I look at the world and I notice it’s turning
It happened as I was trying to play ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’. Of the four, George has always been my Beatle. I think we could have been great friends, except for the fact that he was a Hare Krishna, which would sound a bit old-fashioned these days and probably wouldn’t be much of a big deal. But it’s understandable that the whole Indian mystical thing was cool back then. It was a novelty, different. An alternative.
I also admired George for being the quiet Beatle, with that reserved manner of someone who has taken a few steps back and become a spectator, while everyone else is croaking and hopping about like hyperactive toads. John was the guy for when I was angry. Paul was the guy for when I wanted to say good day sunshine. Ringo was the guy who’d come cheer me up when I was feeling glum, seeing as nothing could be taken seriously in Ringo’s company. And George was George, quiet – L’Angelo Misterioso. He was once asked on a TV show if he was the Beatle who got the most girls, because girls like men like that: quiet, with an air of mystery about them. George said no, of the four of them, the one who got the most girls was Paul.
It’s a bloody shame that George died so many years ago. It’s a bloody shame for John too, of course. But there’s something about the fact that George died of lung cancer, after having been cured of throat cancer – they say he suffered terribly as a result of the ‘illness’ that finally did him in, and that one day his doctor took his family (the doctor’s) to visit him and they all started singing and making a racket and George, who could barely breathe, asked them please to be quiet. Then the doctor made George autograph a guitar for his son. And George said I’m not sure I still know how to sign my name, and the doctor spelled it out for him. Come on, you can do it. G E O R . . .
Gran was eighty-two years old. She was already at a stage in her illness in which she was easily irritated, always confused, and would sometimes start a sentence and stop in the middle. It was about six months before she died and five years after she had been diagnosed.
She had lost a lot of weight and I was shocked at how thin her wrists and ankles were. Especially her ankles. She had withered overnight. And I looked at Gran and thought about George and why people have to continue living when they clearly aren’t enjoying it anymore. When evil oncologists spell out your name so you can autograph their sons’ guitars. When the person can no longer recall what they did this morning and even has a hard time recognizing their only grandson.
She didn’t like being alone, so when the woman who looked after her had the day off and Mum wasn’t home, I’d go into her room. The curtains had to stay permanently closed because she thought someone in the building opposite us was trying to spy on her, on our family. I’d explain that no one was trying to spy on us and Gran would shake her head and say, I know what they did to Cristina. Cristina died. They killed her. I didn’t know who Cristina was and she wouldn’t explain either, even when I asked. Sometimes she’d start to explain and stop in the middle, but not suddenly. Her voice would grow more and more distant like a train that you see moving away until it disappears around a bend. Or she’d cry, a quiet weeping that you could practically only identify from the shine that her tears left on her gaunt cheeks, and I never knew what to do. But soon afterwards she’d forget her face was all wet, take my hand and ask me to sit next to her. Then she’d say my how you’ve grown, Artur. The love I felt for her was a pang, a twinge in my chest, and I’d place my other hand on top of our hands and say Gran, my name isn’t Artur.
On one such occasion, I took my guitar and amp into her room, that penumbra that felt almost padded, as if the air was thicker there than elsewhere. Not that it was bad. But after a while it would begin to get weird and uncomfortable, and I’d start feeling claustrophobic and would try to convince her to come into the lounge (sometimes she’d come; sometimes I’d turn the telly on, but she never paid attention for more than five minutes). But in the beginning it was OK, it was as if I was entering Gran’s world, a cool, darker world that smelled of rose water. I could almost think like her, feel like her, share that confused space behind her face, which would sometimes be expressionless and she would look oddly similar to a shop mannequin. Except for the fact that all mannequins in all shops are twenty.
Gran, do you mind if I play something?
She looked at me and said huh?
Do you mind if I play something? I lifted my guitar a little higher.
She didn’t answer, just sighed and gazed at the window as if it wasn’t covered by a curtain and as if behind it was a melancholic English landscape.
I took that for a yes and switched on my amp, turning the volume down low. I started with ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, the base that George played when recording the White Album (Eric Clapton played lead guitar, though he isn’t formally credited on the album), humming the melody with some frayed bits of lyrics here and there.
Gran looked at me. I looked at her. I stopped playing, thinking that maybe I was bothering her. I thought about George dying and having to ask his doctor’s family to please be quiet. But she just stared at me without saying a thing.
I picked up where I’d left off. When I got to the part that goes I look at the world / and I notice it’s turning, she was smiling and bobbing her head to the music. When I finished, she said that’s my favourite.
I remember him playing that song for us that year in Rishikesh.
You know, son. George Harrison. George Harrison from the Beatles.
I remembered when Gran had said that Brazil’s former president-elect, Tancredo Neves, had been her boyfriend. Very little of what she said could be taken seriously any more. I had the impression that everything was swirling around in there as if her brain were a giant blender, and the pulp from her processing of the world was a mixture of past, present, dreams, imagination, films, books, newspaper articles, anything. She might have been the first woman to walk on the moon. She might have lived in Paris or India, been a bus driver, a famous artist, a cleaner. The only thing that wasn’t within her reach was that which her illness had already gnawed out of her mind. The rest was like a collection of items in a supermarket that you are free to take off the shelves as you please, though getting them through checkout is another story. But her illness was strange; it seemed to preserve old, grandiose facts and rob her precisely of the most useful things. Or perhaps it was a way of slowly anaesthetizing her as it pulled her away from life, day by day, hour by hour.
Did George Harrison play this song for you, Gran?
That year we spent in Rishikesh studying with His Holiness, she said.
She paused, rummaged around inside.
His Holiness, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I remember he laughed a lot.
George Harrison laughed a lot?
His Holiness laughed a lot, she said, and laughed too, and momentarily raised her hands to her chest with her palms pressed together. I had never seen Gran do that before.
Can you play any others? she asked.
Other Beatles songs?
She nodded. I played my entire repertoire, which was basically all Beatles songs, with the exception of ‘Band on the Run’, which is twenty-five per cent Beatles too. And then she asked me to help her into the living room, which was rare, and sat in her favourite armchair (in spite of everything, she never forgot which one it was, even if she sometimes couldn’t remember whether or not she liked figs or bananas). In a few minutes she was asleep.
I went to my room a little catatonic, in a mixture of religious awe and fascination with my grandmother. I confirmed the information and yes, Rishikesh was that city in India where the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram was, where the Beatles had stayed in the late 1960s and where they had composed a bunch of songs. It was incredible that Gran had managed to associate the song I had played with all that. And remembered the song, and that it was by George, and included herself in the story, to boot.
Mum arrived home from work a short time later, bringing bread with too many chemicals in it and menacing envelopes with bank logos in the corners. She dumped everything on the kitchen counter and asked how Gran was.
In the living room, having a snooze, I said. Mum, you’ll never believe the story she told me today.
I need a shower. And a painkiller for my headache. Tell me later – and in a continuous, fluid gesture, she headed for her room, tossed her bag onto the bed, then picked up some clothes that were lying around and went into the bathroom. I heard the shower being turned on, and the poor, tired, chlorinated water assumed the responsibility of washing my mother’s day away; away from her body, away from her soul.
Gran appeared in the corridor, with some of her hair coming loose from her bun, dragging her feet in the fuzzy slippers that were always a little crooked. She passed me on her way into her bedroom and opened the wardrobe.
Come here, son, she called in her small voice.
I went to the doorway.
I need to get something down from up top there. Behind those boxes.
I climbed up on the chair to reach what she wanted. I removed boxes in a variety of formats, none with an identifiable purpose in the world, and bags of musty-smelling cloth things. Until I found a soap tin and she said that’s the one, can you give it to me? Gran’s hands were outstretched and slightly shaky. She sat on her yellow bedspread like a little pixie and calmly picked through the contents of the box until she pulled out a photo of herself with George Harrison.
She handed me the photo and said Rishikesh. She mumbled some things about His Holiness and also about Cynthia Lennon. George and Gran were wearing white tunics, long hair and necklaces of saffron-coloured flowers. Gran had a red dot between her eyebrows. She could have been George’s older sister.
We spent the next afternoon playing guitar and singing, sharing stories – some true, others not, I suspected, but what did it matter? – about the Beatles. We spent many other afternoons doing this too. She told me the songs she wanted me to learn and I learned them.
Until one day, without warning and without a fuss, Gran died. I don’t know if she knew my name or if I was just a kid who played her favourite songs on the guitar, an avatar of the quartet from Liverpool’s oeuvre who had miraculously appeared in her path. A gift sent from the beyond by the Maharishi? Gran no longer needed to find logic in things or make up logic for things that didn’t appear to have any. The world was one big trip, Lucy in the sky with diamonds.
After she died, we cleaned out her wardrobe. The cotton clothes, the fuzzy slippers that were always slightly crooked on her feet. The pile of bags and boxes. Mum cried. I hugged her and, later, when there wasn’t an audience, I cried too. I kept the soap tin, which contained some unidentified treasures. Things that had made sense to Gran, things that had softened her life with the comfort of accumulation when she had innocently believed that it was forever – as we all do, more or less, death being something that happens to other people.
In the soap tin were her ID card, letters written in the calligraphy of a time when people used to study calligraphy in Catholic school, an empty perfume bottle. And some photographs: with the exception of that relic from Rishikesh, they all appeared to be family or school snapshots, young ladies who looked vaguely like characters from old films. I went back and forth through the photographs looking for more Beatles, but there was nothing.
One of them, however, caught my attention. Gran was very young. How many years ago had that scene taken place? She was holding hands with a man. It was sunny and they both had creased foreheads and even though the photo was old and faded there was no doubt: it was Tancredo Neves. I looked out her bedroom window, sitting on her bed with its yellow bedspread. The curtains were open and pigeons were wheeling through the air outside, in a strangely calm, strangely common world.
Photograph by Alan Levine