I am told that my brother in law read from Shakespeare’s The Tempest at the funeral. Being a writer, the context of those lines, chosen with insight, would not be lost on him. Nor are they lost on me.
On an Island, the magician Prospero conjures and moves spirits. So it was with my mother, rendering a Masque that many people grew to love. As Prospero muses, magic comes with uncertain and potentially empty benefits “too light winning [may] make the prize light”. That he chooses a life without magic, breaking his staff and abandoning his books, reveals a need to live without illusions, or in our case without hiding truths behind pretence. I didn’t go to my mother’s funeral, because I felt that everyone else deserved to walk away having been entertained and that they had the right to remember her in their own way. I for my part can’t live with that, my mother’s magic was largely lost on me. Consequently, at that funeral I would have struggled to join in, refusing to ignore how my mother and I had lived. The problem is that I am one of those awkward truths that cannot not be spirited away.
I have no way of imagining the life my mother grew up in, other than to speculate that it would have been disturbing even by the standards of the time. You see my grandmother was an alcoholic, my grandfather a Marine in wartime and later a merchant seaman. A young girl growing up with an alcoholic, alone because Dad was away all the time cannot have been fun. How do you deal with that? Escapism might be one way, but also pretending it wasn’t happening would be another. My mother probably chose the latter, maintaining pretences easily enabled by a society full of things you don’t really talk about.
In the 1960’s, kids like me (Aspie), clearly not like the other ones, weren’t looked upon kindly. Ignored, marginalised, bullied or worse; the answer to raising a kid like me was to pretend that I wasn’t. My mother did a magnificent job of convincing me that I was “normal” that I could do all the things that others could and more. To suggest this was a bad thing would be to deny a context and culture where you didn’t want to stand out in the wrong way. While the long-term consequences may have been mixed, the pretence was not a bad strategy.
Bizarrely, my mother against the wishes of my grandfather, married a Sailor. Who, it turned out was another alcoholic, something I suspect my mother knew quite early on. That knowledge would have been no help or comfort at a time when single mothers had it tough and divorces were uncommon. It meant my mother was again often on her own, pretending that everything was okay, even when quite clearly it wasn’t. My father was a morose, deceitful, selfish and ultimately tragic alcoholic. In 1993 with perfect timing he finally died of liver failure. You see, he was supposed to attend my graduation. Even when my father went yellow, nobody openly used the word alcoholic. One might have been forgiven for thinking this was somehow normal. It was okay to say he was unwell and from time to time drunk. I cannot recall the term alcoholic ever being used alongside his name, even though by then, we were running a Pub littered with alcoholics. My relationship with my father was toxic and abusive, it harmed us all one way or another. By the time of my graduation I had left home and the deeper consequences of my father’s death had yet to be felt.
A long while after my father’s death I received a slightly drunk but excited phone call from my mother. “I got married again!” she said. This time to an oafish, violent, cowardly man who was also an alcoholic. He was also only six or seven years older than me, my mother was nothing if not charismatic. She quite wisely chose not to invite me or my sister to the wedding. Had we been there, it would almost certainly have ended in assault if not a riot. In the years that followed my mother not only denied the alcoholism but also the violence that surrounded her. A slow march into near poverty was not fun to witness. She sold a house in Spain and eventually the pub in order to live on a boat, losing money with each step. To her credit, my mother did finally separate from the man I called the village idiot, but not before he had pawned her remaining jewellery. Meanwhile my sister and I went about fixing ourselves. Independently as it happened, because we had fallen out years before and have ended up estranged. By now I was 11500 miles away unable to help, but it wouldn’t have mattered because “there was nothing wrong”. Only once ever did my mother step from behind the Masque asking “are you be there for me?”, “you’re my mother” I replied. Sometime after they had separated, my “stepfather” died of alcohol related asphyxia on his own mother’s lawn. It is worth remembering that throughout this time my mother was never short of friends and even in semi-retirement loved to go out for a “a drink and a chat”. She loved a good night in or out and remained great company for a good many people. I’m glad about that, because in our later years my mother and I grew farther apart, quietly, without comment, suffocating what little relationship we had.
It would be easy to say this is all about alcohol, but it isn’t, it’s about the bleak rolling catastrophe that sits behind the pretence that there is nothing bad to see here. It indeed borders on magical how everyone simply plays along. What has been most difficult to deal with is how these pretences affected me. To understand this, you have to know that I went to boarding school as a young boy. It was deemed necessary because my father chose to work abroad and I could not be schooled locally. As a result, I learned what it was to be truly alone from a very early age. My parents were 3000 miles away, I had nowhere to go and nothing to do but shut up. In that time, I suffered as no child should, leaving me empty and used. Even when I was expelled from school a year early, it was treated as a nuisance, as though nothing was really wrong. In the year that followed I was “allowed” to live on my own, alone again. That was some powerful magic on show.
I remember quite vividly where and when I finally told my mother what had happened to me while at school. It was poor timing given that she was just about to leave for Spain and I had dropped her at the airport. Confronted by some of the most damaging events in her son’s life she just looked at me and said “I thought as much”. We never spoke again of the matter after that, not in the twenty years that followed.
The somewhat warped relationship I shared with my mother withered to near nothing after a slightly drunken phone call. She spoke at length about the death of a well-known local alcoholic she had befriended in her later years. She talked about how Coral had suffered, she spoke with care and sympathy for someone who had let her children starve while she drank. You might think that someone capable of this degree of forgiveness, might have spared a word for me. I don’t think an apology was necessary or needed, but some acknowledgement of what at times was very visible suffering would have been good for us both. Reality is painful, but a necessary part of a weighty, authentic love.
Unlike Prospero my mother died with her staff and magic largely intact. That choice divided us, something you can’t share with strangers at a funeral some eleven and a half thousand miles away. The magic of pretence comes at a cost which is at times difficult to explain. I have to find some way of reconciling that cost and preserving the fact that my mother did not fail in raising me.
With the help of my darlings, I remembered good memories yesterday, each marked with a flower cast from a wharf into the sea. I’m free to finish mourning without pretence, with truths unobscured.
Dinner at the Liaison
A Whist drive in Saudi Arabia
Cards in Ireland
Riding mopeds in Cyprus
Eating fish in Malta
My first restaurant meal
Sitting together in a Ford Anglia looking at the sea
These moments will set me free.
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