Maundy Thursday 2011. Clearing out mum’s flat ready for sale. My first time back in the UK since her death. Coming back is strange. This time I have the family with me. Strange mourning for all
On this day of remembrance and communion.
This day of unseasonably warm weather.
This day of bright sunshine, clear blue skies and pink cherry blossom, coloured like innocence.
A light breeze blows blossom from the numerous cherry trees, their branches overhanging the pavement, straggling over well-creosoted garden fences or neat red brick walls enclosing immaculately manicured gardens, all so south east London suburban. The blossom swirls and cascades down like sweet snow, to lie in a delicate pink carpet on the grey pavement.
In October last, I trudged this way to the Undertaker’s – thoughtlessly kicking through piles of autumn leaves as I focussed on the one matter in hand – mum’s send off. Today, I walk carelessly, churning up cherry blossom.
Mum got sent down in a cherry wood casket. It seemed the obvious choice. Mum always came to visit us n France in late June – cherry picking time. Her favourite was sitting in a deck chair under our cherry trees. Reading, snoozing, conversing with the neighbours n her fractured French, sipping chilled rosé in the early evening sun and just contemplating the world from the shade – such was the stuff of her ideal holiday. From Bourges to Corsica, mum would read, sit, sip and snooze. She never wanted to rush about doing “cultural” stuff.
On this day, mine is a cherry walk back form the local charity shop – those establishments that sell the belongings of the recently-dead to the living. The main customers of such places seem to be elderly people – the soon-to-be dead, who, when they have died, will have their recently-acquired, second hand items returned to the charity shop.
I am back at mum’s flat, clearing out her last possessions, cleaning up, chucking out, getting the place ready for sale. On this day of pink an blue, my colours are sepia, black and white, and the fading colours of late sixties Kodak holiday snaps. Miniscule square photos, trimmed with neat white borders, very much like my dad, who took them with his early Instamatic. Dad. So very neat, so very square, and mum, so very “unsquare”, disorganised, shambolic. Had dad lived, I could just have seen him spending a long and useless retirement cataloguing his life – putting photos in albums, all classed year-by-year, every family holiday, every family occasion. Mum though, never catalogued anything. Her photos, lurk at the back of drawers, the bottom of cupboards, stuffed away in boxes, bags, wallets … old socks! It was as if she had deliberately put them away to forget with the hope that she might find them day-by-day by chance in later years, when the pain of dad’s early death had lessened. Each photo might bring a tear, but a happy memory too. Now it is my turn to find the photos. With each snap, something snaps in me. Each photo is a visual time bomb that has been ticking away for years, and explodes in my brain as I pick it up. Each photo triggers some distant memory of what I like to imagine were “happier times” though mum. In her last years though, mum sued to wonder if she had ever been happy with dad.
“I don’t know why she ever married him,” exclaims my Aunt as she sorts through mum’s wedding photos. Your mum was such a happy and fun loving person. Your dad was just dead miserable.”
Photos of happier times. The “happy” family holiday. Dad the “little Englander, who would never go anywhere too far or too exotic. Dad as a lad, who had never had a “proper” family holiday with his dysfunctional family, who now wanted a proper family holiday with his proper family. Holidays by the sea in Norfolk.
Here we are, on a forlorn, windswept beach, all wrapped up against like Arctic explorers, huddling behind our flimsy blue and white windbreak.
“Norfolk, bloody Norfolk always bloody Norfolk, and Norfolk was always bloody freezing. Nothing between us and the Russian Steppe, save the North Sea. Why did we always go to bloody Norfolk?”
Mum’s soul-searching tirade came years later, as we sat sipping G and T’s at a beach bar in Corsica.
In the photos, dad looks like a true Brit on the beach, before true Brits discovered cheap foreign travel and jetted off to the Costas for their Watney’s Red Barrel. Here’s dad, long trousers rolled up to just below the knee, standing in the sea, water up to his ankles. Perish the thought that he might pull on trunks and take a dip. As usual, he wears his eternal “weekend” V neck pullover, checked shirt and tie.
When it rained, we’d all squeeze into the Morris Traveller – mum and dad in the front, cutting up the cheese and pickle sandwiches and serving the soup out a battered blue “Boot’s” thermos. The breaking of bread and the sharing of soup. Family holiday communion.
After dad died, the “communion” continued. We swapped our miserable mobile home holidays in Norfolk for more miserable cottage holidays in Scotland – far-flung, damp, unheated, mouse-infested, West Coast holiday hovels. New destination, new photos. Windswept beaches give way to desolate expanses of heather-covered Highland tundra and long shimmering lochs. The car has changed too, our new “happy family” unit is squeezed into a beige Morris 1300 – mum in the driver’s seat pour out the soup, and Gran in the front passenger seat dealing out the cheese and pickle “wedges” – she was more generous on the sandwiches than dad ever was.
Maundy Thursday – the day, that believers celebrate the Last Supper
The Good Lord, cutting up the cheese and pickle sandwiches said “this is my body, eat this in remembrance of me”, then the good Lord served tomato soup from the Holy Thermos, saying, “this is my blood …”
This moment, I commune with the past, sipping wine and staring at photos. I shred those bodies I do not share – distant cousins I have never met and never will. Why keep them? Faces from part of a family of which I was never a part. Next I shred photos of my brother. Photo after photo, I shred him out of my life. Shredding away the blonde, blue-eyed first born, the Chosen One, the apple of his father’s eye, dad’s own, almost, Immaculate Conception, born with the minimum of procreation, because I had a “Victorian dad” who didn’t do “that sort of thing” because it scared him. And dad as the last child in a large family, brought up my brother as he himself had wanted to be. Every photo my dad took is of my brother. It was always dad, lord and master of the lens, the family David Bailey, and there is only brother, it is like I have never existed.
So, I come to the last batch of photos, those of betrayal. Stuffed in the back of an old wallet – photos of dad, all sharing the same macabre trait – the eyes have been “punctured.”
First born son loved his father and first born son took his father’s death as a betrayal, so first born took all the photos he could find of father, and with compass and scissors, systematically punched out the eyes. Now that I can’t see you, you shall see me never.
21st April 2011