Ever since the moon
has been looking down
on me, so have you;
and now, thanks to you,
I look down on me too.
Ever since the moon
Ever since the moon
has been looking down
on me, so have you;
and now, thanks to you,
I look down on me too.
Between us, I suppose did all the feeling. The inherent disobedience of singing our contrapuntal song above outside around the din was to me in my youth like tying dreams to kings and great things, though knowing better than to presuppose any manner of nobility coursing through our line of magnetic men of middling, modest talents and infernos for intellects, consumed by sublime, contemptuous ambition like true artists, was of course in the nature he so vigorously bestowed, father to son.
Then one day I felt a feeling of his. The effortful suppression, the stifled idealization harvested from exiguously-tended fields of experience, finding it easier to form a new habit of staying from the choppily selective remembrance of what it was like to “go there” than to actually still continue to try to (let myself) go.
Well, it’s about being, I’ve come to realize, after so many years of fevered, young becoming when there was always somewhere else to be. The line ends here, though, I say; I say I’ll be the first of us to release my grip on this familial melody and allow my ends to fizzle into truly new beginnings, and in the saying sneakily suspect I hear faint echoes of this verysame tune I now find myself singing, wondering if he’s heard them too, knowing I’ll never ask, finding contentment in a discordance I with feeble bliss presume to be my own.
I bought 10ft of artificial ivy once, off t’internet, for pennies, as part of the Poison Ivy costume I was making myself to wear at a Hallowe’en party. I didn’t go to the party in the end – I hung out with you that night instead.
The ivy remained coiled up in its plastic bag. I hung onto it though, certain I’d find another use for it, planning to make art of it, but it collected dust alongside all my other great ideas.
A year passed and I relocated. Having to declutter and still unable to find a use for the ivy at my new house, I binned it, scolding myself for wasting £2.89. Then I walked to your place and we watched University Challenge. You failed to answer a single question. You were catatonic. You barely said a word. You were not my dad, you were a skeleton bobbing in a sea of morphine. I hoped that you’d be better after some sleep. You always got better.
Three weeks later I was standing in front of your coffin. It was decorated with ivy vines, it was wrapped around the wicker handles, around the edges. I touched the leaves: it was real ivy.
I said to mother, “How much did that ivy cost us?” and she said £90. I laughed incredulously. “You do know the ivy’s going in the oven with him, right? You are quite literally burning our money!” She told me to stop being difficult. You would’ve been absolutely horrified to know she’d wasted £90 on ivy. (That’s £90 of booze we’d never get to drink at your wake!)
Then, as I kissed your casket goodbye for the last time, you said to me telepathically through the wicker lid, “Hey, where’s that artificial ivy you couldn’t find a use for?” and I realised that was your last bit of advice to me:
what we lack in finances we more than make up for in ideas, and what we lack in assets and material possessions we more than make up for in mind and soul, so stay creative, stay humble and keep on keeping on. And don’t let your mother make any more decisions.
I’m on the Northern line reading Angela Carter. This book used to be yours; I remember the strange cover. You lent me this book years ago in exchange for my copy of The Bloody Chamber. Now I have all of your books. They live alongside mine in shaky stacks, perilously piled around my flat, propping doors open and lining windowsills.
I am so impressed by Carter’s writing, as I always am, that I stop reading and take my phone out of my handbag to send you a particular sentence of hers that I know you would love and to express how gutted I am that she’d died when she still had so many words left in her. Then I remember that you’re dead too and put my phone away.
I am trying not to make a habit of crying on public transport so I turn the page over to the next story and find a flattened Rizla packet wedged into the spine. On the packet, in your handwriting, is a note reminding you to remind me about an upcoming reading of Joyce’s Ulysses on BBC Radio 4. The title of the story where I find this note is ‘The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter.’ I wonder if this is coincidental and I miss you more than ever.
I always feel especially close to you when I’m reading your books. I like the fidelity of my thumb pausing in the same spot where your thumb once rested while you absorbed the page, how your thumbprints on the cover or bottom right corner are slowly being replaced by mine, smaller but nonetheless comfortable.
I remember exactly how you’d read, how you turned the pages, how you used your finger to guide you down the lines, how you would straighten the book out on the table when you stopped to roll a cigarette, putting it perfectly in its place until the next devouring.
I like the idea of my brain ingesting these words in the same order that you did, of my heart processing all of the unwritten words and underlying slivers of brilliance that exist between the lines just like yours did. I cannot live the stories of your life just as you could not live mine, but we could live the tales told by master storytellers together.
I also like the things that I find inside your books, and I’ve found allsorts. Some of your books were gifted to you by girlfriends past, and sometimes they had written an adoring note to you inside the front cover. (We personally believe writing in books to be a sin but I suppose these decades-old sentiments have survived longer than you have).
I’ve found plenty of bookmarks: a beer mat lodged at page 341 of The Glass Bead Game, a shopping list hiding in between pages 226 and 227 of One Hundred Years Of Solitude, an appointment card to see your vascular consultant lurking towards the end of The Master and Margarita. Scraps of newspaper, napkins and cigarette papers hibernating in many more.
We don’t believe in dog-earing books and you would scold others when they borrowed a book from you and returned it with folded corners. I found a couple of “real” bookmarks, one made of leather with your initials on it and a metal one in a Celtic cross design. I like the beer mats more.
You’ve given me tens of thousands of pages, all smoke-stained to a degree. In fact, I can work out when you first procured a book based on the level of smoke-staining. Your books from the 60s and 70s are tar brown and smell like stale incense and damp fireplaces. Your books from the 80s and 90s are entirely yellowed, the edges of the pages are darker than mustard. Your books from this century are less ‘smoked’ but all smell like Golden Virginia tobacco, a smell that will always remind me of you for as long or short as I live.
I also like looking at the prices of books and how they’ve increased over the decades. Some of your books are priced as costing a florin (two-bob), four and thruppence, and 4/6, all shillings and half-crowns and other ancient values. Then there are the books costing 25p, 40p, 60p, 75p: classic novels that would now cost me around £8 paperback in Waterstones. And the prices go up from there.
Your books present all kinds of other matter, too: cigarette ash, sand, the odd blade of grass, a flattened bug, biscuit crumbs, sticky tea rings on the back cover, strands of your silver hair caught in the spine, a smudge of blood from a paper-cut, train tickets, a pressed flower, general grit from your manual labour days, splashes of paint where you’d been reading on your lunch break, post-it notes, business cards, phone numbers written on the back of receipts, prescriptions, an unwritten postcard from Milan, a cartoon strip cut out of a newspaper, a £50 note… last week when I opened up The Rebel I found a couple of tiny rocks of hash stuck in the valley between pages 14 and 15.
It was decided about 15 years ago, when you first faced death, that I would get all of your books and my brother would get all of your music. I am lucky and grateful to have all of your books. You didn’t start reading serious literature until your late 20s/early 30s, and I am so glad you instilled a love of literature in me from day one.
And I am really enjoying making my way through your books, your favourites, page by page, word by word, and finding odd little notes from you. Like in The Snow Goose, you wrote (against your own rules) on the title page, “To my darling girl, A book as precious as you are. Oodles of love, Dad.” You wrote that in 2002. I just found it a few weeks ago.
These books were yours, you held them in your hands, you learnt from them, you formed opinions from them, you had your own ideas from them, these books informed your personality, your thoughts, your attitudes, these books inspired your own writing, your own poetry and art, determined how you treat yourself and all human beings, enabled you to grow and improve and teach others. Now these books are mine, and through these books you are giving me the opportunity to become great, just as you were great.
You are still here with me. You still exist every day: through your words, through my words, and through the words of all of these incredible authors who continue to teach me even though you no longer can.
You were gifted a collection of Emerson essays in 1978 by a girlfriend, we will call her H. I just found this smoke-stained note inside it, handwritten in blue biro, saying, “Don’t think anything of me giving you this book, but DO read it, right? (You know it’s very inexpensive to sit in the garden and quietly read a book– you can even afford an occasional ‘special’ cigarette, for example).” This little note perfectly captures you as a reader, and is how I will always remember you.
She was wearing that little face that she makes when she has a Big Question to ask a Grown-Up: like she’s worried and uncertain but so curious and excited to learn the truth, all furrowed brows and wide eyes, the face that only an inquisitive six year old could make.
“Auntie, what happens to all the tears when you cry? Where do they go? How do you get new tears? Are there lots of tears in your head and they fall out of your eyes when you’re sad? Can you ever run out of tears? Where do they go?”
Into a tissue
The sleeve of your jumper
All over your pillow
Into the toilet bowl
Onto his shoulder
The ends of your hair
Into a box of popcorn
Onto your pet’s fur
Mixed with the bathwater
Into your glass of Chablis
Hospital floors and church floors
Down your legs and into your shoes
Onto letters and photographs
And birthday cards and newspaper articles
To the ground
To the sky
Back into your eyes
“Auntie? Are you listening to me? Can you run out of tears?”
Yes. No. Yes and no.
You can feel like you’ve run out of tears sometimes but trust me, there’ll be more left hiding in you somewhere for another time.
“If I cry too much will the room fill up like the sea like it did for Alice when she cried too much?”
No, baby, that won’t happen. You might feel like you’re drowning in your tears but I promise that the room won’t fill up and the tears will go away and you’ll be okay. I promise.
“Well just in case it does happen and I don’t have a boat, I can just hide in a big bottle like Alice did!”
No, don’t ever hide in a bottle. Hiding in the bottom of a bottle is for cowards. You just have to learn to keep your head up and swim as hard as you can until you’re home and dry.
“I sort of know how to swim…”
You’ll learn, sweetie, I can promise you that. And if you don’t learn on your own, I’ll teach you. I’m a really good swimmer now.
“Are you as good at swimming as a mermaid?”
Image by Christine Renney
The day after his eldest brother had taken his own life the boy’s dad drove into work. The boy was eighteen, a man but watching his dad from the passenger seat he felt like a child. His dad, braving it in the faces of the speechless, made no demands that day. And the boy did what he did, which was nothing.
Over the next few days the boy’s dad heard from the others. They all said that nobody would have, that nobody could have, known.
I was missing for three days. I wandered the forest that rose up the sides of the valley, drank from the iced waters that continued to carve the riverbed, slept in the abandoned barn that creaked and moaned in the wind as if to give away my position. The search party numbered less than a bakers-dozen — no women — and it seemed to me they were more keen to get back to the bar for a warming dram of whiskey. They were easy to evade – I followed their movements through sound as they told bawdy jokes at distance, or when they were within my sight I could read their vulgar breath as it escaped their blue lips to form speech-bubbles in the winter air.
I kept proximity to the crash site, each morning looking down upon the wreckage from my concealed vantage, sat within a fortress of rocks my brother and I had built upon the crest of the hill two seasons earlier, when the days were long and the evenings warm. The car had not yet been towed, a burnt out shell, nothing left but a twisted and charred cage, sat in a circle of black dust. The day following the incident a van appeared and I watched hi-vis men rebuild the crash barrier, removing lengths of twisted metal, before welding new plates over the section we had destroyed. I have often looked from a car window as we passed sections of new crash barrier and wondered why they chose that place in particular, among the miles and miles of dirty, scraped metal, to erect something fresh and gleaming — now I know; they are a death-marker.
I had resolved to never go home, that they would never find me, but on the third night I decided I was starving and needed a bacon sandwich My Uncle was ambivalent when I turned up at his door, hardly looking at me as I walked into his house and slumped into the huge sofa that dominated the lounge of his tiny Council owned flat. To the sound of bacon crackling in the pan and the smell of toasting bread, he shouted from the kitchen that the funeral had already taken place, gone ahead without me — well, there was no reason to delay, he justified. Also without Mother, who had been overcome by denial since the incident, as she had refused to attend; refused to accept this was his end. That if she didn’t see the box adorned with the brass plaque upon which was engraved his full name, well, then it wasn’t the end and that there was still hope he would come home soon. I watched him die – I could have confirmed otherwise. He said that after the cremation the ashes had been scattered over the family grave. A cremation! Of all the inappropriate things to do to a body after it has found death by fire. I guess there was no need to turn the gas up high for this one; the macabre in me wondered if we got a discounted rate on the ceremony. I looked down upon the backs of my hands, turning them over and over, searching for signs of my own physical trauma. Just then my sandwich arrived, steaming and smelling of burnt flesh.
When I had wiped the bacon fat and brown sauce from my face, my Uncle offered to drive me home. On the way I spoke just the once, asking him to take me on a detour to the cemetery. I stood over the family grave and felt the rain, hard on my face — it always rained when I came here. His ashes had washed away and run back into the sodden soil, there was nothing to see. On the return journey from the we came to the location of the accident. I tensed and gripped the carseat until my fingers turned white. My Uncle saw this and slowed, taking care to negotiate the bend in a seeming act of pity for which he was not well known. My eyes were tight shut, but I knew the road so well I could sense exactly where we were with every turn of the steering wheel, every rut and jolt of the road. When we had passed the shining new barrier I opened my eyes, relaxed, and vomited over his dashboard.