Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The day we stole my grandma

My parents taught me the difference between right and wrong. Right was saying please and thank you, treating people as you’d like to be treated and eating with your mouth closed. Wrong was picking your nose, being rude, and any kind of public indecent exposure. Right was finding fun in the minutiae of long summer days in the 80’s; dens in the garden, mud-pie pits, seashell collections and detective clubs, long before 24-hour TV and video games. Wrong was lying, not sharing, eating anything that could rot your teeth, and not feeding your collection of pets, gerbils, rats, chickens, cats, or snakes.

Smiling was right.

Scowling was wrong.

There was technically nothing on the ‘wrong list’ about stealing dead people.

My brother and I respected grown-ups, we followed rules and we used our common sense. We believed in Father Christmas long after we should. We had exciting walks in the dead of night to see meteor showers and we choreographed shows for anyone who would watch. Gymnastics, dance routines, plays and interpretations of Adam Ant songs. Creative was right. Imaginative was right. Problems were there to be solved; there was always a good solution if you looked long enough.
Suddenly we were in our early twenties and by a succession of odd events, my brother and I ended up caring for an elderly woman, our ‘pretend grandma’, who was dying. Margie was a firecracker; wise, and funny, feisty and fearless. Having been on the fringes of our family for most of her life, Margie had carried an inextinguishable torch for my granddad, though they both married other people. But now it was just her left, and at almost 90, Margie’s tiny body grew smaller by the day until a slight wind could have blown her away. She was all alone in her dusty, cluttered flat, which was obviously, wrong. Right, was looking after her. We spent day after night and night after day in her dusty, cluttered flat. Days turned to weeks, and weeks turned to months and the few of us around Margie watched, exhausted as her body waned to nothing, her mind clinging on to the last. And then we were left to clean up. Exhausted, Heartbroken. 

Then, from nowhere, the step-daughter appeared. She belonged to Margie’s long-dead husband, and was the sole heir to Margie’s estate. I barely knew she existed, because during the nine months before Margie’s death, she hadn’t visited once.  But then she was suddenly there, organising the funeral, weeping at the door as she greeted guests, mourners, those of us who’d nursed Margie’s withering body like ‘the help’. She stood there, loudly lamenting on what she was going to do with the ashes, and those of us who knew Margie shuddered, knowing she wouldn’t want to be stuck in a vase in the ground in a characterless plot. 

This was a problem. Problems were there to be solved; there was always a good solution if you looked long enough. But we didn’t have the luxury of time. Within the hour, the crowd would disperse and what was left of Margie would be taken off to an unacceptable end. 

I think it was my uncle’s idea, which gave the impression that it was credible, not illegal perhaps. He stood guard at one door, my aunt at another. One of my friends engaged the imposing, perfumed bulk of the weeping step-daughter in conversation as my brother and I crept down the stairs, into the service room, towards the tin next to the photo. My heart was pounding in my mouth. Could I go to prison for this? The lights in the room had been dimmed and weird shadows crept up the walls. The muffled conversation in the room above us sounded like it was drawing to a close, someone had gone to get our getaway car, driving it slowly towards the back door. I can remember every second, the smell of wax, something heavier, sweeter, lurking behind. Upstairs people were leaving.  We quickened, collecting our prize, and making for the door. Out in the cold, crunchy November air we passed the tin into the getaway car. Our guards withdrew and as far as we know, the step-daughter never asked where her dead benefactor had disappeared to.

The tin travelled safely out of town and was placed unceremoniously in my uncle’s dusty, cold garage alongside some other precious things. Margie would have approved, wholeheartedly.  The next summer, her ashes were sprinkled out on the lake where she once went sailing with my granddad. He was worth waiting fifty years for, she once told me. 

Our parents taught us the difference between right and wrong. I still respect grown-ups, I mostly follow rules and use my common sense. I say please and thank you, I eat with my mouth closed and I do not pick my nose. I still find my fun in the minutiae on long hot days; dens in the garden, mud-pie pits, seashell collections and detective clubs. I sometimes eat things that rot my teeth and as for public indecent exposure? Meh, maybe on occasion. 

Problems were there to be solved, and sometimes, in solving one particularly well, you had to walk a fine line and anyway, technically, it was never stated that stealing your dead grandma was wrong. There are about 8 of us who probably grin from ear to ear whenever we think of that day. And smiling is definitely right.   

Monday, October 8, 2012

Has set my mind to wander

There's a joke in my family when one of us goes on holiday. It's that we won't come back. There's an assumption that a day before we're due to return home there will be a cheerful phone-call followed by a flurry of activity and before you know it, some of our belongings are being boxed up and shoved into an attic somewhere while the rest are being shipped off halfway round the world to meet us.

It's a legitimate concern. My parents started it back in 1968 when they traveled down from Toronto and boarded the ‘France’ from New York Harbour bound for two years in London. The Canadian in Dad gave up after twenty-five years or so and he went back, but my Mum is still here, nestled in an idyllic 'black and white' village near Wales.


I was next to follow, when I went to Toronto for two weeks holiday in 1992 and tossed my ticket into the bin at the airport at 5am on my day of return and stayed for four years. I’d just moved out of the house I’d been sharing with my ex-boyfriend and two friends and was bored with Birmingham and its brutalist skyline; boxy squat grey buildings that seemed to permanently block out the light. I was ‘in-between’ things. In-between jobs, in between boyfriends, in between places to live, and so the attraction of Toronto's dizzying skyline and leafy avenues seemed a lot more appealing than drab Birmingham. I fell in love with the funky character houses and eclectic bars and restaurants and all-night diners. It was all so interesting. I’d wander round Chinatown where rank smells wafted up against delicious smells and stacks of strange vegetables were piled high outside the stores. In the Italian quarter, fat women dressed from head to toe in black chattered loudly to their neighbours whilst doing chores on their balconies, their husbands sat on street corners a block away playing chess and not speaking to each other. There were gallery openings and late night gigs and warehouse parties every night, and when I felt homesick I’d catch the ferry out to Toronto Island and stare back at the stunning skyline and I’d remind myself that I wasn’t in Birmingham anymore.  And whatever highs or lows I might be going through, they were definitely more appealing than the task that was waiting for me back home. The task of sorting through the hurriedly packed boxes I'd thrown together to get away from my ex who'd decided after we broke up that taking a cricket bat and some eggs to my belongings was a nice way of saying goodbye. My clothes and artwork and photos sat waiting for me in boxes in my mum’s attic feeling sorry for themselves, all crusted with dried egg and shattered glass. 

Next to follow suit was my brother, who visited me in Toronto a couple of years later. He's still in Canada now. Then lastly, my boyfriend (an infinitely better boyfriend then the cricket-bat-and-egg ex) and I played the stay-on-holiday-game by taking a year-long trip to Vancouver that lasted over a decade and saw us return, a ten year marriage and two children later.

In the cumulative fourteen years I lived abroad, there were two things that were guaranteed to make me homesick. Architecture and words.

The architecture is easy to understand. Canada, especially the west coast is a new country and we have different ideas of old. I was once late to my cousins wedding because my uncle told me it was in an old stone church and my friend drove me up and down the street in his battered up car nick-named the 'shoe' while I peered through the torrential rain looking for an old church. Finally he pulled the soaked Shoe up in front of a new church that we’d driven past three times and irked, asked me if I was blind. That was the first time I really understood that Canadian old and European old are not the same thing. And I like European old, with foot steps worn into stone staircases, crumbling gargoyles and beams so low you whack your head when you stand up straight.

And then there were words. I guess that all languages have their own special words, and just because you speak English, it doesn’t mean you speak the same English. Hell, you only have to go a mile down the road in Britain to find a strange new dialect or a different use for a word you thought you knew. So five-thousand miles across the world I'd find that every time I came across a word, more specifically a Briticism that my Canadian friends didn’t know, the same thing would happen: a few moments of confusion, a couple of questions, an explanation and perhaps some laughter. But then I’d find myself wistful and dreaming of home.

Here’s a list of examples:


So on that last-holiday-that-turned-permanent, we’d been in Canada for about seven years and were on our way back from a weekend in Seattle. I was listening to Belle & Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister, a favourite of mine that I hadn’t listened to for a long time. I got to the chirpy Get Me Away From Here I’m Dying and these lines jumped out at me:

Oh, that wasn't what I meant to say at all,
From where I'm sitting, rain,
Washing against the lonely tenement,
Has set my mind to wander…

I hadn’t heard the word tenement for a long time and there was this painful tug deep down within me and I knew, in that exact moment, that I couldn’t live the rest of my life in Canada. My eyes welled up and I felt like I couldn’t breathe because suddenly the stunning wilderness and wild ocean and remote beaches and tall, tall redwoods and the west coast islands and breath-taking glass towers of Vancouver….well, they just weren’t home. 

So yeah, there’s a joke in my family about going on holidays but none of us quite knows what the punch line is yet.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

At Last I Am Free

I had a moment the other day. The details don’t matter; only the moment matters. 

We met up with friends on a windy down where I was handed the string of a kite that was fluttering high in the air above us. I took it, and as the wind tugged and pulled my hands up towards the blue blue sky, my insides turned over and I was transported back in time. Standing there as the string pulled, I closed my eyes, decades evaporated and I stood there, a child again. I could have wept. 

I should say at this point that I had an amazing childhood. It was filled with stories and adventure and we found the excitement in the smallest of things. There was never the time to finish off being pirates, explorers, animals in the jungle. We went on space adventures, made houses out of cardboard boxes and we dug deep holes in the garden where we built new worlds out of mud for our Camper people and dolls and plastic soldiers to live in. We played instruments and we did gymnastics and my brother taught me to bowl a cricket ball like a boy. We caught bugs in our fruit bushes, and we watched frogspawn turn into tadpoles in our pond and we kept chickens at the top of our long garden. Holidays were sprawling sun-filled adventures where we’d go sand-dune jumping for hours, hunt for treasures in rock pools and look for snakes in Welsh fields of heather and bracken, packed lunches of salami and sweaty cheese in our backpacks. At home we’d sit outside with a pan full of soapy water and make misshapen bubbles that would drift off on the breeze. When it rained we made home-made jigsaw puzzles, or shell jewellery or we baked hedgehog shaped bread. When we had chickenpox we painted dot-to-dot pictures on our bodies with a paintbrush and calamine lotion.

My brother and I had a record player in our room. It looked like a small square suitcase and even though its crooked needle would jump on our scratched records, it was ours and we loved it. We weren’t allowed to touch the one downstairs; the one by my parents wall-long record collection. Without a single piece of modern music, the records were all Bach and Vivaldi and Prokofiev and Poulenc and Stravinsky and Bizet and Mahler. Concertos, symphonies, masses, adagios, prestos, sonatas. That all sounds posh, but it wasn’t - we lived in an ex-council house in a drab suburb of Birmingham. There was no spare money, but it didn’t matter. We were loved and there was no shortage of fun. 

 Our record collection upstairs was beaten. The sleeves were dog-eared and the plastic was scratched which meant we had that sound, that sound of vinyl. That scratched, crackling, rusty sound of vinyl. It ran through our Jungle Book, and Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy-tales and Peter and the Wolf. It scratched and crackled through Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady and Oliver and Westside Story. These were the days before we had pocket money, before we saved up to buy a proper record player, before we started standing outside the local record shop on new release day to buy Adam Ant or The Specials or Soft Cell. These were the days before we discovered John Peel and NME and the Sunday night chart countdown.  

And then it all came crashing down; my parents spilt up. This idyllic childhood, this imaginative wonderland we’d been living in must have been a dream, and so I did what you do when you grow up, I packed it all away in boxes. I neatly wrapped up all those memories. The tastes, the smells, the feelings. The crackling vinyl, the suitcase record player, the musicals, the wobbly bubbles, the home-made jigsaw puzzels and the dreams of flying. I shoved them into a dark corner never to be seen again and I threw away the key. 

Now I am grown and life moves in a different way. But there are times, the odd moment here and there when something brushes up against me, gets close enough to take me back. Moments like a kite string pulling my hands up towards the blue blue sky. Moments like a bubble floating past on the breeze, or moments when I hear the muffled crackling sound of vinyl or a line from a musical.

Yesterday held one of those moments. I sat at my desk, in my office. I’d been talking to my boss. I was wearing something proper. Maybe even heels. I’d done what I needed to for the day. And then it happened. I clicked on this link and I think perhaps, in the minutes that followed, I stopped breathing a couple of times. I closed my eyes and I unwrapped something that had been tucked away gathering dust for a long time. I walked down a path against a soundtrack of crackling vinyl and distant musicals and children’s stories. I could have wept.

And then, well the details don’t matter; only the moment matters.