After her divorce, my mother’s life dissolved so rapidly from the steady, solid life she’d had with my father that it was if she was astride a rocket of self-destruction. Her alimony was spent on daily drinking and filter-to-filter cigarettes, smoking Benson & Hedges, those deadly gold boxes with the flip-top lid went everywhere she went, day and night. So unconcerned was she that she was reduced to living in a shared bedsit with a stranger. On the occasional Saturdays that I spent with her, having caught the train up from my father’s townhouse in Bromley, we had nowhere to go and she had no money to do it with so we walked around parts of North London, not too far from her bedsit but still far enough away for her to make a whole day with what she called ‘sweet Fanny Adams.’ As a seven-year-old, every one of these days was an adventure.
One day we walked through Canonbury Square to the house where George Orwell had lived. I didn’t know who George Orwell was but I learned that day that he’d written ‘1984’ and that he’d died of tuberculosis.
‘I don’t think people die of TB anymore,’ my mother said. ‘Lung cancer, sure. Smoking, that’ll do it.TB is an old disease.’ We stood for a moment and then my mother took my hand and we walked together like this through the residential streets of Islington to 25 Noel Road. 25 Noel Road was where Joe Orton had lived and died. Despite learning from her that Orton had been bludgeoned to death by his lover Kenneth Halliwell, my mother made the life of a playwright sound like the only job in the world worth doing.
‘Joe took a long time to die,’ my mother said. ‘Kenneth took an overdose after he thought he’d killed him. Kenneth was cold when they found him. Joe’s bed was still warm. He was dying. How awful. If he was dead he wouldn’t have known. Poor Joe. His ashes are in the crematorium at Golder’s Green. I don’t know why though, Golder’s Green is Jewish. I’d like to go there when I go, like Joe.’
‘Maybe he was Jewish,’ I said.
‘No. He came from Leicester.’
Because of this perhaps, in my twenties I wrote a handful of plays, none commissioned or performed, not even by an amateur dramatics society in some airy village hall, and the desire of writing plays died. Still keen to avoid a career, I traveled, to Spain, Switzerland, and Sweden and I wrote about my travels in Moleskin notebooks. I wrote anything that I thought sounded good aware that should anybody see me writing and ask what it was I would quote something that I made up, heard, or stolen. My hope was that someone would find one of my notebooks, see my genius filling up the pages in consistent black ink and hail me as the next Cheever or Stoppard. My mother knew that I had written things and she always asked how my writing was going and I always lied to her. She wasn’t curious about the country I was in or the people I was with, just that I was writing, so I had to make that up too.
She died on a Sunday. I was working in a bar in Stockholm the night she died. It was one of many bars that I’d worked in on a Sunday night somewhere in the world. By anybody’s measure in the bartending business, Sunday night is the loneliest night of the week. On Sunday nights most of you are getting ready for the week to come, making to-do lists, looking at emails, meal planning, thinking of what to wear and wondering where your weekend went, and looking forward to the feel-good of Wednesday, when you know you are on the home straight to your next weekend. You are hoping that the week to come will be better than the week just gone. You are out of the trade and tonight you are doing the right things, drinking water, watching Sunday night television, rethinking that to-do list, looking at your partner, and hoping that this week you will rekindle what has been left to burn out. Me? I’m in the bar serving other bartenders who will spend their whole night complaining about how shitty Sunday nights are because no one is out.
‘Everyone’s busy getting ready to be busy. No one is out,’ he said.
‘You’re out,’ I said.
‘I mean real people. Not people like us. Look at them. Just look at them. Pale, neurotic, drunk, probably still fucked up from the rush of last night. Tattoos everywhere, with shit like ‘Bandido’ or ‘fallen’ or some shit, written in big three-d letters on their pasty skin They think they’re outlaws but they’re part of the biggest bunch of conformists ever.’
‘Where do you work?’ I say.
‘Tiger. Upstairs bar.’
I know Tiger, it’s a club downtown, it’s the new club and it’s hot and all the great women go there now.
‘How is it?’
‘Like this place used to be. Pussy’s off the scale until you look close.’
‘Coke whores. Table flies, you know? The guy with the most money
‘That’s me out.’
‘Yeah. Me too. Skanks most of them.’ I’d been there. It was full of beautiful women. Maybe he worked at a different Tiger to the one I was thinking of. Maybe he didn’t work there at all. He looked at me and then looked around the bar. ‘Get busy ever anymore?’
‘Not on a Sunday.’
‘Nowhere does. I’ll have another.’ He was drinking Amstell with short rapid tilts of the bottle. I guessed he was coming down from something or surfing on the alcohol from last night, holding onto that high until he crashed.
‘What time you close?’ He said.
‘Shit.’ He looked at his watch. ‘Three hours away. I’d better have another. No. Scratch that,’ he said.
‘But I’m closing soon anyway. They’re going to call me,’ I said. To this day I don’t know why I said that or who was going to call me. Looking back it was weirdly supernatural but I didn’t know that then. He didn’t hear me. I served somebody else and watched him leave. If I’d stayed open later, he would have been back and I knew that I’d never get rid of him and he would sit and drink and get drunker and stupid and offensive and I’d have to throw him out and he’d start throwing punches and one of us would hit the deck. When he left, I locked the door. I walked home through falling snow and every so often stopped and looked back at my footprints and marveled at how quickly the dented evidence of my journey was filled with fresh snow and I disappeared.
I had been in my flat for a few minutes, enough to take off my coat and my shoes, put water in the kettle, set up a teabag in a cup, take the milk out of the fridge and leave it next to the cup before the telephone rang. It was my aunt.
‘She’s gone,’ she said.
‘Not long ago. A nurse told me at eleven tonight. No pain. She was on morphine. Asked after you but told you not to tell you. Don’t tell the kids she said. I reminded her you were forty.’
‘I’ll come over,’ I said. I am her kid.
‘She wants to be cremated.’
My aunt asked me to finish the funeral arrangements and take care of the flat, register her death at Somerset House and talk to the bank. She’d contacted an undertaker and given them instructions and now I had to do the rest.
In her fifties, my mother had got her life back together and through a charity for London’s homeless had found a flat in a Victorian housing block Shorts Gardens in Covent Garden. The fruit and vegetable market was gone and the money that ruined Covent Garden was yet to arrive. The area was still a rundown part of London, hidden from any glamour, pockmarked by undeveloped piles of rubble, some from the Second World War. She lived there for the last twenty years of her life and watched it change. She liked the young people that began to swarm to the area and she went out walking day and night to be amongst them. Punks, musicians, magicians, street performers, all of them, this wave of youth that she let wash her.
Five years ago the trust had wanted to sell the block and the residents were offered alternative accommodation, modern flats out of central London. They all took the offer except for my mother and Rose, a woman of ninety-one, who’d been born in the flat in which she still lived. They both refused to move and there was nothing anybody could do about it. The trust offered them more money, a larger bribe thinly disguised as a ‘re-housing cost’ which my mother refused, which surprised me.
‘I don’t want to move,’ she told me.
‘What are the new flats like?’ I said.
‘Lovely. But I don’t want to go. I’m not going to be bullied by these arseholes, these little people.’ Looking back, I guess that she already knew that she had cancer and this was her last hurrah. This was her last stand and a chance to be seen again, to be important to be someone again, to affect someone’s life.
‘I shall treat them with ignortion,’ she said.
My mother was sixty-two years old when she died, and she’d smoked for fifty of those. When they told her that she had cancer she stopped smoking but it was too late. She detested the chemotherapy and refused to continue with it and she knew that very soon she would die. Her body would crumble, her spine first, then her legs and then her lungs, and then the rest of what was left of her. Her brain would fight only so far and then she would admit defeat to an enemy that she couldn’t wave away. She’d waved a lot of other things away though; my father, her career, most of her friends, even some of her family, it was as if she was determined to be alone.
She had lived alone for the last fifteen years of her life and she liked it that way. She’d had a boyfriend for a while when she first got the flat, a younger guy, a poet who wrote dull poems and kept the drama of his life just for her, or so she told me. There were other women for him. The week before I went into the army I stepped into one of their rows and I knocked him to the ground with a single punch and she never saw him again. She heard a few months later, from one of his writing group friends, a woman who wrote monotonous poems about black horses crashing through white waves, that he’d taken up with a much older Greek woman.
‘She’s only got one leg,’ my mother told me. The last thing she’d heard of him was that he’d got AIDS.
The undertaker’s offices were gloomy and the walls were paneled with unpolished dark wood, it looked heavy and lifeless. Joyless men in equally dark waistcoats and crisp, white shirtsleeves that were ruffed with gold armbands, moved quietly in and out of the rooms. These men were careful not to let you catch their eye until to do so was made necessary by the unpleasant business of your loved one’s death. When I was ready one of them appeared in front of me, this one was all business and he was wearing a buttoned-up jacket. He introduced himself and took me to a room full of coffins. There were no prices on the coffins and I felt like a losing contestant in a game show as the host cheerfully reveals the price of my chosen box. Each one that I touched was more expensive than the last until I was back to the first one, the second cheapest, that I had tapped on.
‘I should take the cheapest one,’ I said. ‘We’re only going to burn it.’
‘I must apologise. The handles aren’t very good on that one,’ he said.
‘Will it need handles?’
‘For a time, yes.’
‘We’re cremating her,’ I said.
‘Yes. You’ve chosen Golder’s Green.’
‘I’m not sure who is carrying her then,’ I said. ‘Do you get carried at a cremation? I’m not sure there will be enough of us to carry her ourselves.’
‘That can be arranged,’ he said. ‘We can provide people if needed.’ How sad, I thought, to not know enough people that knew her to warrant Joyce’s six angels.
My coffin shall be black,
Six angels at my back,
Two to sing and two to pray
And two to carry my soul away.
I had been absent from her life and now, back in it, my presence didn’t matter.
At the crematorium, there was a service before ours and we stood around in the West Chapel car park. A priest came out and spoke to us to tell us that there was some delay.
‘Marie’s service will be along shortly.’
‘Mary,’ I said.
‘Mary?’ The priest said.
‘Yes. That’s Marie,’ I said and pointed to my aunt. ‘I don’t think she’s ready for the pyre just yet. She smokes,’ I said. ‘But it’s not the same thing. Mary, that’s the one we’re burning. Mary is my mother’s name.’ The priest told us that smoking was only allowed in the designated area of the car park and that we’d have to move there if we wanted to smoke and then he went back inside.
‘Weird, isn’t it?’ I said. ‘A crematorium has rules about smoking. You’d think that they’d be more understanding.’
My brother lit a cigarette and then offered the packet to my aunt who passed it around. An ex-girlfriend who’d ended up living with my mother for a while, whilst I was in Israel with another girl, was at the crematorium too. She took the packet and offered it to me.
‘You give up?’
‘Fifteen years ago.’
‘I thought you were gonna run for it at the church,’ she said.
‘Me too,’ I said.
‘How are you?’
‘No. About you. How are you?’
‘Yeah. You know.’
I didn’t want to talk to anybody.
‘I’m gonna find Joe,’ I said.
‘Orton. Joe Orton. The playwright. He’s here.’
‘We’re going in soon,’ she said.
I tipped my head towards the door that the priest had entered, ‘he didn’t think so.’ She nodded her head and walked over to my smoking brother and my smoking aunt and she took a cigarette from the packet, lit it, and joined them in puffs of grey air.
Golder’s Green crematorium is made of red brick and the front is a series of arches that welcome you into the Chapel of Memory, through to the Shrine of Remembrance, and then into the columbarium, a space that looks like a multi-level groovy shop for unfired earthenware pots and crockery. On top of the building is a tall, thin, square chimney and with the sun shining, as it was today, the building looked like a friendlier version of Auschwitz. I went to find Joe.
Orton’s ashes were mixed with Halliwell’s and scattered in the Garden of Remembrance and this was the first place that I looked. ‘A day in the life’ played at his service and Harold Pinter read the eulogy. It sounded like a fun day rather than a funeral. I walked around the buildings and lawns but couldn’t find what I was looking for because I didn’t know what it was.
When I got back to the West Chapel everybody was still standing around but now in the smoking designated area of the car park. In front of them four men, clones from the funeral parlor, were taking a coffin out from the back of a hearse. In a smooth motion, like a dance, the coffin slid with a dull bump into their gloved hands and was then lifted up and put into place on their shoulders. They paused to balance the weight and then each man touched the shoulder of the man in front of him and they turned and walked towards the Chapel doors. I nodded my head toward them.
‘Shall we go in?’ I said.
‘There you are.’ My aunt said.’ Where have you been?’
‘Talking to Joe. Are we going in?’ I said. ‘We’re supposed to follow the coffin, aren’t we? They’re going in. We don’t want to lose them.’
‘We’ve been in. That’s not her. You’re mum’s gone,’ my Aunt said. She pointed up at a tendril of light smoke drifting heavenwards. ‘That’s probably her. She’ll never forgive you,’ my aunt said.
She’s dead, she’ll never know. Poor mum.
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