3: Send in the clowns

Continued from 2: Supping with the Devil (technically, posted on 6/7 – you might need to use the Search box)

It should have been funny, and it kind of was, looking back. Looking back, I can recall the struggles and contradictions of that afternoon as Mum and I listened to these two monolithic men droning on at one another about politics or whatever, beneath the ’70s artex ceiling and ghastly pine wall-covering, giant mugs of tea at the ready: exhilaration, a rather spiteful kind of satisfaction, sadness, anxiety and loss. Part of me knew that Ex had got to win, another part couldn’t bear for Dad to lose. Ridiculously, now, I am reminded of battling silverback gorillas and David Attenborough. (Who can picture a gorilla without David, whispering reverentially close by?) And I recall that last scene in The Railway Children – Daddy, my Daddy!

After twenty-three years or so I screwed up the courage to tell Ex I was leaving. He seemed unmoved, relieved as much as anything. Not long after that the lady I usually refer to as My Replacement came along – well, she’d been ‘along’ for quite some time, I just hadn’t really realised. That was probably the most painful bit.

On one particularly memorable occasion , which I now think of as my Send In The Clowns moment, I had driven across to the small town where Ex still lived. I had an appointment to get my hair cut at my old hairdressers. I had not anticipated that there would be a carnival procession going on, and so had to park some way out of town and walk back in. As I was walking along the road I realised that he – and she – were walking towards me in the far distance, hand in hand. I suppose they must have been out watching the carnival. There was no convenient side-road or alleyway to swerve into, and in any case they had already seen me. I just had to pin on a gruesome attempt at a smile and keep walking forwards on the pavement, one foot in front of the other – and so did they, of course. I found myself feeling sorry for them at the same time as I was feeling sorry for me. It seemed to take years, and he couldn’t exactly drop her hand. I can’t remember another thing about that day. That one memory was enough to last me for ever!

Although most of me knows that leaving, even in middle age, was the right decision, some disconsolate little remnant continues to prowl around my house on sleepless nights mewling Where are you? Why did you stop looking after me? Why didn’t you come and find me?  Didn’t you love me? And I realise it is not just the lost wife crying, but the lost child looking for her father.

daddy

 

In the 1980s Canadian Sister, also ADD-ish, married a man who looked not so very different from Dad. He was very definite in his opinions, very clever, very competent, would brook no arguments, etc., etc., but they remained married until his death earlier this year. Now she rages at him, in his urn on the mantelpiece. He was supposed to be her shield and protector, and in return she knew she must do what she was told and never argue; she went where he wanted to go, watched whatever he wanted to watch on TV; pretended not to be embarrassed when he was rude to shopkeepers and Indian waiters, resisting the urge to apologise on his behalf. That was the clear bargain struck on a cold May day in a black old Northern church all those years ago, and he reneged on it by going and getting cancer.

I have been wondering what conclusion to draw, what ‘advice’, with the benefit of hindsight, I would give to my parents, or any new parents of an unconventional child. Of course I have no right to advise. If I had been able to have children or my own I’m sure I’d have got it just as wrong, and probably more so.

The fashionable motto is that all you really need to be is a Good Enough parent. I would extend that a bit – I think you can be a pretty bad parent and your child will still stand a chance or surviving, more or less, if only she can get what she needs from alternative sources. Which is an argument for old-fashioned rural communal parenting as opposed to the nuclear family, in which any evils are concentrated, hidden and likely to be perpetuated.

I was saved by Nan and Grandad who, by the most enormous stroke of luck, lived at the other end of our street. Nan walked along to see Mum most days, and I spent every Sunday from about the age of three along with Nan and Grandad. To start with this was because Mum and Dad were engaged in building their own house, with Grandad’s help, whilst expecting my sister at any moment. After that it just became a tradition.

Nan and Grandad had a huge garden with a cherry blossom tree, a swing suspended from an apple tree, a lawn full of daisies and buttercups, and all sorts of flowers and vegetables. They also had a smelly old golden Labrador, a roaring fire in winter, stacks of Woman’s Weekly and Carpenter & Joiner magazines, a bookcase full of pre-War hardback books, an etymological dictionary (my favourite) and a tiny black and white TV set.

Nan cooked great Sunday dinners. She washed my hair and I sat in front of the fire to dry it. I was included in whatever she was doing. We put down newspaper and polished a mountain of brass with Brasso and blackening yellow dusters; we picked mint for the mint sauce – she chopped it fine then I stirred it in a little pot with sugar and vinegar. We sat on the back step shelling peas into an enamel bowl whilst staring up at the sky.

Over the course of the years she told me about the recent War, and the War before that. She told me about my Great Grandmother Sarah and her own many sisters. She told me the facts of life, taught me how to darn a sock and sew on a button. She chatted to me unselfconsciously as if I was just another grown-up, or she was just another child. On those Sundays with Nan I was a relaxed, ‘normal’ human being, but as soon as I returned to the other end of the road I became once again the freaky “Prima Donna” or “You Little Bitch”.

In writing this it has occurred to me that Nan had the advantage of having finished bringing up Mum – who had many of the same traits as me – considerably more pronounced, some of them – less than six years before, since Mum married at nineteen. Mum hadn’t had that advantage.

See 4: Imagine

Cold Cabbage and Custard, Cold Kippers and Lard

That was what Nan used to say, if you asked what was for dinner. I used to wonder where she got all her Sayings from – “It’s as black as yer ‘at over Will’s mother’s”, “Up in Annie’s Room Behind the Clock”, “Jelly, Alice?” Grandad had a few of his own. If you asked him how old he was he’d say “As old as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth.”

The best meals I remember ever were Nan’s Sunday Lunches. Many years later I became a vegetarian, but I can’t pretend not to have relished that great, steaming plateful of chicken or roast beef, gravy, Yorkshire pudding, peas, home-made mint sauce, roast potatoes at the time. Nan did the best roast potatoes in the world. And the best gravy. And the best pastry.

She grew up in the country and went into service at the age of thirteen or fourteen – so she had a range of culinary and household skills, both rural and ‘gentry’. In summer, she would pick cherries from the tree in their garden and bottle them in kilner jars for the winter. They had damson bushes, and raspberries, and she made jam. I remember the steamy, sticky kitchen and that dense caramel-sugar-fruit smell. The jam, of course, we had on bread – cut thin by grandad with a dangerous-looking breadknife. He sharpened it himself, so it had a kind of curve to it, and he cradled the loaf lovingly, slicing towards his chest.

The cherries we had with ice-cream from a home-made cold-safe which had to be raised and lowered on rope pulleys – under the washbasin in the bathroom. The bread and jam we had after Sunday tea. I got sent out to buy a jugful of shrimps from the Shrimp Man, who appeared in the road on Sunday afternoons. And there always seemed to be celery in a jug, and salt to dip the ends in. Tomatoes were straight from the garden and tasted and smelled like tomatoes rather than water and Egyptian tomato-growers’ pee.

On winter evenings Grandad would toast crumpets on the end of a long brass toasting fork – so hot that when you buttered them it melted instantly and ran down through the holes in the crumpets. Sometimes there was toast, made on an ancient electric toaster that lived permanently in the middle of the table. It had a glass flap with a black knob on either side, opening outwards from the top, and a red-hot element on either side. You opened the flaps gingerly, deposited a slice of bread on either side and closed them again, equally gingerly. Until years later I believed toast always sported a lattice of charred black strips.

I actually saw that toaster – well, not that toaster, but that model – in a museum of 40s/50s domestic life, on a visit to Bletchley Park – the country house where Alan Turing and his associates broke all those codes using the Enigma machine during the war. I was more drawn to ‘my’ old toaster than the Enigma machine, which looked a bit lashed-together and steam-punky. At the time, of course, it was the white heat of technology.

Things have gone downhill a bit from those days. I used to pity one of my husband’s bachelor friends, who appeared to live on Mars bars and minced beef, in a basement flat. He told me he wasn’t interested in food at all and ate merely to live. I started off pitying my mother, who used to cook for herself but now cannot, because of the dementia. I once spent part of one of those interminable meetings with Mum’s social workers, her Mental Health Team, her Care Agency Boss etc. – so many people to look after one old person – discussing her failure to eat regular meals. We were discussing random, margarine-smeared Ryvitas; midnight slices sawn off those interminable Tesco current cakes; the several thousand Activia yoghurts in the fridge, which she swears she rotates but doesn’t, any more than she looks both ways when she crosses the road. No – straight out there. Once more into the breach. Basically, she had a cupboard full of cake, cat food and yoghurt.

And then I went home and faced the truth. In spite of living only fifteen minutes’ drive from a farm shop, with a supply of fresh fruit and vegetables second to none, I had a fridge full of Activia yoghurt – not quite so many, perhaps – bread, butter, cheese, Economy Marmalade, Sandwich Spread, Peanut Butter and Marmite; a packet of softening Custard Creams in the cupboard, and a venerable bag of rice I couldn’t be bothered to boil since it would mean washing-up a saucepan – and flinging a succession of determined, fur-shedding cats from the cooker-top whilst using it. And after all that, only the usual baked bean/tinned curry/grated cheese slop to go with it.

Be honest, I said (sternly!) – you live on this now, don’t you? You know how to cook. On the rare occasions you have people staying with you, you actually do cook. You are perfectly capable of following a recipe. You could even now whip up a Sunday lunch (vegetarian version) preparing the vegetables, organising and timing everything so that it all comes together at exactly the right moment – just like Nan did. But what you do is sit in front of the TV set (often still in your nightie and dressing gown) glued to the Migrant Crisis or Brexit on the 24 hour News Channel, or some abstruse science programme about Black Holes, Event Horizons and the True Nature of Reality whilst slurping bowls of instant porridge or sugar-infested granola, with additional spoonfuls of granulated sugar on top, and occasionally – almost every time, in fact – dribbling the sugary milk down your chin/dressing gown.

So why wait? Why not just book yourself into the Old Folks Home tomorrow?