THE WRITER’S LIFE
Pam St Clement, looking like Marina, c.1951
Christmas has lost a lot of its meaning for me in recent years. It was at Christmas that I found myself out on the streets, so there are some unpleasant memories. I’m an atheist, so I’m not going to celebrate a religious occasion. For most people, Christmas is a time of over-indulgence and consumerism. Everyone’s competing to make it the best ever, wasting money on unwanted gifts and feeling obliged to have a good time. Frankly, I find the whole thing vulgar.
Sure, it’s about family and I buy gifts for my immediate family but that’s it. I don’t send cards (an expensive waste of trees) and don’t expect to receive any. Christmas day is just another day of the year and I can give gifts or write sentimental notes to people on any day. They usually mean more to the recipient because these are not gestures forced by an obligation to an occasion. It would be nice to be with the kids but they want to be at home, where their presents are and where they live. If, like my son, a Christmas gift is a new laptop, you’re going to want to be in your own home, at your own desk or wherever to set the thing up in its surroundings.
I spoke to my kids yesterday, we exchanged pleasantries and had quite a laugh. My children are intelligent, witty, charitable, humanitarian and very progressive. They’re only 12 and nine years old but they’re very mature. As such, they get why I don’t like Christmas because we’ve discussed everything frankly, honestly and openly. They know their dad is an alcoholic. They understand what that means, unlike most people older than them. They understand depression and PTSD. My children know me, because I talk to them and respect them enough to tell them the truth. They know that my breakdown was caused by drinking but they know that I was ill. That goes for my parents as well, because we’ve had the discussions. And my extended family, The Pink Hearts: Mainly young adults, intelligent enough to understand me. It really doesn’t take much but it’s beyond the ever-circling plastic police. All three of my teenage daughter-types texted yesterday to wish me a happy Christmas: Those were valuable gifts.
There were invitations this year, including one to spend the day at my parents’ house. There are still some in my family with whom I’ve not had “the conversation” but Christmas isn’t the time. As such, neither is it the time to be the elephant in the room. The mothership has enough to contend with as the host.
Most of all, I can’t celebrate a farce when there’s so much else going on in the world. It’s only one day? So is every other day. I was homeless and alone at Christmas not long ago and I remember what that’s like. Even though I’m reconciled with most of my family now, they have each other. My parents have one another and that’s the greatest Christmas gift. Others are less fortunate and that’s why I chose to spend yesterday with a lady who would otherwise have been on her own.
So I’d like to tell you a story. Even though I’m a fiction writer, this story is true. Only some of the names have been changed…
Sometimes there’s an argument for lying. Some situations make it the right thing to do:
It was through a network of old contacts that this came to be and my main role yesterday was as support for the lady’s home help, Sarah. Sarah visits Marina daily, cooks meals, does the housework and generally makes sure Marina is doing okay. My offer was to be an extra person on Christmas day, to cook a Christmas dinner for everyone. Sarah was on a schedule, so she’d have time to do everything she normally did but she wouldn’t need to worry about the cooking. The time Sarah would have spent cooking was now time she could spend relaxing a little. It meant that Marina had some company as Sarah had less than usual to do and could spend some time with her. What was I getting out of it? The knowledge that I was helping two deserving people in an immeasurable way. And the prospect of pleasant company over lunch.
Marina is 84. She lives alone in a cottage not far from me. She has dementia. Like depression, dementia is unique to the individual, because there are many mixes which the complex organ in our heads can concoct. With Marina, it’s her short and long-term memory. She’s severely sight and hearing impaired, so she speaks quite loudly. She’s very well spoken, with an accent not unlike Pam St Clement when she wasn’t playing Pat Butcher in Eastenders. But then there were lapses to a kind of Cockney accent. Add a slight Spanish lilt and you’ve got it. Which makes the fact that she’s quite potty-mouthed even more amusing. Like Pat Butcher, Marina is bejewelled and comfortably upholstered.
We had roast beef for lunch because Marina doesn’t like turkey. It’s not that she doesn’t like turkey meat, she doesn’t like turkeys. It’s not a phobia, it’s because they’re “funny-looking clucking things.” Then she adds: “I said clucking, not fucking.” She does this a lot: She’ll use a word which sounds like an expletive, then explain that she used that word and not the rude one, just so that she can say the rude one anyway. As a writer, I find just that way of talking, and the thought process behind it, fascinating. It’s the kind of small detail which makes a character on the page come to life.
I won’t betray much of what we spoke about but a couple of passages are sufficient to convey the type of dialogue that afternoon. The TV was on:
“Is that snooker?”
“No, it’s football. Highlights, I assume.”
“Oh good. I like snooker.”
“But this is football.”
“You can call it what you like. I like snooker.” Then it became apparent that it would just be easier – and actually a lot of fun – to just play along. “Who’s playing?”
“Er, Millwall. And…”
“’e’s that Scottish one ain’t ‘e? I like him. What’s his name?”
“That’s ‘im. ‘Urricane.”
“No, that was Alex.”
“Ooh, is ‘e on as well?”
“No, he’s erm…” Dead? It was easier to say, “Erm, yes.”
“What colour’s ‘e then?” Fuck sake.
“Reds. Alex is playing reds and John’s playing blues.”
John Higgins / Millwall won that one.
“Do you want to watch the Queen?”
“Why would I wanna do that?”
So that killed that one.
And so it went on. It got gradually more surreal. Because her short-term memory is affected the most, she often repeats things. Basic things, like “Who are you?” Now if you think about that, a lady in that position is open to a lot of abuse and subterfuge: An intruder could take advantage of her and her property. And one question became repetitive: “Is that you, John?”
I went to the kitchen to check on the roast and Sarah was emptying the washing machine. I asked her about John. I assumed he was Marina’s husband. Sarah told me that Marina’s husband was called Morris: A small and simple detail which made us both smile when she told me. It’s funny how you connect with a kindred spirit over something so obscure and geeky: The kind of person you’d partner for an appearance on Pointless. Marina liked Pointless as well, because “It’s got that nice big gay man on it: Stephen Fry.” Yes, I know.
Morris had left Marina a widow 15 years ago when he died of cancer aged 79. Marina is now 84. So she was 10 years’ Morris’s junior and they’d celebrated their golden wedding anniversary together. To my mind, they could have been married in 1951, when Marina was 19 and Morris was 29.
There was a black and white photo in the living room of a young lady, looking very much the young Marina I could imagine, with an American sailor: A dashing chap, if ever I’d seen one. I guessed he must be Morris. There were lots of potential scenarios. One of them would have involved Morris being in England at the end of WW2, aged around 23 and Marina being 13 or 14: The dirty old bastard, or the canny young girl? I could be wrong and there was flexibility with the dates but it was a romantic story.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t ask Marina about it. When I asked her about the photograph, she said, “Morris? Who’s he? That’s me and John, that is.”
Without complicating this story still further, with characters, dates, ages, relationships, it’s simpler if I just reveal that Sarah (the carer) told me that John was Marina’s son.
After Morris died in 2001, John continued to live with Marina. At the time of his father’s death, John was 40 years old. He’d flown the nest many times but he kept coming back to roost. The Morris Marina unit had planned to downsize when John eventually found his place but until he did, they didn’t. It was John who kept them in their old house and when Morris died, Marina had no reason to upset the status quo. So she stayed living, just on the outer reaches of this little village.
John took his own life ten years ago. Aged 45, he just went. No-one knows why, except perhaps Marina. But her memory is shattered. Everything can change, suddenly and forever.
Now it’s as though Marina has lost her long-term memory completely: She doesn’t remember Morris. Her short-term is shot to pieces as well. All she has is the medium term. As far as she’s concerned, John, her son, still visits that house. I suppose if he didn’t, it would be an even lonelier place.
The three of us sat down together for a Christmas lunch. It was more like two people with a third floating in every now and then: Pointless Sarah and me, occasionally with Marina spouting off about anything on her mind at the time: Usually random but sometimes going somewhere:
“D’yah think that Trump is one of Hitler’s?”
What!? Blonde-haired, blue-eyed, Arian, right-wing… But then she wandered off: “This is nice, John.” I’d cooked the food but I’m not John.
Further things were thrown from the left field which was Marina’s area of the table:
“I dunno. Just is.”
And off she drifted again, on roast beef and Yorkshire puds. Like a little Spanish / Portugese / English armada, floating on gravy.
With lunch over and the dishes washed, it was time for Sarah to leave. She was my lift and this was Christmas Day, so there were no alternative means of transport. A cab perhaps, if I could find one. But I didn’t really know where I was. Sarah had to leave for her next appointment. And it was then that I decided to tell a lie.
Lying has got me into trouble many times over the years. To the extent that nowadays, I simply don’t. It’s too complicated. Too many lives to manipulate, fool and insult the intelligence of. When you lie, you have to remember which version of the story you’ve told to each of the cast and then maintain many pretences. It’s simply not worth it. So why did I lie?
Why did I lie to an old lady who was one of the greatest characters it has been my pleasure to meet? Someone I’d love to stay in touch with because she’s a kindred spirit. A friend.
Because outside of that Christmas lunch (a few hours), I didn’t exist: Marina’s short-term memory would filter me out. That didn’t matter. For a few hours, I’d added something to someone’s life perhaps. Even if it wasn’t remembered, it would have been a pleasant thing at the time.
Leaving with Sarah was selfish on my part but also not: I had no other means of getting home. Marina wouldn’t remember it. She’d had a good time but now we were in the process of being forgotten. Between us we made sure that all the doors were secured in the right way, with keys left in designated places. There was milk in the fridge. There were Post-it notes on the cupboards and doors. Sarah would go back there today.
While Sarah was loading up the car, I popped in to see Marina: She was asleep in an armchair. I don’t know why but I held her hand: As a one-time opportunistic thief, something just struck me: No-one would ever be able to get Marina’s wedding ring off of her finger. The wrinkles of age had made her knuckles into sandbags. The only way to steal Morris from her would be to chop off her finger. She didn’t remember Morris.
The last thing she said to me was something she’d repeated many times that afternoon: “Is that you, John?”
Here was an old lady, who’d once been a feisty little English girl, somehow marrying an American sailor and the rest is history. Her son is history, but she doesn’t know.
Marina only has so many years. She has an elective memory. Her greatest pleasures seem to be derived from the situations she places herself in, whether consciously or not. For as long as she’s in those situations, she’s happy. She’ll forget them immediately afterwards but while she’s there, she’s where she wants to be.
So, is there such a thing as a good lie? A lie that’s right?
“Is that you, John?”
“Yes. It’s me mum.”
The way I see it (Marina can’t see beyond blurs), it was what she wanted to hear at the time. She may not wake again, or she might well do. In either case, two things are true:
I will never know. This is too much of a responsibility for me to take on. I am derelict from many other losses, without having to learn of another. Wherever Marina may be, we both have the memory. She won’t remember but she was there. If she does pass away tonight, one of her last memories will be of her son.
My own mum had said when I told her this is what I planned to do that she applauded me. I hope that when she reads this, she might see it as another Christmas gift: One which didn’t cost anything but which goes a lot further than consumer goods.
As a writer, I’ve told a story which no-one would have know otherwise. If I hadn’t done what I did yesterday, no-one would know about Marina. Now she’s immortalised. I’m sure she could tell many more stories if her marbles rolled right. For now, those stories are locked up in a brain which doesn’t work properly. The protagonist isn’t able to narrate. Her story is recorded in history and awaits discovery by later explorers.
It’s a personal life philosophy of mine: We should listen to our elders, as they won’t always be here. We should talk to the younger generation, to pass on knowledge and keep conversations going. That’s life.
A marina (from Spanish [maˈɾina], Portuguese [maˈɾinɐ] and Italian [maˈriːna]: marina, “coast” or “shore”) is a dock or basin with moorings and supplies for yachts and small boats. A marina differs from a port in that a marina does not handle large passenger ships or cargo from freighters. [Also, a ship soon to depart.]