Memento Mori

My sister sent me an email, advising me that she had moved Mum into her new Home. So far so predictable but at the foot of the email was one of those little grey paperclip things and hidden behind the little grey paperclip thing a disconcerting photo, of my mother peacefully asleep in her new bed, in her new room, and my sister with her hand resting on Mum’s forehead being photographed by – whom? Godmother and I agreed, there was something spooky, even gruesome about it.

It’s not that I do not know what my mother looks like now, in her 87th year and suffering from dementia; how her face has thinned and yellowed and her smile has gone. I saw her only last weekend after all. I fed her a belated Christmas Dinner and wrote a post about it. It’s worse than that. It’s two things:

Firstly (my sister couldn’t have known this, but if she had it wouldn’t have stopped her) it reminded me so much of the painting on the cover of one of my old paperbacks of metaphysical poetry. It’s a mourning painting. Sir Thomas’s fine white hand beneath a frill of stiff white lace, rests on a skull. People are ranged around in their best-black-and-lace, looking mournful but resigned. The deceasing lady is propped up on many pillows, only her head and shoulders visible. And unfortunately, my sister had managed to mirror that exact pose in her smartphone snap.

Secondly, it reminded me of all those wildlife programmes where a vulture inspects the corpse of some recently slaughtered elephant or wildebeest – avidly, thoughtfully – as if debating whether a sprinkling of salt and pepper, or maybe a handful or two of chives might be a good idea.

The fact that associations like this are made my mind is shocking, even to me. Why do I – why even can I think such things? Couldn’t I switch off this poeticising, or in this case anti-poeticising, facility when appropriate? The answer is no. This sort of brain doesn’t switch off; there’s no editing what goes into it, no stopping it from ‘seeing’. And what it has seen can never subsequently be forgotten. It’s what makes people like me able to write. It’s what forces us to write, to exorcise what we cannot but see and know. It’s what makes living difficult.

Whilst on the subject of death (might as well get it all over in one post!) I am reminded of those roadside floral tributes, and my parents’ attitude towards them; also to funerals.

My mother in particular despised those bunches of flowers people nowadays tend to sticky-tape to lamp-posts or thread through the links of chain-link fences at the exact spot where a close relative had died. She hated how the flowers were renewed, month after month, year after year, “littering up the place”. What she really hated, I think, was the naked expression of grief. To my parents a death meant a cremation, as soon as possible. It meant a funeral service in a modern chapel with no embarrassing tears or screams of anguish, as characterless and forgettable as possible. After that, that was that, done with. The person, done with. Rarely mentioned again.

I like the flowers. I sometimes walk along the seafront passing all those memorial benches people have donated, and stop to read how Gerry loved to play the guitar or how Sid the taxi-driver is now driving the angels around in heaven, in a shiny white taxi. I love the bunches of flowers and imagine the relatives coming here, with a fresh bunch and a fresh card, and having a little chat with Gerry or Sid.

I like graveyards; when I worked in an office I used to eat my lunchtime sandwiches in one. On a sunny, summer’s day there is less to be afraid of in a graveyard than in the whole of the rest of the world. The dead enjoy your company. They appreciate a little chat every now and again. And did you know that you can talk to any dead person in any graveyard? They will always make themselves available even if what remains of their bodies is on the other side of the country.

I always found this sanitised modern death difficult. I longed for great black Victorian hearses, pulled by black horses and festooned in black lace. Brought up in the lowest possible church, and that most conformist of social groups the upper working class, my instincts are entirely Catholic and Gothic. I need those swinging censers, the trails of incense, the solemn faces, the cascades of tears, the wailing and the beating of breasts. I need the man with the black hat walking in front of the coffin with his mace and his black-crêpe streamers.

And I need a place to go to be with that person. I do understand the allure of the exact spot where someone died. I know that the lost one may still in a sense be there, exactly there.  Magical thinking, of course, but I know that where they went up they may, in a sense also, if earnestly implored, and if they choose, come down. Their ghost is anchored there. This is their own place, their little ‘corner of a foreign field that is forever England’ as that poem puts it.

Let us not deprive people of their magic, if magic is what they need to process the horror and the loss. Let’s not sanitise it all and cut out the ritual, if ritual is what people crave. My parents would have said – but the dead person isn’t there any longer – what’s the point of going to all that expense and – more importantly from an upper working class perspective – making all that unnecessary and embarrassing fuss and show – showing off like that?

But rituals are not intended for the dead, they are for the healing of the living.

Featured Image: Sir Thomas Aston at the Deathbed of his First Wife: John Slouch

The Heaven of Animals

Young Rufus had to be put to sleep today. The vet thought he had pancreatitis, which is nasty but a cat will usually recover, with treatment. But he wasn’t recovering, and today an x-ray showed it was something much more serious and far advanced. ‘He’s fading before my eyes,’ the vet said over the phone. I’m glad that at least I managed to take a few photos of him recently, before I knew he was ill. We are twelve again.

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Rufus was Henry’s brother. Charlie (simple Charlie, over the road) tells me he used to watch them as kittens, playing together at the end of our road. Then their owner moved away and passed Henry and Rufus on to an acquaintance, who swiftly threw them out again. Henry was straying for a long time. One day he turned up on my doorstep bleeding from a huge bite on the side of his face, and I redoubled my efforts. I have sat outside on a plastic garden chair talking to Henry for half an hour at a time, in rain, wind and snow – often in slippers and a cardigan because there he was – no time to get my coat.

Rufus, in the meantime, had found a new protector, but a year or so later turned up on the hillside’s stray circuit yet again, thin and dirty. I started feeding him as he passed through the garden; he would sit on the outside of the patio doors communing with Henry through the double-glazing. I caught him quickly enough. He was, I think, hoping to be caught.

A regularly fractured heart: one of the hazards of being a cat lady. One long, long – tediously long – life, many far shorter lives: temporary travelling companions; far too many losses.

This is the poem I read to myself at times like this:

THE HEAVEN OF ANIMALS: James L. Dickey

 Here they are. The soft eyes open.

If they have lived in a wood

It is a wood.

If they have lived on plains

It is grass rolling

Under their feet forever.

Having no souls, they have come,

Anyway, beyond their knowing.

Their instincts wholly bloom

And they rise.

The soft eyes open.

To match them, the landscape flowers,

Outdoing, desperately

Outdoing what is required:

The richest wood,

The deepest field.

For some of these,

It could not be the place

It is, without blood.

These hunt, as they have done,

But with claws and teeth grown perfect,

More deadly than they can believe.

They stalk more silently,

And crouch on the limbs of trees,

And their descent

Upon the bright backs of their prey

May take years

In a sovereign floating of joy

And those that are hunted

Know this as their life,

Their reward: to walk

Under such trees in full knowledge

Of what is in glory above them,

And to feel no fear,

But acceptance, compliance.

Fulfilling themselves without pain

At the cycle’s center,

They tremble, they walk

Under the tree,

They fall, they are torn,

They rise, they walk again.

Parallel Processing

The car crash. I’ll try not to dwell on the blood and gore elements – but more on the psychic consequences. I don’t remember the crash itself at all – I was knocked unconscious. All I remember, weirdly, is this.

Before the crash I was replaying in my mind – or felt, afterwards, I had been replaying – the final episode of Two Thousand Acres of Sky in which the hero dies. Knowing the heroine has fallen in love with someone else, without meaning to commit suicide, exactly, he goes out in a small, unseaworthy boat and ends up on the beach of some windswept island, dying. Except that he doesn’t know he is dying. He thinks he’s dropping off to sleep. He is rather peaceful about it. We are, somehow, participating in his dying delusions, experiencing his faltering consciousness with him. I hadn’t been expecting that final dramatic twist in what was supposed to be a romantic comedy – it had shocked me.

The next thing I knew, the ‘drowning hero’ narrative was picking up exactly where it had left off, as I swam up from depths of unconsciousness. I remember thinking – something just happened, but yet it can’t have. I’m still in the same story.

Thinking about it now, I would guess my mind was gently talking to me in pictures (that’s what it does – there are no words in the Unconscious). It was letting me know, in its own way, that I either was dying, might be dying or had died, but that now it was time to wake up. Don’t drift away, it seemed to be warning me.

February 2002, that was. Climbing a long, winding hill-road, with woods on either side. Apparently some idiot was coming down the hill, turning round to talk to his kids in the back, swerved over to my side of the road and hit my car head on. My car rolled over – possibly more than once – and landed on its roof in the woods. I don’t know how I got out, but I did. The first thing I remember is the green uniform of the ambulance man leaning over me. It didn’t seem surprising – merely puzzling. He asked me where I had been going. I asked him what day it was. He said Saturday. I said if it was Saturday I must have been going to visit my parents. I apparently gave him their full address including post-code – I found where he had written it all out in my handbag notebook afterwards.

I ended up in hospital with a head injury, a neck injury, a bashed-in elbow, a twisted ankle and something wrong with my ribs, possibly from hanging upside down in the seatbelt. My glasses were in the car, smashed, so in hospital I couldn’t see anything. They kept moving me from ward to ward: same white-ish, green-ish blur.

Not a good time, and it took months to recover. My neck’s never exactly worked since. Even when I was well enough to drive again and the insurance had secured me a replacement for my written-off car, I couldn’t bring myself to drive up that hill. I followed a series of lengthy and inconvenient detours for the next six months.

I felt that the accident both had and hadn’t happened. I was me, now, recovering but I was her, then, and the accident was still waiting for me half way up that hill. The universe had bitten me, and now it was lurking in the undergrowth, waiting its chance to rush out and bite me again.

But that wasn’t all. It was the conviction that grew on me in the weeks after the crash, that I had died in the crash and that this was not that life but… this life. I felt that I had died and at that moment had moved into one of my parallel universes, in which I was continuing with my life as it would have been, except everything was subtly altered. Nothing was quite as it should be.

Make of that what you will. This still feels like the wrong universe but I suppose it’s better to be here (if I am here). After all, if I am still there what’s left of me is a paragraph in the local newspaper and an unvisited brass plaque in the grounds of the crematorium!

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In Antiquity

She seems to standing in the middle of the road, and experiences a sudden rush of terror. Yet there is no obvious reason for this, since the streets are utterly deserted. It is a silence like she has never heard. Where is everybody? Where have they all gone?

The shop in front of her is familiar – and yet not. It straddles the corner. Someone had done something to the pavement – it has a dip in it and there is an inset strip with bumps in it. What can that be for? And beside the shop a yellow sign with an H and some numbers. It was never there before.

Weeds grow across the door. Some kind of wire mesh inside the windows. No! How can passers-by see the goods, with that there? What is going to entice them in to buy… what will they buy? A Chinese vase – possibly Ming? Or a carved wooden elephant shipped from the furthest reaches of the Empire. The Queen herself possesses such a glorious creature, she might say. It graces the Entrance Hall at Osborne. Such a consolation to her in her widowhood. It might be true, though probably it is not. You have to paint a picture for your mark…potential purchaser. Nobody ever purchases a simple vase or a wooden elephant. Rather, they buy into the romance of Orient, or Empire.

That yellow paint around the door, the faux Grecian columns framing a door that was once purple but now seems to have been torched back to some hideous underlying scarlet. Weeds grow along the threshold. How are the customers to enter, when all is obstructed in such a fashion? It is one of the first rules of shop-keeping – the shop is a welcome haven. It must be warm, though blizzards rage outside. Unlike the street, with its chaos and ordure, the clatter of passing horses and carriages, the shop must at all times be quiet; clean and sweet-smelling. How much nicer to be inside inspecting the merchandise. Purchasing the merchandise.

Churchfields Antiques her shop is called. She remembers it now. Someone has labelled the street on the wall beside it, as if to assist her. The sign looks odd. Surely it used to have a seashell pattern at either end? Surely the lettering was fancier than that?

In her day.

And then she looks down at herself and sees that she is shorter, and that her body has become that of a little boy wearing strange-looking, little-boy clothes in place of her black bombazine. For, like Her Imperial Majesty, she found mourning – for a husband who drank himself to death ten years into a childless, loveless but profitable marriage – a convenient disguise. She examines her hands, so recently gnarled and liver-spotted, and discovers that they are little and smooth. And then she recalls the carriage, coming at such a speed, the driver screaming a warning she cannot hear and has no time to act upon, and the horses out of control…

Everything passes, she thinks. That is why they have stopped me here – whoever they are – on this winter’s day in whatever year and made me – no, made him – look.

I – she – gave her every waking moment to this shop, extracting every farthing from every foolish passer-by; hoarded junk and lied without shame as to its provenance. Those were her masterpieces, she thinks, and that was her fulfilment – the invention of the perfect story, the truly irresistible lie. She married the shop rather than its owner. She gave her life to the shop rather than him. And she died in the street outside the shop, like a dog thrown into the gutter. And now…

The wind blows in over factory roof and terrace, bringing with it a shower of sleet. The boy remembers his now-name, and the when of his present life. Fumbling in his pockets for his gloves, he drags his collar up around his ears and turns in the direction of home.

 

Write Here, Write Now

 

 

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