Love in Pen and Ink

When I was expecting my daughter, Mum got it into her head that I needed to sort through all the belongings that remained in my childhood home and either take them with me or throw them away. This was how I found myself on a dark, blustery December afternoon, crouched, eight months pregnant, in the attic of my parents’ house, sifting through boxes and bags and old suitcases.

I had always hated the attic, mainly because of the fear instilled in me from an early age that if I went up there I would fall through the floorboards, on to the soft insulation and through the ceiling of the room below. I hated the ladder – the rattling metallic announcement it made as it came catapulting down from the hatch. I hated the way that noise was distorted so that voices from the road outside could sound as though they were somewhere much nearer, lurking in the rafters with me. I hated the smell: the fusty, dusty, mildewed smell of old cloth and paper. And I hated the dark and the piles and piles of stuff, thrown up there, willy-nilly – a graveyard of possessions.

This time though, I was aware, possibly for the first time, that my mother had herself once been an excited and fearful first-time parent. That here, in cardboard boxes and old trunks and cases, were remnants and reminders of that time. As I pulled out a tiny, moth-eaten hand-knitted cardigan, a smocked Viyella dress, a teething ring and a plastic bag full of cards congratulating my parents on my birth, I realised that this would one day be the fate of all the items I was now amassing in preparation for my daughter’s arrival.

While I was sorting through old toys and clothes and school books, I sat down heavily on a grey metal-framed suitcase, only to find to my dismay that I had crushed it under the weight of my advancing pregnancy and that items were spewing from its sides, like jam oozing from a doughnut. I pushed myself up, intending to try to push the contents back – then stopped. The suitcase had been full of envelopes: hundreds of them. I shone a torch on them and saw the inimitable italic hand of my dad on some and my mother’s equally inimitable scrawl on the rest. I knew what they were, of course. I couldn’t bring myself to open them. It felt wrong – that while they were, at that moment, downstairs watching TV, drinking coffee, waiting for me to come down, I was up here, holding in my hands their youthful promises of love and devotion spilled out on to sheets of Basildon Bond in blue and black ink. They would never have imagined these pages would be read by anyone but each other. I couldn’t be the one to break the spell.

Fast-forward nearly twenty years, and I am now in full possession of those letters. I have sifted through so much of my parents’ lives by now that it doesn’t feel so bad, taking the letters out of the bag I carried them home in on the day we emptied our childhood home. I have read so many private things, gone through so many personal effects, been a silent witness to so many decisions made for me and my sister before we were aware of them. I haven’t read the letters properly yet, though. It has still felt like an intrusion too far. I am torn. Should I let their marriage rest in peace?

But watching my own children reach the age when my parents met each other for the first time, I feel a growing urge to open those musty, mildewed envelopes. I feel an overwhelming need to know my parents better – to understand them as the young people they once were, with all their hopes, dreams and fears. I need to know the man and the woman behind the labels Mum and Dad, in the same way that I sometimes long for my own children to see the real me behind the facade of (M)otherness.

And so I put aside a day in which to date-order the letters. I figure I am ready to read this chapter of their story, that I know it anyway from anecdote and hearsay, and that this is just more cataloguing – another part of the process of letting Dad go. I am not prepared for the surge of grief which hits me when I open the bag. Just that smell has me spinning back in time to the day in the attic when I first found them. I am undone by the force of my parents’ young love for one another, by the fact that for the best part of four years they appear to have written to each other almost every day.

‘What is the point?’ I hear myself crying. ‘All these words. All this love. All gone.’

As if in answer, the next envelope I pick up has a small bundle of photos inside. I flick through them, my face wet with tears, and see three photos of my dad in his late teens, sitting and talking to his parents. I gasp, dropping them, as though stung. A hand has flung itself out across the seas of time to wave these photos in my face.

Because it is my son in those photos. It is my son in that lanky body, that buzz-cut hair, that smile, that little frown, those gesticulating hands. My son is staring out at me from my father’s face.

So there it is. The point. All those words. All that love. It hasn’t gone. It is still here, triumphant, thumbing its nose at death while it lives on in new life.

 

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The Storyteller

As Patrick Ness writes in ‘A Monster Calls’: ‘Stories are important […] They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.’

Dad knew the power of story. He loved nothing better than uniting a group with a laugh by telling a well-rehearsed joke or anecdote – even better if he could pull it off in another language. He would save up the memory of some funny incident that he had witnessed, or been party to, and retell it with embellishments and feigned accents. He knew how to hold his audience in the palm of his hand.

And he knew the importance of reading to us, his daughters. And how to read; bringing someone else’s story to life, lifting it off the printed page with empathy, dramatic tension, excitement, humour – and more of those accents. He knew when to pause, when to rush on at breakneck speed, when to stop for the night, making us beg him to read more, keeping us on tenterhooks for the next chapter.

Morning and evening, the Financial Times was his reading matter on his long commute in a grimy, sardine-tin-tight train. But the moment he walked through the door at the end of the day, that was when story time began.

When he read The Hobbit, I was there, with Bilbo, feeling the clamminess of Gollum’s cave and squirming at the horrible swallowing noise in the creature’s voice. When he read Kipling’s Just-So Stories I could smell that great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees. When he read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I could feel the fur coats and sense the change in the air, from the warmth of the wardrobe to the icy chill of a never-ending winter as Lucy passed through the portal into Narnia.

And then there were the fairy tales. My sister’s favourite was The Princess and the Pea. She was fascinated by the many mattresses on which the princess slept. (And she has always had a passion for peas, for some reason best known to herself.) Dad must have told her that story thousands of times and each time it would take on a different flavour in the telling.

My favourite was The Fisherman’s Wife – a strange tale of unhappiness and a deep dissatisfaction with life. For years, looking back, I had no idea why I loved it so much, other than having a need to hear, over and over, the lines, ‘Alice my wife, the bane of my life, has asked me to beg a boon of thee’. I liked the idea of a ‘boon’ – whatever that was – and let those words roll around deliciously in my mouth.

It wasn’t until Mum was spiralling downwards into depression, and ultimately psychosis, that I saw the real truth in the stories Dad had read to me as a child. By the time Mum was detained under the Mental Health Act, the witch’s curse was truly upon us. We were stuck in a fairytale: not the Disney sort where princesses swoon in the arms of chisel-jawed princes and every story is told in saccharine-sweet technicolour happiness. No. It was the kind where you find yourself locked in a tower, an impossible task set before you while panic and despair hang over you like an evil enchantment. Or the kind where you battle against thorns and branches, hacking your way through to the castle, only to find that everyone is asleep and you can’t wake them, however hard you try. Or the kind where a fisherman’s wife is stuck in a dark ditch and desperate to get out, but no matter what solutions are offered her, she seems incapable of seeing them for what they are, and so remains condemned to end her days in the dark ditch where she started.

When a psychologist finally gave Mum the diagnosis of Asperger’s I told him, ‘You have set us free – I feel as though I have been screaming inside a glass box for the past three years.’ Or a looming dark tower with no windows or stairs.

So yes, stories can be more important than anything. Sometimes they carry the truth better than anything else. And I will always be grateful to Dad for his gift of story to me.