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.

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Home is Where the Heart is

The house has been on the market for a year. It has been empty for eighteen months, since Dad died. For the first six months after his death, while Mum was still in the mental health unit, my sister and I would come and stay, sometimes bringing our children and dogs. We used it as a base while we sifted through our past – sorting Dad’s affairs; going through the cupboards and drawers; starting the long, painful process of getting rid of a lifetime’s accumulation of personal effects, photos, letters and clothes.

I couldn’t stay away. When I wasn’t able to get to the house, I thought of it almost constantly. It wound its way into my dreams. I would be driving somewhere or cooking or ironing and suddenly the house would appear in my mind’s eye and with it, a deep longing to be there would tug at my chest. I would feel an overwhelming urge to be walking up to the front door, to open it and let myself in to the parquet-floored hallway, to look out of that upstairs window to the green space opposite.

I was aware of how ironic it was to feel such a strong attachment to the place. While Dad was alive, I couldn’t bear to visit. The atmosphere was claustrophobic, oppressive. I regressed as soon as I walked in the door. I thrashed out at Mum, became easily irritated, felt reduced to a child again by the very act of sleeping in my old bedroom. I told myself I hated it and its suburban surroundings. I was cruel about the town and the people who lived there, sneering at my roots.

But from that first morning after Dad’s death, the house took on a welcoming, sunny aspect. It was as if it had been holding its breath through the storms and turmoil of the past, and now it could let go and relax. The dogs, who had never been welcome while Mum ruled the roost, were free to wander in and out of the back door. The grandchildren, who were expected to sit still, not bounce on the sofa and not make a noise, were at liberty to run through the rooms, laughing and whooping. The kitchen, in which my sister and I had never been allowed to cook, became the centre of our visits, my brother-in-law cooking up huge breakfasts which we all, dogs included, enjoyed. The radio was on, light and laughter filled the air. The garden was bursting with birds that I had not noticed in previous visits. The rooms expanded, embracing the increased number of people and animals, smiling down on us all. Where once I had felt I could not so much as breathe for fear of leaving an unwanted mark on Mum’s preciously guarded walls, I was now at ease – I had come home.

We couldn’t hold on to it, though. Mum moved into full-time care over a year ago. The property had to be sold to fund that. We knew this, even as we enjoyed those visits. And so we began the task of clearing the house. It was harder than watching Dad die. Or rather, it was an extension of that – a long-drawn out and painful one. We were stripping away the last remnants of his existence on this earth. For as long as the house was there, full of his belongings, his quirky systems for organising his life, his smell which pervaded everything, we could pretend that he would walk back into it again at any moment.

It felt wrong to be dismantling everything, to be entering the room my parents slept in, to be poking around in their personal space. It was a violation, to take his carefully ironed shirts from the shelves. How could I give his clothes to charity? How could I decide what should be kept, what donated and what simply thrown away? How could I allow myself to handle correspondence, journals, personal notes? And then there were the tragically intimate items such as toiletries, nail clippers, medicines, underwear – things that Dad would not have wanted his daughters to come into contact with.

There were unexpected finds too – a notebook full of Dad’s desperate scribbles from the time Mum had her first psychotic episode; a photo album Dad’s mother had made for him after his engagement to Mum which was a record of his life from birth to nineteen; a file of letters to and from his brother in South Africa in the 1970s; a monocle which Dad had insisted on wearing aged fourteen on discovering that his short sight was in one eye only.

Now I am sitting in the house and it is truly empty. Potential buyers have come and gone over the past twelve months, but we have finally found a young family who is ready to move in. I am sitting on the window ledge in the living room, thinking that the only other time I have seen this house empty was forty-one years ago. I was six years old and we were the young family, ready to move in. I chased my little sister round and round on that parquet flooring, laughter bubbling through us at the thrill of being in “our new house”. It was a new beginning, a time of exciting new possibilities and adventures – even aged six I knew that. I would be able to walk to school; my best friend lived down the road; there was a boys’ school next door where we would be able to swim and play tennis in the holidays. I was fizzing with happiness.

Today I am weighed down with sadness. My parents put their hearts and souls into this house. They made it a home. I did not always appreciate it or even want to be there. And now it is moving on, passing into the hands of another family who will put their own energy, hopes and dreams into these bricks and mortar. They will no doubt remodel it, as Mum and Dad did. They will knock down walls that Mum and Dad put up, they will pull out the kitchen and bathrooms of which Mum was so proud, they will modernise it, possibly beyond all recognition.

Yet, as I sit on this window ledge and look out at the garden, watching the watery January sunlight filter in through the faded floral curtains, I feel the house tell me not to mourn. This is a new chapter, I feel it say. And as I leave, setting the alarm for the last time, locking the door and walking out into the driveway, I know this is right. I am not a child any more. I have my own home in a different town, in a different time. Dad would not want me to try to hold on to the past. This is a new chapter, and there is no reason why it should not be even better than the last.

The Ghost of Christmas Past

Mum has always hated Christmas. The excess of it, the surprises, the people we are expected to see, the mess, the noise . . .

For most of our adult lives, my sister and I have not been able to understand her attitude towards it. Why, for example, would she insist on calling at the beginning of September to ask us our plans? Why would she need to know that early on precisely where we would be convening and who would be invited? Why would she need to know exactly what we, our partners and our children wanted as presents?

‘Don’t tell me!’ I would blurt out, trying to interrupt her before she reeled off a list of the gifts that were all ready, wrapped and waiting in her wardrobe before the first leaves had fallen from the trees.

As children, my sister and I would be shielded from much of Mum’s festive-based anxiety. We spent Christmas either down the road from us at our grandparents’ house, or at our uncle’s. Mum was presumably thus spared much of the shopping and cooking and decorating and anything else that caused her stress.

Looking back, Mum is almost invisible in my early childhood Christmases. I remember playing games and watching Morecambe and Wise in my grandparents’ sitting room. I remember the tree, dug from the garden every year, sitting in its pot, covered in coloured lights and tinsel. I remember my uncle wearing silly Christmas hats. I remember him and my dad telling jokes and doing their Goon Show routine as they did the washing up together. I remember the meal around the dining table, its size struggling to cope with the extra people and food. I remember my cousins arriving when I was 7 and 9 years old, adding an extra layer of excitement to the anticipation of Christmas. And I remember the table eventually admitting defeat as we and our cousins grew bigger and the four of us took up as much place and food as our parents and grandparents. That was when we decamped to my uncle’s much larger house near Winchester.

My aunt always loved Christmas. In temperament at least, she was Bob Crachit to my mother’s Scrooge. She was an only child, and freely admitted that she was making up for her own childhood in the Christmases she now hosted. Christmas to her meant fun and noise and laughter and lots and lots of people. It meant dressing up for a lavish Christmas Eve supper. It meant a house decorated in every room, Christmas music playing and the largest tree I had ever seen. It meant ‘tree presents’ as well as ‘main presents’, midnight mass in the local cathedral, and food, glorious food. If there weren’t enough beds for everyone, beds were found or made up out of whatever was available. We played charades, went for long, frosty walks with their dog, watched films on the big TV in the converted attic room and we drank champagne long before we were legally allowed to.

And Mum could not cope with any of it.

My happy reminiscences of time with my cousins is marred by memories of my mother’s black mood which would usually kick in some time late on Christmas afternoon. I have no doubt that an excess of alcohol was the trigger, but it was a mood which had been cooking slowly along with the turkey since our arrival on Christmas Eve. No one was ever prepared for the explosion; either for what would cause it or how it would be manifest. One year it was simply the fact that my aunt had cooked ‘too many potatoes’ which then built to a full-blown rant on how my aunt ‘always did everything to excess’. Another year it might have been a rage over something that was happening on the political stage, prompted by an innocent opposing point of view from someone else in the family. It could also have been the simple case that my aunt, unlike my father, grandparents and uncle, had not spent years living alongside my mother, and therefore had not understood that the best path to take was often the one of least resistance. In any case, we were in her house, so why should she put up with my mother’s behaviour? And so the rows between Mum and my aunt usually escalated, scattering the rest of us to the four corners of the house to play with presents, watch telly, wash up or nap until the storm had passed.

As my teenage years progressed, I became more and more acutely aware of the effect of Christmas on my mother. It was a flashpoint in the year that I came to dread. Her depression would kick in around the time my sister and I went back to school and would darken and deepen along with the shortening days. By Christmas she was often stuck in a mire of misery that no amount of coaxing could shift. Until a match was struck and the rage was lit.

As adults, my sister and I tried to make things right. We invited everyone to our own homes, taking it in turn every year to have our parents for the Christmas period. But this seemed to make things worse, particularly if we introduced new ‘traditions’ or cooked food in an unexpected way. We grew to dread having our parents for Christmas and would phone each other after every visit for a post mortem, tallying off the latest transgressions and disasters.

The last time I had my parents to my house for Christmas, Dad was already very tired from managing Mum and was complaining of a sore leg. They both had chest infections. Mum was on antibiotics and obsessing over what time to take them, following me around like a lost puppy, whining and complaining and driving me mad. It was not a good time. It was, however, a million miles away from what lay ahead. Unbeknownst to all of us, we were about to enter the most frightening time of our lives. Mum was sliding towards a period of high anxiety which would lead to a diagnosis of psychosis and subsequent admittance to a mental health wing. And Dad was brewing a hideous form of cancer in his leg which would eventually claim him.

Last year was our first Christmas without Mum and Dad. Dad had passed away that summer. My grandparents are long gone and my aunt passed away unexpectedly six years ago. And Mum had already firmly turned her back on the world by then. Christmas is now a non-event, something she can choose to ignore. She stays in her room, as she does every day, and waits for it to pass.

I understand now that Christmas, for a person with Asperger’s, is something close to experiencing all their worst nightmares at once.The excess of it, the surprises, the people we are expected to see, the mess, the noise . . .

The irony is, Christmas in my house is no longer the noisy, surprise-filled occasion it once was. I have teenagers who sleep in and are no longer so enamoured with playing charades. It is a far more predictable event: a time for hibernation, reading and long walks.

Mum would probably prefer it.

 

The Road to Forgiveness

It is October 1999. I have just put down the phone on Mum after a furious row. It started, as family arguments do, with a slow simmer: the odd well-timed comment, the choice use of a sniff or a grunt of disapproval, building to a list of my shortcomings, tempered with soothing noises from me until a tipping point is reached and we are in the throes of a full-blown accusation-fuelled verbal fist-fight.

The house is quiet now. I am sitting in our one good armchair, staring at the pattern on an inherited rug, bathed in soft light from an inherited lamp. My husband and I have just started to build a life together in our first home; we have begun to build our own family. Our eight-month old daughter is in her cot upstairs. It is past ten o’clock and I should be going to bed. I have only recently gone back to work and I need to try and get some sleep before my daughter wakes me at 3 am. But sleep is far from reach now. My rage against Mum is at a rolling boil. If a stranger were to walk in now, they would think I had been the victim of an attack of some kind. I am hunched over, sobbing silently and hugging my knees. I could not begin to explain to anyone how I have got here in the course of a short phone call. It would take a full lecture course on the history of my relationship with my mother – accompanied by illustrated PowerPoint presentations – not to mention an in-depth analysis of how members of my family interact with and intercede for one another.

The fact is, at this point in my life, even I do not know how I have got here. I rarely argued with Mum when I lived at home – I actively avoided confrontation of any kind. I knew, implicitly at first, and then explicitly, that it wasn’t worth it. If ever I complained to Dad or Grandma I was told, ‘Just be a good girl.’ And so I was. And life resumed its ordered course.

Until now. Tonight I have had enough. I have had enough of playing this game, of being complicit in Mum’s strange behaviour, of pretending that her obsessions and paranoias are normal. I have had enough of the controlling, the haranguing, the bullying, the shouting, the accusations, the swearing. I am an adult now, a mother myself. I cannot be who my mother wants me to be. I have to be me.

**

Looking back at that night, with the benefit of hindsight and a formal diagnosis of Asperger’s for Mum, I can see this conversation as a key piece of a large, scattered jigsaw puzzle of which our family has tried making sense for years. Why was Mum such a controlling figure? Why did she seem to latch on to something which made her anxious and hammer away at it until either the problem went away or a bigger problem took its place? Why did unexpected, surprising acts or decisions make her agitated to the point of aggression? Why was she so damn rude at times? Why were we all so frightened of her?

Mum’s diagnosis came, initially, as a relief. It felt like validation – as though, at last, someone was listening to me and my sister and saying, ‘Yes, you’re right. Your mother sees the world very differently from most other people.’ We were able to rationalise her repetitive behaviours, her anxieties, her depression too. We could read up on it, consult with people who understood it, give it a name. We could step out on the first stretch of the road to forgiveness for all the pain Mum’s condition had caused.

But now, a year on, we simply feel sad. Especially now Dad has gone and never had the chance to hear the truth about Mum. Life could have been so different for Mum – for all of us – if she had been diagnosed earlier. She could have learnt coping strategies for her anxieties, ways of negotiating social situations which she found overwhelming. She might now not be lying on her bed, subdued by a cocktail of anti-anxiety medication, too closed-in to engage with the outside. She might not have been so frightened by the world and all the chaos it seemed to bring to her door.

Or maybe she would still be like this. But at least we might have been helped, as a family, to see the world through her eyes – and thus avoided furious rows such as that one over the phone seventeen years ago and the many that followed that night. We might have been able to forgive her more readily, and forgive ourselves too. We might have been able to love her more readily for who she was. Because now, love feels like the only answer we have to give – and yet it feels like too little, too late.

Walking and Talking

I have taken to walking the dog at dusk. It suits me not to have to nod and smile at other dog-walkers. The fading light and the moon’s faint beam and the chill in the air all fit my mood, as I walk and I think back over the past year.

Sometimes I call my sister, who, two hundred and fifty miles away, is often walking her dogs too. We walk and we talk, sometimes commenting on what our dogs are doing, sometimes commenting on the wildlife that we spot in the half light. Mostly, we catch up on the practicalities of on-going death-related duties: our parents’ house has still not sold and we are responsible for its upkeep. There is always some piece of financial business that must be discussed and we are still battling some institutions who refuse to show an ounce of human compassion when it comes to wrapping up a loved-one’s affairs.

And then there is Mum. And there is so much to say about her, that sometimes it is too much. And so we move on, invariably finding ourselves meandering along the path which leads inevitably to Dad.

‘Those last days were his Glory Days,’ my sister said on our last walk-and-talk session. ‘He was such a silent dad before he was diagnosed, but something happened to him once he went into hospital and he became extraordinary.’

He did. He rose to the challenge Death had set before him. He became a beacon to us: a shining example of how to live. And die.

We talk about how he was Mum’s SatNav through the tortuous paths of their life together. How he quietly stood beside her, a strong pillar next to Mum’s whirlwind nature. How he calmly navigated the storms of the early days of their marriage with no money, then on into parenthood, building a home, a career, caring for ailing elderly parents, becoming grandparents and succumbing to illness themselves. He rarely, if ever, lost his temper with us or Mum. In fact, his temper only became frayed in those fraught last three years. And who can blame him for that?

We go over and over these things. We talk about how we miss him too, how we hear his voice in our heads, how the image that we carry of him is not that of a frail and sickening old man, but of a vigorous, smiling, healthy father. We sometimes cry (at which point I am doubly thankful for the failing daylight).

‘He had to go when he did, you know,’ my sister often says. ‘He and Mum couldn’t have survived together much longer.’

I know she is right. I have read the heartbreaking journals which Dad kept during the last years when Mum’s mental health went into rapid free-fall. He was keeping it all hidden – all the stress, the worry, the panic over how best to help and care for Mum. Mum is safe now, well cared-for and not left sitting in a chair in the dark with no food in the fridge. And Dad is at peace.

I reach the summit of my walk and look out over the valley. This is where I often came to ring Dad when he was in hospital. Sometimes I come here and talk to him still.

The moon is bright, the rooks are flying home, tiny pipistrelle bats appear from the filigree trees and circle above me. The tawny owls begin their evening conversation and the last light disappears from the sky.

I say goodbye to my sister and loop back on to the path which takes me home. A whole year has almost passed with no Dad in it. And yet, for as long as my sister and I continue to walk and talk about him, something of him remains.

 

No End in Sight

It has been over two months since we scattered Dad’s ashes. For a couple of weeks after that day, I felt peace hemming me in. I felt bound by it; contained and safe. I told myself that I had drawn a line under my grief – that I would not forget Dad, of course, but that I would no longer be stalled by sadness. I would get on with living my life in the here and now.

It turns out, however, that grief doesn’t allow itself to be boxed up so efficiently. There is no such thing as ‘closure’ (which in many ways is a relief, as I have always hated the smug overtones that word brings with it). There are only chinks of light in the long, dark days of deep sadness.

Sometimes that sadness prevents you from going out or talking to anyone unless you absolutely have to. Sometimes it fells you, folding you in two as you grip hold of a chair for support and howl like a wounded beast. Sometimes it makes you angry – angry that other people’s dads are still walking around, fit and healthy, enjoying their retirement and their relationship with their grandchildren. Sometimes it makes you weep quietly as you think of the things you have recently experienced which you long to share with your dearly departed.

I fear that my husband is growing weary of my bleak moods. He tries to understand and be sympathetic, he is loving and attentive. But his frustration at not being able to bring me out of this is getting to him, I know.

‘Does everything remind you of your dad?’ he asked, the other day.

‘Yes.’

Everything.

The weather: today it is a beautiful crisp, clear day with a sharp frost and I think, ‘Dad would have been out on the river this morning’, or ‘Dad would make porridge on a day like this.’

A song on the radio: I am singing along, and Dad’s face pops into my mind, singing it too. I can see the way he raises his eyebrows as he attempts a note that is out of his natural range, or the way he tucks his chin in when going for a lower one.

A wooden spoon: I am stirring a sauce and I see his hand on the handle; his hand adding spices and exotic flavours. I see his head bend to sip from the spoon and taste it for seasoning.

A TV programme: I laugh at a joke which makes my family groan and I think, ‘Dad would have got it.’

A book I have just read: I think of how I would have recommended it to him, shared it with him.

A bird at the bird table: he loved to listen to their song.

Everything, anything – sometimes nothing at all can act as a trigger. He is in my mind all the time. I can hear his voice, I can see his smile, I can feel his arms around me.

There is no such thing as closure. Not when you have had someone’s love for forty-five years. Not when that love has formed you: physically, spiritually, intellectually and emotionally.

‘I’m not sure what I believe about life after death,’ a friend said recently, ‘but I do know that love lives on. You can’t wipe out a lifetime of love. Do you even want to?’

So maybe there is no end in sight to this grief. Maybe it’s because the road is long with many twists and turns, maybe it’s because I’m in a tunnel right now. Or maybe I just have to accept this burden and learn to carry it with me along the way, because it has become part of who I am.

Ash Wednesday

I carried your ashes, Dad, all the way from Wiltshire back to Kent. On the way I wondered why I had not left you there in the first place. Why had I made things so difficult? But then I remembered that you would have been kept at the funeral parlour. Not you, of course: your remains. But still, a part of you would have sat on a shelf for all this time. So perhaps it wasn’t so crazy, bringing your ashes on a round trip.

I met my sister, your younger daughter, at Charing Cross station. The station from which we always came in and out of London when we too lived in Kent. The station where we sometimes met you and Mum for trips to the theatre or the Tower of London or the Natural History Museum.

We talked all the way to Tonbridge. (We are good friends, my sister and I. You gave us each other and for that we are eternally grateful.) We looked out of the window at old, familiar and new, less familiar, sights. We reminisced. We ate stupidly inappropriate food – pink and white macarons, slices of pineapple – and laughed at ourselves. And we planned what we would do and say once we had found the perfect spot to say our last goodbye.

We dropped our bags at a hotel which, in our childhood, was thought of as rather grand, but is decidedly less so now. Then we walked to the river.

It was a Wednesday in September, and yet the day was as hot and cloudless as though it were July. No holiday hordes of children playing on The Rec, however, no groups of teens swilling beer under the trees. It was easy to find a quiet spot, on the stretch of river where you spent your Sunday mornings.

We sat down by a dip in the bank where dogs would no doubt choose to slip into the water. The river was so low, and we were so hot and dusty, we decided to wade in. We paddled, drinking small plastic cups of Cava – your celebratory drink of choice. We watched the tiny water boatmen, which you loved so much, collect around us; their little legs and feet sticking out like the oars of a double scull. We remembered canoeing with you, singing with you, laughing with you, watching birds and other creatures with you.

We lit some tiny floating candles and scattered a few rose petals on the water, then we launched a white origami boat which your eldest grandson had made. You loved origami. You loved boats. We felt it was right to do this, to send you on your way.

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Finally, when we could put it off no longer, we poured out your ashes. They were beautiful: like the coarse grey sand on the beach at Santorini. We let them flow through our fingers and marvelled at them. They billowed out into the water like smoke. We read ‘Crossing the Bar’ by Tennyson, for the sea-faring imagery. We read a few lines from the end of The Lord of the Rings where Frodo crosses through the grey rain-curtain and from The Little Prince, too – both favourite bedtime stories of yours. It made me wish again that I had read to you, that last night that we both spent in my childhood home.

And then we left. Just as an exceptionally friendly, over-enthusiastic dog came to claim his spot in the water, almost knocking us flying! You would have loved that. Some might have felt it ruined the afternoon, but we could not stop laughing, knowing you would have seen the humour in that moment.

We felt so peaceful as we walked away, under a hot, blue sky. You are now home and truly at rest. And we will always remember the spot, so we will come back sometimes and sit and think of you.

Goodbye, dear Dad.