Coming home

You wake early. It’s getting light, but the light is like a twilight and there is no telling what the time is without digital help. The jet lag hasn’t worn off, despite the Melatonin spray, and the night’s been blowing through you. The wind has howled through cracks in the window frame and the driving rain has pelted your sleep. You dreamed of a fire in a mansion, of rescuing keepsakes and finding a safe place to sleep, and then trying to repair all those rooms. Perhaps your subconscious converted the storm to a fire for the dream.

It’s only four days since you were sitting by a pool after breakfast among the palm fronds and red hot pokers, listening to the geckos and unable to imagine cold. That euphoria hasn’t quite worn off yet. That feeling of peace which holds down the rising stresses still holds you.

New York’s latest storm has made its way across the Atlantic and arrived to rip the guttering from the back of the house. A bucket stands in the kitchen to catch drips from the RSJ, which is undoubtedly eroding quietly in its groove, and the dehumidifier’s gentle hum signals the start of another week of the front door saga. Oak is not good for exterior doors apparently – it absorbs water and swells – did that come into any conversations back in the heady days of 2006, when every joinery in the south of Ireland was on overtime? No I don’t think so.
And now we will have teak, painted teak. Only two weeks ago, you watched as wiry youths dressed in swimming trunks or loincloths punted bamboo rafts down a tributary to the Mekong, each raft laden with slabs of Teak from the rain forest of Ratanakiri. You bemoaned the pillaging of Cambodia’s last hardwood, and the exploitation of a crushed nation by its dominant neighbours, and here you are buying teak for your front door…

The light. It was the quality of that light in the intense shimmering heat and humidity which gave you the energy. When you drink six litres of water and it goes straight through your skin to soak your clothes, and the mosquitoes are whining, its impossible to think of winter. But when the wind blows and the rain falls and your clothes are only soaked from without, the rain and wind and cold is insidious. Ten weeks and not one dry day to remember. But that light and those days, and that moment-by-moment existence where unanswered questions hang in the still air. It temporarily changed things for you.

Nativity

Dorothy moved to the kitchen, and poured another J&B into the small tumbler. Just a snifter and then she’d start the lunch. The turkey would have to do one more meal, though God knows it had been dry as cardboard on Christmas Day. Jane had had to rescue it while Dorothy locked herself in her room and cried, and only the four of them and the baby sat down to all the trimmings, and the home service on the wireless playing hark the bloody herald angels again. She shouldn’t have gone for a twelve pounder really, with the boys away and Jane being on yet another of her diets, picking at her sprouts. If she’d known rationing, she wouldn’t be taking it into her head to look like Twiggy. She’d eat her semolina and jam and be grateful.
Dorothy lit another Senior Service with the Wedgewood lighter, took a mouthful of scotch through the smoke and rummaged in the vegetable rack for enough spuds for six including Lizzy, who could eat them mashed with gravy. Those’ll never do us. Drew is always so ravenous these days. She shouted up the stairs to Jane to run to Cullens for her before it closed for lunch, but there was no response. She started up the four flights, and on the first landing, passed the baby’s room. Its smell of talcum hardly masked the ten dirty nappies in the bucket by the door; another job she should have done yesterday. Five years of washing nappies out of the last sixteen. Rinsing your childrens’ shit, washing and ironing their clothes, cleaning up after them. She could’ve been a doctor if she hadn’t been pregnant with Drew before the finals. And now she had five and no support. Her mother had never liked the children when they were small. That was probably down to her being adopted and one of ten, out in the railway cottage in Ffestiniog. She told Dorothy once she was born Olive Christmas but had become Peggy Franks. She’d lost her nativity.
Another flight and past the open door to Tom’s austere grey sanctum; the king sized bed with its rock hard mattress. Not that she’d been in to him for as long as she could remember. She could hear his snoring from the doorway, and she stepped quietly into the room to study his heavy features as he lay on his back, with his shoes off. The room was more of an office really, dominated by his desk. The unopened packet of Embassy in the top draw for the last two years said it all. The bastard was always in control of his emotions. Like that bitch of a mother, Miriam. Mamushu. He still calls her ‘mummy’ at 45. Twenty years since he got her out of Poland and she still won’t speak proper English. Never good enough for her golden boy. “My Tomasz vos top of zee cless, you know”.
Dorothy left the room without waking him. Give him a few more minutes. Give her a bit of peace and quiet.
Standing silently on the landing, she thought of Tom’s body. She tried to remember how much she’d wanted him at the start, but all she could think of was Michael, her first lover, and her first time. It was at Miss Dawes’ house when they were both evacuated from London in forty-two. She was sixteen and he fifteen, and neither had had any experience before. It had been tentative, delicate in the beginning, but like a bonfire of dry kindling, it had become a blaze in almost no time. Something just threw them at each other, and they couldn’t fight it. That summer was idyllic. Hot afternoons cycling the South Downs, evenings in the orchard, nights slipping quietly between his room and hers.
She’d gone back to London and joined the Waafs, before being accepted to study medicine at Guys. While she was dodging air-raids in Bloomsbury she’d met Tomasz, resplendent in the uniform of the Polish Free Army. He’d struck Dorothy as sophisticated and brilliant, and she’d quickly been whisked off her feet. By the time she saw him in a different light, they were married and she was pregnant, and he quickly lost his appeal.
She’d have to wake him to go and collect Joe from the Abbey, as she just didn’t feel up to the drive. She felt so tired. He was snoring loudly now. Always snoring. Falling asleep in his dinner, drooping over the steering wheel, the car swerving, snoring over the papers, snoring through The Forsyte Saga. Her mother-in-law, Miriam, hadn’t told her about Tom having been diagnosed with narcolepsy till after they were married. They couldn’t go to the theatre or cinema without him snoring like a drunk, or falling across the person sitting beside him. If only Miriam had told her sooner, it would have been a sure way to stop the marriage Miriam didn’t want, and save them all a lot of heartache.
She and Michael hadn’t seen one another for almost twenty years after Rottingdean. Then, quite by chance, they’d run into one another at a teachers’ conference and it had been like digging in embers and finding glowing coals. For almost ten years, they’d met for a night or a weekend every few months, between the births of his children and hers, between his commitments and hers.
The last time had been in Lyme Regis, over a year ago. “We can’t do this any more.” He’d said that before, but this time, she knew was their last. She’d tried to hide her stretch marks under the sheet in their pale blue room with sea views. God knows why. Michael and his wife had eight, so he’d seen it all before.
And now Michael had decided to stop and was gone from her life, like everything good. The only man she’d truly loved. “God, what’s it all for? What’s the point?”
She stood on the landing by the door to her own room, and felt like going to lie down, but forced herself to pass it, instead opening the airing cupboard opposite and taking out sheets for Joe’s bed, which she’d stripped six weeks earlier after half term and forgotten to make up yesterday . Another flight to Jane’s room, and that incessant rock and roll music. For three days now she’d played that Rolling Stones LP non-stop, lying on the carpet with paper and pencil, transcribing the lyrics to Satisfaction and a song called Mother’s Little Helper. What was that about?
“You, Dorothy” Jane had muttered. She was a right little madam these days; fighting for her independence, staying out after ten, snogging boys, spending hours in the bathroom. And now she’d started calling me Dorothy, not mummy, since Drew had almost choked Tom by using his first name over the Christmas pudding. Very funny really. Tom didn’t think so. Children should be seen and not heard.
“I’ve been shouting up the stairs for ages. Turn that off, and nip out to Cullens for me, will you, and pick up some spuds and carrots?”
“What’re we having? Not turkey again?”
Dorothy smiled, and knowing the shopping would have to wait till the end of side two, she closed the door on
Men just aren’t the same today
I hear ev’ry mother say
They just don’t appreciate that you get tired….
One more flight and into the boys’ room. Jeremy wouldn’t be home for another couple of days from Worcester, but Westminster’s term ended on the 28th, after all the carol services. She might as well make up both beds, and sort out their presents. God knows who was due what. Every year she wrapped the gifts in one roll of paper, and forgot to label them, so the easiest thing was to buy interchangeable presents, lead farm animals for Joe and infantrymen for Jeremy, or the other way around. Twenty years since the war and still they play Tommies and Gerries.
While she made the beds, she listened to Drew strumming the opening bars of House of the Rising Sun in the next room, and then his voice, mimicking Eric Burdon’s nasal twang:
There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun….
It must have been months since she’d been in his room. At sixteen he forbade it and she respected that, though God knows what it smelt like. It was all she could do to get his dirty washing off him, and there was precious little of that since his Dylan uniform was rarely changed. She hummed The times they are a-changin’ as she tucked in the flanelette sheets.
On her way back down, she stopped at Tom’s room, balancing the small pile of presents on the bannisters and went in to wake him. It always amazed her how he woke into full consciousness after a short sleep, and pretended not to have slept.
“Can you drive in to collect Joe? I’m too busy.”
“I’ll be down in a minute.” He swung his legs to the floor and stood straight into his shoes. She touched his sleeve, briefly, while she searched his dull gaze for some sign of affection, and then turned and left the room
She brought Joe’s bag of presents down to the lounge. This peaceful room was her haven. Its high Victorian skirting, William Morris wallpaper from Sandersons, and framed prints of Utrillo and Canaletto hanging over the marble mantlepiece. She still loved the faded gold velvet curtains, and her 1895 Bechstein, waiting silently for her in the bay window. The tree was lying in the back garden. Up on Christmas Eve, down on Boxing day, its needles hoovered away and order returned to the room. When had she lost her nativity?
She went over to the lounge phone and lifted the receiver and listened to the constant buzz of the available line. Blandford 11527. She had the number embedded in her memory. Dial and listen.: if he answered, say “hi, it’s me,” if she answered, put the phone down or say “sorry, wrong number,” though Janice would recognise her voice, even after all these years. She listened to the buzz without dialling and after a few seconds, replaced the receiver.
She picked up the parcels from the velvet-covered sofa. At least there were no stockings this year. Not that they had ever been stockings. Rather Tom’s old army socks, stuffed late on Christmas eve with an orange, a chocolate penny, a Groucho mask and a bag of marbles or whatever. Oh yes, and those bloody tubs of fairy liquid with a plastic ring attached to the lid.
She arranged Joe’s few parcels in the corner of the lounge, on the Indian rug, and sat on the embroidered piano stool, resting her hands on the ivory keys before gently picking out a few chords from the Beethoven score already open. Piano Sonata Number 57, the Appassionata, slow movement. She struggled through the sonata and then the andante from Mozart’s piano concerto, the Elvira Madigan. Then she sat, smoking, drifting, before flicking back through the score to find the Moonlight, Michael’s favourite.
She stopped playing when she heard the running steps of the small boy, and looking up, saw Joe in his grey flannel shorts and grey shirt, grey v-neck and striped blue and gold tie, slightly askew. He stopped still, framed in the doorway, looking across the room at her. Hesitant, smiling. She felt lightheaded, almost sick with his anticipation and her emptiness. She so desperately wanted to hold onto that moment, to frame it as a memory. In that rosy bubble. With Michael.
He looked over to the small pile of presents in the corner. She stood up. She stubbed out her cigarette in the large glass ashtray on the piano. She left the room as quickly as possible, unable to bear the look of hope on his face, unable to stay and see it through.

Birthdays

When I was nine or ten, my birthday included a few cards, though I’m not sure if they arrived on the day or were collated for a few days before being handed over by the headmaster. I assume, though can’t recall whether one’s friends made a fuss – I expect in true prep school fashion they sang rude songs and gave me the bumps, which were more a form of bullying than a shared celebration.
The parental gift must have arrived in the same post, though I just don’t remember receiving them each year. We didn’t have any personal communication with parents on the day – no pre-arranged phone call from the head’s office or telegram with wishes. I seem to think that some boys’ parents arrived uninvited to the school at about 6pm to catch their sons outside the front door, as we returned from evensong, to deliver presents and kisses, but then that might be my own self-pity working on my memory. Mine certainly never appeared.
There was no exeat anyway, no visiting rights for the family, if they had remembered. Besides, I was fourth of five children in a loveless marriage full of arguments and recriminations. The main reason I was at boarding school was so that they could row in peace without worrying about our feelings. “Pas devant les enfants” was de rigeur – as though we were ignorant of its meaning after we’d been crammed with French lessons at boarding school. So why would they want to visit the school to celebrate something which was no longer within the path of their myopic vision, their clouded eyesight, swirling fog and looming forests in which only the monsters of each other were prowling. Out of sight, out of mind. Fuck. How could they put me away at 8, post me off to disappear into a melting pot of standardization and stereotypy. The loss of self, the loss of any sense of celebration happened then.
We weren’t branded with numbers, whatever about the Cash’s name tapes in every garment, but we could have been. And come to think of it, we were numbered in the choir. Seniority and the slow progression towards being one of the top 4, a ‘corner boy’ in the choir stalls. I would have been number 2 by rights in the end – simply because I was one of four who started together in 1965 and was numbered 34 out of the 36 in the school. Each year moving up by a few places until the last year, when my singing wasn’t up to scratch and I was demoted two places – or was I messing about in church? Anyway, that meant I would only ever be number 4. It was ignominious. Reinforcing the ‘not quite good enough’ message which had started years earlier.
For our birthdays, we were allowed to choose four boys to join us on the small ‘top table’ set into the window bay, the one with the Edwardian stain glass windows, on a raised step in the dining hall. The choosing, as one might expect of 9 or 10 year olds, was a big issue and formed or broke friendships. I can’t remember anyone I invited except my best friend Mikey, of course. Mikey with whom I climbed on the school roof, Mikey with whom I ran away from the school and had to be dragged back, to be beaten. Poor Mikey was already being abused by Fiddler. His problems went far back to having lost his father at a young age.
The five of us then would be served jelly as well as the food other boys on the long refectory tables received for tea. I don’t think there were any other special treatments. We might have been served our food rather than queuing like the other boys at the serving table, but I remember crawling out under the top table to go and get my plate of sausages and fried eggs and chips. Calorie controlled diets for children hadn’t surfaced at that time, but I don’t think there were many obese children in the school, just the odd fatty who was teased like Billy Bunter and learned to use his weight to bully in turn. Did I get a birthday cake? Carried from the kitchens by the plump and rosy cheeked cook with her flour-dusted apron? Not as far as I can recall. I think the 36 boys sang happy birthday, as they did almost every week for one birthday or another, before they ran from the room to maximize the free time they enjoyed before bed.

Maybe that wasn’t the peak of the birthdays enjoyability graph. Pretty pathetic if it was. Maybe the peak was at 17, hoping for a date, or at 19, hoping for a chance to sleep with whoever was on the wish list, or 25, when work and play had become confused and marriage awaited. It was probably at 28, the year when we met and we’d been apart for some weeks since Greece, and met for a weekend in my flat in Stockwell and poured out our feelings in bed and all day and maybe found out that we should be together for a long time. Birthdays are guaranteed to disappoint because there is no intrinsic significance in having lived for a multiple of 365 days. Nothing to mark but another day. My eldest sent her “thanks for the birthday wishes and the present, dad” message this morning on her 33rd birthday – already older than I was my peak at maybe 28 – and described a day at the office with a list of the frustrations and negative forces she had to face today and will again tomorrow. The creeping negativity sounded all too familiar. The genetic code for lousy birthdays and downbeat attitudes. The undying realism.

Making sandcastles

He sat on the beach and built sand castles. He wanted them to be bigger and better than any he had ever seen. The sand was damp and sticky – perfect for those sharp corners and the battlements on the turrets, which his sophisticated orange plastic bucket offered him. He’s chosen it at the seaside shop to allow him the edge (literally) over his foes, who had simple conical fez-like buckets. He’d removed the handle, which he found tended to invert beneath the fill of sand at that crucial moment when he up-ended the bucket, causing his turret to split in two, and he’d developed the ‘momentum lift and swing’ his skills honed to perfection. You fill the bucket to the brim and a little above. You take the spade, an old metal one with more strength than the average plastic affair, and you whack the sand into the bucket, compressing it as much as possible, then scrape the excess off the top, using the spade like a barman’s spatula to the Guinness. Good compression is key to the rigid tower, and to the crisp battlements – the sand must be forced into the base of the bucket, into the indentations cast in plastic for the battlements.
You prepare the ground – a firm flat base of sand at the chosen position, aided by the flat of the spade and the neat cut of its edge to delineate the ground works.
You lift the bucket without its handle by gripping its narrow rim with the tips of your fingers on both sides, and then bring one hand carefully underneath the base. This is the point of greatest risk. The weight in the bucket is substantial, and heavier at the top where it is wider. Your wrist takes the strain of the wavering load. Your strength, in holding up a full bucket of damp sand, is limited and time is short. You know exactly what has to happen.
Like a Russian weightlifter, he raises the bucket quickly to shoulder height in his left hand, whilst kneeling beside the ground works, enough to the right of them that when he slams down his hand, it will arrive on target, like the lunar landing, but with a speed which would bring the lunar module to a crashing end. He creates the perfect upward curve that inertia will allow the sand to remain in the backet through the top of the arc and into the downswing. The bucket lands perfectly in place. The angle is good – the ground works have held up and that awful tilt, like the leaning tower of Pisa, which sometimes undermines the architectural integrity of the castle, is not evident. He looks with satisfaction at the inverted orange bucket, in the context of the castle walls and moat. Now he taps the bottom of the bucket, to loosen the sand mass from the bucket wall, but only enough, not too much. He has learned to judder the bucket to release the sand, in the way his mother shakes the pot-bound geraniums to release their root ball from the plastic flowerpot. He is conscious that any wrong move will crack the tower, or worse, will cause the battlements to detach and remain in the bottom of the bucket. Repairing castle walls is a separate art involving wetter sand, which can be sculpted to repair such damage. Often the pristine new-build has to morph into the battle-worn without looking less than intentional.
He carefully tries to lift the bucket by its slender rim, and feels for the releasing suction of the damp sand from the plastic. It’s a clean separation. Years later, he will feel the same joy when the pot comes free of the plaster mould.
The bucket is discarded, an empty husk, a distraction from the tower it gave birth to. The tower is perfect in this moment, but only for as long as the sun doesn’t dry out the sand too much. And the tide is rising, and the run-off from the moat has yet to be dug, or the next but three waves will overwhelm it and soak into the castle’s foundations. There are arrow slits to be cut, and doors to create. The paper flags on cocktail sticks are waiting patiently in their cellophane packet on the chequered beach rug, a treat from the seaside shop. They were chosen over the day’s ice cream. They are notoriously delicate, as the paper is glued to the skewer without care, and they only survive until they become wet. The designs are the usual Union Jack and Red Dragon, ready for the tops of each tower. He wanted a skull and cross-bones, but there are none. The manufacturers don’t understand nine-year-old boys.
This castle has five towers, arranged in a pentagon held together by carefully carved walls which, like the Great Wall of China, were built with the bodies of slaves. The have a pleasingly offbeat pentamerous symmetry, when all the other castles have four or six towers and dull oblong forms. The central mound of the castle, traditionally a tall cone formed from the groundworks of the moat, has been patted and decorated with a shell walkway, and is topped off with a perfect bucket-cast tower for its keep.
But before the flags can be brought, before all the doors and the arrow slits are cut, a red setter runs through the castle, stops to piss on the wall and the whole sorry mess is abandoned to that third wave which inundates the moat and takes with it the west wing. What had been sharp and crisp and man-made, became organic, flowing, lozenge-sucked. The castle lost was beautiful still. It’s ruin the memory of battles fought and knights buried.
His arm is coated in a fine crust of sand crystals, and his hands, reddened from shoveling and patting with the old spade, are sticky with damp sand. The sea is turquoise blue and the surf is frothing white. He must discover where Captain Nemo’s Nautilus has sheltered from the giant squid.

On smoking

Now smoking was a different kettle of fish. When I started smoking back in 1977, I had to force myself to keep going for several days with my pack of Embassy, despite feeling sick and dizzy. I got through all 20 before I even enjoyed one drag. Amazing how self-image drives sacrifice in a teenager!
Actually, I started when I was five or six, because my mother smoked untipped Senior Service and I was unnaturally interested in how she made the smoke come out of her mouth and nose in swirling whisps, and how she pinched her tongue after the first drag to pull stray bits of tobacco off it.
One day she offered me a puff, and thinking that meant blowing, I didn’t demur. It seemed fun to hopd a cigarette and to blow into it.
But once she clarified that you suck not blow, I realized how disgusting and choking it was, and didn’t try again for fifteen years (although I do recall being arrested at the age of ten for smoking on the street in Cambridge).
The commitment I then made to getting through the first packet as a student paid dividends for 35 years – only they were dividends on tobacco company shares, not on my own. I persevered because it was cool, or at least I thought it was, and because about 90% of my fellow students smoked. Like most smokers, I wish I’d never started. There was the cost, which over the period I smoked amounted to over €60,000 at today’s prices and based on my average consumption of ten a day for 35 years. There was the smell, the environmental damage, the distain of half of a divided adult population, and of course the ill health. There’s no point writing about the downsides of smoking, and for smokers, no point in describing the benefits of it – you all know them. For the non-smoker, it’s hard to capture the pleasure involved in the first surge of nicotine through the body in the morning, or the pensive moments of taking out and lighting up a fag. In the end, the interesting thing is how, when and why to give up in middle age. It generally comes down to health, but it would be lying to pretend that self-image doesn’t play almost as large a part in the giving up as the taking up.
Yes, despite the cravings, the pleasure and the shear usefulness of the habit, those health issues weighed heavily. Now any smoker will tell themselves that they are fine with their shortness of breath, the bronchitic tendencies, their lack of taste and smell, their dry corneas, and their lack of sex drive. Come on! Let’s be realistic. Who would admit to that and be fine about it unless they were single. More likely, smokers won’t admit to suffering with any of these ailments, but they probably notice them. In the end, if they’ve given up and stayed with giving up, they’ll also admit to themselves how much better they feel about all these ailments.
For me, giving up was an on-off affair for several years, because stopping was easy, so re-starting was also easy. In the end, it seems that a slight and then greater tipping of the scales in favour of staying off them took place – the health issues were most evident, and the cost savings, but also, in one’s fifties, in a country where the smoking ban made it an outcast activity, the social pressure was increasing. And now, I can’t think of many people my age in my social circle who are regular smokers. I don’t miss it, even the pleasure of the habit. I gained some weight after giving up, which I didn’t lose again, and for a time I couldn’t watch someone lighting up my brand, Marlboro Lights, without a sense of regret, but that passed too. Sure it’s tempting to become a moralistic ex-smoker, and an evening in a room with smokers certainly smells much worse than it used to, but being comfortable with the lack of something is another lifestage thing which characterizes middle-age.