees, greyed to the whispers of a silver birch, top-knotted by hands which had worked magic into dough, twisted and released and tumbling down your back.  You wanted to cut it.  ‘Chop it all away’, you used to whisper, embarrassed by the advent of autumn.  But Little Red Riding Hood’s daddy had an axe, and no good came of that.  Your pearlwort hair made your eyes look bluer than gentian or harebell.  Love blinds but I was only just beginning to see.

And now, now I sit, frail, mossy stonecrop eyes muted by age, ears empty of sound apart from my own thoughts which swirl round, round, round.  The autumn mist has lifted and, with it, taken all but love.  You lie upon your bed, sleeping beauty, princess and the pea.  They all took to their beds to be saved by the most handsome prince of them all.  But I cannot save you, little robin.  No kiss, although if a kiss was all it took, you would be saved one thousand times over.

The sunshine left your eyes, and only I could see the dancing violets inside them.  Your hair became thin.  Tumbled and did not stop.  Fistfuls on the floor of the gingerbread house where we had lived all our prince and princess lives, and the house was enchanted no more.  Your hands became gnarled, thick like ropes.  Anchors.  We have been anchored together for so long that it is never ever and for all time and faraway and as close as our thoughts when we laughed – because nothing was funny –  at the absurdity of the truth.  And yet, as you curled inwards, furled already, our tree-root limbs twisted together.  Legs and arms and hair and beauty.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  And we were the beholders.  Your memory became clouded by romance and foggy-misted hillside and dreams and nightmares and truth and lies and love and war and hate all mixed together.  Christmas pudding.  Stir it well.  Make a wish.

I made a wish.

Once upon a time and once upon a time and once upon a time we were young.

And one day, the laughter fades into the rook’s caw.  The song of the old mother.  The song of the forest.  I am locked out, but locked in, because there is no door, and we do not have a key.

You cry, but I do not know whether it is for loss, or for longing or for pain.  You are curled, but you move your arms and your legs, swimming against the tide.  I reach for your hand, but meet only claw.  Curled in.  Tightly fisted.  Lifeline hiding from the grim reaper.  There is no cheating, only waiting and waiting and waiting.

And I tell you a story.  A story of long ago, of youth and innocence and of bitter frost.  A story of us.  Once upon a time, and I cannot begin because I cannot end, because there is an ending.  Once upon a time, the prince and princess wished to make their kingdom flourish because youth is foolish and perfection unthinking.  Laughter and tears and promises and joy and you began to swell, to grow.  You became bigger almost before my eyes, and I was proud.  So proud.

But there is rue for remembrance, although neither you nor I remember, and I rue that I do not remember, because we are so beautiful.  You are so beautiful.  But the past is the past is the past and we are not in the past.  You are beautiful now.  Curved into the foetal position, knotty knees tucked up to your chest, and I wonder whether you are ready to start again.  Whether you are not leaving this world, but being birthed into the next.

We have not rue.  It does not grow in these parts, at this time of year.  We have mallow and bittersweet and corncockle.  Pink as the skin of a newborn.

Once, once upon, once upon a time.  But this story is too sad.  There was no happily ever after.  There is a tiny hole in the ground and the prince and princess are wailing as though their souls are torn by scrapping foxes, not the leaden sadness brought only by a tiny hole in the ground, and a tinier muslin package, lowered in slowly, although I – the prince – wished that it would be done faster, faster, faster because cold grief made me want to snatch her back and mould my own life into the body of our daughter.  Stop the purple and the blue and give her pink.  Mould the afterbirth silence into her cries.  We had a son but no daughter.   Hansel.  Kay.  Mallow and bittersweet and corncockle.

And they all… There is no after, only before, and before is the time of dreams.  The time of enchanter’s nightshades and beauty.  And you are so beautiful and we were so beautiful.  We are so beautiful.  Your eyes cocklebur-ed shut, proliferous pink against alpine snowbell.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I was the beholder.  I am the beholder.

Honesty for honesty.  But you know that, my meadowsweet, my spiked star of Bethlehem.  You know nothing and you know everything.  So wise.  So wise to shut your eyes and to forget.  Honesty for honesty.  My love.  My eyes of lupin, hair of goldilocks buttercup princess.  Once upon a time, there was no time.  There is no time.  There has been so much time, and you were so beautiful.  You are so beautiful.  We are so beautiful.

Forgetmenot.

And now, now I understand youth.




Family: Francesca Niebla

Francesca Niebla photoFrancisca Niebla is on her way to the town photographer’s.  She is wearing a long dark costume and a heavy white lace blouse and a broad-brimmed black hat.  The chain of a gold fob watch peeps from her coat.  Or maybe it’s the chain of her pince-nez which she has taken off for vanity.  She is wearing her best jewellery — a large cross and crystal earrings.  It is 1920, and she is eighteen.

In her coat pocket she has money from her aunt for the photograph.  It’s a bright morning in March and she arrives early for her appointment.  The studio is cool after the heat of the streets.

The photographer’s assistant welcomes her and brings her a glass of water and offers to take her hat but no, she will keep it on for the portrait.  His wife takes the money and writes down her details in a ledger, slowly and carefully, pausing with nib aloft after each word and figure she writes.

The photographer introduces himself and asks her to stand beside the prop table but she is short so maybe sitting would be better.  She sits in the grand prop chair and he gives her a pen and the records book.  She is very short so he asks her to sit right on the edge of the chair, and the assistant fetches a cushion.  She leans forward, poised with the pen.  He looks at her through his lens.  She is a very beautiful young woman, sweet and grave in her black hat.  She sits very still for her photograph.

A week later she makes the same trip into town to collect the large framed portrait.  She is pleased with it.  It is wrapped in brown paper and string and she takes it home, where her father inspects the skill of the framing, is satisfied, and hangs it on the wall.

This will be the only likeness taken of Francisca Niebla.  The following year she will meet a merchant sailor called Duminku and they will marry.  She will give birth to a son, Juan.  Duminku will be away at sea for much of the year and when Francisca falls pregnant again a year later they will decide to move the family to his home town of Bormla, Malta.  Francisca’s family will say goodbye to them at the docks.  Her mother will give her a new pair of gloves and her aunt, who is childless, will give her money.  They will never see her or Juan again.

Francisca and Juan will move into a house on the hill in Bormla with Duminku’s brothers, Mosè and Abram, his sister Lehla, and Abram’s wife Philumena.

In Malta, Francisca and Juan will become Francesca and Gianni.  Francesca will always remain Francesca now.  Gianni will later become Johnny, or John.

Francesca will be homesick for La Línea, her hometown on the border of Spain and Gibraltar, a place she will never see again.  She will sit on the high leather sofa in the house in Bormla, watching the tick of the great clock and sewing clothes for Juan and the new baby, sometimes mending sheets for the household, and sometimes looking at the pictures in Lehla’s magazines.  The sofa is mahogany coloured and rubbed to a high shine like Lehla’s shoes.  The glass of Lehla’s display cabinet will shine like crystal, polished every morning by Francesca, who will also shine each of its contents – the bell dome containing a stuffed heron whose glass eyes survey the room, and the red china cups and saucers which are never used.

Every morning also Francesca will take a stiff brush and brush the dust from the curtains and then with a broom she will sweep the parlour floor.  Every day she will eat lunch of bread and goat’s cheese in the kitchen with Lehla and Philumena, but they will talk fast together and she won’t be able to follow the conversation.  Duminku will send Lehla money for housekeeping, but Francesca will be too shy to ask what it gets spent on.

She will die giving birth to her second child in the house in Bormla.  Her baby will die soon after.  The name of this baby will be forgotten.

Motherless Gianni will be brought up by his aunts while his father is at sea.  His father will never remarry.

Gianni will not go to school and will never learn to read and write.  One day before the festa he will play with fireworks on the roof and perforate both his eardrums.  For the rest of his life he will be somewhat deaf.

Bombs will rain on Malta as Hitler tries to reach Africa, and the children will beg for food from the American soldiers.  When the war ends Gianni will be twenty-one.  He will marry Filipa Mifsud, a girl from Birkirkara whom he will meet at a dance in Valletta.  He will sign a cross for his name on the marriage certificate.  They will name their first child Francesca.

When Duminku goes to visit his brothers and sister on his trips home, he will take little Francesca with him and they will sit in the parlour on the high leather sofa.  Where it is patched and crackled, the horsehairs will poke through and prickle Francesca’s legs.  She will not be allowed to touch the display cabinet, but she will look at the pictures of the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in Lehla’s magazines.

Little Francesca will also love to look at Duminku’s tattoos, bluey-green like the sea.  One says Francesca, with a heart.  This makes little Francesca laugh and blush.

When a second child, Mary, is born, Filipa and Gianni will decide to leave for England, taking Gianni’s father Duminku with them.  They will arrive just in time for the Queen’s Accession.

In London Duminku will become Dominic, Gianni will become John, Filipa will become Phyllis, and little Francesca will become Frances.  Mary will get to keep her own name.  More children will arrive — Joseph and Charles.

Duminku, now Dominic, will take a job washing dishes at the Cumberland hotel to help bring in money for John’s family.  He will be given overalls to wear, which will get soaked every evening as he stands over a huge sink scrubbing pots with a brush.  One night a smog will descend, belched out by the chimneys of Battersea Power Station.  The buses won’t run, and Dominic will try to find his way home to Brick Lane on foot.  He will get lost and spend all night wandering in the smog.  A week later he will be dead.

Filipa’s next child will be named Dominic, for Duminku.

Johnny will work at the Truman Brewery for years.  Skinny, deaf, illiterate, and with faltering English, he will be a good worker.  At home he will make things – armchairs, leather shoes, dolls’ houses.  Later, when the family buys a television set, he will roar with laughter at the old black and white silent films, the Charlie Chaplins and the Laurel and Hardys.

Greenfingered Phyllis will grow vegetables in pots and, much later, in the garden of her prefab.  She will long for chickens, and try to hatch eggs in socks on the radiator.

The portrait of Francesca Niebla will hang on Johnny’s wall.  When Johnny dies in the royal wedding year, his daughter Frances will ask for it and hang it on her wall, where it will hang for nearly twenty years until she moves house and, having no space to hang it, puts it in the loft.

There it will remain for eight years, after which Frances’s daughter, the writer, will rescue it.  Her torch light will fall on the face that looked down from the wall throughout her childhood, and she will pull it out of the box, wipe the dust from the glass, and recognize it.  Francesca Niebla will whisper to her great-granddaughter, “I know many stories.”

Later still, Frances’s daughter will show the portrait to her own daughter, who is already beginning to resemble Francesca Niebla.

All of this will really happen.  But eighteen year old Francisca knows nothing of this as she stands in her father’s parlour in La Línea proudly showing the portrait to the aunt who paid for it, and who is pleased with her investment.  When her aunt has finished drinking her tea and admiring the portrait, Francisca shows her to the door and stands there watching her walk down the road towards the rock of Gibraltar and the sea.  The world seems rich with possibility as Francisca steps onto the threshold of her life.




Family: X Marks the Spot

Photo by j_arred (copied from Flickr)
Photo by j_arred (copied from Flickr)

My son Telep likes to lie on his back in the field behind our house during thunderstorms. He’s been doing it for years. At the first distant rumble he’ll dart out the back door with a goofy grin plastered on his face, as I yell after him to quit it and come back inside.

He says he likes how the purple and white cracks in the sky mix with the claps and booms. I tell him it’s dangerous. From his horizontal position on the grass, Telep says, so is everything.

I could tell him that doing your long division sets or listening to baseball on the radio isn’t dangerous, but I don’t. I watch him point upward and hear him say, did you see that one? That one looked like a scar on the sky’s belly.

Telep, it’s starting to rain, I’ll say from the door, but he’ll only spread himself out wider on the grass like a big X-marks-the-spot, his mouth open to catch the drops.

This time when I hear the thunder and Telep dashes out the back, I run after him. He plops down on the grass and spreads out, and so do I. Soon the sky looks like a purpling bruise and Telep is pointing and the drops are starting to fall and the first crack of lightning sends a shiver down my back.