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.

Yes, I was there too.

Reflective baby blue is so not my colour.

In which I discover that there’s nowhere to clip a radio to an evening dress.

Nine years ago, at the 2005 Worldcon in Glasgow, someone who went on to become incredibly influential in my life who I had only met that weekend for the first time gave me a slightly aghast look and said, “what do you mean you’ve never even heard of LiveJournal?” We weren’t always carting around three different little magically internet-connected devices then (the first person I knew who got anything on a network a bit like the 3G we all now use was her husband a year or so later, and back then we all teased him a bit for his dedication being as such that he now had the internet in his pocket at all times) and so she dragged me bodily over to one of the laptops set up in the fan lounge and opened my first blog of any kind.

I was sixteen years old and that weekend changed my life forever. From there I was taken to goth clubs, introduced to people who were bisexual and polyamorous and who liked the same music as I liked and read the same books as I read. The first fanzine article I ever wrote was published in the fanzine that had won the Hugo that year; I was pleased with this in the way that only a sixteen year old trying very hard to be impressive can be. Nearly everyone I now count as a friend is someone I met because of a chain of events that started at that convention; the vast majority of all the people I’ve slept with or dated, the two close friends I’ve been living with for the past two years, practically everyone I know. I was in my late teens, looking for a life to be launched into, and the one I ended up shooting towards has been shaped by where it started in a thousand different ways.

I sort-of left fandom for a bit a few years ago. It was never supposed to be permanent, but it was a time when I needed to take a step back – I’d joined a roleplaying group whose own events pretty much ate the money I’d have spent on going to conventions, for long and complicated reasons I was concerned that a couple of people I liked very much indeed didn’t want me around and I hated the idea of causing awkwardness, once you’re out of the habit of doing something it gets easier and easier to stay away and harder and harder to go back, that sort of thing. There was never any question, however, that Dad and I would go to the London Worldcon. They were having a Worldcon in London, for god’s sake: why wouldn’t we be there?

Of course, the truth of it is that there is at least one reason we wouldn’t be there, and as a result of that very thing one of us wasn’t. We none of us expected my father to go as soon as he did, and while I briefly wondered when he bought my membership if he might not be too ill to enjoy it properly it hadn’t occurred to me in the least that he might have been dead for three months by the time the convention started.

This has been a strange weekend: simultaneously energising of spirit and knackering of body, filled with friends both old and new yet often remarkably lonely, an event that has made me feel like I’ve come back home but also one that made it clear to me I really have been away longer than I maybe should have gone. I’ve never been any good at actually writing proper conreps – I think the only one I ever did properly was the one that was printed in Plokta a decade ago – so in lieu of something that I’m still pretending to myself I might actually sit down and write later, have a series of bullet points.

Thursday

  • I was actually genuinely nervous as I arrived at the con early on Thursday morning; Dad wasn’t with me and I wasn’t entirely certain of the reception my return might receive and there was one moment when I almost bailed. By mid-afternoon however it had been shown that none of the social awkwardness I was worried about was in any way a thing and I’d actually been being stupid, I’d been to two panels and the opening ceremony, I’d caught up with a whole load of people, I’d drunk three pints and I was immensely relieved I hadn’t wussed out.
  • The Retro Hugo Awards, for which I wore the closest thing I own to a vaguely 30s-ish dress and looked (if I may say so myself) rather elegant although not at all historically accurate, were actually really very good fun. The metaplot worked well and the note from Beatrice Welles brought a tear to my eye.
  • There was no gin! This was a disaster! Except it wasn’t, because as soon as I mentioned the convention’s inherent ginlessness to bohemiancoast she went and fixed it. Which was excellent.

Friday

  • By this point in the con it was becoming painfully clear that the hard parts were mealtimes and the big staged Auditorium events. There were enough friends around that I could reliably just amble around the fan village till I saw someone I knew well enough to go over and join, but I wasn’t at the con *with* anyone and that was, at times, really very hard indeed.
  • I’m glad I sat in on the open rehearsal for a bit with dougs, even if I did cry a bit at Jupiter and then get embarrassed about bursting randomly into tears. Dad loved the Planets Suite, as do I. The orchestral performance itself was very impressive indeed, and probably the major highlight of my convention – the 86-piece orchestra was made up of members of the Royal Philharmonic and various other orchestras of that calibre, and there were several moments when I cried more just because they were so good. I particularly enjoyed the Haydn (there’s something incredibly restrained about The Representation of Chaos, isn’t there; it sits for so long on the brink of an outburst that never quite seems to come), the Doctor Who theme tune (that theremin player was so beautiful, and he seemed so very pleased to be there – it was lovely just to watch his face, not to mention the arrangement they played was a lot of fun), the soprano they had for Song to the Moon, the Holst again, and The Unanswered Question – which seemed to me to be both about humanity reaching out into the universe looking for life elsewhere and also about the ways in which we all do that to each other on a smaller scale – sometimes life feels like we’re all trapped inside our own heads, trying to reach out and see if there are really other real people who are just as complex and deep as we feel ourselves to be. Part of the human condition is in never being able to reach anyone else entirely, nor to be entirely reached.
  • Oh my god, the late Party Maven shift was exhausting. At least nothing went too wrong! Design flaw: there’s no useful way to clip a walkie talkie radio to an evening dress. Someone should get on that.

Saturday

  • I only made it to one panel on Saturday, and I was unceremoniously evicted from it a third of the way through because the room was overcrowded. What I was there for was really very interesting, though.
  • This was my big dressing-up-and-dancing night. I wore stockings and a corset and everything. The Barfleet party, with its star turn from d_floorlandmine and its terrifying shots, was the social/partying highlight of my con – I had an excellent time. Also, I went to bed at 6am. Whoops.

Sunday

  • Sunday morning was a hungover washout, but the afternoon was a success – two very interesting panels, a lovely conversation with someone I’ve known a bit for years but have never spoken to one-on-one or at length before and now feel like I know much better, and some excellent carrot cake.
  • I wholeheartedly enjoyed livetweeting the Hugo awards, and it was also pretty successful; I was the first person to post most of the results to Twitter, an author whose books I really like but who I’ve never met retweeted me a few times, and it made sitting there alone feel a lot less lonely. I was incredibly touched by the fact that Dad was listed and remembered during the memorial section, though I hadn’t thought to expect it and I did cry a lot.

Monday

  • Raising a memorial toast to my dad at the Literary Beers table on the last night was someone else’s idea, as it hadn’t occurred to me that it was something I could do – but a very good one it was too. I was so touched by the fact that people turned up, and I was immensely glad that I had the ability to buy everyone who did a pint on him. Dad’s pre-printed con badge was there too, as I’d picked it up from Registration earlier in the day. I hated the thought that after all those decades of convention-going his last ever membership would just get thrown away, so I brought it home with me.
  • I really like Dead Dog parties at cons – they’re often one of the best nights. This one was no exception, and it gave me a chance to properly catch up with people I’d barely spoken to all weekend because they were so busy and Worldcons are so big.

The problem with bullet-pointed lists is that they don’t reach nice conclusions, and now I feel like this post is just going to be left hanging…

…so I’ll just say again how this weekend was both excellent and difficult by turns (sometimes simultaneously), and how although I was keenly aware right through of the fact that Dad wasn’t there it was made a lot easier by how readily other people and the convention itself remembered him and called him to mind and listened to me when I talked about him. So thank you, for that: thank you all.

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.