Tuesday, 27 November 2018
Dad always asked why I never wrote any comedy. He thought that our family would have made perfect sitcom material, but it’s a fine line between tragedy and comedy.
I’ve been looking at an old photo that I recently unearthed from the attic, stuffed and creased in a box of mixed papers; bereft and forgotten.
It’s got that faded, almost sepia look typical to old polaroid’s and it’s a family scene; another forgotten childhood snapshot. A pantomime of hollow smiles and lying eyes; and as I tracked through the estranged and easily forgotten members of my family I came across one person who had been cut out, erased from history; the scissored line clinical and tight to the edge. This wasn’t done out of rage but an anger that goes far beyond. What’s more I can’t quite place who it might have been.
I’m intrigued but unfortunately there’s no one I can ask about it now. My parents are no longer –both passed away within months of each other, perhaps the only truly loving couple I’ve ever known.
It’s taken me months to pluck up the courage to come back to their home; let alone clear it out, which is why I started in the loft –it has the least memories attached to it.
I took the photo downstairs to see it in the daylight and, whilst making myself a cup of tea I look around and it feels like mum and dad are still with me.
I don’t see the house as it is now, but as it was when I was a child. In the dining room there used to be an old gas fire; wooden boxed, metal grated, whose top served as a small shelf come Christmas time. I would create a little nativity scene with cotton wool, angel hair and cheap plastic models of the manger and shepherds. The fire has gone and plastered over and a large painting of sunflowers is mounted in its place.
In the lounge I sit on the nearest sofa which seems more uncomfortable now that they’re both gone –almost as if the house is telling me that I’m no longer wanted there. I stare at the photo, trying to remember who each of the characters in it were; hopefully through a process of elimination I can figure out who was ignobly cut out.
Uncle Jerry and Aunt Jane, kneeling together, faux smiles plastered on their faces. For Jerry, a rare moment of sobriety. Out of all his siblings he could have actually made something of his life. He had a special knack when it came to playing cricket, both as a batsman and a bowler. He had total command when batting; no one could bowl him out unless he wanted them to… (or later, if he was drunk enough). He was a demon bowler as well and had the nickname of the sniper.
But drink became his only friend, the only support in his life. Aunt Jane could never see what was so important about his gift and moaned at him constantly to give it up. Uncle Jerry drank to drown her out; his biggest fear was that maybe she was right; maybe cricket was the only thing in his life. His sense of self-esteem was more tenuous than what we thought….
About a year after the photo was taken he was involved in a nasty car accident, thankfully he was fully sober and was a passenger besides, but he had to have his foot amputated; it had been crushed in the wreckage. Both he and Jane survived otherwise but it meant that he could never play cricket again.
On the outside it was impossible to tell whether this was a problem and to the rest of us it seemed as if he was getting better, and had even changed his outlook. He had quit drinking and even Jane nagged at him less.
How wrong we all were. He waited until Jane had gone round her mother’s and bought himself the most expensive bottle of whiskey he could afford. He took an overdose of pain killers and drank the whole bottle. Jane was inconsolable and never recovered from his death; she blamed herself for the accident and in the end inherited her husband’s mantle and became an alcoholic herself. She was found dead one evening, clutching a photo of Jerry in his cricketing whites, grinning at the camera for all it was worth.
Next to Jerry and Jane in the photo, on one of the badly made dining chairs , sat the grand matriarch herself, Doris –my Great Grandmother. Every inch the Victorian schemer, the ultimate puppeteer. Born poor, she worked hard for her money and had been known to do anything for it when she moved down South. Of course, one never questioned what that might have entailed…. Indeed, as I grew so did my understanding of its ramifications.
She died about five years after the photo had been taken, her body had given up although her mind and tongue were still just as sharp, may she rot in hell for all the pain she inflicted on others.
When I was a child she seemed a jovial but brusque woman always cracking cheap jokes, often at other’s expense, but also very quick to turn if given a chance.
As an adult I found that she had been a manipulative bitch often playing one daughter against each other. Often changing alliances, making each compete against each other for the paltry rations of her love (which was never worth that much in the first place).
In the photo Doris has an almost triumphant glint in her eye, her hands folded neatly in her lap as if to say “job well done”. Behind her stands Auntie Ann, her hand claw like grasping Doris’s shoulder; pain so evident in her eyes despite the glassy smile. At that time she was the most hated member of the family. No one liked her much except for mum, who somehow saw the good in everyone. Anne had always been good to mum, despite being held in such contempt by the others; and it was mum who invited her to that Christmas party. It was the last time we were all together like that. Doris had made Anne out to be a money-grabbing whore and had spun such tales of spite and venom that it was difficult not to believe her.
After Doris’s death it came to light that she had been doing the same to Anne; saying that all her sisters were insanely jealous of her and that none of them liked her. Anne never forgave her for that but neither could she reconcile with her sisters; the hurt ran too deep. The only person she ever kept in touch with was mum, and even left her a sizeable chunk of money in her will when she died.
At the other side of the kitchen table stood Uncle Geoff and Auntie Victoria, almost embracing; eyes seemingly only for each other. Sitting in front of them were their children Jack and Rose. Geoff and Victoria were the model couple and seemed straight out of Hello magazine. He was a minister of a popular congregation and Victoria was the faithful, dutiful wife.
“Why can’t you be more like Geoff and Victoria” was Doris’s favourite retort to mum and dad who led very unorthodox lives –well, at least, to her.
On the surface their marriage was the picture of bliss: a cottage, two cars, two dogs and two healthy, happy children. But looking at the photo again with the bonus of hindsight I saw that there were cracks starting to show even then.
Rose was sitting in a very uncomfortable position, almost perched on her knees trying to lean on Jack who looked at her askew with something more than brotherly concern. He was older than Rose by four years and could now look after himself.
Victoria always wore lots of make-up, dark blouses with full sleeves and high neck lines. It could be said that, being a preachers wife, she was modest; but what we didn’t know then was that Geoff had not only been beating her but had also been abusing Rose for many years in the worst ways imaginable.
It was no surprise when John moved out as soon as he could and even married an Australian lass he met on holiday; he emigrated as soon as he could. Rose had a string of abusive relationships growing up and is now seeking her own path as a preacher. Is she trying to atone for her father’s mistakes?
Victoria was always the enigma though. None of the sisters knew their father and it had affected them in many ways; ways that they never reconciled. For Victoria, Geoff had become the father she had never known. His love was straight from God after all. There’s only one thing that I still wonder: did she know about the abuse on Rose or not? In my more generous minutes I pray that she didn’t –on her own she could be sweet and thoughtful; an archetypal auntie. I would hate to think that she knew about it and allowed it to happen.
Sitting on a couple of chairs in front of the dining table were my nan and granddad; an unlikely pair. Granddad, salt of the earth; a worker off the land and nan; a beauty pageant winner with a heart of gold and low self-esteem to match. Nan was Doris’s favourite target and became the subject of countless ridicule and scorn but this only fuelled her attempts to better herself, in an attempt to win back the maternal love she felt she was missing, much to granddad’s disbelief.
I have no doubt that granddad loved nan but he could never show it; it was totally alien to him. In his own way he was just as emotionally stunted as her; I know that he did find it hard keeping up with her whimsy. He was happiest walking his dog, Maz, whom he doted on. Maz’s love was safe and he could understand her; but when Maz passed away the light in his eyes died too.
I’m still too close to nan and granddad to really understand them properly, or to see them in a truly adult way. There are some illusions that I want to keep hold of.
The same applies to mum and dad. It was very rare to see mum in a photo, she was normally behind the camera; she inherited nan’s lack of self-confidence (which has now been passed on to me). Dad stood to the far side in the photo, a sheepish smile and a knowing look.
Dad was my rock, one who I looked up to; a compass – there were so many times where I thought I’d lost my way, but he could always steer me straight. In some way I owe it to him to find my way through this current crisis I find myself in.
In between Geoff and Dad stood Leonard and… well, that must mean it was Gina who had been cut out of the photo!
Leonard was a decent bloke and doted on Gina, who was stunning (even in that photo). She had been a model before they met and she quickly adopted to a corporate life after that as his secretary; but she never lost her looks. I confess to having several fantasies revolving around her whilst growing up. It always made me especially embarrassed when I met her, often blushing which was, luckily, put down to being a shy child.
Gina was so health obsessed though that she was actually OCD before it became fashionable. Her sofa’s all had plastic covers over them; slippers had to be worn at all times in the house and she constantly washed her hands. The house itself was cleaned daily; top to tail; and one can only wonder how Leonard put up with it all. They had two children, Pete and Dawn, and it always seemed strange to think that Gina would have allowed Leonard that near her, let alone have any kind of physical congress with him.
But none of that explains why she would be missing from the photo like that. There was no real love lost between any of the sisters… strangely Gina is the only one of them still alive and, if it really mattered, I suppose I could always drive over and ask her… but I dread to think what kind of crap I’d be dredging up. Some things are best left undiscovered.
One cynical thought occurs though: as Gina was so disgustingly clinical in her approach to life maybe she even cut herself out of the photo!