Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Black Marble

People assume that because I come to the cemetery I must be sad.

Black Marble

There’s a lot to be said for being a Catholic. You only have to look at their gravestones. Every one a mausoleum, with angels and harps and pedestals. And why shouldn’t you have grandeur in death? Especially if you were deprived of it in life. Glory and beauty.
I think they’re wonderful. Works of art. They’re my favourite pieces in the cemetery. I come here most days. Tom thinks I’m mad. He says I talk to the angels but I don’t. I just sit and think. He doesn’t understand. This is my place. I always sit in this exact spot with my back against this headstone. ‘Treasured memories of Richard Daniel Evans, dearly loved husband of Mary. And of the above Mary Jane Evans. Sleeping where no shadows fall.’
Sleeping where no shadows fall, I like that. No shadows, no darkness, just sleep. I like to sleep. Sometimes I fall asleep with my head on the grass. Or sometimes I think about Richard and Mary and wonder what their lives were like, wonder if they would like me, wonder if they mind me sitting with my back to them. I don’t think they would mind me resting on their stone. The stone seems to welcome me in.
Don’t you get cold, Tom asks. No, I say, I take a blanket to sit on and if it’s been raining I take a Sainsburys bag to put underneath. And the stone is never cold, it has its own warmth. As if it’s still fed by the earth. Black marble. Shining and bright and sparkling with atoms of life. Not like white marble. White should be the living colour, shouldn’t it? White and light and life. But it’s not, it’s flat and dead and ugly. Not like the black. I told Tom, I said, when I die will you bury me, not burn me, and make sure I have a headstone made of the finest black marble. He looked at me as if I were mad. I said, promise, will you promise, I don’t want white. He said, you’re spending too much time in the cemetery, it’s turning your mind. I said, no, you should come with me, it’s beautiful, so peaceful. Some of us have got jobs to go to, he said. Then he started on at me again about getting another job. He said we won’t be able to afford the mortgage on this place if you don’t get a job soon. I told him I’d tried.
It caused our first big row me losing my job. He said I should go to a tribunal, they can’t just sack you for no reason. They had a reason I said, they didn’t want me anymore. He said that wasn’t enough of a reason, I should fight it, get compensation. I wouldn’t because I knew I couldn’t. I understood why. He didn’t because I didn’t tell him. Papa, don’t preach, I said. He just looked at me.
That was one time I did talk to the angel. My stone is next to a huge square white tomb. Twice as big as any other and always with fresh flowers, whatever time of year it is. Sometimes I break off one head of a flower and hold it as I sit and think. I don’t think the dead would mind and I’m careful that I don’t spoil the arrangement. Rabaiotti, that’s the family name. Carlo and Maria and then Antonio, their son. They still run the ice cream parlour on the seafront.
At the head of the tomb is a tall angel with flowing hair and robes and wings, quite small wings. The angel isn’t doing anything, just looking up to heaven. I told her that I’d lost my job and that she would be seeing a lot more of me. I thought I saw a tear running down her face but when I looked closer I saw it was only bird poo. She didn’t tell me I should go to a tribunal. She just sang. She sings all the time. Madonna songs. She knows all of them but she has her favourites. She likes to sing Hanky Panky. I tell her she shouldn’t. I think perhaps she doesn’t know what it’s about and the fuss there was about it. I say, shhh, people will hear you and it’s not what you’d expect of an angel. But I join in when she sings Like a Prayer. Talking to the angel is the closest I come to praying.
There is one gravestone in the whole of the cemetery that faces the wrong direction. I asked one of the gardeners why. He said Samuel Roberts had killed himself and wasn’t allowed to be buried on hallowed ground but I don’t know if that was true. It seems unfair if it is. He must have been very sad to kill himself.
The gardeners all know me. They used to ask if I was all right but now they just ignore me. There’s one, younger than the rest, he chats to me sometimes but I close my eyes until he goes away. Only once they made me move. That was when there was a funeral. A grave was dug up near me and the man’s wife was buried with him. What if they never really got on, I wanted to say. Did anyone ask them if they wanted to be buried together? Or did their daughters just assume things. People make assumptions all the time. I assumed that the women at the graveside were the daughters of the dead woman because they cried most. Hanging onto their husbands (another assumption) they wept for their deceased mother. People assume that because I come to the cemetery I must be sad.
I watched the funeral from behind one of the yew trees. The cemetery lies along the bed of a valley that rises to a height at the far end. There is a path up the middle lined by yew trees all shaped into fir cones. When you stand at the gate, and stare straight ahead, you can’t see the graves only the path leading to heaven. A clean white path leading slightly uphill. A bit of an effort.
Some people walk their dogs here. Sometimes the dogs pee on the gravestones. One little dog, a spaniel, always comes and says hello to me. I don’t mind but his owner, a middle-aged woman in a waterproof jacket, calls her away. Come away from the lady, Sally, she says. Not, don’t bother the lady, but, come away, as if she might catch something.
Then there are joggers I see regularly. Two men and a girl. The men run together and talk as they run but the girl always listens to headphones. I wonder why she doesn’t listen to the angels singing. You have to listen to hear them. There are lots of angels in the cemetery because it’s a very old cemetery and it seems people in the past liked angels more. One of them only sings in Welsh, another sings Italian opera but I like mine best. She senses my mood and knows what to sing without me saying anything. Today she’s singing Cherish. You have to listen carefully, if you want to hear her.
Tom said, don’t you get bored sitting in the cemetery? I said, of course not, you should come with me. I know he won’t or I wouldn’t ask him. Grace Williams, her life a beautiful memory, her absence a silent grief. Is that how you’d feel about me, I asked him. You’re not a memory, he said, you’re here. He has no imagination, that’s his trouble.
I started coming here before I finished work. Sometimes in the office, my life was becoming not beautiful. I didn’t want it to be ugly, but my boss would shout in his stupid loud voice and I didn’t want to listen to him so I’d go away and listen to the angel.
I don’t sit here all the time. Sometimes I walk around and read the words on the tombs. Some of them are so sad I cry. Babies no more than two weeks old dying. Now where’s the point of that? And young husbands or wives. And soldiers. The lucky ones whose bodies were found and brought home. Welsh battalions going into battle. There’s even one old rugby player. It says he was famous but I’ve never heard of him. Memories don’t last long.
An old gentleman walked past me yesterday. He was carrying a large bunch of chrysanthemums. He raised his hat and said, good afternoon. He was wearing a fawn overcoat and his shoes were like shiny chestnuts. I watched him. He made his way to a grave not far from mine. It had a black marble stone. He bent over and plucked out the dead flowers. He lay them on the grass beside the grave then he picked up the vase and emptied out the remains of the water. He walked over to one of the taps near the wall around the cemetery and rinsed out the vase, before refilling it. He returned to the grave and replaced the vase in its holder, then he unwrapped the flowers he had brought with him and arranged them in the vase. When he’d finished he wrapped the dead flowers in the paper and stood up. He took off his hat and bowed his head for a few moments. Then he put his hat back on, picked up the dead flowers and started back along the path. I waited until I was sure that he had gone then I walked across to the grave he had visited. It said, In loving memory of Katherine Wallace, 1933-1982, wife of Edward, and their beloved daughter, Jennifer, 1957-1984. Peace, perfect peace. For whom, I wondered. For them maybe. Not for him. They’d left him. And he’d raised his hat to me. That wasn’t fair. My eyes ached. I picked out the chrysanths he’d arranged and took them back to my stone and pushed them in the vase. Richard and Mary never have flowers. I should get them more. Lots of the graves never have flowers on them. On the edge of the path is a rubbish tip where people can throw dead flowers but sometimes, I’ve noticed the flowers aren’t properly dead. I walked over to the tip and collected the best of the flowers. They were mostly chrysanthemums and some roses that had sharp thorns and I shared them out between some empty graves.
When I got home last night Tom had his dinner on a tray. I bought a curry on my way home, he said, I knew you wouldn’t have cooked anything. I was going to, I said. He was watching a sports quiz on television. There’s some left, he waved his fork at the kitchen. I’m not hungry, I think I’ll have a bath. Tom said, just a minute, did you go and see the doctor today? I forgot, I said. You promised, he said. I know, I’m sorry, I’ll go tomorrow. He looked at me and sighed, I’ve arranged to meet the lads down the pub later. That’s fine, I said. But you will go tomorrow, won’t you? Tom said, I really think you need to talk to someone. I nodded.
He had gone to work by the time I woke up this morning. He had left a note by the side of the bed. He’d written down the doctor’s telephone number. Ring him, the note screamed. It added to the rest of the noise in my head, such a lot of noise, a drilling and shrieking and howling noise all mixed up. I was thirsty but there wasn’t a clean cup so I used my hands to splash my face, then I came here. To escape the noise. It stayed with me until I passed the chapel, I thought it was going to go on for ever but it stopped as I came through the gate and began to walk up the path to my grave.

Friday, 16 June 2017

The story-teller

Lying on his back in the grass at the foot of the tree, the story-teller looks up at the sky. He closes his eyes and begins to talk.

He speaks of the time before time when there were only three and the love he carried overflowed and he needed a container to hold all that tumbled out.

He tells how he blew onto a ray of light until it shattered and a myriad of colours fell at his feet. And from these colours, the reds and yellows and blues, the violets and emeralds, olives and scarlets, jades and crimsons, lemons and coppers, he created a paradise, a world so fair no-one could imagine its like.

And then he let his characters tell their own stories, weave their own tales from the materials and inspiration he provided. And he sat back and watched and waited.

But because he loved his characters, he sometimes reached out when they were lost and showed them the way or whispered in their ears when they were lonely in the hustle of the day. And with each tentative step they took, he watched and smiled and sometimes cried, because when they hurt, his heart ached for them, for he loved them so.

Then the day came when the story-teller said, ‘Stop, this pain is too much to bear.’ And sucking in the shards of the rainbow left on the floor from the beginning he became a character in his own story and walked with his creations in the damaged and desecrated storyland.

Now the story-teller stares at the branches of the tree above as if seeing history in its skeleton. His breathing quickens, tears fall from his eyes and beads of sweat form on his forehead. And he turns to me, grabs my hand and says, ‘Tell, them, tell them that’s it over and it hasn’t yet begun. Tell them that their names are written on the palms of my hands.’

Then he holds out his hands for me to see and before my eyes, names appear, one after one. ‘Tell them,’ he continues, ‘I have not forgotten them. Although it may seem for a time that I have left them without a future, their story was written before they were born and it can never end. It goes on for all eternity. This is my truth, my promise, my reassurance. My reassurance is not an unreal guarantee made up by someone who pretends to know. My words are truthful. I am the story-teller. Out of my heart love and life overflow. You were created from the outpourings of my heart. For you, I became part of the story. I tell you this now, to remember when I seem far away. The story-teller lives within each of his characters and ours is a never-ending story.’

With that the story-teller turns over and lies back. He closes his eyes and breathes deeply. I watch him for a long moment then I lie down beside him, resting my head on his chest. I can feel his heartbeat, strong and constant. I am aware of his arm drawing me close. Then I fall asleep on the grass at the foot of the tree.

Friday, 23 September 2016

A prayer for my bambino

You are a child of the world, a child born out of and into love. The journal of your life is yet to be written, blank pages for you to write your own story. And it will be an adventure story.

I pray that your life will be long and filled with love. I pray that you will grow strong and healthy in body and spirit. I pray that you will find delight in the ordinary and excitement in the extraordinary.

I pray you will see beauty everywhere, that you will be a friend to the friendless and that, like your parents, you will care deeply for all of God’s creation.

I thank God that you have been born into a family that loves you and I pray that love will shape your attitude and provide assurance and a refuge as you go on your adventure through life. I pray that your heart will rule your head, that you will dare, that you will believe in yourself, that you will dream big.

And I pray that, like your parents, you will find your passion and that you will follow it with all your heart.

I pray that when you face trouble you will have the courage to stay true, to stand tall, to say, I am loved by my family and by the one who knit me together in my mother’s womb.

So, my beautiful baby, know that we will be cheering you on all the way, on your great big wonderful adventure of life.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

What to do when I'm dead - a plan in eight parts

Death brings with it its own terrible confusion. Life is just wrong somehow. Nothing is in its proper place. The world is back to front and upside down and nothing makes sense. That’s why I am giving you this plan, to help you make sense of the un-sensible. Don’t rush it. Living after death takes time.

1) Don’t be afraid of dead. 
Don’t let raw hurt be buried beneath gentle phrases. Give grief its proper due as the right feeling, the only feeling. I have not passed away or fallen asleep; I am dead.  For me this is a step on my journey; for you it is the end of the world. It feels like the end of the world. 
It isn’t. But you are allowed, you have my permission if you need it, to believe for a while that life has lost its meaning. And don’t be afraid that this will be too much. This is what death does. It hurts almost unbearably. But you will bear it. 

2) And don’t be afraid to cry. 
Don’t think that if you start you’ll never stop. In the history of the world that has never happened. Crying is good. Cry with others, others who loved me and love you. You’ll say crying won’t solve anything, won’t bring me back and it won’t. But if the tears don’t flow where will they go? Will you store them up until the dam bursts and you’re left dry and bitter? Crying is good.
But crying has a season and on the day you realise you forgot me for all of five minutes you’ll know the season is changing. Don’t feel bad. Don’t be sad. Be grateful for the change. Look around and see the things that you’ve neglected in your sorrow. They need you.

3) Now is the time to remember. 
You’ll say that’s what I’ve been doing all this time but I say, yes, but you’ve been remembering through a mist of gloom. Even when you’ve laughed at stories well-meaning friends have told of me the laughter hasn’t touched your heart, softened it. Your laughter has been on the outside, for their benefit not yours. 
So take time to think, to remember the girl I was, the woman I became. Remember the time when … and that time that … and let me speak to you. See my face not through the blur of tears but in the sunshine. Remember the feel of my body, the touch of my hands, moments of intimacy, moments of joy. Remember how I drove you mad with all the stupid things I did. 

4) Then talk about me. 
To those who loved me best. Those who are familiar with the stories and can finish them when the words stick in your throat. And cry some more together as you realise that the pain isn’t as unbearable as it once was. That the heavy ache that has become so much part of your being that you hardly notice it any more is less. It’s still there but seems lighter somehow.

5) Now the hardest bit: learn to laugh again. 
Real laughter, not forced. Today you’ll say I have nothing to laugh about but you will have. Life will go on. Life will continue for you and the children. You will get up each morning, do what has to be done and go to bed at night and one day you’ll find yourself laughing, maybe at a memory of me, or maybe at something unconnected with me altogether. Don’t feel guilty when that happens. Be glad. You’re becoming human again.

6) I almost forgot. 
There will come a time when you’ll be concentrating hard on doing something and a sound will register vaguely in the background. You’ll think, without really thinking, there she is now back from shopping. And suddenly the awful realisation will hit you. She’s not back from shopping; she’ll never be back again. And the future will loom ahead of you like an infinite monster and you’ll wonder how you can be expected to get through those years without me. That will hurt so much. Almost as badly as the first searing pain but now you’re prepared; you know how to deal with this. Go back to the beginning. Start again. Cry, remember, talk and laugh. Repeat as necessary.

7) And then there's anger.
Anger isn't helpful but it is inevitable. You may not feel it now or you may be unable to feel anything other. That's okay. Be angry with me for going first and leaving you. Be angry with God. For his wasted omnipotence. Be angry with strangers for living when I'm dead. It's not fair. But don't be angry with yourself. Unless you pushed me off a cliff it's not your fault. There's nothing you could have done. Death is like that. Uncaring and inopportune. So no what ifs, no I wish I'd done this or hadn't said that. Regrets are as pointless as wanting to turn back time. The present is all there is; today is all you have to get through.

8) But remember this most of all. 
I love you with all of my heart, with all of my being. You are the part of me that I was missing before we met; now I am the part of you that seems to be missing. But I’m not. I never can be. I’ll always be with you. In your heart, in our children, in our home, in your daily breath. I’m there. Talk to me sometimes. People will say you’re crazy but what do they know? Crazy is good.  Trust me. I should know.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Little Mrs Men O'Paws

Welcome to Happy Family Land. In this land all the houses are spotlessly clean, shirts are washed and freshly ironed and the cupboard is always full of home-baked cakes, except in Mrs Men O’Paws’ house.
In  Mrs O’Paws’ house, there are cobwebs in the corners, dirty shirts on the floor and cupboards that are bare.

One day at lunchtime when Mrs O’Paws was just starting to eat her Marmite and chocolate spread on toast, the phone rang. It was  Mrs Potty.
‘Where are you?’  Mrs Potty said.
‘I’m here,’ said  Mrs O’Paws.
‘No,’ said  Mrs Potty, ‘I mean why aren’t you here?’
‘I am here,’ said  Mrs O’Paws starting to feel confused.
‘You can’t be, I’m here and you’re definitely not.’
Mrs O’Paws had a think then said, ‘Well, if I’m not there, where are you?’
‘In the restaurant where we’re supposed to be having lunch,’ Mrs Potty said.
Mrs O’Paws laughed, ‘We’re not having lunch till Thursday, silly.’
‘It is Thursday.’
‘Is it? Oh dear, I’m sorry, I forgot,’ said Mrs O’Paws.

The next morning  Mrs O’Paws and Mr O’Paws were having breakfast in the kitchen. They were having dry corn flakes and black tea because  Mrs O’Paws had forgotten to get any milk.
Mr O’Paws was reading his newspaper. He looked at  Mrs O’Paws.
‘It’s a lovely morning, isn’t it?’ he said.
Mrs O’Paws burst into tears and ran upstairs to the bathroom. She stood behind the door sniffling. Mr O’Paws followed the noise. 
‘What’s the matter, dear?’ he said.
‘Nothing. Everything. I don’t know.’

Mr O’Paws thought it would be sensible for Mrs O’Paws to visit the doctor. When she arrived at the surgery she tried to open the door by pushing the one that said pull. 
‘Oh dear,’ said Mrs O’Paws.
She told the doctor about all the things that been happening. He said, ‘It’s your age. Take these pills. Goodbye.’
Mrs O’Paws took one pill but then couldn’t remember where she had put the bottle and soon forgot what the doctor had said anyway.

One morning the postman came early. He brought a letter for Mrs O’Paws.  Mrs O’Paws loved to receive a letter but she needed her glasses to read it. She looked on the table, under the table, on the floor, down the back of the chair, next to her bed, on top of the microwave, in the dog’s bed. She looked everywhere but Mrs O’Paws couldn’t find her glasses.
When Mr O’Paws got home from work that evening, he was hungry and he decided to make himself a sandwich He opened the fridge and took out the cheese box but there wasn’t any cheese there. Instead he found  Mrs O’Paws’s glasses.
‘I must have put them there by mistake,’ she said, ‘but what have I done with the cheese?’
They looked everywhere but they couldn’t find the cheese.
‘Oh dear, I’d better go to the supermarket tomorrow,’ Mrs O’Paws said.

The next day Mrs O’Paws got up early to go to the supermarket. The supermarket was very big with lots of aisles and lots of different sorts of food. 
Mrs O’Paws couldn’t remember what she wanted but she thought tins would be useful. She put in her trolley tins of baked beans, broad beans, green beans, kidney beans, white beans, has beans and a bar of chocolate. All the tins had given Mrs O’Paws an idea.
She started to empty her trolley. She put the tins on the floor next to each other. When she had almost made a circle of tins, she put another layer on top and then another layer until she couldn’t reach any higher. Then she sat in the middle of her tin tower and ate her bar of chocolate.

The supermarket manager was very understanding and sent for Mr O’Paws to come and take her home. Mr O’Paws said sorry to the supermarket manager who said, ‘That’s all right. We get a lot of ladies of a certain age in here.’
Mr O’Paws thought it would be sensible for Mrs O’Paws to go and see Mr Therapy but  Mrs O’Paws laughed.
‘I don’t need to see Mr Therapy, ‘she said. ‘I feel much better now I know what to do.’

So if you’re ever in Happy Family Land and you see someone building a tower of tins, you’ll know who it is, won’t you?

Monday, 9 May 2016

Diary of the Mother of the Bride

(First published in the South Wales Evening Post)

Valentine Countdown
1st January 2003
New Year resolution number 1: I will no longer leave everything until the last minute but will emulate boy scouts and be prepared, and well-organised.
New Year resolution number 2: start serious diet as of now.

Shall begin by taking in hand organisation of daughter’s upcoming nuptials. Consult Ms Etty Kett’s Guide to Modern Marriage. Page 43, Invitations should be sent out at least three months in advance.
Wedding is 14th February, giving us, let’s see, six weeks and two days precisely. Bother. Must be a record – breaking New Year resolution that quickly - even for me. Christmas truffles offer consolation. Mmmm, feel better already ... oh, bother, bother. 

Will not be downhearted at obvious flaw in resolution plans i.e. me, but will persevere. Make list of ‘things to do’, in no particular order.

Slightly concerned about length of list and number of times word ‘buy’ crops up. Tell myself that that, at least, is husband’s worry, not mine and concentrate instead on most important task: write piece to read at wedding. Plan to write moving and sensitive piece to ensure wet-eyed delight, foiled by daughter saying, ‘you won’t write anything cheesy and sentimental, will you?’ Bother, bother, bother. Could be a long and too short six weeks.

Stressful afternoon making wedding invitations. Not helped by son-in-law-to-be ‘mushing’ daughter’s hearts and me guillotining hand, resulting in tasteful bright red splodge additions to invites. Tell daughter that red is a very romantic colour, often associated with hearts, especially bleeding ones. Son-in-law-to-be decides to visit long lost friend, daughter takes long lasting bath. I am left to devise ‘economical with the truth’ method of telling Grandma that the invites are on their way. Really.

Diary 2
On 14th February, my daughter, Anna, will marry Steven. That gives me ... not long to find an outfit. Set off for Mumbles. Park illegally for five, yes, five, minutes, and return to find car clamped. Not good start to the day. Plan to shout at man who comes to release car but change mind when I see size of him, and seethe inwardly instead. 

Follow this with visit to dress shop but waste of time as too clamp-raged to concentrate so return home to grumble at everyone.

Sit at computer to start writing piece for wedding. While waiting for inspiration, play Spider Solitaire. Complete it at fifth attempt. Reward myself with choccy bar, saying, ‘it has to be eaten.’ Decide to write w.p. when more inspired.

Pre-wedding plan for new me: 1) attend first Pilates exercise class. Jackie, the teacher, says my stomach contraction is ‘brilliant’. Swell with pride, belly flops and I get told off. 
2) buy anti-wrinkle cream. Wish manufacturers had spotted link between ageing skin and failing eyesight before printing labels. Want to believe it will do what it says on the pot, whatever that may be, but can it do it in four weeks? 

During regular night-time read of Ms Etty Kett’s guide, discover that licence is needed for marriage to take place. Make note to remind self to remind daughter and son-in-law-to-be of this fact. Own wedding is vaguest dim memory. Assume all was done properly then. Won’t check … don’t want to give husband excuse to cut up credit cards.

Trek round clothes shops again. Singularly unsuccessful. Determined not to panic. What I really need is a shop called Clothes-R-Not-Me but cup of tea and muffin will have to do for now.
Reluctantly visit Allison Jayne. Have been putting this off because a) not me i.e. too smart, and b) too expensive. Surprisingly, find outfit that is me. Unsurprisingly, v. expensive. Go home outfit-less to panic.
Pippa, lovely lady who makes incredible hats, says, really, she needs a month if I want one to match my outfit, and have I got it yet? 

Have first hot flush. Give hormones good talking to. Cannot put up with menopausal attacks as well as everything else. 

Phone Dylan Thomas Centre regarding evening party. Wayne says there’s plenty of time and no need to do anything yet. I think I love him. 

Diary 3
Take daughter to see outfit I had tentatively, and foolishly as it turns out, thought to be ‘quite nice’. She declares it too reminiscent of the old hippie me. Yeah, cool, what’s wrong with that, man? 
A lot, apparently. Agree we will look elsewhere but keep it in mind if I get desperate. 

Suggest local Hotel as possibility for happy couple’s wedding night but snooty man on reception there looks down his nose at us and tells us they’re full – this in spite of me being assured there was plenty of room when I enquired earlier (and again later). Make note to avoid local Hotel in future.

Book hair appointments for bridesmaids. Two maids and ... two different dresses. Daughter decides it will be all right as they can be linked together with contrasting bouquets (as opposed to my suggestion of heavy metal chains). 

Husband starts to plan speech. Will not allow me power of veto. ‘Should I be concerned?’ I ask. He responds by enquiring if I have written my piece yet. I leave room hurriedly and head for teapot.

Find myself hiding behind doors to avoid the inevitable, ‘Have you got your outfit?’ Even shopping for food becomes stress-inducing as old school friends recognise me from the newspaper and ask the same question.

According to Ms Etty Kett’s timetable, by now, we should be sitting back calmly waiting for the great day. Ms Smarty Pants Kett is beginning to irk.

Relax at Limeslade collecting stones for wedding. Dog eats sticks while I am distracted by variety of colours and shapes. Find one that bears striking resemblance to Sean Connery. Take it home to keep with stick that looks like aardvark. 

Become aware that I am talking to myself as I wander around. Talking to myself not a problem – everyone does it, don’t they? It’s the hysterical high-pitched giggle that causes passers-by to do so rapidly.

New term at El Greco’s dancing class. Husband and I took it up in order to trip the slightly overweight fantastic at wedding party. Suspect we will only look good if we don’t have to do corners. Perhaps could use analogy of dancing lessons in piece to be written for wedding. “As you waltz through life, remember that, on a small dance floor, there are many corners and the man always leads.” Then again...

Diary 4
Have developed intermittent twitch in lower left eyelid. Hope it goes before wedding. Have already had wink returned by strange man in woods. Must remember to avoid that path for time being.

Momentous news of week – have bought outfit. But discover that, apparently, I need hat, shoes, underwear (mine has given up uneven battle and dangles limply along with body parts) and handbag (have to carry bride’s make-up on the day but carrier bag will do for that, surely?)

Put body in capable hands of lovely lady in posh underwear shop in arcade. Leave with everything I need and new shape. Realise I have bigger boobs than Barbara Windsor. Obviously missed my vocation in life. But wait, I feel inspiration coming on ... “In the soap opera of marriage, may you never meet Phil Mitchell.” No, perhaps not. But really must start writing wedding piece.

Remember world outside wedding and squeeze anti-war march in between hat fitting and shoe hunting. 

Wonder what’s happened to all the shoe shops. Oxford Street used to be underfoot with them — now I can’t find any.
Give up, and seek refuge in tea and cake. 

Reminds me that diet seems to have oozed away. Similarly anti-wrinkle cream having no obvious effect on furrows.

Come up with alternative plan and stock up on vitamin C, evening primrose and cod liver oil. Would buy some of that stuff that helps slow memory loss but can’t remember what it’s called.

Must decide on table decorations soon. So that no-one who thinks they should be sitting on table 2 finds themselves sitting on table 7, decide to name tables after beaches. Langland, Caswell, Three Cliffs, Rosil ... Rhosyl, Worm’s Head and so on. 

Deliver cake to Barbara, who will ice it. Great sense of relief on handing it over, knowing won’t see it again until the reception. Can no longer prod it and worry if it’s overcooked. 

Make practice alternative carrot wedding cake, for those who don’t like traditional. Looks a bit soggy in middle, better eat my way in to check.

Mike, who is to play drums at wedding, is admitted to hospital. Feel this is not good timing. Must speak sternly to him.

Plan to spend evening punching hearts thwarted by punch losing its grip. I can empathise.

Diary 5
Shoe shopping expedition. Lose interest two minutes into first shop. Have never managed to persuade myself that things sticking out at ends of legs look anything other than peculiar. Not helped by irregularly-digited foot. End up with shoes that fit but don’t match anything. Tell myself that no-one looks at shoes anyway.

Think outfit just about complete but then friends say I have to have a handbag to put my ready-for-crying tissues in. Am told that a carrier bag will not do.

See advert on television: “Big day ahead? The last thing you want to worry about is constipation.” Hadn’t realised it should be on my list of possible problems. Then friend says he was constipated on honeymoon. Obviously potential cause for concern here. Will definitely stock up on All Bran for whole family. But what if we overdo it? Now I’m worried.

Flick through magazine while standing in queue at supermarket. Read how stars lose weight in a hurry. Can’t afford their methods so decide short crash diet only way to go. 

Later on, manage, at fifth attempt, to make number of meals required at reception equal number of guests. Reward self with single grape. Sigh like a true martyr.

Have to eat dinner on trays as dining table covered with place cards and Order of Services. Leave trail of glitter and silver hearts behind me everywhere I go. Rather like pantomime fairy. Or possibly Dame.

Wonder why ‘to do’ list appears to be getting longer rather than shorter. And days in which to do it getting fewer. Wish people would stop pointing out this fact.

Make second practice carrot wedding cake. Attempt to avoid sogginess of last one results in burned edges. Smother it with lemon icing and explain crunchy bits away as nuts. 

Final visit to Castellmare to confirm reception details turns out not to be final visit as have forgotten to take vital information with me. Janey, the wedding co-ordinator, is calmly reassuring.

As is Wayne at Dylan Thomas Centre. He’s not even ruffled when I tell him which menu we want for evening buffet and then ask if we can change half of items on it. “No problem,” he says.

Sun shines and crocuses and snowdrops in garden blossom. Makes me smile. It’ll be all right. 

Diary 6
Wedding Day minus 2
‘To do’ list gets longer. Includes collecting driftwood and finding bit of old rope. 

Search unsuccessfully for dark purple handbag. Carrier bag alternative seems more and more appealing.

Spend an hour cutting out tissue paper petals that become more tooth-shaped as minutes tick away.
Husband draws up timetable to get us through next two days.

Wedding Day minus 1
Make alternative carrot wedding cake. At least, would do if hadn’t run out of eggs and sugar. Adjust timetable to include trip to supermarket. 

Spend afternoon skewering order of services together. 

11 pm and still have problem with icing, which persists in sliding off cake. According to timetable should have been asleep an hour ago. Tear up timetable.

Wedding Day
In town at 9 am waiting for shops to open so can buy handbag. Any handbag.

Rest of day is perfect. We are blessed. The sun shines and everything, absolutely everything, is wonderful. A brilliant start to married life for daughter and new son-in-law.

It’s early Saturday morning before we flop into bed, exhausted but happy. And looking forward to relaxing by watching Wales beat Italy...

Thursday, 14 April 2016

My mother, my hero?

The question mark is important. As on my blog title leaving it out changes the whole meaning significantly.

My mother was tall. At nearly six foot, she struggled to find clothes to fit her and mostly shopped by post through a catalogue for Tall Girls. She enjoyed her monthly magazines. Not for her the likes of Woman’s Own though. She read She and then later a new magazine, Nova I think it was. Glossy and fashionable, the thinking woman’s Vogue.

I write in the past tense because my mother died when I was nineteen. Still, nineteen years of knowing her should give me plenty to write about, comment on, anecdotes to relate, family stories to tell. But I know more about her reading habits than I do about her.

Most of what I know of my mother I have gleaned from relatives and friends. A loving woman who enjoyed life, was good to her parents and loved her daughter very much. She must have done: she was a hero to keep me, her child born out of wedlock without a man on the scene. And this was the 1950s. Episodes of Call the Midwife have made me realise just what she must have gone through: the shame, the gossip, the turned backs.

She had to work to keep me. Financially I mean. I don’t know what if any arguments she had with her parents or whether she considered adoption – my great-auntie Grace wanted to adopt me I know. So she worked five days a week as personal secretary to the General Manager of South Wales Transport and was highly thought of by everyone. When she died we had letters of condolence from ex-directors and top executives. At her funeral flower tributes lined the long path to my grandparents’ home. One, a pretty posy, was sent from a woman who worked in the company canteen. On the card she wrote, ‘Goodnight, sweet lady. Sleep tight.’ It seems most people knew her better than I did.

No doubt that was partly because of the circumstances. Her long working days meant I was raised primarily by my slightly ferocious and very domineering grandmother but maybe she had to be after her daughter gave birth to a bastard child.

But facts. My mother was born in Mumbles to Jack and Gladys, and a few years later she was joined by John. As Gladys was the eldest of eight my mother had aunts and uncles who were roughly the same age as her and she was much loved by all. So I’m told.
I intended to keep me out of this. I’ve written plenty in the past, either fact or fiction, loosely based on how I felt as a child so I wanted this to be about my mother, but I’m finding it impossible. I am part of her and she is part of me. I am a key constituent in this tale. Or am I just giving myself the starring role in another’s story?

I remember waking in the night and calling, my mother coming and me weeping, ‘Nobody loves me.’ My mother shocked, hurt, eventually cross: this had happened before. ‘How can you say that when you know we all love you?’
And they did. 

My mother wasn’t young having me. She was in her thirties not a foolish young girl carried away on drink or a romantic notion. She’d served in the forces, the WAAF, spending time in Egypt during the war, where, incidentally she lost an air plane propeller – the only story I’ve heard of her time there. And I don’t even know if she ever found it. Before that she lived in London briefly for nurse’s training but, as her grand-daughter would do sixty years later, she dropped out of big city life to return home.

The Christmas before she died she bought me a sheepskin jacket. She was so proud of it, making me put it on to show visitors. It must have taken her ages to save or pay it off and she really believed I too would be thrilled. I tried to be but compared to my cousin in her pale well-fitted sheepskin I looked and felt like a chubby dumpling in my dark, less shapely version. My mother couldn’t even get the colour right. What I’d really wanted of course, like my cousin again, was a car. A ridiculous pipe dream; I knew that. There was no money spare. And, anyway, we were bus people.

We definitely weren’t horse people. But a childhood of reading books where the heroine had or longed for and finally got her own pony left its mark. I’d never even ridden a horse. If I’d got close to one I’d probably have been scared. But that didn’t stop me dreaming and secretly hoping.

That year my Christmas present was a statuette of a mare and foal. The next best thing. No, not the next best, not even the fiftieth best. 

So maybe she knew almost as little about me as I knew about her. 

If the situation had been reversed and it had been me who’d died would I have become the paragon of virtue that is described to me? The perfect daughter, although no-one really knew me.

She called me to her one day and showed me a tiny snapshot of a group of people. She pointed at a man in the photo. ‘That’s your father,’ she said before she added hurriedly, ‘and it was only ever him, you know.’

I don’t remember what I did then but the photo was put away and we never mentioned it or my father again. Now when I look at the photo – I’m not even sure it’s the right one – I guess to remember which man she pointing at. 

I was maybe ten or eleven at the time. An innocent ten for all that this was the swinging sixties. An innocent who’d never doubted or questioned the story that her parents had separated and her father was working in India. And I remember thinking, ‘Everyone knows. Everyone except me.’

But maybe those lies helped me survive, to get through life in an unforgiving, morally upright – in public at least – world.

So my mother was tall.
My mother lied to me.
My mother didn’t know me.

She came to my bedroom one evening and sat on the bed. ‘How would you like to live in Africa?’ Her voice said this was an exciting opportunity. Her voice said we could live a new life, create another story. ‘We would have servants.’ She’d been offered a job there she said.

Selfish to the last I cried, ‘No, I don’t want to go.’ Didn’t want to leave everything that was familiar and safe.

Maybe she hadn’t really wanted to go but she didn’t push it. She didn’t mention it again. Sometimes I wondered if it were really a job she’d been offered or was it a relationship? Did she turn down a chance of happiness for me?

So many things I don’t know. My uncle tells me that she lost a man she loved during the war. I don’t know; she didn’t tell me. 

She did tell me some things. She told me to be careful of strange men on buses especially if they began fiddling with their trousers. But she never told me of her hopes or dreams. Maybe she would have had she lived, had we got to know each other. As she played with her grandchildren maybe she’d have told me how hard it had been to walk to the bus stop in those early days, to hold her head up, to not deny the truth. To not regret. 

She was brave. She was vivacious. She did her best.

I’d watch her socialising, talking, laughing with people and wonder how I, her daughter, could be so different. How indeed I could be so different from everyone else in the extended family. Or how does a child get an idea that she is unloved?

The last night I was asleep in bed when I was woken by a thud from the bathroom next door. I heard my grandmother rushing in, saying, ‘Marg? Are you all right? Marg!’ I clambered out of bed and in the bathroom saw my mother lying, unconscious, on the floor by the sink, a small pool of blood next to her mouth. ‘Quick,’ my grandmother said, ‘get dressed and go and call the doctor.’

I pulled on clothes and ran down the road to the telephone box outside the Post Office. Somehow through my garbled explanation, ‘my mother, she’s sort of collapsed, she’s lying on the floor,’ the doctor had the sense to realise the seriousness and called an ambulance.

Over the next week or so she had two operations to clear the blood still fuzzing her brain. The night before the second operation my cousin’s girlfriend, Anne, drove my grandmother, my great-aunt (the one who had wanted to adopt me) and me to visit. While we were there my mother said to me, ‘You look familiar. Are you Peter?’ Anne squeezed my hand sympathetically.

On the way home from visiting we were involved in a fatal accident. The insurance claim covered professional cleaning for my sheepskin coat, to remove the blood from it. ‘You could claim for a replacement,’ they said.
‘No, I’ll keep this. This is fine.’