I used to look at houses like this one from the train: behind the ivy-covered embankment, their London brick, sash windows. That was on the Euston approach. The back of this flat – that is, the bedroom, the bathroom and Edwyn’s study – looks out on the overground line, just past West Brompton.
I’ve been here for eighteen months but my boxes only recently came out of storage. Also in the consignment was my metal document case, half full of old papers, correspondence, a few photographs. I spent a long afternoon unpacking onto the new alcove shelves, deciding what to keep.
When I first moved in, and before that, when I came to visit (I think I came three times), I’d watch for Edwyn in the evenings: standing between the windows, eyeing the shadows out there. This is a short, curved terrace. Mullions and porch columns rib the way. The traffic might build at night but the pavements are never busy; the procession was thin down from Earl’s Court, until at last there he’d be: blond hair poking from a black flat cap, grey overcoat flapping, his tatty rucksack on one shoulder. In his free hand he always held a bottle by the neck, wrapped tightly in its striped plastic bag.
Lately it’s the round of coughing in the hallway that lets me know he’s home. I go out and meet him, we have a cuddle, and then I look at the Standard while he gets changed. We don’t talk much in the evenings, but we’re very affectionate. When we cuddle on the landing, and later in the kitchen, I make little noises – little comfort noises – at the back of my throat, as does he. When we cuddle in bed at night, he says, ‘I love you so much!’ or ‘You’re such a lovely little person!’ There are pet names, too. I’m ‘little smelly puss’, before a bath, and ‘little cleany puss’, in my towel on the landing after one; in my dungarees I’m ‘you little Herbert!’ and when I first wake up and breathe on him I’m his ‘little compost heap’ or ‘little cabbage’. Edwyn kisses me repeatingly, and with great emphasis, in the morning.
There have been other names, of course.
‘Just so you know,’ he told me last year, ‘I have no plans to spend my life with a shrew. Just so you know that. A fishwife shrew with a face like a fucking arsehole that’s had . . . green acid shoved up it.’
‘You can always just get out if you find me so contemptible,’ he went on, feet apart, fists clenched, glaring at me over on the settee, ‘You have to get behind the project, Neve, or get out.’
‘Get . . . behind . . . the project . . . or . . . get out! ’
‘What’s “the project”?’
‘The project is not winding me up. The project is not trying to get in my head and make me feel like shit all the time!’
He shouted this on his way to the bedroom. Twenty minutes later – hot-cheeked, I watched the time on the cooker clock – he came back.
‘I don’t suppose it would occur to you that I’m miserable . . .’ he said, glumly but scornfully.
‘But of course,’ he went on, ‘I accept, you’ve got a much more informed world view than I have! You’ve got a much deeper world view from collecting people’s glasses. You’ve got a much wider knowledge of the world, from being on the dole, in the North, of course!’
There was a lot of shouting from him, back then. Long nights when his agitation, his flinches and side glances, would coalesce into a stronger force. Might you say we were coming to an accommodation, two people who’d always expected, planned, to live their lives alone? I’d never lived with anyone before, I had no idea what it might bring out in me. Certainly I remember feeling that it was his dream world, his symbol world, that we were dragged into during those first arguments, and it frightened me, being given – as I saw it – the part of a training dummy, outfitted in colours, slogans, that I could not see.
Edwyn’s tall, over six feet, and these rooms do sometimes look too small for him. When we were rowing, especially, he’d often hunch himself up, round his shoulders, lower his head. Pacing, then pausing, as if in a spotlight, he’d soliloquise, restating his credo, which was – is – It’s freedom that counts. He’d go on to wonder, haltingly, amazedly, at how he’d boxed himself in (ending up with me in his life, he meant), and when he did address me, it was abstractly, with strange conjectures, ruminations, about what I thought, who I was. ‘I know you hate anyone who didn’t grow up on benefits,’ he’d say, and if I objected he took no notice, or didn’t notice, he only continued, talking over me with mounting scorn: ‘I know you loathe anyone who didn’t grow up in filth, on benefits.’
I used to leave my body, in a way, while this went on. It was so incessant, his phrases so concatenated: there was no way in. These were thick, curtain walls.
Edwyn has said since that he feels it’s me trying to annihilate him. Strange business, isn’t it?
The difference between us, which I did try to keep in mind, was that he really did feel himself under threat back then. At just forty, he’d had serious heart trouble. An operation. He’d had to lose a lot of weight, stop smoking. Things had settled down by the time we met, but he told me he couldn’t feel safe. Not ever again. He was also starting to suffer terribly with his joints. Fibromyalgia, as we later found out. ‘I’m paying for something,’ he’d snarl, cornered. Or sometimes he’d just sit and sob, and look up at me with frightened eyes when I sat next to him.
Edwyn grew up near Isleworth, an only child. He showed me the house once, the green he used to play on. We walk up that way most Saturdays, unless it’s raining: taking the river path, crossing over at Putney. We hold hands, stop to feed the cruising ducks and coots, admire the doughtier dogs we see. I do like hearing about Edwyn when he was small. He was a worried little boy, he tells me, when he was three, and four, scared to leave his mother. But then he did used to race to wave at the trains that passed his garden. ‘I was rushing towards life!’ he says. Later, there was the Nature Club he founded at school, to which he would admit helpers, but no other members. Well, how could he trust them? One early romantic error stays with me, too: how he gave half an Easter egg each to the two girls in his class who liked him, terrified of alienating either one by preferring the other. ‘No, they didn’t think much of that,’ he told me, earnestly, eagerly, ‘I went from two girls to no girls!’
Sundays have always been for work. I take the settee. Edwyn brings his papers down from his study. With the last of a glass of wine, and always a bunched-up tissue or two (in his office they call him ‘The Kleenex Kid’, he says), he sits bracketed to the dining table. Also before him is the church candle we light while we eat, and the tin the matchbox is kept in, labelled allumettes. Sometimes the curled fingers on his right hand lift like piano hammers, I suppose.
I remember: the sky’s cold threat. Dishrag clouds, leaking light. And passing Garston: ramifying terraces. Wet slates. Smashed flags.
Lime Street was still under construction: plastic sheets patched the roof, and dripped; the concourse was diminished. My mother stood when she saw me, collected her bags. I stooped to kiss her cold, downy cheek and at that she bared her teeth, lifted her chin.
On the corner of Renshaw Street, the CASHINO was new. In its foil-ribbon window sat a white china tiger, gold-striped, long-necked, and with a clean-toilet gleam. Otherwise, here were the same immemorial chip shops, the sooty junk shops, with their racks of Crimplene costumes, mangy stoles. It was six months since my last visit. Back then my mother had linked arms with me on this stretch; she’d gripped my sleeve and leant in. I hadn’t brushed her off, exactly, but it hadn’t taken, and she didn’t try it now. This was mid-December, a weekday afternoon. We walked quickly, pushing against the sniping wind. Or at least, I thought I was walking at her pace.
‘Slow down! Slow down, Neve! Don’t zoom off. I’m a pensioner now. I can’t sprint everywhere!’
With a sort of proud helplessness she stopped and stood her ground; stoutly in her winter coat, which was ankle-length, grey-green, padded in rings. Her being ‘a pensioner’, ‘an old lady, now’, was a favoured new plea, back then. When she first retired, she said she felt lost. She said so often, if coyly. No one was interested, of course, and hence this new tack. Now she was kitted out. She had her Saga subscription, she told me, and she was vivacious on the subject of her new shopping trolley: ‘No, Neve, it’s brilliant, for a pensioner!’
‘Shall I take some of those bags?’ I said. ‘What’s in them?’
‘Oh. Just, different things. Things you might be interested in. Since you refuse to come to the house I have to bring everything out with me, don’t I?’
We were going to the cinema. There was a cafe on Bold Street where she wanted to get a drink first, she said, a new tea room, but as we turned the corner, she stopped again.
‘Oh . . . shit,’ she said, and then she stepped back into a doorway.
‘What is it?’
‘Tss . . . Someone I don’t want to see. Old boyfriend.’
She pressed her shoulder against the shutter, turned further away.
‘Really? When from?’
‘A few years ago. Before Rodger.’
‘Is he going to walk past?’
‘No. I think he was going in a shop, but – wait a second. Just wait, Neve. Just wait, please . . . Okay, yes, come on, let’s go quickly. Come on, and try and look engrossed in conversation. Look animated, Neve!’
She took my arm now, as we steamed away, so here was her face again, crowned with her red fleece cloche, banded by her purple-framed glasses, smiling purposefully up at me.
‘This is nice,’ I said, as we slid along the blond wood benches. I wiped a port in the steamed-up window, while she arranged her bags next to her, then her hat, her scarf, her too-big thermal gloves.
‘Yes. I’ve been in here before. I don’t usually like going in places on my own, places I don’t know, but I’d been past a few times and it seems nice, doesn’t it? Friendly.’
We ordered a pot of green tea each, and then both stood up again to take off our coats.
‘So what boyfriend was that?’
‘Oh. Well – it was after I moved to Catherine Street, do you remember I went out with that Jewish man, Simon, for a while, with the ponytail? No? Well I did. But after him I started seeing that man, Greg, and, yes, we went out a few times, oh but I could never ring him, you know, because he was so busy, I had to wait for him to ring me, or – big trouble. Big troub. Anyway – I didn’t even like him very much. He repaired sash windows and he was quite open with me that he ripped people off. No shame about that. I’ve warned quite a few people since then, who’ve mentioned they’re having their windows done, I say, Well, whatever you do, don’t get Greg Martin to do it, he’ll rip you off. Anyway, so he did ring me one afternoon and he dumped me, you see, and then even though I hadn’t been out with him that often and I didn’t like him very much I sort of – yes, I did get very upset about that, and ended up writing him this letter, which I regret now, so . . .’
‘Mm . . . Yes. And – no, he’s not a very nice man, as it turned out, so . . .’
Her hair was chin-length then: thick, grey, limp. Behind her glasses her wide-set eyes looked frightened. She even looked frightened when the waitress set down our teapots, which were transparent and had a plunger.
‘How do we get the tea out?’ she whispered, as the girl moved off. ‘Oh no! Come back!’
‘I thought you’d been here before.’
‘Oh, yes, well, I couldn’t work it then either!’
Back in the summer she’d had a birthday M&S voucher she said she wouldn’t use: did I want it? I did. She’d started her turn then as we crossed the floor to Hosiery: surrounded, as we were, by strange statuary. My mother blenched extravagantly at the gussied-up torsos, blinking hard like someone had flashed a torch in her eyes, saying she couldn’t understand why anyone would buy, wear, matching underwear.
‘Yes, it’s such a relief I never, ever have to do any of that again,’ she said. ‘Yuck yuck yuck. Just – no. I can’t even bear it in films now. I have to close my eyes!’
My mother went to the pictures a lot, back then, always to FACT, Liverpool’s new cinema-gallery-cafe. I was often surprised by what she saw. I think she saw whatever they put on. As to what she thought of these films: hard to say. Her opinions were offered so cautiously. She might say something had been ‘too long’ or ‘so violent!’ I always felt terrible when she said, of something she’d looked forward to, and with only just a shade less brightness to her voice, that it had been: ‘Not what I expected.’ That even became a sort of sad catchphrase between Edwyn and me for a while, which I felt guilty about, slightly queasy about, sometimes. Once he asked me, ‘Does everything your mother tries end in disaster?’ Which made me feel desperate! But those were the stories she told me, so that’s what I’d pass on. I didn’t overdo that (I hope), but sometimes we swapped confidences. Once, when I first came to stay, when we were lying in bed. I don’t know what prompted that discussion, of his mother on the loo.
‘I used to hear these dreadful noises in the morning,’ Edwyn said. And pleating his lips, and narrowing his eyes, to more precisely recall, so that his eyebrow quills stood rampant, he said, ‘Gurgling and spluttering. Like bad plumbing. Which it was, I suppose. Her grossly over-functioning digestion! The thundering waterfall of her first piss! Terrifying. I thought bodies were terrifying. But then’ – wistfully – ‘puberty did its work – soon I couldn’t wait to get up there!’
I told him:
‘I have memories of my mum on the toilet, too. Noises in the night. She had IBS. Stress-induced. I heard her crying once and got up and found her sitting with her nightie all gathered up between her knees. She said, “Leave me, please, go back to bed Neve! Just leave me!” And there were these little splutters. In the morning I wondered if I’d dreamt it.’
‘Oh dear. Poor old thing. “Just leave me.” ’
‘Mmm . . . Well, she wasn’t old then. She was my age. No. A bit older . . .’
I’d thought about that night when she got married again, too. She had a nasty hangover on her wedding day. When I got to her flat that morning she was quailing in a corner of the settee, and retching, and sobbing, a bucket with some Dettol in it at her feet.
In FACT my mother queued for our tickets, smiled as she showed her membership card. In the cinema, she moved along the row. Reaching the middle, she stopped and put all of her bags down on the seat to her left, between us, and then she started un-popping the poppers on her coat.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Where am I going to sit?’
‘Oh. No. I can’t sit next to people.’
‘Hey? We’ve come together. We always sit together . . .’
Here she showed her teeth again, looked cornered, angry.
‘No. No. I always go on my own!’
How did it come to that?
Remember. Soon after they were married. That dusty old pub. I was in town to see Kerrigan, but she’d been badgering me to give her her old keys back, and I kept forgetting to post them. She was going to meet Rodger and his friends for a drink, she said, in the Crown. His ‘artist friends’, she called them, and they proved easy to spot: a raucous group of men, in paint-scabbed fishermen’s jumpers. My mother wasn’t quite sitting with them, though, but on a low stool a few feet behind Rodger. She wore a familiar expression; too eager, half sly, while no one spoke to her, or looked at her. She held her empty half-pint glass up by her chin, and grinned hopelessly. Kerrigan was waiting outside, I told her I couldn’t stop, but still, bravely, and to little effect, when I crouched down next to her, she said, ‘Everyone, this is my daughter.’
It must be a dreadful cross: this hot desire to join in with people who don’t want you. This need to burrow in. But then – perhaps I’m not one to talk. A year later, I was buying tickets for a preview of Terence Davies’s new film: in Liverpool, so I asked if she wanted to come. ‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘And am I allowed to bring Rodger?’
Of Time and the City ends with fireworks dashing skywards, pop-pop-pop, raining blue sparks over the Pier Head. The voiceover says:
Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; good night, good night, good night . . .
Following the producers up onto the stage, Davies took his bow and I clapped hard. I was deeply moved by his flushed face, his clasped hands. Here was an artist to the tips of his fingers, and he’d been treated so shabbily, so disgracefully. He’d said somewhere, ‘I lost all hope.’ Wouldn’t you call that sickening?
Later, as we were standing to leave, as I was getting my bag from under the seat, my mother said, ‘Oh well it’s all very well for him going on about Liverpool, but he doesn’t live here any more does he! And what’s with that Donald Sinden voice?’
She was looking to Rodger.
‘Don’t be squalid, Mum.That was a beautiful work of art.’
She pulled a face now. An indignant face: mouth gaping. She put a hand to her chest.
Rodger yawned, in his horse-ish way. Again, he didn’t look at her, but pronounced, finally, as he zipped his coat. ‘Not art. Fart.’
Rodger was a painter. He’d taught for years at the College of Art.Elsewhere, I’d asked my mother what she thought of his work, which hung throughout his house.
‘Oh well I’m not allowed an opinion you see, not having been to art school,’ she said. ‘My opinion’s worthless apparently, so . . . but I think they’re all crap, yes. Absolute crap, so . . .’
‘Have you told him that?’
‘Oh he doesn’t listen to what I say!’
Edwyn and I got married recently. Against both of our instincts, I think, but undertaken on his solicitor’s advice, all part of putting his affairs in order. Everyone named in his previous will being dead, as he put it, and he wanted to take care of me. ‘Do something useful,’ he said. We went to the register office in Chelsea. A small, sunny room. An old wooden desk. There were no guests, just the two witnesses. Afterwards, outside, Edwyn had one of them take some photos on his phone. It was the hottest, driest day. Blazing sun. Nonetheless Edwyn had brought his umbrella out with him, so in each shot he’s holding that, or leaning on it. In the last snap he’s using it to point the way: a thin, black signal, down to the river for a drink.
That was in June. We didn’t go away. We were due to drive down to Devon, but Edwyn’s condition flared up, and he couldn’t face the journey. Instead he stayed in bed for three days, then went back to work, desperately unhappy, difficult to soothe.
Those were a tough few weeks. Every day dawned humid, sticky. No cooling gusts on Cromwell Gardens. The thunder only proclaimed itself. I used to sit here with the windows open, the blinds down. Just me and the flies: quick-quick-slow, in the well of the room.
I had nowhere to be. In term time I’d be teaching on Wednesdays and Thursdays. (I didn’t miss that.) And then on Friday afternoons I used to see a psychotherapist. Miss Moore – Amy – was based in Gospel Oak, in the Ford Road Serenity Centre, an old deaf school, I believe, now a warren of treatment rooms; long corridors lined with crowded noticeboards and empty coat pegs. I saw her for seven months, but gave my notice a few days before the wedding, finally overwhelmed by the powerfully childish sense of drag which had started to get into me, almost as soon as I sat down with her; before I sat down, when I set off from home.
I felt good as I left the last session, at least; delivered into my old silence, walking down the hill. I was glad to get the time back. Not incidentally, I was glad to save the money. I thought about the things I could do with it, as I waited for the tube, and then as I stood at the end of the carriage, swaying in the hot, rushing air.
Edwyn got in that night, as usual, at about half past eight. He called out, ‘Phew, bloody hell!’ as he climbed the stairs, and looked nice when he appeared on our landing, with his sunglasses dangling and his hair damp; his blue linen shirt untucked, but sticking to his round stomach and his back.
‘Hello!’ I said.
‘What’s all this?’
‘It’s detritus. I’m sorting things out.’
I stood up and took the wastepaper basket into the kitchen. Edwyn still had his rucksack on. He stood with his mouth slightly open, recovering from his walk.
‘You’re not going to leave that there are you?’
‘No, I’m just emptying this.’
‘Do you have to have the blinds down?’
‘I do. But you can open them now.’
I stood at the sink, washing the dust from my nails. Soon enough Edwyn was behind me, looking at what I’d made for tea, giving it a creaturely sniff.
‘Are you okay?’ I said, ‘Let’s have a cuddle now.’
‘Hm . . . Yes, I’m okay. I think I will have to avoid the Central line till the weather breaks, though.’
‘Oh dear. Yes, go a different way. Poor thing. Prr prr. You smell nice.’
‘Don’t I smell horrible and sweaty?’
‘No, I like it. Prr prr. Lovely Mr Pusskins.’
‘Lovely Mrs Pusskins! Prr prr.’
Artwork © Daniel Gordon, Red Face III, 2011