Sunday, September 10, 2017

Love in Aging Minds (from a work in progress)

I did not mention this yet but things happened very quickly in England and my great aunt died of old age. As a family of habit my great aunt never married and was living in an old farmhouse with her cats; she entertained, with a kind of reluctant acceptance, the villagers who came round to call on her. She was my favourite aunt and when we were little she took us down to the orchard where the chickens were and fed them scraps. We would marvel at the eggs we would bring back, amazed that every Sunday one chicken was bound for the pot. The male chickens were the ones that went first  – and as young as we were we could still see that my aunt did it with a gruff sense of purpose; she wasn’t mean, just dogged and practical and on an Edwardian farm, a wartime lady she surely was.
“Never saw much use for men,” she said once when I quizzed her in her back garden and I wondered how much was directed towards me, a wistful eighteen year-old who lodged with her after high school and worked for a next door cousin's marquee business. Many times she was awoken from her slumber on the second floor of that old farm house by the anxious voice of my high school girlfriend whom I'd left back home who had no clue a school night in Nova Scotia was the witching hour in ol Blighty. 
"Silly girl!" My aunty chided but I could tell there was a slight tinge of regret as if she had loved a man as a teenager. She never spoke of this but I could feel it during hot summers when skyward glances during weeding sessions followed war planes in air shows from nearby Brize Norton airport. "Oh what a carry on." She would say gruffly. "Next I suppose it'll be the colonel driving past in his mustard tin car, following the hunt," she stated as if she didn't really want to go and watch the hounds and the men come through on horseback. I found her a bit of an enigma as if to say that she put many things down, but had no real mean bone in her body. Once I asked her what she thought of Warren Beatty whom was one of the best looking men in Hollywood in his day. “Oh I suppose he’d be all right to sit on a park bench with,” she said.
She was tallish and had swollen legs and big dark severe spectacles that she wore very imposingly but she squeaked with delight at the cats took in strays and she loved nature. I always marveled at her sense of purpose, pushing through the old Edwardian farm house with her cane and fielding once a week phone calls from her sister, Saturdays in the stairwell.  The reason I was with her had been set-up a year before by my parents. My mother wanted me to get some work experience in the UK after high school and my aunt was my mother's, aunt and godmother. Arrangements were made for me to work the for my cousin's marquee business. This all done after she came to Nova Scotia to visit us when she was seventy three – Seventy Three! She had a cake on the plane, was waited on by all the ladies 'in all their finery', the stewardesses.

When I came back to England from Toronto, in 2003, I went to her 90th birthday party at her old farmhouse. It was a grand affair with some local dignitaries and her favourite, a jockey. My aunt asked me if I was still very vain and had I found a woman who wouldn’t make a fool of me?  She sat in a large marquee at one of the main tables table and held court for as long as she could; all of the elderly relatives  passed around photo albums and told me stories of my grandmother, Judith and my aunty as young ladies during the second world war, letting down their hair at dances, in nearby Carterton, and Eynsham, and Witney. In 2003, even though I had lived most of my life in Canada, we were still connected; no matter my lack of success in any proven field other than being a painful word obsessive, we had formed a bond after high school. As I mentioned I had lived with her for a year in her old crumbling farmhouse, working at a factory and as a barman and labourer in rural Oxfordshire before I went back to Nova Scotia and University.

When she died, now a very old lady who had recently celebrated her ninety-fifth birthday party, sitting with blinking eyes on her couch, sitting for pictures with all and sundry out to see her, she was becoming house bound. She was struggling a great deal. Her sister (my grandmother) had recently died and she missed her weekly phone calls from her sister to see how things were. Then as the relatives trickled to a halt and she became more resigned to the infrequent visits, she asked me if my wife, “the little one”, was taking up all my time; when the Polish “ladies in waiting” came round to tidy up she was abrupt with them and if they did get too close to things, (meaning trying to dust or tactfully declutter), my aunt gave them their marching orders, sharpish. She still had the sharp tongue we loved about her but her fire had died. I received calls and letters from “her carer” and her niece saying that they didn’t think I should come out and see her in the ways that she had fallen into around Christmas, forgetting things, falling silent, drinking a little; when she went into the nursing home I knew that she was ready that way but I did not listen to any warning not to go.  I went to say my goodbyes in the Windrush Hospital in Witney; she was propped up in bed, in her gown, sedated, her eyes were closed, slightly reddish, her teeth were out and she was snoring away but when we huddled round and started to talk she stopped snoring and I know that she was listening. Of course her life had been hard but also fair and eventful as well. 
She was a no-nonsense type of person and her sister had been the beauty and my aunt had been the one who had never married and had cared for her parents instead, both of them who had lived well into their eighties, and nineties, too.   
I went to her funeral in the country and read a poem that I had written for her in the country church with all there to listen. It was emotional and I followed the funeral procession out into the grave site and watched the coffin get loaded down into the ground. She was my great friend, the befriender of her nieces' Canadian kids and then offering advice to an eighteen-year-old teenager and I did not want to deny her, her day. I loved her and I would always love her, sitting as she did with her blankets across her, crossword on her lap. She said once that she read The Insolent Boy and “couldn’t make head nor tail of it” but after a while, “the penny dropped.” I had started writing at her farm when I was seventeen, so in a way a filament of that desire to try and make a go of it was kindled in me then; even her sister, my grandmother -  a great personality and talker, wit and gossip and beauty as well had never been published as a writer.

And so after her passing I am resigned to the fact that that idyl is simply that a memory now and I continue to work at whatever jobs I can and make myself a ghoul, haunting my house till late hours creeping from the marriage bed into the study where I pound on the keys till the late hours. My wife say, “come to bed” but I do not she lays there with here hands in her hair pulling at hairs, in her pajamas, waiting for me to come in quietly. I klutz in and cave in eventually, in the darkness of the night whispering to her; “Do you love me? Do you love me? Will you love me forever and so on.”
The replies  – always the same: “Yes, Papi.” Till it all gets louder and more irritated; a grown woman, under siege.

The jobs I work I throw myself all over the city into different situations, predicaments. The other day I was working in a market research job in the East end of London, Enfield, which is up in North East London but because the trains were down I had to take a replacement bus to the main terminus in Finsbury Park, to get a connector service. The East End is still rough; living in Leytonstone I know why David Beckham runs so hard on the pitch when he plays football ­– he never wants to come back here again. Two stories come to mind; perhaps both caused by  a problem with the transport system. In the first case the replacement bus was stuck in traffic on a Saturday and cramped in the back back, sitting with yobs, pensioners, we were suddenly all told to 'get off the bus' because the quietish but sinister young man with the hood had a dog and the dog had shit right in the middle of the bus without anyone seeing it happen. Someone said “its been sick!” the dog has been sick but  it was shit, everyone could tell by the smell of it and the way it was in three separate pieces. The bus driver said everyone off and the crowds out in Walthamstow were fierce, milling around Black Horse Road and trying to figure out whether to take train bus or tube and wondering at the same time where the boy with the dog was, thinking he must be having a chuckle now ducking down a back alleyway? Later on, I was on a door-to-door market research job, knocking on doors and some old, ancient, man invited me into this place said "sit down" he’d be "happy to answer all the questions I had for him."
“What is this all about then?”
 “It's for the council,” I reassured him as I looked into his living room; all the furniture was covered with plastic, little porcelain figurines, crystal, like a strange abandoned trailer. The first clue was the long bony fingers on my collar and a puppetish smile. A bit creepy. Problem it stunk in his place like there hadn’t been anyone in there for days; the place was covered in a thin film of dust and inactivity, like it was preserved in time, on the day the President Kennedy was inaugurated or something; the elderly man was dressed in his night shirt, stooped, spidery thin, was ninety four and deaf as a post, not to mention smiling like a little George Burns, Jewish, gay as the hills. He said, after we had conducted the interview about the council, “I’m rearry attracted to you.” I said, “What?” and he put his hand on me and shuddered and mustered with all his strength “I quite fancy you…” and he was ninety four years old, cuteish, (this must have been his charm as a young man, as he said that he was a tailor) and gave me a hug, he said “AR quite fancy you.” and I said “OK Thank you God bless” as if I was honoured in a weird way to be with the chief of a nearly extinct time and place but I was in such a state I left in a hurry without my bag and all he said, “I can be very discreet ­– come any time you like.”

 I looked into the room where I am certain he entertained favourite nephews and sisters who have married and moved on with having good jobs, families and the like but it was so dark and it was so stale the place, like he covered it in plastic so when people left he wouldn’t have to clean it. There are things you don’t want to see, things about your aged aunts and uncles and you don’t want them to see them in you either. Does this old gay man, feel this way as well? Was he a teachers pet as a child or a favourite nephew who had to keep mum about his own gay inclinations?
Of course I was in the street, feeling strangely naked and vulnerable like when you have forgotten something you can’t quite remember (a friend from one of those jobs would just as easily say you would lose your nose if it wasn’t attached to your face!) so I went back to get the bag he left in the place I could not get in and he would not answer, which made me think that old people are smarter than they let on. I tried the number he had provided for back checking but he when I tried to call it gave a wrong number. And my interview bag was still in there, Crafty old codger.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello John. Chasing the memoir dollar now then? (Colon, hyphen, close bracket.) This is Lee Wilson from the previous decade, slowly emerging from burnout, at least hopefully. I asked about you at the Poetry Cafe the other day at a commemoration for Gareth Lewis, my first venture there in a decade, a strange and weirdly moving evening for not quite pertinent reasons. I'm pleased to see everyone is still 'at it'. By all means delete this if it doesn't fit, seemed the simplest means of broadcasting a thumbs up. Cheers.

3:21 pm  
Anonymous John said...

Oh My Lamb, Lee - what a great surprise to hear from you. I heard about Gareth but have been in school and was disappointed not to make it.
If you are about the place it would be good to see you again, keep in touch.

6:50 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great, I do hope to be up town more often a wee bit later in the year and will give you a yell. Off now to look up the phrase 'oh my lamb'...

The extent of my slowly reawakening faculties at the moment:

9:39 pm  

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