Chapter One: Aperitivo
I look down at the straw hat that floats idly on the sparkling surface, its peach ribbon trailing in the turquoise Caribbean Sea. Somewhere beneath the sea is my mother. And for what seems like an eternity, she’s no longer visible.
I stare at the hat, thinking: is this what it will be like, when I’m the only one left? Will she simply melt away one day, leaving only a hat and an ocean of unanswered questions?
Then with a flash of insight I remember to stop pedalling, in case she’s directly under the boat. And just as suddenly, with a splash and a gulp of hysterical laughter, my mother re-emerges, fully alive and flailing.
All at sea, I think, as I put the memory, two decades old, on a back-burner and take another swig of rosé. It’s almost time to call my mother.
Most evenings are like this, these strange days: in a deckchair at dusk in the garden, a pile of half-read books and a glass of wine by my side. With all the time in the world, there’s somehow no time to read all that I suddenly have hunger for. A page of one book sparks a thought from another, and another sip of wine. And then another memory distracts me elsewhere, and away I drift. Another aperitivo excursion in the time of lockdown.
Tonight I’m back in the Caribbean with my mother, that first summer after my father died. Nearly twenty years ago. Why does that trip, with the pedalo boat, come to mind? I’ve been looking for the light side, to balance the darkness, in my recounting of all that’s passed this last year. Happier journeys taken with her.
Looking also for clues. Voyages around my mother.
Other times I go on journeys without her: sipping real aperitivi in favourite foreign places, where the beauty of evenings like this always held me suspended in reverie. At the bar by San Miniato overlooking Florence. At a checked table-cloth in Trastevere, feet recovering from the heat of a day pounding Roman cobbles. Seeing the travel journals by my side, scribbled in then invariably set aside as live experience outran the recording of it.
Back then, moments to digest always gave way to more moments to consume.
Sometimes I go to an old haunt: to the nights of Prosecco and olives and unwritten pages of half-conceived books, as the swans and sailboats drifted down the Thames outside my old riverside cottage. It was often most beautiful just after the rain, the water flat but shining, still. It was always too beautiful to write the stories that flowed in but never out.
Now those stories seem out-of-date, a lifetime away, part of some kind of before.
Places we can’t travel to now. Places I can’t go back to. I’m drowning under a surfeit of experience that’s not metabolised. The half-read books are a distraction from the latest unwritten one.
I must call my mother. Before they give her the nighttime pills and things start to make even less sense.
I wait to be connected, feeling the comfort of the sun on me, still strong as it dips towards another dusk. The wood-pigeons coo and the rooks caw in the giant copper beech that overshadows the house. I marvel at the journey the colours have already made, graduating from that first peep of red two months ago, to the burnished deep purple that’s now washed every last leaf of that great shade. The smoke-tree is heading the same way; everything coming to early fruition amid the hottest spring on record.
I always let the phone ring for a long time. It takes her a while sometimes even to register it ringing.
April is the cruellest month /
Waiting for the heat to come.
I hum to myself a song by a band of my youth. I loved how 16 Tambourines transplanted T. S. Eliot’s words in their own experience of the opening season. And in turn how it felt as if they’d reached inside me and pulled out what I always felt in the month of my birth. But this year the heat has come, too strong, too soon, and I’m caught between delight and horror at the precocious growth of everything. At the obliviousness of the natural world. That while we’re homebound, devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic sweeping the human world, Nature blithely carries on to provide the greatest show on earth. That alongside the ravaging globe plague, the planet is burning itself out in a final blaze of glory.
I imagine 16 Tambourines now, dancing the rite of spring, sprinkling magic dust over an imagined perfect past and wishing that into the future.
There’s still no answer on the telephone. And I realise I don’t really want to talk. I just want to know my Mum’s OK. I call the nursing home’s reception and Louisa cheerfully tells me:
“We’ve got a party going on. Your Mum’s probably down there. Cocktail hour!”
I thank her and feel my body release a little. The thought is as intoxicating as my wine: Mum, having fun, with other people. Relief floods through my dropping shoulders to my expanding heart. Then a faint clouding over. I can’t admit, even to myself, how relieved I am that someone else feeds, cleans, dresses, entertains her while I recover. I tell myself that this delegation of duties to professionals helps me be a better daughter, more like the ‘kind and curious friend’ the therapist had recommended. I remember that while it was the best course of action, I didn’t actually choose for her to go into permanent care. That her spiralling, and then the official intervention of the state, had eventually dictated that for her.
Then I stop before I can think more and with my phone’s camera organise a representation of happiness: my half-emptied wine glass, her imagined cocktail, and the glory of the garden beyond. I want to accen-tuate the positive, as my father used to sing to me with a daft little dance that I always imitated in later years, to make my mother laugh. Elim-inate the negative. To make her feel he is still there. I’m well versed at counter-attacking sadness with aggressive positivity. So I dress up my relief and the guilt at feeling, I post a cheerful Facebook update with the photo, and the Mum-too-busy-having-cocktails story, adding:
‘Here’s cheers to my Mum and the wonderful people looking after her.’
The post has a record number of likes. The Easter spirit, maybe? Peak time for people wanting to feel good. I’m boosted by the hearts that flood in, with messages of love for me, for Mum, for the NHS.
While the reactions all reflect that insistent sunshine overhead, the shadows now creeping around the garden mask a number of hidden feelings and half-truths. I know that my mother doesn’t drink any more. That she rarely ventures out of her bed, still less her room. That she’s unlikely to want to be in anyone’s company except her own. That the time she can barely grasp is mostly spent in the half-light, with the dead. That going down to watch the movie Easter Parade yesterday was probably a one-off, a moment of rejuvenation I daren’t hope will recur once the Resurrection season has passed.
But hope begins with an act of faith, and sometimes a bit of self-deception. I recruit the people around me to join in my fantasy without letting them know their role. Just as Mum recruits me to collude with her alternative reality, her false memories, her paranoia.
“They are denying me my paracetamol.”
“There’s a global shortage, Ma. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. People are dying.”
I certainly don’t make it known to anyone that somewhere during this exchange last week I became so enraged by the unreasonable, demanding voice on the other end of the phone that I drove her to her last resort.
“I wish I weren’t here at all.”
That I hung up on her in response. That she called me back, immediately and said simply, in a voice I finally recognised,
“I love you.”
That I wept for everything in me that is weak and tired and has given up trying, that I can’t always speak the language of kindness in the face of her shifting moods and misapprehensions. For the relief at arriving back to basics, for that precious moment, touching earth once more with the mother I know and love.
I’m suspended now, in moments, in this whole time, in my new home. The light and perfume and noise of a bird-and-blossomed-filled garden that luxuriates in itself and its unashamed growth. I luxuriate in it, in turn. But I am ashamed of my appetite, my survival, my greed for life. And the shame isn’t new. It lurks beyond every good moment, its doom-laden voice ready to check my excess:
“Are you enjoying yourself a little too much?”
This time last year, I celebrated my birthday in Mauritius, gorging on lobster in paradise while wearing a kaftan. Drowning my guilt in margaritas, not knowing but as if knowing that my mother was starving herself, alone, behind closed doors.
I turn to my phone to find more notifications of validation, more red dots that augur new hearts, and suddenly there, in the picture I posted, it looms at me. Through the rose-dribbled wine glass the camera has focused on the last granite patio slab the builders left, mid-task, when the lockdown came. It stands to attention on the metal platform truck, poised in position, headstone-like, in front of the deep dug-out where the herb garden will go. A new stone waiting in place by freshly raked soil. I feel hysteria rising. The sun glows a deeper blood-orange now right on cue, stage-set-perfect.
How did I not see it before I posted? It was there all along. It is always there.
“Graveside aperitivo” I type, and send the annotated picture to Richard.
‘LOL’ he texts back, with a series of customised emojis showing that he gets it all: death, in Arcadia, the waiting grave, the hysteria of the moment. We are all hysterical, right now, poised on the edge of we-know-not-what, death sweeping around the world in a pandemic we mostly chose to ignore until it sat right outside our homes, forcing us inside and inward. Some of us are lucky enough to have gardens to hide among, defending our health behind hedgerows. And I want to defend my health. Want to protect it not just from the virus but from the other contagions I fear — grief, madness. Fear itself. My inner child is happy to play alone, nursing the wounds of my mother’s decline and fall into almost oblivion, which have played right into the older wounds of the other losses, laid in earth but never to rest.
My phone pings again. Richard has been organising his parents’ gravestones. We’ve been talking about his guilt. He thinks he should have done it sooner; he’s been avoiding it, in denial.
“That’s totally fine,” I tell him. You’re doing so well.
And I tell him my brother had lain in a grave marked only by a wooden cross for 15 years until we’d buried Dad next to him. The cross had been designed by my father and made by our next-door neighbour. There was something beautiful about that weathering wood amid that harsh finality of all that marble. The later, shiny white sort was most offensive, seeming to proclaim the freshness of grief and a false note to the real life complications of the person buried beneath.
I was embarrassed, of course. Could my parents not afford a gravestone? Yet they had bought a triple-plot. Mum and I had never talked about any of this, but at some point after my father’s death I suppose we’d felt forced to upgrade. Something about acceptance, perhaps? Or that nebulous concept, closure? Putting away grief in a nice, tidy box that we could visit once in a while. Though why and for whom I was never sure.
And now I can’t remember when I last visited. I imagine those graves, overgrown as the ones in old country churchyard poems, my indistinct feelings wrapped in rhetoric: lichen, moss, bramble, loss. Are they more with me now because I didn’t visit then?
I look at the mound of earth in front of me. Somewhere during the past year I’d felt more and more sure that I would only see those graves once more in my life. When I put my mother to rest there. Even on the day we drove away, the day my mother moved house, I’d not been to say goodbye. I’d offered, but my mother merely shook her head, resolute, and I with equal resolve had hit the accelerator and maintained a steady 73mph southwards down the A1, eyes fixed in concentration on the road ahead, towards the future. By-passing the cemetery and its unvisited humps of marked earth, as sodden with neglect as the words my mother and I failed to speak.
Sometimes I do imagine going back up there, for the final burial, and making again my favourite pilgrimage to Hadrian’s Wall, speeding over the hills on the Roman Road, taking every blind summit a little too fast, yelling along to my ice-cream-coloured Fiesta’s CD system, another song from my youth:
I think I’ll name you after me /
I think I’ll call you Appetite.
Slaking my thirst for closure so my own full-flowering could finally begin. Driving fast into the future, as I’ve always tried to in the past. No longer running in circles around the impossible, the unthinkable, but feeling a sense of completion, action, where stasis and inertia had spread their stain.
I would arrange that final burial.
‘We arranged the others by fax’, I text R, on a sudden impulse to confess my own epic levels of denial. In truth, my mother had arranged those headstones. She’d taken the initiative; I was the agreeing party. At that time I’d had the job on reception at Forbes magazine and was glad that the incoming pictures couldn’t be intercepted by anyone else, or spotted by any of the incoming visitors pledging thousands for advertising space.
I picture myself in that other life, a thousand years from here, waiting for an order from Rolex or Gucci, and The Co-op FuneralCare’s latest draft of the grave design.
I’ve never understood how passive I was then, and so often since. How disconnected. How keen to get away from all the brokenness I couldn’t fix in them, in her, in me. Maybe that’s what I feel the urge to expiate now. My failure to grieve properly according to the the mysterious book that no-one gives you. The one no-one can possibly write.
My phone pings me back to the present and a reply from R:
‘Bless you xx’.
One bit of grief shared with a friend. One bit of guilt. I look at the unfinished herb-bed, grateful for the solidarity, wondering what other ghosts are going to rise, and whether this is what they need to do before they’re laid to rest for good. Whether this is what my appetite for life requires me to do. Deal with unfinished business, before I move on.
But before I can leave the graveside, my mind fixes on a thought, something unexamined earlier. My parents had bought a triple-plot. When, exactly? A while before my brother’s death, for sure. I wondered at what point my parents had made the decision to ‘buy now, for later use’. How much later they’d imagined that use would be. And where they imagined I would be, when my time came. For my brother there had been a grave waiting. For my father, too. There was only one place left. And that wasn’t for me.
“Are you sure you don’t mind?” my mother had asked last year, somewhere between the hospital and back home and the psychiatric unit. Many times she’d talked about ‘the animals’, and I’d known that she meant my brother and my father. And I’d thought, at least I know where she’ll be. And at least she’d be back home, as I imagined she wished she was now. With them, in death as once in life.
It was hard to emphasise how little I minded not being included in that shared graveplot. It had never bothered me. I had never expected that someone else would choose my final resting-place. Insofar as I ever thought of it, I imagined that I would be a million miles from there, when the time came, with maybe someone else taking care of my afterlife plans. Someone handsome, funny and kind,. Somewhere warmer. Perhaps my family knew that, too. And no doubt I carried guilt for how knowing that might make them feel.
But still, the being left out. The being left carrying. The being left trying to make meaning of it all.
Grief, graves, guilt. I take another sip of wine and tell R this part of the story, too.
“NO ROOM IN THE GRAVE” he texts back. There’s no need for an emoji. “TOO MUCH,” we sometimes text, when things get silly, or we need to look at them that way to keep from crying. But these words speak for themselves. FULL STOP.
Chasing the last rays of the day, I shuffle my deck-chair back towards the shed. That’s my space now. There’s room for me there, in life. For all the things I’m hungry to learn and say and sing. There was a sunflower there, before the earth was raked over to make way for my bright new sun-filled space. Mum and I called all sunflowers Lisa, after a girl I’d once known who was always smiling, even when it wasn’t appropriate, and we found her sprung up for the first time on that bright mid-October morning when my mother moved to Suffolk. It was the anniversary of my brother’s death and I took it as a sign that all would be well. Little knowing what manner of things would not be well, and for how long a time.
The move south to be near me was supposed to be the answer to her problems, but it hadn’t worked. Grief had lived with her up there among the cold winds of the North-East, yes, but there too resided all her links with the past. And even though she’d carted a good portion of the past with her in the cardboard boxes she’d left me to unpack, it wasn’t the things she wanted, but the place. The feeling that the old place had given her. She was far more rooted there than she or I had ever cared to admit. In losing the pain and the familiar loft space, she’d also lost her identity.
I’d wanted to wake up in Suffolk and had brought Mum down a day early, to stay over at our house. My new home was with B, and I’d not been able to face staying another night in her emptied house, noticing how poky and drab the rooms were once our family life had been removed; listening to the creaks in the attic too full of the ghosts that felt even more present now in the absence. The cardboard boxes had been packed and dispatched hours ahead of schedule and were already on their way down south, to be guarded overnight somewhere near the chippy by Felixstowe port. In that twilight zone of unswept carpet corners and spider webs the memories lingered on, strong and long. I wanted to be where their tentacles couldn’t reach.
So we’d packed up the emergency kettle and overnight bags and bundled up the sheets and pillows and blankets that smelt of a dampness we only noticed once we unpacked them at the other end. They brought with them the clinging moisture of past tears, fears, cries for people who’d died. And the cardboard boxes brought with them the dust of things given away, and the stark liveliness of things Mum couldn’t bear to part with. The past sat invasively in present space, blocking out the future. One day I will be grateful for things rescued and will cry afresh as I cling to them. But that day I wanted everything new; a clean start. That it was the anniversary of my brother’s death sat between us, unacknowledged. As would many of what we call facts in the year that was to come.
And the next day Mum had left me alone. Shut the door on the present, on possibility, and gone to sleep in the darkness, just as she had done in years past. Her wall of grief had gone up again, and I sat, the other side of it, across the corridor of the freshly-painted white-walled flat, tearing into those boxes with rage. Brahms was on the radio – The Tragic Overture – and I felt in good company with him, wrestling with feelings that were as tangled as the masking tape and corrugated shreds, tear – rip – rage – collapse. I was among them now, wet and weary and full of woe. I might as well let it all wash over me.
There had been good days, too. Walking to the sea for a bacon sarnie at the pub. Mum’s birthday lunch outside at the Ferry Cafe, her waving her walking sticks in the gentle breeze, posing for photo perfection. I’d swum again, even though it was late October, perhaps sensing that this might be the last of the sunshine for a while. I’d regretted that later. We’d pressed pause on a game of Scrabble, when I’d got the urge for a final dip of the season. Mum was winning, a triple word score and seven letter bonus. She never got to finish the game, enjoy a triumph over me. And I wonder now at this, her quitting while she was ahead, and my unwitting taking away of something precious.
We played again, six months later, after her last return from hospital. The preserved game had lain untouched under the china cabinet but somewhere along the way the letters had been jolted out of place, scattered across the uncovered carpet by the unwatched TV. Starting afresh, there was a punch of horror at the change in Mum’s words. Did it strike her, too? Is that why, though she didn’t let on to me as we both covered, sticking to a sort of pre-agreed yet improvised script, tiptoeing around terror, the hideous cluster of nonsense on the board:
‘I think you might be missing an O, Ma’
Is that why she took to her bed, a few days later, settling to a place beyond words, while I boarded a plane to work abroad for a week, unable to find the words to tell her I had gone? Both of us holding a rack of letters, things that couldn’t be spelled out.
“Do you remember?”I begin, happy now that Mum’s finally picked up. I know I’m on safe territory when referring to the distant past, especially the happy bits. “When you fell in the water?”
And I regale Mum with the familiar tale, not retold for years: how one moment she and I were in the pedalo, and the next moment she wasn’t. How I got into the water to help her out, but we were both laughing so much that help was impossible. That soon a local boat-hand sped along in a cheerful drift of ocean spray, leapt out of his own dinghy onto the back of ours and poised himself there to haul her out, arms outstretched, confident of success. That the hysteria was contagious, the force of it so strong that he ended up in the sea too; all three of us thrashing and splashing around, waving but not drowning. And that somehow we scrambled and spluttered and clutched and dripped our way back onto the bright red bobbing plastic, and laughed and cried our way to shore.
But as I tell the tale I start to doubt that’s quite how it was.
“Is that right, Mum? Did I get out of the boat? Now I look back I’m not sure I did.”
“No,” Mum says, calmly. “I don’t know what happened next, but I do remember that you didn’t get out of the boat.”
I look out at the blue above, at the seabirds circling overhead, and imagine a similar scene outside my mother’s room: a container ship on the horizon, coming home to port; white horses on the sea. She’s ten miles away on the coast, a lifetime, and no time, and all time. Her familiar breathing, close to my ear. I feel something opening in my chest.
And I open up other memories of other travels together: Mum melting under her sunhat in fifty-degrees at Karnak. Giggles about how many camels for her daughter. The insistence of the carpet men in Istanbul. The martinis that replaced her normal medication in Venice. Too much vodka and too many proseccos and the helpless mirth at the tourist show in St.Petersburg. The beauty of the White Nights.
The only journey we don’t talk about is this most recent one. The events of this past year are not distant enough to be considered safe territory, and nothing about it is – what would my mother say? Edifying.
And it stays with me, long after the call: the certain image of being in the sea with her, and the contradictory fact of staying onboard, safe and dry. Perhaps there’s a realm in which both versions are true. But perhaps the difficulty of living both scenarios at once is what our story is about.
Liam Keller currently lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He is a part-time law student and works at a pet grooming and boarding facility, writing in his spare time. He began writing during his undergraduate studies in Toronto, pursuing it more seriously over the past year, during the pandemic.