February 12th 2019 (East Surrey)
The hospital is vast, busy. Following the blue line on the floor I arrive at the Post-Stroke ward. The ward is made up of 12 beds. The nurse points out dad’s bed. The last on the left, by the window. He is partially hidden by a screen; a bony foot in view. “Oh, I recognise that ankle.” But, of course, I don’t. What else is there to say? Nurses must hear these odd non sequiturs all the time. He is asleep so I pull up a chair and sit at the end of the bed, stroke his foot and watch him. His skin is warm and loose and barely contains, like a silky purse, the bones within. He looks both young and old at the same time: peaceful and tormented. Mum had warned me that he isn’t eating and this is now apparent. The thin gown and the sheets blanket him. After some time he opens an eye. He smiles, but when he tries to speak I understand what has happened. The words tumble from him like paratroopers. Their confusion amuses him, makes him smile in frustration. He deploys such words as ‘eventuality’ and ‘consequently’ – words at odds with his usual vocabulary. I talk about walks and work; what else is there to say? Every so often he cups his right ear in an attempt to hear me above some apparently annoying noise that hampers him. But it is quiet in here, but for similar chats.
Mum comes in and sits on a chair by his shoulder. They hold hands and I see tears in her eyes. As we are leaving I lean toward him – to kiss, to console, to convey, something – I take his hand and he says, in a tangled voice, “Keep the freedom.” And this, all at once, seems to encapsulate everything of him. I count the knuckles beneath his skin. Suddenly, he begins to cry and so do I. But is he crying or laughing? The two emotions being so closely related. What else is there to say?
February 12th 2020 (Whitley Bay)
Jo D-R. texts to say Gavin T. has passed away. His is a name I hadn’t thought of in years. She tells me he had cancer, that he’d lived in Australia for a long time – marrying there, becoming a glass smith. We were never particularly friends, though, in my mind, I remember him as one of the major faces in Croydon during the mid-1980s. Australia strikes me perfect as he looked, back then, not dissimilar to Nick Cave and so, quite a hit with girls who were taken by such looks. The glassblowing, also, seems strangely apt. The hot air and the alchemic.
I remember him more so as a confidante and confederate to Leslie The Mesmer. The two of them (along with a boy called Duncan, a drunken and jolly youth who dated one, or both, of the Kane sisters, and a wiry, dreadlocked lad by the name of Adrian who went out with Caroline P at the time) were, in the early 80s, the main thrust of the Caterham valley art-punk collective, The Five Susans. Three scenes come to mind…
At an all-day event in back room of the Rising Sun in W. Croydon (1982?), The Five Susans, a three piece jangly and discordant racket (quite brilliant, and foreshadowing the C87 scene by some years) performed in Brownie uniforms – brown polyester skirts, beige shirts, scarves and woggles – their heads hidden beneath large, porridge coloured, papier-maché pig masks. Around this time the two of them, among transient others (Tubb, the Baker boys, Jo D-R, Gillian, Paul H and his sister, Rachael – who was a little older, and being an artist and somewhat bohemian, shabbily dressed in paint spattered charity, struck me as exotic and unattainable) – squatted a large and dilapidated house, the full address escapes me, but it was always referred to as number 72 and was situated somewhere between S. Croydon and Kenley on a long and steep road that, during the 1940s and 50s would have been an affluent area and home to civil servants, bank managers and RAF officers.
Some years later, I remember going to a party at a third floor flat Leslie and Gavin now shared on Southbridge Road and the pig masks, though quite battered, were hung from nails on the bathroom wall, rather like a Manson-esque homage to the flying duck motifs that adorned Stan and Hilda Ogden’s front room on Coronation Street during the 1970s. With little or no encouragement, the two ex-Five Susans put them on and proceeded to climb out the window, shinning the drainpipe to the front garden.
Thirdly, one night in the early nineties, Caroline P, the two of us in bed, cried out his name, which I found quite off-putting and at once, knowing something of her by this time, not wholly a surprise. We became estranged henceforth. I’m quite sure the same wouldn’t have occurred had I been a little bolder with a girl in paint spattered charity. But who knows?
February 12th 2021 (Penn Beacon)
Two pigeons are perched in the fir tree at the front of the house. One is quite large and shabby. The other, pretty and petite. People talk about how you never see baby pigeons, though she (surely?) is no squab. I crumble a portion of the fruit scone that appeared on my doorstep again this morning and leave it on the windowsill. After some time two sparrows appear from the tree and hop around the crumbs, but the larger of the two pigeons lifts from the branch below, sees them off and returns to his perch. The younger one and he exchange words and she rises and settles and, turning her head this way and that, begins examining the crumbles. She and I are separated by mere inches and a sheet of glass. I am impressed by her beauty and also by the chivalry of the shabby. But the little sparrows are my favourites and after the pigeons have flown I give out the rest of the scone as alms. And now, with the kettle boiled, I have to search the cupboard for some alternative tea time nibble. A liquorice stick – quite literally a twig – surely the meals have been reversed?
I. phones. He wonders if I could lend him £20. I say yes, but he embarks on a long, convoluted and quite unnecessary explanation anyway. I am keen to leave the house as I haven’t ventured beyond my bed or the sofa for several days. We arrange to meet at some point between here and his place. It has been snowing and the pavements are treacherous. Families throw snowballs at each other on Edwards Road. One of their number, a giggling boy with red cheeks, lobs one in my general direction, but the ball seems to disintegrate mid-air. A woman in a long coat or a quilted dressing gown chides him with the words, “Eee, Finn. Don’t throw snowballs at the gentleman.” A little further down the road, still chuckling at this, I suddenly slip on the ice, performing, no doubt, a comedic interlude for anyone watching. Somehow I don’t go down, but the frantic back pedalling makes me laugh out loud. It is true, one doesn’t fall down, rather, upwards. Almost.
I. is pacing up and down on the junction with Whitley Road. He is wearing a MAGA sweatshirt with the hood cinched tight about his chin. His fringe is plastered to his brow. He doesn’t need the £20 now as it has appeared in his bank since we last spoke twenty minutes ago. This is relayed before I reach him. I stick out my hand to shake his for some reason and I’m surprised to find a bag of weed quite deftly deposited in my palm. “Just call it twenty,” he says. This is an unexpected turn of events. We walk to the Co-op and go our separate ways round the aisles. But I can hear him voicing his opinions about face masks and sheep to someone at the self-service, so I go round again.