Up you go oopsadaisy; down you come, poppet.
I held you. I held you tight. I thought I would hold you forever; I thought you were my baby. You were the baby, I was the mother; we were each one — each was the other.
What did my mum say?
“You’ll ruin that kid, loving him so much.”
No, I never.
I watched the sand ripple away, the sea shine under the sun, the sun set, then the light change to its green faraway western slice, as the night drifted in. All of it wrapped around us on the shore; and all of it love and a huggy bunny, a blanket of soft, tears dried, hot milk, bed and a story, sweet dreams or no dreams that could not be comforted, soft warm night without any sharp beaked demons. A little girl digging shells for her sandcastle with a blue dress; a dog runs into the waves; a man stands against the setting sun, wind in his hair. Oh, he was handsome then.
There are holes in the green-painted metal of this bench, holes to let the piss, the shit of vagrants drip through. Or am I being morbid? Don’t be morbid, Mum, you said; well then, holes to let life seep through.
It’s going, anyhow. We all have to go sometimes — why not in the park? The park where we played… You played, I watched. Not a bad place to go, the park, with the leaves turning, a stiff breeze blowing, people all bundled up.
Now my scarf’s come undone, don’t know if I can do it up. How funny: I used to do up shoes, pull up socks, fasten trousers, fluff up skirts, buckle belts, pull vests over heads, button shirts, zip up jackets, plonk hats on heads, all the motherly things, all the dressing and grooming and “have you done your teeth?” and “brush your hair, that’s a nice smile darling,” and “Oh well, suppose you’ll learn about shoelaces when you fall over enough times.” Did you learn? Oh well, can’t help that now.
“Help me, Mum,” I said. “Don’t be silly, it’s normal,” she’d say. My periods, I didn’t know what they were. “What do I do, Mum?” “Ask your dad, you and him are thick as thieves.” How could I ask him? Did he even know? He just sat there, coughing, and she had to go out and earn a living. She didn’t have time, she couldn’t be bothered. It wasn’t her fault — like it’s never anyone’s fault.
It’s never anyone’s fault and no one can help.
What can be helped now? No help, nothing for it, not now. Wish I had, wish I had, ah so many things wish I had. Not the things you think, not the golden opportunities (did I have any? Not sure. Perhaps if you count that time Mr Handley asked me to go to America with the new team. But I said I might get pregnant so I didn’t. But I did, get pregnant, so that was all right, really. Anyhow, America, it’s still there, riots and guns, high standard of living for some, swimming pools and all that, film-star life, but someone else, some other people’s lives, not mine. It can stay there, America. I suppose it will.) No, regret, regret, regret so much my own mum.
Left her alone too much, wasn’t nice enough. God, she was an annoying bitch but what does that matter. She was lonely and sad and I had you to cuddle. Couldn’t stop thinking about the babies, all the babies, not the ugly old woman my own mother. Well, it serves me right sitting here, now I’m the ugly old woman and it doesn’t matter how I held you, I held you and never thought we would let each other go.
She was all for letting go. I think she thought that man in the office would marry her. Hah! You’ve got to say, she was taken for a ride, coarse though it is to put it like that. “You girls go on and make your way,” she said. “I’ve enough to worry about with him.” Once he’d gone, she had no one as it turned out. Never lost her marbles, sharp as a pin till the end, never seemed to like the grandchildren and said, and said ….. but I should forgive her. Did she really even say it?
Of course, you do let them go, you have to. It’s not even that it’s the right thing to do, it’s the only thing you can do. And then they go off and they do such stupid things! Who would think that that clever little boy would join the army, that that pretty little girl, Oh, she looked so lovely at her communion in that dress, like an angel she looked, my pretty my pretty my pretty, that she would go home that way. How could she go home that way?
I’ve thought about it so much and I know it’s a punishment because I treated my own mother so badly. Not that I hit her, mind, well not if you don’t count the time I grabbed by the elbow because she was so slow getting out of the wheelchair. No, no violence, just impatience and the slow withering of neglect and contempt. But it’s true she was no help to me when it happened. How could she be?
But she did say. Or I think she did.
The policemen come to the door and you’re just thinking, Where is that girl? Brownies finished 25 minutes ago, I know it was 25 minutes because I looked at the clock and it said five minutes to eight and she was always back by quarter to because it finished by half past and…You are dragging your feet here, Marie. You’re trying to skip the next bit when they said… they said… “Do you have a daughter?”
Meaning, meaning of course that No, you don’t have a daughter now; which is so much worse than you never had one.
Or is it?
I can’t decide, I don’t know. I’ll never know because in that time, in the seven years, three months 11 days and a few hours, let me see she was born at 11-07 am in the Middlesex hospital on March 1 so that makes it almost exactly 11 days and eight hours since the moment of impact they said was 7.40 pm, I did love her so. In that time I did love her. Oh sweetheart, treasure, lambkin, little Miss Muffet, Jenny Penny Hennykin. And her father! O, he was a made man when he saw his daughter in her ruffles and her bows.
But what does it mean when you love someone and you are meant to look after them and someone, Adam Roberts of Bletchley, Notts, turns the corner too sharply on a wet evening and cannot prevent his lorry cutting into the path of some Brownies who did not, would not — why did they not? Cross at the crossing? but instead crossed on the blind corner by the Woodman pub as they had been told by me, by Brown Owl, by Tawny owl, by their dad, by their nan even, NOT TO DO THAT.
And then when I told her she said….
But however much I do go over it, I can’t stop it. That’s the funny thing, it’s so alive to me, and yet I can’t stop it. I go through what I said, how I could have said it different so that she would listen, how she could have hung back with the Miller girl, that Anne, I never liked her mum, or even rushed ahead with that other one, that Lucy, the one that Roberts was trying to avoid so he said — and he wasn’t drunk even, I wanted him to be drunk so I could hate him but he was miserable, poor man, he felt bad, maybe still does, if he’s still with us. He swerved to avoid one young girl and killed another. Felt nothing, they said. They always say that, someone told me the other day, to spare your feelings.
Spare my feelings! Do you know, in all these long years, that’s the only single time I’ve ever known anyone do anything to spare anyone else’s feelings and it absobloodylutely does not work. First, you don’t believe them. Then second, it takes away from them the possibility of saying goodbye, thinking of loved ones (me, her mum, I mean and her dad and brother of course) (even her nan, why not, sad old cow). And third: they’re just as dead, aren’t they? There’s no sparing feelings in the long years of no Jenny. There’s no sparing feelings in this long long time between then and never.
Certainly not from her. She said, “Oh well, you’ve still got one and you can make another.” Sharp as a bloody pin.
Is that man, Adam Roberts, still alive? What would I say to him if he came here to this bench? Would I forgive him, like they do in films? Even in that telly programme the other night, when the oldest surviving Tommy went to Belgium and met the oldest surviving Jerry and they shook hands. I don’t know. I’d like to. It looks right, angelic, something like Jenny in her dress; but then, I’d like to be forgiven myself. Forgiven, the opposite of that Clint Eastwood film. Oh how you did like that, when you were a teenager: “I’ll come back and kill all you sons of bitches!” Pow, swear, curse, be bigger than anything. Growing boy, elbows and feet and first shaving. All the spaces too small as you burst up and down the stairs.
Unforgiven, like a statement of pride. The wind blows sharp, it really does.
But who can do it, the forgiving? Did I forgive her? You know, I did, when she died. Though I don’t know if that’s any use, for whoever is keeping count. Poor old bitch, sharp as a bloody pin. Who can forgive me, so that I can forgive him, that Adam Roberts? Well, that’s a question.
There’s not enough time now.
Will they ring the bell soon? The leaves are scuttling along and it’s a grey tinge in the air. Actually, do they still ring the bell in the park? It’s been a long time since I sat for so long in a park. What with muggers and my old bones. But when you were little, we used to spend days in the park. It was our second home, I used to say. The dog loved it. He loved stealing other people’s picnics, the rascal. He’s dead too of course, but somehow that’s not so bad, poor old Rusty. He was too ill to go on. And do you know, he never did anything wrong, if you don’t count the picnics, which no one of any sense could, so I feel he had a good life, loved by all. Except her upstairs, that Mrs Drucker, but she doesn’t count, never did. Yes, Rusty didn’t need forgiving.
He always loved my mum; she couldn’t give a monkey’s about him. They say it’s because they like people who don’t look at them. But a dog has a good heart. Rusty did. I’d take him over most humans, any day. Where did he go, I wonder? Where do they go?
There’s Jesus and all that business, but really. Father Egan, he came round I don’t know how many times and finally Pete says to him, “I don’t think you’re welcome in this house any more, sir.” Stood up to him. Well it was only Pete who believed in that anyhow. That and the whisky. And as he said, at least the whisky didn’t let him down. It cleaned him out, it took his health, but it never lied to him. And as he said, he knew which Bells would ring for him up above. Was it a joke? I’m not really sure.
You turned out all right, thank Christ. House, wife, job, kids. They are lovely, Bernadette, Josie, William. All names from her side of the family, but that’s all right. She does her work. They bounce around, they smile, they tell their old granny stories of school and friends and little William, he told me last week about a snail he found. Thank you for that, for the grandchildren. You seem happy. We never talk about all that business. So long ago, Mum, you’ve said. You think it’s morbid. She was your big sister, you used to follow her up the park.
O, my breath is getting short. As well here as anywhere. I hate that hospital and the tubes they put in you. Don’t you come saving me, now.
Some chance! No, he is a good boy, he is. Just so busy. Well, that’s right what with the wife and family, Brownies, Cubs, football, music, awaydays (what are, they? God knows). I get my phone call, it always surprises me but I do, even if it’s short. More than I gave my own mum. I often think of that.
There is so much, so much I should have done. I should have been bigger. I should have given more. I should have given something! I should have answered when people call. Not Mrs Drucker, though, she was just a nuisance. I should have put my foot down about the drinking. Poor Pete, poor man. I should have ironed his shirts, he did love it when I did that. I should have hoovered more. God, I hated that machine, the noise of it, the vibration and it was always breaking down. Still, the floors were dirty and it was my job. I should have listened when my sister told me she was ill. I should have turned off the telly. You do see some good programmes, though, I don’t care what anyone says. That one about the Tommies, for instance. I should have picked her up from Brownies, not let her be a big girl. She so wanted to be a big girl!
You know, she was your big sister but you are seven times her age now. You overtook her (I never told you this but I was counting) on the day of the infant school races when you got second prize in the sprint. She always used to win the egg and spoon, she was so careful with that spoon. She told me, “Mum, the others always hurry, but you have to hold the egg on the spoon or it’s no good.” I didn’t know if that was cheating but the others I think used to enjoy dropping the egg more than racing, so she used to win. She did love that, she got a ribbon. I’ve still got the ribbon, why not? People say, “Oh, get rid of all of that, it’s morbid, Marie (that word again!).” But what harm does it do?
It’s not as if the present is so marvellous. How the sea shone along the beach that day.
My legs ache, my throat is so sore, my chest can’t hardly manage to puff all the breath in and out. People say “You’re wonderful for your age.” All lies!
Why do they bother, I don’t even care if I’m good for my age. It’s not as if you get a prize, like more youth or another chance. You can’t cheat God, or the devil or death; and even if you don’t believe in the first two, that last one is certainly real. It’s all gone mad this being youthful; who the fuck do they think they’re kidding? Pardon my French. Look at poor old Liz Taylor. Most beautiful woman in the world once, now a painted hag all crippled from operations. I’m a hag, but at least I don’t have to bother to do all the painting. And the operations! And all that pain, which I’ve got enough of my own, thank you very much. I’ll tell you for nothing, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, life.
It was all so long ago, yet that doesn’t make a blind bit of difference, that’s the thing I can’t get used to. Somehow or other, time is not a real thing. Everything bad, all the wounds and weeping and loss, they are just the same as last minute the instant you think of them.
Course, you learn to step around, gingerly, pay the milkman, redecorate the spare room, that kind of thing, but it’s all still there, sucking all the meaning out of the world in a huge howling nothingness. Still there, still awful, final, kick in the teeth.
And then the happiness too, it’s still there as well. I can see it as if I was there once more: the light dying along the beach, a man skimming stones and me throwing my little boy up in the air. Up you go darling, mum can catch you. A little girl digging holes in the sand, a dog runs into the waves. Barking at the seagulls.
Did that happen, though? Did it? I don’t know. Where? When? Was he handsome then? Did we love each other?
It must have been when Pete had those few days off between working at the dairy and the school. He never touched a drop then, or I don’t think he did. I’ve never liked it myself, maybe that’s why I’ve lasted so long when everyone else has gone. Pete, Mum, Jenny. Gloria.
Not you, though. I’ve been glad to be around to see you but for the rest … wish I could have gone ages ago. God knows I haven’t made such a good job of it. My poor old mum. And then Gloria. Poor girl.
I met your dad, Pete, in a park a lot like this, over where we used to live. It was a hot day and he bought me an ice-cream. Do you know, he licked it all off my fingers, I thought that was so bold! He liked my figure first, he told me. Then my personality, he said. He made me laugh, he really did. I don’t know about liking my personality, but I do know when he stopped liking my figure, that’s when things got sour and slow. We used to go dancing. I loved dancing. He was so smooth and elegant in the fox-trot, that’s what stole my heart away. It’s hard to keep up the dancing when the kids come. Even harder when you have a Tragedy in the Family. God, how that old biddy upstairs used to mime the words at me when we met in the hall. Couldn’t we ever forget it? Couldn’t she just leave it alone? Couldn’t any of us just leave it alone and at least live our lives? What’s so wrong about trying out a bit of a dance before supper?
It doesn’t work, of course, but there’s nothing wrong in trying. Better dancing than drinking yourself to death, the silly arse, and leaving me all alone. She’s long gone, her upstairs, let her alone, Marie. You do carry a grudge, old girl, he says to me, and it’s true. But when we were young and in a park like this with our ice-cream, there were no grudges then. We’d dance the whole evening and then go for sausage and chips – and a bit of hunt the sausage if you must know! – and it seemed to last for ever; somewhere you could never go back.
It’s too much for me, all this. I’m just not a very strong person, you see. I would have taken all those pills today, but then somehow I knew, there was no need.
What would I do with you gone to Australia? You go, dear, that’s for you and her and the kids, it’s a great opportunity like your dad never had, poor bleeder, but it’s a bitter choke in my throat. The old order passeth and all that, like they said in school. Funny but I never thought I would be part of the old order. You don’t imagine your own self as grandma till you are, till long past when you are.
Little William he showed me that snail yesterday, little dear. Terrible pest they are, but I kept that to myself. He’s such a happy chap, like you in the earliest days. Before… oh, let it go.
Looks like they’re closing the park. Is there still a park keeper who comes along to check everyone is out? Or is it just drug dealers like you read in the papers? I’ve only got my pension book but I suppose they could take that right enough. I haven’t seen a soul in all this time, sitting here, unless you count my own. Joke.
You love jokes, like your dad. It always used to worry me how I found the worst things funny. But you said, “That’s ok, Mum, it’s better than being morbid, anyhow.” I don’t know, maybe it’s the same thing really. Look on the bright side people say, but what about the dark side? Someone has to consider that, or it sneaks up and gets you. It gets you.
It’s a great opportunity for my boy and I am proud. You’ve always made me proud. I used to love those parents’ evenings. “Such a good boy,” they always said. I used to come out 10 feet tall and gloating. Not like with me. You concentrate on your work. “Chatterbox,” it said on my school reports.
I’m getting fed up now. I wish it would hurry up and happen. I’m getting tired of sitting here and I can’t possibly get up and walk home. It’s too late and my legs and arms have gone funny.
I don’t want to go home, I’ve had a bellyful of that.
We can’t imagine it, if it’s just blank and dark (but that would be good, after all this) or if it’s white wings in the sunset (it’s gone over now, just a few dirty pink clouds fading into grey) or crackling flames. No, that’s silly. They’ve abolished hell. A man said it on the radio as his thought for the day.
But why? Why is hell any sillier than anything else? It’s not as if any of the rest of life has been what any sensible person would have expected. To let Jenny die like that, a little girl of seven, well God’d have had to be mad to let that happen. So maybe he is mad. I used to think of saying that to Father Egan. I mean, it looks a lot more likely than anything else, doesn’t it?
No, that’s just me being mean again. When we were kids Gloria always used to say to our mum, “She’s mean, Marie’s mean, she looks ever so sweet but really she’s mean.” And deep down, I was scared she was right. Mind you, it was Gloria who pinched my things, my dolly and my make-up case. And my boyfriend. She got the worse of that, though. Pete might have been a drinker but her Alf, he was a right bastard, what with the women and the gambling and then he slapped her something shocking when she found out about the house being double-mortgaged. But Gloria, she did look such a stunner on a Saturday night; all dolled up, she’d knock old Liz Taylor’s eye out. All that pizzazz.
No one will ever tell me different: I know she got that wrong in the head because of him knocking her about.
But you see, there’s another one. Why didn’t I go round there? Was I afraid of him? Not likely! She’s the only one he ever dared to hit. You could knock him down with a feather. Lots of blokes did, too. He got right up your nose, he did. No, I just didn’t want to stain my hands with that sordid business, that’s the truth. Or I couldn’t be bothered.
Don’t you be bothered with me, now.
I am mean, at middle. I’ve got nothing to show for these 82 years, you see, only you. Not even you, you’ve got you to show for yourself, my dear. I don’t claim no credit.
But why did you have to go and join the army? It wasn’t a job for life, I told you that. And now Australia is the only place, you’ve told me. No one in our family was ever in the services, unless you count the First World War and then not as a volunteer. My poor old dad was called up and gassed, never got over it, the coughing fits were so bad he used to pee himself, poor chap, not that my mum had any sympathy. Not her way, “Wash them yourself,” she’d sniff. “Are you a man or a mouse?” and other helpful little slogans.
Have I been like her? Pete used to say, “Marry a woman, marry her mother,” and add, “She’s not so bad, your mum.” And she wasn’t, but I couldn’t see that at the time. Of course, he didn’t mean that, he meant she had big knockers and pretty hair. She was ever so proud of her hair; even at the end when it was white she had it done every week. Not like me, I can’t be bothered.
That was it; specially after Jenny but let’s be honest, before as well, I just couldn’t be bothered. Other people are so much work, even you with all that football kit, rugby kit, hours in the bathroom before seeing some girl, worries about you being out so late.
I shouldn’t have worried! There’s no end to worrying, once you worry.
Now I can’t be bothered to go on with it. Even though I need a wee-wee, quite badly. There are the holes in the bench, after all. But I don’t know how long it will all take. I don’t want to miss my own death because I’m in the toilet.
Well that was a stupid thing to say. How can you miss your own death? Obviously, it will find me, like bad news always does. Like you rang today. Not that it was bad news for you, obviously. “And you can visit at Christmas, Mum,” you said, cheerfully. Well, you are always cheerful. Not morbid.
Better clear off then Marie, I thought. And then I felt this, something, this I can’t explain, knowledge, and I realised, it’s not up to me, it’s coming, very soon, it’s coming. At last! It’s been a long time; what a relief, really.
Frightening, though. Don’t be frightened, I used to say to both of you. My mum used to say the same to us. Comforting children is the most comforting thing you can do. The huggy bunny, the soft, the blanket, the milk and the story and the warm, warm bed. What’s wrong with being frightened, though? Why do we comfort? What can I say to myself?
Only … oopsa daisy, down you come, mum will catch you. And the sand rippling away; rippling away as the light fades.