Dead Men’s Bones

A photo I took as I was writing this post.

A photo I took as I was writing this post.

Brighton is my second favourite of the train stations I know, and this from someone who is more than a little romantic about train stations. My favourite thing about it, of course, is the smell, and so I step excitedly off my train and take a deep breath and fill my lungs with –

– nothing. At first I think I’m imagining it, and then I wonder if I haven’t got a blocked nose without noticing it. Neither of these things seem to be the case, however, and eventually I have to admit it: I can’t smell the sea. I keep trying with increased concern all the way down West Street, telling myself that once I’m past the first townie bit – once I get to the Clocktower – once I’m out on the front it will be alright. And yet, somehow, it isn’t. I get all the way to the Albion without catching more than the barest whiff of what was always such a robust, heady scent.

My hotel room is like Brighton itself: shabby, peeling, a half-ghostly memory of past grandeur. I don’t know what the window looks out onto because the glass is so thickly frosted it’s impossible to tell, but it certainly isn’t the sea. The room is big, though, and comfortable enough, and I never minded a bit of run-down luxury. I put down my bag and unpack my pyjamas for later and charge my phone for a bit and go to the loo and then, when I’m ready, strike out across the road to the waiting pier.

Palace Pier never changes. I look straight down as I walk to watch glimpses of the teal sea flash past as the boards bend and give under my footsteps. I remember the photograph of me and my stepfather on the helter-skelter, my aunt being the only person who would agree to go with me on the waltzer, my mother dropping a prawn through the gaps in the floor, my Nana patiently changing stack after stack of her own loose change into tokens for me to feed the flashing machines. I wonder which booth my friend Liz used to sit in to read the Tarot and try to imagine what it would be like to come to a wedding here, blustered about after listening to an exchange of vows in Victoria’s Bar. But I still can’t smell the sea.

I go shopping after that, navigate through streets that I once knew a great deal better than I do today. The grass in the Pavilion Gardens is not as lush as I remember it from picnics with Nana. It’s only been a year since I was last in Brighton and it’s not like I’ve ever gone any longer than that without a visit – as a child I was here at least one weekend nearly every month for many years – but it feels in a way a great deal longer. My favourite cafe, one that opened not too long after the war when my Nana was still a teenager, has disappeared. My favourite shop from when I was fourteen has vanished, too. The best alternative jewellers in the Lanes has gone all silvery mainstream and I can’t find the headshop where I bought my first everything.

Other things, thankfully, are comfortingly right. The Brighton Bead Shop is just as it ought to be, and the friendly women behind the counter sell me earring hooks and foiled beads with the kind of knowledgeable pleasantness everyone working there has always had. I buy some fantastic shoes and a matching bag from an almost ludicrously lovely and helpful woman a few doors down from Komedia. I have a run-in with a tobacconist on Jubilee Street who seems to think it’s still 1953 and women should smoke super-slims if anything at all.

In the evening, I wind through the dusk to the little pub that was my father’s local when he was in his teens and early twenties. I’m there to meet my cousin and her aunt, old family friends I’ve never quite been able to believe I’m not related to by blood, and we talk about how our fathers – well, mine and Claire’s fathers and Debbie’s brother, both dead this spring – sat here with their other closest friend, the man who is now my Uncle Pete, and gradually become the men we knew all our lives. We’re in the corner booth they used to claim as their own, and Claire at least drinks the ales they always favoured even if Deb and I prefer white wine and gin respectively.

Afterwards we walk past houses on Ditchling Road and Cat’s Corner, and Debbie points out where our fathers used to walk and talk and play and sit and read. We all tear up a little. What injustice, that this has come to us both at once.

Walking back through the Laines with a cone of chips in one hand and an illicit bottle of cider in the other, I realise all of a sudden that I can at last smell the sea. Once I take my leave of Claire I head straight for the beach rather than my hotel, and stand alone in the darkness squinting at the horizon past the shimmer of moonlight on ocean. The sea after midnight is intensely personal no matter how many people you share it with; there’s an entire nightclub not fifty yards behind me, but the stone-on-stone rushing of the waves drowns out its noise and nobody is paying attention to me as I talk to the water.

Earlier, disconsolate, I had texted my mother upset at how things weren’t quite right here. She wasn’t sympathetic at all, being as she is quite thoroughly disillusioned with the town she grew up in already; “remember”, she said, “that the place is a whited sepulchre. You are finally getting a glimpse behind the veil.” I think to myself then, feet sinking into shingle at almost one in the morning, that despite it all she was wrong. Salt water runs in my veins as deeply as ink, and there could be no veil between me and this ocean.

Anything So Magnificent

(c) Allie Whiteley, 2011

(c) Allie Whiteley, 2011

Virginia Woolf once said that nothing has ever really happened until it has been written down. Ever since I first came across that quote at the age of twelve or thirteen I’ve lived under the shadow of all the things that never really happened to me: not just the the parties nobody will ever remember in perfect clarity or the the startling three AM thoughts that slipped away, but also the nothings. The days when nothing happened.

What do we do with our lost days? My mother once bought me a little book called A Thought A Day, with a short space to write a sentence in every evening for five years. I wasn’t very good at keeping up with it, and so sometimes I’d find myself going back and writing up a week or a fortnight at a time, pretending to my future self that I’d developed the habit properly. I’d get to a certain point and realise I didn’t have anything to say because I couldn’t remember a single notable moment from the day in question. What did I do last Tuesday, I’d ask myself, What ever did I do, and then I’d start to panic because I’d got so keenly aware of how tiny and insignificant my life was and how much of it I was wasting on days I couldn’t even remember a single thing about. The past is a memory, and the future is a daydream, and all we actually have for real is this here – this exact moment, the one that will have fled even by the time I finish hitting the next key on the keyboard.

My father is a part of the past now, and he has been since early Monday morning. He is a memory kept alive by our scrabbling minds, a whisper fading inside an echo chamber. All I can do – as a writer, and a rememberer, and a daughter, and a mourner – is shout as loudly as I can till the urge to keep it going lessens.

*****

At about half past ten on Sunday morning, I was woken up by a phone call from the hospital. “He’s not doing so well”, the nurse said. “You should come.” I threw on some clothes and ran downstairs to where my housemate, my best friend, was sitting at the computer in the living room. “The hospital rang”, I said. She went to pick up her car keys.

When I got there, nothing seemed very dramatic at all; much as I’d left it when I went home the evening before. I sat with him and talked to him – to him, not with him, because by that point he couldn’t speak. He hadn’t really been able to since Wednesday. I don’t know if he could even hear me by then but I talked and talked, and other people came and went and they all talked too, until eventually they’d all gone and night was falling and I sat down in a chair by the hospital bed – we were in a private room by then, which was a blessing – and I thought to myself how this could be the last time I ever sat alone with my dad while he was still alive. I didn’t know what else to say or what more to do so I pulled out the copy of The Hobbit I had in my handbag for this very purpose and I started to read it to him.

My father and I have a special relationship with The Hobbit. He’s read it to me, and I’ve read it to him, and it was the first proper novel I read all by myself as a child, and it’s of most vital importance to us both. Dad and I can and often do both recite the first paragraph:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

For the rest of my life whenever I see those words I will hear my own voice quaking and breaking at my father’s bedside, and remember how I recited Misty Mountains almost from memory because my eyes were so thick with tears I could barely see the page. I didn’t leave the hospital till after ten PM that night and when I did, I stayed with friends who live nearby. I slept poorly and fitfully on their sofa, my phone clutched in my hand and a set of clothes laid out by the coffee table just in case. When it rang I wasn’t at all surprised. I was at the hospital well inside fifteen minutes after they woke me to tell me they thought he’d stopped breathing.

*****

The hospital lay sleeping, the ward a dimmed silence far removed from all the hustle I’d got used to being there amongst. It was a little after four in the morning and the nurses gave me a cup of tea and showed me silently into his room. He was lain flat on his back, straightened out, not in a position he could have been in during the few weeks that went before. He looked small and peaceful and very, very still. I felt myself wracked by a silent sob. “Oh, Dad”, I think I said. “Oh dad, oh dad, oh dad.”

“I love you so much. Fuck. I love you so, so much. How could you do this to me? No, I don’t mean that. I’m sorry. How could you – don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me. I love you so much. I’m sorry. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Did I ever say that? I don’t think I ever said that. How could I possibly have never said that? I love you so much.”

When it had passed, I moved to stand by his bed and I googled Psalm 23 and started reading it over him, but I was reading the wrong one – it was the NIV and you never use the NIV for Psalm 23, it’s the KJV everyone means when they think about it, but by the time I realised I’d already started and you can’t just stop and regoogle and go again, can you, talk about ruining the moment. So I read the wrong Psalm 23 and then I said the Lord’s Prayer and a collect and the Glory Be and some other things, and then I realised that I’d run out of prayers I knew off by heart and was saying the Hail Mary which is about the least Calvinist thing ever and while Dad wouldn’t have minded it wouldn’t have meant anything to him either, so I shut up for a moment and phoned his brother. “He’s gone. It’s over.”

Chris had to start getting everyone up and out and into the car, and I phoned my boyfriend and said it all over again and he started mobilising, and then I made the sign of the cross of my father’s forehead and left the room and had a word with the nurses and got back in the lift and went outside and rolled a cigarette. This was when it got bad. I phoned the vicar first – I got the poor man out of bed before five in the morning for not a lot, but he was lovely about it – and then my mother, at least in part because she and her husband get up that early most weekdays anyway so I knew I wouldn’t wake them, and then I tried to go back inside but it was so hot in the hospital that every time I started walking down the corridor I felt like I couldn’t continue. I knew I was going to throw up but I didn’t know when and I had to get it over and done with and I couldn’t bear the heat and I just felt sicker and sicker and worse and worse, and I wanted to sit and talk to the vicar on the phone for a bit and he would have done just that but I couldn’t speak I felt so sick, and all I could do was pace around the hospital grounds like a madwoman until eventually I vomited horribly in the most discreet outdoor corner I could find, horribly, over and over till there was nothing of me left.

After that I could go back inside. I sat for another forty-five minutes or so in the chair next to my father’s bed, the same chair I’d read The Hobbit to him from just the day before, with my hand on his shoulder and my forehead resting against the metal bed-frame, and I talked and talked till everyone else arrived. Dead bodies are strange. His is the second I’ve seen, and the first had been embalmed and that does make a big difference – my dad still looked mostly like himself, but his mouth and eyes were both frozen in this strange half-open way that nobody would ever stay like were they alive and I kept thinking I could see the bedclothes rising and falling with his breaths but I knew it was just an illusion – just my eyes seeing what my brain expected them to see.

I don’t suppose I need to write down all the things that happened next. They happened to other people, too, and so they’re in much less danger of fading from reality.

I will say, though, that I didn’t spend that night in my own home either, and when I got back there the next night I went upstairs to go directly to sleep and there on the foot of my bed were my father’s bags, all the stuff of his I’d brought home from the hospital. I’d forgotten they were there and I fell to my knees with the weight of the blow. When I’d recovered a little I picked up his iPad and it was still on, still charged. I glanced through some things and I found a letter, a piece of writing not unlike this one in spirit, written by the daughters of a close friend of my Dad’s who had died only a few short weeks previously. I don’t have the iPad here with me and I couldn’t quote the context, but there was a line in it that just said As if anything as magnificent as our father’s brain could possibly die!

As if indeed. As if.

They’re slightly radioactive, you know.

This was a LiveJournal post that I made all the way back in 2010. But I wanted to link to it from a post I’m about to make to this blog – and really, who uses LJ these days? – so here it is, for your edification &c. I promise you that my father doesn’t pay my bills any more [grin]


“Excuse me, ma’am”, says a cheery voice in a navy blue uniform, “but do you have a Tesco Clubcard?”

“Yes,” I reply, trying not to break my stride. “I do.” I’m distinctly relieved that for once they’re touting something I can truthfully say I already use.

“Do you use Clubcard Vouchers to pay your gas and electric bills?”

Reluctantly, I give in and stop walking. “I don’t, no.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t pay the gas and electric.” This is also true, but I know as soon as I say it that I should have gone with ‘I don’t spend enough in Tesco to cover them’ instead. Which is no less true, and would have ended the conversation faster.

“Who does?”, he asks. “Your husband?”

“My father”, I tell him. This too is a mistake. I’ve shared a personal detail. There’s no going back now: we’re in this for the long haul.

“Lucky you!”

“Yes”, I agree, hurriedly. I fear I am in for a jovial ‘youth of today’ rant. “I’m a student.” This detail usually ameliorates some of the embarrassment of the previous revelation. Everybody knows students are broke.

“Oh! What are you studying?”

“English Literature and Creative Writing”, I reply. I know what’s coming next.

“Are you a writer, then?”

“Well – I write, yes.”

“Novels?”

“Sometimes.”

“How many have you got published?”

“Er. None. Yet.”

“Oh. You’re not very good, then?”

I stammer something nonsensical with a lot of ‘um, er, ah’-ing.

“I’m only joking with you!”, he laughs. “What sort of novels?”

“Fantasy, mostly.”

He looks shocked. “What, like” – and here his voice drops to a whisper. “Dirty books?”

“No, no”, I smile. “Magic. Time travel. That sort of thing.”

“Oh!” He looks a little disappointed. “Like Harry Potter?”

“Er. Um. A little bit like that, I suppose. But for grown-ups.” I avoid the word ‘adult’. That way madness lies.

“You look a bit Harry Potterish.”

I smile again, feigning ignorance of his point.

“I knew a gothic once. He had a coffin instead of a bed. I thought, that’s a bit weird, innit? Isn’t that a bit weird?”

“I have a normal bed”, I assure him, and instantly wish I hadn’t.

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

“Yes”, I reply, with ringing certainty. It’s the first out-and-out lie I’ve told him, but I refuse to break the golden rule of women conversing with strange men. When that question comes – which it inevitably does – always, always say ‘yes’.

“Alright, alright!” He throws his hands up in mock surrender. “I weren’t offering.” There is an awkward pause.

“I really must be going,” I say. “I need to find the baked beans.”

“Black ones?”, he asks, grinning broadly. I don’t get it for a second. “Is everything you eat black?”

My basket is full of brightly-coloured fruits and vegetables. “Um. No, I just eat…you know. Normal food.”

“Why do you draw your eyebrows on like that?”

“I like the way it looks.”

“Why not just pluck them really thin?”

“Er. Um. I like them like this.”

“Do you need help finding the baked beans?”

“Oh, er, no, thank you. I know where they are. Thank you.”

And then comes Inevitable Question #2: “What’s all them scars on your arms?”

I look down with an expression of surprise, as though I’d forgotten they were there. Which I do, most of the time. “Oh, those”, I say. “It’s a very long story, and it involves a porcupine and a banana.” He looks at me as though I’ve gone utterly barmy. “Trust me”, I continue in darkly confidential tones. “Porcupines really don’t like bananas. They’re slightly radioactive, you know. The bananas, not the porcupines. Not unless they’ve been eating bananas. And then…” I gesture to my forearms with my eyebrows raised ruefully.

In the ensuing confusion I smile apologetically and take my leave, to spend the rest of my time in the supermarket carefully taking circuitous routes through aisles so as to stay out of his line of sight.

As an aside

I’ve not been getting a huge amount of comments on this blog yet – lovely as though it is to get the ones I am – but I do seem to be garnering rather more likes and follows and pageviews and internet cookies than my comment numbers would lead one to believe.  Which is wonderful. Somehow, however, they are not quite from the sorts of people I might have expected. Hello, people I might not have expected, it is lovely to have you here and you are endlessly welcome. However, here are some things that you might want to know about me and this blog before we go any further:

  • I am fat, and that is okay. I do not intend to try and stop being fat. It’s very nice that so many diet and weight loss blogs are following me now, but I wouldn’t want them to labour under the misapprehension that I am attempting something that actually I think is pointless, expensive and dangerous – not to mention part of a foul culture of bullshit.
  • I am ardently, stridently, proudly and determinedly a feminist*. I am pro-choice, and pro-equal-marriage, and pro-people-being-happy, and pro all those other fun things that come along with being a feminist. I’m totally  willing to enter into a discussion about these things with someone who vehemently opposes me on them if they really want me to, but I’m not sure how much good it will do any of us.
  • I’m both a pagan and a witch. In the context of this blog that isn’t relevant, and I won’t be mentioning it much. It’s wonderful that I now have a couple of overtly Christian followers, and you are very welcome here. I just thought you might want to know that, in case you were a) unaware and uncomfortable with the idea or b) suffering from the delusion that you might be able to somehow convert me. Otherwise, we’re all good! 🙂

* Also, I like adverbs.

Welcome to the new year: same as the old year.

I really love new Year’s Eve.

Like, I really love New Year’s Eve. I love New Year’s Eve in the same way that kids love Christmas or their birthday. In fact, I love New Year’s Eve more than that, because I love Christmas and my birthday like a kid does too but New Year’s Eve is even better. It’s my favorite day of the year, which is actually kind of depressing when you think about it too hard so er, don’t do that. Because I want my love of New Year’s Eve to remain unadulterated by nihilism, even though I just realised how nihilistic it actually is.

One of the most nihilistic things about my love of New Year’s Eve is that it is – every time – the start of a brand new shiny year, unblemished by the flaws and failures of the twelve months that have inevitably preceded it. It’s a whole clean slate; a brand new bedroom that you haven’t made messy yet, an essay you have yet to get dug into and not get a first for, a notebook that you’ll fill with scintillatingly wonderful notes and plans and ideas and somehow your handwriting will no longer look like a drunk spider and you’ll magically be able to draw.

Digression: All through my teens, I kept diaries. Pen and paper diaries, because I am still old enough to have done that. In my head they were always going to look like this:

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And instead they were always just page after page of my awful messy borderline-dyspraxic scrawl, with the occasional attempt at a shitty drawing that was worse than the attempts made by my sister who was back then still basically a toddler. She’s fifteen now and a really really good draw-er and I bet her secret private diaries all look amazing. Except they probably don’t exist. I bet she just has a password-protected tumblr. Jesus, I’m so old. Okay, end digression.

The point is I always make New Year’s Resolutions, because there’s a whole big shiny new year for me to do stuff in and be a proper grownup and not fail, and that’s a remarkably tempting idea really. And now it is October, which means we’re well into the final quarter of the year – which has always meant something to me for some reason too, I do seem to get ridiculously romantic about the passage of time – and that means I can start looking back at 2013, which is now a little raggedy around the edges and not very shiny-looking any longer, and try to figure out what sort of a hash I have made of it.

  • Resolution One: Get my working life in order, and start building some kind of Actual Career.
    Well…sort of. I mean, I’m in a much better position right now than I was at the end of last year: I’m not on the dole any longer, and I have been getting enough writing work to scrape by on since April. That said, I am a long way away from being what you might call “self-sufficient”. I wonder if I can somehow find another £500 a month by the end of December? That would be nice. That would mean I didn’t have to rely on anything except my own competence any more, and I would like that. However…I do not know how to do it. Hmm.
  • Resolution Two: Start doing more exercise.
    Dear holy actual god, I had forgotten I wrote this. If anything I am less active than I was when I was thinking these things up and I’ve actually gained about 10lbs over the course of this year. Can we please just gloss over this one?
  • Resolution Three: Try not to get dumped. Getting dumped sucks.
    [laughs] Yeah, so when I wrote these I was at the beginning of a new relationship which was the first one to have happened after the end of one that had significant uprooting-and-complicating effects on pretty much every area of my life. I am pleased to report that I have not yet been dumped, and that The Boyfriend does not seem to have any impending plans to so do.
  • Resolution Four: Do a special thing for every one of the eight festivals.
    Ugh, I feel really rubbishy about messing this one up. It was all going great – we did Imbolc, Ostara, Beltane and Litha – and then I was too disorganised for Lammas and too broke for Mabon. I’m really sad about it, actually, because they were a lot of fun to sort out and it really meant something to me to not be crap with them. It’s Samhain soon enough, though, and I am determined to not screw up for that and Yule. And then next year I can be a completist about it all. Right?

On the whole, I think I’m going to count 2013 as a “tentative win with room for improvement”, I think.

Lugubrious

The other day, my boyfriend said something interesting to me. “You have such a tremendous vocabulary”, he lamented, right after I had declared that ‘ugh I can’t maths’, or something similarly erudite. “I wish you’d use it.” He had a point, so I have resolved to start reminding myself of good words in my arsenal that I don’t get out nearly often enough.

My very first word of the week – you see, I am determined to do things here after all, even if they really are only for myself – is lugubrious. According to Wikitionary:

LUGUBRIOUS: Gloomy, mournful or dismal, especially to an exaggerated degree.
“The poor lighting and sparse maintenance, plus the rarefied traffic on its wide boulevards, made the effect of Pyongyang on the tourist distinctly lugubrious.”
“His client’s lugubrious expression tipped off the detective that something lurked beneath her optimistic words.”

I have had, it must be said, something of a lugubrious few days. On Monday of last week, all was well with the world; I had a truly magnificent birthday, and was feeling optimistic about the future. On Wednesday I got back into the office of the new part-time job I’d been at for a week or two, and was told that the girl they’d got in to cover for me while I was at the zoo was so much faster than I was that they’d given the job to her instead.

For lots of reasons, I was entirely heartbroken. I don’t have an amazing history with office jobs – I’m good at writing and good at freelancing, but give me admin or data entry to do and apparently I turn into a blithering idiot – and I’d really hoped that this one would work out, not least because I could do with the extra money. And by “could do with”, I mean “couldn’t really do without”.

It’s been nearly a week now, and I think I’m finally starting to regain some equilibrium and crack on with all the various bits of my life I’ve neglected for days. It’s been an exercise in how very badly simply switching off for a short while can affect things: I’m staring now at a pile of laundry taller than I am, and a deadline that snuck past me when I was looking the other way, and a small heap of personal errands like getting things printed out and filling in forms and going to the post office to pick up a parcel.

I’m glad that, at the moment, a lugubrious six days lasts only six days, and not the six weeks that it might have at other points in my life. I’m hopeful that I’m right, and that from tomorrow morning I really will make sure that all those things are sorted out and not neglected for any longer. And I’m certain that at half past three in the morning I should really be trying to sleep, and not sitting in bed with my netbook writing blog posts about adjectives.

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In which I briefly wax lyrical about the city of my bones

In which I briefly wax lyrical about the city of my bones

People seem to labor under the misapprehension that nature is something that happens outside of cities. That annoys me, a little; I love this city, and I love all the nature and wildlife that can be found in it. Life and growth burst out through every crack, every brick, every inch of London. The truth is, ‘nature’ is nothing more than the world around us – and really, concrete and coalsmoke are no less ‘natural’ than the sun rising over the Himalayas, or this daisy.

I like this daisy. it is one of the many, many daisies found on the patch of grass outside my boyfriend’s flat in Feltham. I’ve been enjoying them for weeks, but then – much to my dismay – someone came by and mowed them all down, scattering destroyed flowers and crushed petals all over the place. I was kind of upset. It had been lovely, watching them grow and spread and open and close, seeing their little flowerheads nodding in the low breeze. There were buttercups, too, and the whole thing was all the colours that late spring and early summer is supposed to be.

A few days later, though, they were back. For such tiny and delicate-looking little flowers, daisies are remarkably hardy things. I nearly got a bit allegorical about them for a moment, there.