The World Breaks Everyone…

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If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them.  The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.  But those that will not break it kills.  It kills the very good and the very gentle and very brave impartially.  If you are none of these you can be sure that it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” Ernest Hemmingway

(This week a friend of mine was buried. ‘Friend’, such a loose term to describe so many relationships.  This woman was somewhere between a friend and a colleague.  At funder’s meetings it was us against the big boys: us taking a mocking pop at their privilege, laughing quietly as they wondered how they’d manage without X thousands, when we only had X thousands to lose.  And then, the company she’d developed from nothing lost all of its funding – which she found inexplicable – and so, she retired, gracefully.  She was in her late 50s then.  Without warning she disappeared off her social media channels and, in the way of these things, we discovered she’d had a terrible illness followed by an accident where she pulled a tray of hot fat from the oven onto her legs.  So a mate and I made a version of the badger video – a joke we shared about not sleeping and a misheard line about badges – which featured us instead of those little black and white critters, as a get well soon (though it’s hard to imagine now how we thought this would help!) She made a full recovery, in spite of our video, and then she returned full-throttle in the real and virtual worlds directing her vitriol on those who deserved it – her last Facebook post hours before she died poked fun at Trump and May.  She was witty and funny and clever and I will miss her.  She was never broken by life but it killed her all the same.)

The World Breaks Everyone

Lily was slight and, for want of a better word, shriveled.  She was curled up in the chair nearest the bay window in the house she shared with her sister Nelly, but did not speak beyond a whispered hello and once, “don’t touch that child.”  After that, she barely acknowledged our presence at all, largely, I suspect, because she did not know we were there.  The crocheted blanket made of bright squares seemed to trap her in place; she was neatly tucked in, held down.  She looked beyond the room as if she was remembering a time before she was confined to it.

Nelly, on the other hand, was robust.  She was 5′ 7 or 8″ and broad shouldered.  She had an air of practicality and, whenever we arrived, she seemed to go into hyper-drive.  It was my father – even Lily perked up when she heard his voice. They both loved him.  This love extended to us although it was rare for us to go to their house.  This was something my father did, on a Sunday.  When we did go, the table would be laden with large scones, cream and jam or cakes and orange squash. It was a challenge to balance all of these things on a lap under the scrutiny of Nelly, but we’d manage it.  When our refreshments were through, we’d go out in their garden to play…in the corner there was an Anderson shelter which was cool inside and pitch dark.  It doubled as a den.

Nelly and Lily were my father’s aunts – somewhere there was an uncle, Mark, and another aunt too – who’d married a semi-professional rugby player – but those two did not hold a place in my father’s heart in the same way.  The sisters – referred to by society at that time as ‘spinsters’ –  lived down Lomond Road off Springbank West, a hop and a skip from where dad had grown up and as a child I could not imagine why they’d mattered so much to him.  But there was a deep bond between them all, a co-dependency.  Lily and Nelly, I assumed, were the women left uncoupled by the war, with partners lost or in for a quick dalliance and then gone for good back to wives elsewhere.  They seemed sad, lost. I didn’t know. Nelly always seemed to me to be formidable – scary even, whilst the unconnected and unresponsive Lily, benign. I was wrong.

One time my grandfather, Ernie, related to the sisters by marriage to Florence, my grandmother, told me the truth.  Lily was a demon.  She was utterly unforgiving and very popular with men. And she knew it, he said.  She would cast a spell and entice them in and then, when they were hooked, she’d let them go: she was a woman before her time.  After that, I looked at her disbelievingly – how could this tiny, shrunken creature be as he described?  It taught me important lessons: things are not always as they seem and that there is a back-story to everyone that you’ll never truly know.  She could be harsh, cruel.  “I never really liked her,” Ernie said, “and she didn’t like me.  She broke the world as if it was a wild horse, which is fine, but then there should always be room to be kind.  Not Lily.  She got her kick in first. Every time.”

I was shocked by what seemed to be anger.  It spoke of something else – something disapproving which was ironic given Ernie’s history as the playboy of the western world. And Nelly?

“The sweetest woman in the world.  Always so giving and gentle,” Ernie said, “But the love of her life was taken from her grasp.  Too nice. Too, too nice.”  He lit a cigar and inhaled deeply and said nothing else. He’d tantalisingly left a door onto the past ajar, but nothing more…

And then I knew.  Lily.  Ernie never said and I didn’t ask. But I knew it was Lily.  It was what Lily would had done, this taking from her softer sister. And I imagined how she’d be with this dalliance, a plaything cast aside after she’d finished and lives broken with all trust gone. And Nelly was to never love again. Was she broken? In any case, Nelly picked up the pieces, practical, kind and decent and made the best of things. I often imagined what the conversations were like between them over all those years that they lived together in that tiny house or if they ever spoke of it again, but it was beyond my experience.

As they set towards middle-age, and Lily’s power waned, my father became a bigger and bigger part of their lives. He’d pop round, make himself useful, build shelves and mend things, generally looking out for them.  In return they fed him and loved him unconditionally.  Who wouldn’t thrive in that situation, and who wouldn’t return time and time again?  It was an escape for him – an escape from the step-father who was in his way and who he, naturally, hated for a time.

Then Lily died and no one really spoke much of her again.

Nelly soldiered on.  And dad, loyal to the very end, would go round taking one or two of us with him.  He’d sort her garden, fix her door, work out why a cupboard was sticking or decorate her living room. She’d smile and laugh and chat about the week that had gone.

And then, before too long, Nelly died too.  Dad packed up her house and the linen that they’d used became our linen, towels and sheets and so on.  Until very recently we still used Auntie Nelly’s stuff.   Her financial legacy got me through the first year at university – mostly I purchased LPs with it (I was not sure she would have approved.) But it was always Auntie Nelly’s this or that and never both: as though Lily came and left a trace, yes, a shrunken memory, but because she was neither very good nor very gentle nor brave her life was, mostly, erased whilst Nelly’s lived on.

 

 

 

My Pretend Cousin

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We were walking to my Aunt Joan’s house on a boiling hot day, each step an effort on an epic journey.  It was a long way, and my mother had a habit of saying, “Just around the jolly ‘orner” to entice us to run eagerly to the next corner, even though the next corner took us only fractionally closer.  It was on journeys of this type that I realised that my mother largely spoke in riddles or in found tales that rolled around each other concluding in one sad ending or another.  The abiding thing about my mother and her stories was that they required absolutely no audience at all. She would tell the tale whether we listened or not, to the bitter, bitter end.

My leg hurt but I wasn’t about to let on about this.  We’d left King’s Bench Street, our street, in good time and I was not going to be held responsible for holding the party back.  Already we had reached the hospital and on crossing the railway bridge on Argyle Street we headed past Diane Mulvana’s house (who my sister and I pretended to be cousins with even though she was very small and we were giants in comparison ). She was not out to wave to.

We had adopted this habit of pretend family from my mother.  She gave apparently random strangers ‘relative’ tags.  These included people she’d been at school with or who she had worked with or from streets she’d lived in. My mother swept up waifs and strays as though she didn’t have enough to do.  Auntie Barbara was one such pretend aunt.  She had no brothers and sisters and came to ours at Christmas.  She also snogged my dad down the ten-foot when he walked her home after the festivities had finished.  KM and I were sent to accompany them and  as spies but we never told.  She eventually married Ian (a pretend uncle I would rarely meet) and her daughter Victoria became our pretend cousin (and she was also one of the two children I abandoned along with my sister in this sorry tale.) Victoria and I had a ferocious argument about butter beans once.  She said they were made of potato which I knew was just plain stupid.

There was also Auntie Mavis who  lived in the States, another of my mother’s former colleagues.  She married a chap called Larry and had a child called Bubbles.  They once came to visit and I was intrigued and horrified in equal measure that her other boy, Adam, who was at least five, ate with his hands.  They were my distant pretend cousins who I liked to mention when I needed to be exotic.

Auntie Thelma held nothing of the same cache and was ordinary: much like my actual aunties.  Like my mother, Thelma had just had a baby, Donna and she and her brother Nigel and my pretend uncle Derek, lived just off Hessle Road. She and my mother had grown up on the same road.  Derek and Thelma were semi-permanent fixtures at family dos, until I began to think they were actual family – at least I did until Thelma was apparently caught with her hand in the till at the Beer-off* where she worked.  She denied this and as she wasn’t poor, I tended to think it might not be true.  I was sorry she was sacked because she’d offered me a veneer of protection from Gerard, the people who ran the Beer-off’s son, whose hands were covered in warts and who chased me around the school playground to infect me until I shouted that I would make sure Auntie Thelma knew…which held him off long enough for me to get away. For my mother this episode of being light fingered coloured her view of Thelma, although to this day, they speak week after week on the phone.

I walked behind my mam onto Prince’s Ave (which was commonly called Prinny Ave).  She pushed the pram with T in ahead of her.  We turned into Newland Ave, then Cranbrook Ave.  Sometimes we walked via Chanterlands Ave (more often known as Chants Ave).  Hull is the only place I know where every street name is shortened.  I’ve never heard anyone give these streets the more formal moniker of avenue.   Cranbrook Ave is the longest residential street in Hull and my legs could tell.  At that time, it was also largely dominated by university houses, door after door painted the same blue green colour.  They were interminably boring.

“Why don’t we count,” my mother said.

“Why don’t you shut up,” I thought.

“Great idea” my sister said and so we did, counting each door with all the joy of a funeral party.

My brother T a few months old, was oblivious to the ‘fun’ we were having and my older brother, K, seemed to have managed to avoid coming on this tortuous trip.  Had he feigned death?

I’d read you could fry eggs on the pavement on days as hot as this but when I suggested this to my mother she wasn’t having any of it. “If you think I’m wasting eggs on a whim, Mary, you’re sadly mistaken,” she said, firmly.  And the subject was closed.

By the time we got to Greenwood Ave we were in spitting distance of Auntie Joan’s – my mother’s actual sister, and not a made up one.  I tried to get to the bottom of this.

“Why do we have so many pretend Aunties.”

“Auntie Joan is my real sister,” my mother said.

“But why do we need more: like Auntie Barbara, Auntie Thelma and that?”

“It’s a nice thing to do isn’t it?”

“I suppose.”

“You’d rather have more than less of almost anything though?”  My mother’s reasoning defied logic: I wouldn’t want more boils or warts or farts.  We did get some advantages, it was true, like Christmas presents (Auntie B) and special treats (Auntie T) although given her later brush with being a tea-leaf maybe the origin of these was questionable. KM, my sister, lived the principle of more is more: she had always bought a quarter of sweets to my Mars bar, a box of Bics to my fountain pen and so forth.  Even in Aunties I had a sneaking suspicion, largely speaking, quality was better than quantity.  Not my mother though.

“Auntie Barbara is funny, isn’t she?”

“I don’t know?”  She didn’t seem all that funny to me, she just laughed hysterically at absolutely everything anyone ever said.

“And your Auntie Thelma she’s always bringing you broken biscuits, isn’t she?” I had a lingering question over Thelma and her motives. I just felt it.  At weddings, the unsayable would go unsaid: she was there for what she could get, food, company, comfort.

“Why are you asking about this for?” which was the cue from my mother for me to shut up. We sweated our way on.

When we arrived at Aunt Joan’s and after Uncle Gordon had done his weird playing with our knees and ears tickling thing (I knew this was strange that day when I was 6 years old.  By the time I got to 15 it made my skin crawl.)  He giggled.

“Gordon,” Joan said, and he smiled, “Have you made a cup of tea yet?  And got these kids an ice-pop?”

Gordon was a gopher and a bit simple.  His time was not his own.  “It’s too hot for tea,” my mam said.

“Let’s go to the drain.” Aunt Joan was decisive and having barely rested we were setting off again.

The Castle Hill drain was a few streets away as the crow flies, and crossing a field we made it to an open ditch of water that stretched to the River Humber in one direction and beyond Beverley in the other.  It was one of a number of open drains around Hull that captured the run off from the flat plains of the Wolds.  It was steep sided and slightly scary because if you fell in, you would not necessarily get out in a hurry although it had not rained for a while, and it was much less deep than usual.  Still, it made us feel cool just looking at it and gave us a dream of what sitting by the sea would be like if we could have afforded it.

I was not myself that day: that’s all I can say.  I was neither fully with it or firing on all cylinders and as we played KM, our cousins Michelle and Debbie, and me up and down the drain’s sides, I knew I would end up in the water.  And I did.

My stay in it was very brief: my mother, my super hero, sprung into action, grabbing my hand as I found myself being swept along by the stream of the water.  She pulled me out in one clean jab before the fear of being swept out to sea took me.

Everything was wet, all my clothes, every stitch.  Everything.  The indignity.  So, KM reluctantly gave me her dress which my mother and aunt fashioned into shorts (more akin to a nappy, in truth) kept in place by a belt and some safety pins.  My mother removed my vest.  (“Don’t want you catching your death”) and I spent the rest of the afternoon in abject misery.  My cousin Michelle, seeing me sad, gave me her cardigan to wear.  And that’s the difference between real cousins and pretend ones: you’re invited in and with the real ones you shared clothes, hopes, ambitions, and fantasies about the Osmonds.  But the pretend ones, you never really knew because you hardly ever saw them, or never saw them enough.

One time, I went round to Auntie Thelma’s house, maybe to collect money for the didalum** or something, maybe to take a gift.  Their house was red, I remember that much, and it had a big garden.  The back was not just grass, but had a den and toys left outside, something I was not allowed to do.  I was unutterably jealous of the freedom they seemed to enjoy.  I don’t remember meeting Donna, or her brother Nigel but I must have done.

Fast forward to February 2002. I phoned my mother.  Halfway through, her usual monologue she began what had become an all too familiar routine, “Do you remember…” she said. And I knew what was coming…

Over the years this happened a lot, adult people from the street I grew up in, unhealthy, on poor diet, smokers, fighters and drinkers would die with alarming regularity or else distant relatives I didn’t care about…  And she would get some kind of weird pleasure from the process, “You remember so and so,” she’d say, “His son used to go to Trinity School and he lived on the corner of Batchelor Street and Queen’s gate, next door but two to the Johnson’s.”  I rarely knew who she was talking about, but always answered “Yes?” “Well,” she’d say, “S/he is dead.” And I mourned silently for someone I didn’t remember or hardly knew.

Not this day though.

“It’s your cousin Donna,” she said.

I wracked my brain.  Saw in my mind’s eye, the red-fronted house and remembered the toys, a child’s toys in the garden: left by my pretend cousin Donna.

“What has happened?”

My mother was crying, real, heartfelt tears.

“Auntie Thelma’s in bits.”  My mother said.

My pretend Auntie Thelma who rocked up at weddings, christenings and funerals who was sacked from the Beer-off for stealing, something she swore she never did.

“She’s been found dead.”

My mind was not computing.

“In the Castle Hill Drain.  Naked.  Face down.  Murdered.”

I felt a pang of guilt at not knowing my pretend cousin Donna better and now her life was snuffed out at 30.  They did not know who’d done it though her husband was suspected.  No proof was forthcoming. My mother told the tale to the bitter, bitter end. Every detail but I’d stopped listening. She went to the funeral and cried for a girl I could not bring to mind.

A few months later they found Donna’s husband dead by his own hand and the case was closed.

*Beer-off – Off licence

**didalum – a Christmas money saving scheme