This is a sample story from my collection Oblivious, presented here to try and entice you to buy the rest of the book…
Nicky pulls out a box from the bottom of a wardrobe in the spare room. This was my room when I lived here. Within a month of moving out all trace of my childhood had been stripped from the walls. It rapidly became the empty space it’s remained ever since. Perhaps they wanted it this way. I was never coming back. Maybe it was for the best. Anonymise the past and start over as I did.
The box is full of games. They are coated in a monochrome dust but the boards and the sleeves are all pristine. Ludo, Monopoly, Scrabble. There’s one with a picture of a Japanese girl on it – Sorry. That one was my mother’s. It’s as immaculate as the rest.
‘Did you ever play with these?’
I was an only child.
Behind the box is a slim sixties suitcase. It’s ancient white with a go go, miniskirt, houndstooth design. It’s a swinging Perfumo relic. I know it’s filled with photographs before my wife pops the clasp on the polymer handle. Opened, five decades of family secrets spill out across the threadbare carpet.
‘Oh my god.’
She settles herself down on the floor, cross-legged in a circle of two dimensional moments. I already know what happens next. The day is over. The bags of clothes in the boot of my car are not going to the charity shop. The insurance company will still be waiting for my call tomorrow morning. I resign myself to the next two hours and perch on the edge of the single bed, disturbing the springs for the first time in twenty years.
It’s my grandmother. Maternal. A black and white portrait, taken professionally. The stamp on the back heralds the end of the war. She’s young and beautiful, a black polo neck with a crucifix laid carefully over her breasts. She has a gap in her teeth which makes her smile all the more alluring. I never knew her this way.
She is. She was. I remember she was engaged before she met my grandfather. She told me once her fiancé drank too much and she used to wait for him outside the pub – she was nineteen and a fool. He got his ring back and she married in the break between offensives on the European front.
‘This is your dad.’
Early sixties. The Beatles are yet to release their first record. He has thick black hair swept back like Gene Vincent. His friends look like hoodlums in their crepe shoes, draped across the bonnet of a black Ford Zodiac. In another photograph he’s playing mini golf and there isn’t a hair out of place as the ball misses the hole by three feet. He isn’t smiling in any of them. Instead, he’s perfecting his thirty yard stare.
‘You never talk much about your dad.’
This is true. I don’t argue, and I don’t offer an explanation.
‘Look at this one.’
She hands me a technicolour Polaroid. The reds and blues are muted by an ochre wash that seems to have bled straight out of the seventies and onto this scratched square of celluloid. It’s a head shot of the two of us together. I’m maybe six years old. My hair hasn’t yet darkened. He’s wearing the moustache that outlived the Tory government. We have on matching coats. I’m grinning and he isn’t. It was always this way it seems.
‘Isn’t that cute? You look like you want to be him.’
I don’t answer. She may be right, but it didn’t last.
In every sense of the word, my father was a product of his generation. The eldest of eight kids, he grew up on military bases in Hong Kong and Singapore. He signed up himself at sixteen and discovered Kirin beer before the advent of LSD. It remained his drug of choice while all those around him dropped out. He had no use for expanded horizons. From thirst to aggression in twenty minutes – that was more his style.
He mellowed in later life, but by then it was too late. By then it was already painfully clear how much of a disappointment I was to him. I was hopeless at sport. I never got into fights. If I did, I rarely won. Not once did the police bring me home from the railway lines. He sent me to bed for crying when I fell off a wall onto concrete paving. I might as well have been a girl.
‘You should have been born a fucking girl.’
McCarthy had his communists: my father had gays. They were taking over the world. One of his brothers was gay. Any family resemblance that drifted up out of the gene pool was carefully scrutinized and meticulously tested.
‘She’s sexy isn’t she?’
I’m nine or ten with a platoon of plastic soldiers laid out in front of me on the floor of the living room. These are acceptable toys. Anything bigger than five centimetres is too similar to a doll. My father is pointing at the gaudy spectrum of flickering lines that is our second hand tv set.
‘Don’t you think she’s sexy?’
I’ve been upstairs reading in my room. It’s aroused some suspicion. His technique is less than scientific and I’m too young to realise its hypothesis. I shrug my pre-pubescent shoulders and his face sets into a brooding scowl. I’m gay. He’s convinced of it. Not ten years old, not asexual in the classic mould of boys yet to reach their teenage years. I’m gay. Another member of the screaming horde that will inherit the earth, that will trample all over his way of life and defile the memory of all that has come before us.
Five years later I’m sitting in that same room reading a library book. Dinner is ready. I put the book down and stare at it for a moment. I don’t know where it’s been in the haphazard course of its life but it isn’t looking too vibrant. At some point it has gotten damp, and small, bottle green colonies of mould have started to form on the edges of the pages – right up against the spine. It smells a bit fecund too and every few chapters it has been presenting me with other, less identifiable stains. I think of my fingers turning those pages. I think of my fingers placing food into my mouth. I go and wash my hands. This makes my father furious.
‘Why are you always washing your hands? What is it with you and your fucking hands?’
Apparently, this is another effeminate flourish. Another piece in the great, cryptic jigsaw of homosexuality. Perhaps real men don’t worry about e-coli. They certainly, I’ve been told, don’t worry about their personal hygiene in the way I do. I’m using too much deodorant. I’m changing my underwear with dubious frequency. My hair is long, and strangely that’s fine, but do I have to wash it every day?
By now I’m aware of what’s going on. We eat our meal in silence. A mutual resentment intensifies our slow and deliberate movements. I cut my food with surgical precision. I chew it for much longer than I need to. And I know he’s doing the same thing across the table although I refuse to meet his eyes. My mother is a terrible cook, but tonight the food tastes poisonous, contaminated by contact with my bleak mood.
Nicky is holding out another black and white, this one a frosted window onto the nineteen thirties. In it, a young man is dressed in uniform, leaning casually and proudly against the tirewall of a big expensive car. His cap is carefully set at a rakish diagonal and his eyes are glinting from beneath its rim. In his grip is the hand-crank – you can almost hear the engine growling.
‘I don’t know. I think it was my grandfather’s uncle.’
He was a chauffeur I seem to remember. The family was a great margarine dynasty and it hired some of its poorer cousins into service. I’m hazy on the details, but the tenuous link to greatness has been a recurrent theme to the arrogance of my parents.
‘There’s a few more of you if you want to see them?’
I don’t. The emptiness of the house is starting to close in on me.
‘I’ve never seen any of these before. Your mother never brought them out. Don’t you think that’s strange?’
I shrug. It’s one of the lesser oddities in a litany that runs back forty years for me. And I have bigger worries. Tomorrow I have to speak at the funeral and I can’t think of a thing to say. It was the same when my father went. I climbed to the pulpit and a horrible silence infused with the stale air of the chapel. It lingered and spread, toxic, excruciating. One by one, fifty pairs of eyes dropped away in confused embarrassment. Afterwards we all agreed on a convenient fiction in which I was too choked to let my emotions out. In reality, I stood there and there was nothing. I’d assumed the right words would just find me somehow. They didn’t. I’m a terrible liar.
At least with my dad I understood his psychosis. It ran in a tangible line through his childhood, down through his family tree. It was a second, third or fourth generation bigotry. When his father was dying, we visited him in hospital. In the next bed was an Asian man, surrounded by his family in his final hours. My grandfather indicated them with an angry flick of the head.
‘I helped build this country and I come into here and they stick me in a bed next to THAT.’
He says it loudly enough for everyone to hear.
‘I told them, they’d better move me and they’d better move me quick.’
A young woman, the other man’s daughter presumably, looks across at us through her grief. I catch the eye of a girl about the same age as I am. A granddaughter. How can I convey to her my disassociation? I’ve never been so embarrassed. I stare at the tiled floor and wish I was somewhere else, anywhere else.
My mother was a different proposition. We inhabited different plains of reality. Like my father, she scrutinized every word I spoke, every decision I ever made, but with a different agenda. For her it was simple: measure up to an ever changing ideal she’d concoct from random triggers in her subconscious, or go to hell. Nothing was good enough. Ever. I was the first person in our immediate family to go to university. The third cousin of her auntie’s husband went to Cambridge. I got promoted in the job I took after graduation. Her friend’s son had line management responsibilities and a better car than me.
I stopped listening to anything she had to say when I was in my early twenties. I found a way of tuning her out, of modulating her words into an ambient white noise that would occasionally hit a pause into which I’d nod and mutter some form of affirmation. The trick was to never actually commit.
When my children were born, she used them as a way to pull me back into her parallel world.
‘He shouldn’t be reading comics.’
My oldest son is sitting quietly with a copy of the Beano on his lap. He’s a fantastic kid. His eyes are moving intelligently over the word bubbles and he lets out a small, private giggle from time to time.
‘How’s he going to learn to read looking at comics? They’re full of made up words and slang words.’
‘He’s six years old. You think maybe he should have read The Brothers Karamazov by now?’
She’s never heard of Dostoyevsky of course. The reference goes over her head. But she narrows her eyes at me as though attempting to bring her distaste to a point that is fine enough to burn a hole in my skin.
When my daughter was two, she found delight in the nicknames we gave her. For a month she wouldn’t answer to her real name. I picked her up from my mother’s house after a visit and she sat quietly in the corner of the car all the way home. In an attempt to cheer her up, I asked her who she was today. There was a set of three alter egos in general usage and I listed them for her.
‘No.’ She shook her head slowly. ‘That’s silly.’
She didn’t answer me. She stared off into the middle distance silently. I asked again who she was today.
There was a sadness in her voice that mingled with my soul. I stopped the car and climbed into the back seat with her to give her a hug. Her chubby arms reached barely across the width of my shoulders and she turned her head and stared out at the darkening sky as I told her nothing she ever did was silly.
The clasp on the suitcase snaps shut and I realise we’re done here at last. Nicky is standing gingerly, her back cramped from her time on the floor. She smoothes out the wrinkles in her skirt self consciously and I hold out the Polaroid I’ve been clutching for the last half hour.
‘You missed one.’
She snatches it from me playfully.
‘You could have said.’
I laugh as she goes through the laborious motions of reopening the case and folding the lost photograph into it.
‘What do you want to do with these?’
‘We’ll take them home. The girls will get a kick out of them.’
It’s getting late and I have to take one of my mother’s cousins over to the chapel of rest to see her. Every time a relative of mine has died I’ve sworn I’m not going to visit them there. I’ve set my mind to remembering how they were in life, not how they were laid out in a sanitised room with their hair combed wrongly and too much makeup applied. And every time I’ve gone anyway. The memory of my mother’s father is forever tainted by the single stitch of black thread that was showing under the corner of his right eyelid.
There is still time for what I need to do though. While Nicky sets the kettle to boil, I walk into the centre of the cold living room. There are dark patches on the walls where we’ve taken the pictures down. The carpet remains landscaped by absent furniture. I turn towards the space where my mother’s chair sat and light up a cigarette. I inhale deeply, satisfyingly, and blow the smoke out slowly. This is how much her opinions mean now. This is how low her only son has sunk. If Nicky wasn’t here, I’d probably stub it out on the rug too.
‘What are you doing?’
She’s a firm believer in respect for the dead is my wife. I turn towards her with a grim smile.
‘I’m pissing her off.’