Category: Relationships

I married a Muso

We are at a beer and music festival, and our ears are assaulted by the wonderful noise of Stuart Turner and the Flat Earth Society. I am somewhere between ‘Wow, this is amazing’ and ‘When will it stop?’ – I think this is what the band are aiming for. I find just the right description for it, and Tweet: ‘The Medway version of the Wall of Sound @stfes’. My husband Bob leans towards me and says, ‘You can’t hear [guitarist] Bob Collins’. ‘Go and speak to the sound man,’ I say. He looks uncomfortable. ‘They don’t like it when people do that.’

He squirms a little longer, then heads off to the speak to the sound man.

Our wedding cake, decorated with poetry and a guitar

Just as our ears are recovering and we have refreshed our glasses – Wantsum bitter for him, Dudda’s Tun elderflower cider for me – a lone guitarist takes the stage, Darren Hayman. He decides the stage itself is not intimate enough, and steps off the low blocks with his mic stand, into the audience. From the little I have learned from being married to a musician, and the buzz of feedback, I know this is not a good move, sound-wise. ‘He’s given the sound man a headache,’ Bob says, ‘With the mic in front of the speakers.’ I nod. The sound man does his best, and marital and musical harmony are restored.

Before we met, I knew that Bob was a musician. His profile shot on Dating Direct showed him leaning on a guitar. On the third date, he brought his guitar with him and sang to me in my living room. He was a member of several bands at that time. I called him a musical tart, as he’d pick up his guitar for anyone that asked. I wondered, when I first went to see him play, why the band’s other wives and girlfriends weren’t there. I soon learned that having a muso for a partner meant arriving hours before the gig and sitting at a sticky pub table, alone, while they set up, played, then packed up the equipment.

At our wedding – not so much a reception as a music festival – I had to remind Bob not to spend all evening on stage with the various bands that he played in. I decided, in the end, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, as I grabbed the tambourine someone threw in my direction and joined in with backing vocals on ‘Fisherman’s Blues’.

We don’t go to many gigs together, but when we do, I know that Bob wants to be close to the stage to see the guitar work. I often indulge this, bagging second row tickets for Loudon Wainwright III and Richard Thompson (billed as Loud and Rich) at the SouthBank. Front row tickets for Martyn Joseph at Whitstable Playhouse proved too much for my poor neck, head tipped back to see the man with the guitar on the high stage. We moved seats after the interval, causing Joseph to remark on the empty seats, and I, with some embarrassment, shouted out that we had only moved further away.

Let’s also talk musical taste. Bob and I don’t always agree. Martyn Joseph is not my cup of tea; Bob adores him. I have fallen asleep at two Martin Simpson gigs (technically brilliant; does nothing for me). I had a wider musical education than Bob, starting with the Irish bands played on the Dansette at home, through a love affair with Motown and Soul, exposed to ska and reggae by my siblings, and finally coming to heavy rock via my school friends. Punk was not my thing at the time (a kind of tribalism at play), but I later came to love it. The folk thing came a lot, lot later, and was what attracted me to Bob when I saw his profile on the dating site and sent him a message: ‘Are you a folk bloke? You’ve got the beard for it.’ Which he ignored for several months, leaving me thinking I had offended him.

Bob looks blankly at me when an old song comes on the radio that I identify within a few bars. (Who needs Shazam when you live with me?) Bob was pretty much a folk and Prog fan all along.

There is much we agree on, music-wise, though. Including that we don’t like jazz. Before Bob, I had a boyfriend who loved jazz. I went along to jazz sessions and gigs with him. Lovely people, the jazz audience, very friendly. Lovely man, too, the boyfriend. Trouble was, I couldn’t stand the music. I turned to the boyfriend after several minutes of what I’d describe as musical wanking, and said, ‘So what’s wrong with the 3-minute pop song?’ At a whole day of the goddamned stuff, a festival in a marquee by the river Medway, I stepped outside for a break and contemplated throwing myself in the river rather than returning to that tent and watching the admittedly skilful musician play two saxophones at once. Let’s just say, nice man, but the relationship was doomed.

One more thing about being at a gig with a muso – he just wants to be on stage with the other musicians. He’ll say, ‘They could do with a bass player,’ or the like. I know that, if he were invited to take an instrument and join in, he would leave me in the audience and do it. Our date night would become his gig night.

Bob only plays with the one band now, Acoustic Architects. Though he is quick to find other musicians wherever he goes. He left me for a good half hour recently, when he discovered the man running the Kent Wildlife Trust stall at a local event was also a musician. They exchanged numbers, and within a week Bob was off to the man’s house, guitar, mandolin and mandola in tow.

Shall I tell you a secret?

Shall I tell you a secret? How weighted that phrase is. If I tell you a secret I am relieving some of the weight from my shoulders and bestowing it on yours. What would you do with that secret? Like the man from the story who had to shout into the ground, ‘The King has donkey’s ears’, as he couldn’t hold the secret any longer, secrets can rarely be buried.

Notebooks full of secrets

Notebooks full of secrets

I’ve been thinking a lot about secrets in the weeks since my mother’s death. Our family was and is full of secrets. My siblings and I were told, as children, not to talk about things outside the house, things that happened at home. We also didn’t talk about secrets amongst ourselves. Over the years, some secrets have oozed out, secrets some would know about and not others. ‘Don’t tell your father’ was a regular phrase we heard from our mother, often followed by, ‘It’d kill him.’ So the lesson was secrets can kill.

I am writing this, for once, without drafting by hand, in my notebook full of secrets. Without reflection, research and careful thinking. I want to watch myself. Who knows what could slip out. Whom I might kill.

I carried secrets for years, under threat of killing or harming others. The result was that I harmed only myself, and when I did speak those secrets, guess what? Nobody died. But people fell silent. Or blurted for a while before it was all zipped up again. Or told me I was to stop upsetting people by speaking my truth.

Notice I’m not telling you the secrets. There is still a chance that people might die (though not my father; he is long gone; nor my mother; recently departed).

I did not go public about my mother’s death on social media. It was a secret. Mine. But I have let the secret out little by little to those who know the bigger secrets, some of whom have secrets of their own they have shared with me. Some who, like me, have spoken their truths and found the truth was not a welcome guest.

Leaving and going back

 

9780992648510-Perfect-MH-cropped-FRONT-COVER-with-outer-edgeLeave-taking was not dealt with well, when my mother left Ireland for England, carrying a suitcase bearing two of everything. When one of many leaves, are they missed? Or was it one less soul to worry about when she, the eldest of fourteen, left?

My own leave-taking was dealt with badly. I remember my bags piled in the hall, awaiting an uncle to drive me to the halls of residence. My mum and dad were not there, and I don’t recall any of my siblings saying goodbye in a way any different to if I was going out for an evening.

I think my mother couldn’t cope with me leaving, so avoided it. Every time I came home for a weekend, I would leave on a Sunday evening, and she would be sitting in her chair, watching telly, unable to see me leave or wish me well with my life away from home. She did not know how to say goodbye, nor did she know how to grieve, or to teach any of us how to do so. Funerals back home in Ireland were not attended, even that of her own mother, and the pain was held within.

For the Irish that made that brave journey from their homeland to England, in the 1940s, 50s and beyond, their travelling often ended where they landed. For my parents, they landed in Epsom, where jobs awaited, and stayed there. So did many of their fellow countrymen and women. So, many of the Irish friends and neighbours I knew as a child are yet living in the same houses as they were  50 or 60 years ago. Now they leave in wooden boxes, set for their last Mass at St Joseph’s church, and on to be buried, as is not the fashion these days, but that is what Irish Catholics of that generation did and do. They bury and are buried, the mourners wear black, and the coffin is borne on the shoulders of the men of the next generation, or the generation below them.

So it was with my Auntie Joan a few days ago – come to Epsom from Valencia in Co. Kerry in the early 1950s, she met and married a man from Sligo, Jack, who knew my dad. In turn, Joan and my mother became friends, and we always thought of Joan and Jack as relatives.

Joan arrived in church last Friday, carried by men that included one of my brothers,  to the sound of my other brother playing ‘Danny Boy’ on the violin – a song of leave-taking.

I saw a group of Irish women in a pub in Margate two years ago. I tuned in to their voices, watched their eighty-plus-year-old heads, dyed black and red. The conversation never lagged. They spoke of parish priests, of sick friends, of those that came on the outing last year, but had taken their leave in the past twelve months. They were from an Irish club somewhere in London. They said the younger Irish don’t come along to their club, to their annual trip, where they lunch at the same pub each year. I could see that their outing would not happen in five or six years time. They would all have taken their leave.

And so it is with that generation of Irish parents, uncles, aunts and neighbours. Taking their leave, depleting the ranks of the Irish that arrived in the middle of the last century. Soon, we will be the older generation, that second generation of children born in England to Irish parents. Left to tell the stories that were told to us, or to write them down in books, as I have done.

I lived in Epsom for the first third of my life, and returned regularly for the second third. The past third has been a time of illness, for me, and a rift with some of my family. For reasons too intimate to go into here, I vowed not to return to that ‘home’, where my mother and eldest brother still live. But never isn’t always forever, and I returned to the town, if not the house I grew up in, for Joan’s funeral a few days ago. Things seemed smaller than I remembered; the town had changed. Yet I was recognised immediately as I entered the church, as ‘a McCarthy’, and was soon caught up in childhood memories at the wake, and in meeting some old friends that I hadn’t seen since I left home at nineteen.

My mother is frail now, and showing signs of dementia. Her time on this earth is not long. Many of her younger siblings have gone, and now her best friend, Joan.

It took me a long time to leave home in my head, in my being – many years after my physical leave-taking. For my mother and Joan, for my father and Jack, they settled in a foreign country, yet always remained Irish. I don’t where I really belong; I never have. But I have been back and settled a place in my mind that has loomed large for all my life.

My story collection, As Long as it Takes, is about Irish women and their daughters living in England. I asked Maggie Drury to draw me an image of two women linking arms for the book cover. These women could be Mary, my mother, and Joan, her best friend.

Footnote: My mother died a few weeks after her friend, Joan. Mary Catherine O’Halloran McCarthy, born 29 June 1931 in Ennistymon Co Clare, Died 2 March 2018 at a hospital near her home in Epsom.

Taking Reg’s remains to the dump

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Christmas past, with Reg’s ‘mushroom table’ beneath the tree

I went to the dump today, with the remains of my father-in-law. More accurately, I drove to the dump. My first drive in a while, and my first in many years in the towns where I used to live, and where I will soon live again.
Anxious about many things at present, and always anxious about driving, it took me a few attempts to reverse into a space, failing to get the car into reverse gear, and fearful that there would be men sniggering at me, and rolling their eyes. My imagination, of course. After attempting to get my husband to swap places, so he could perform the manoeuvre, he roundly told me that I would only get less nervous if I drove more often, and I deftly parked soon after.
I did not look behind me at the items in the back seat, the footwell, of the car. The green office chair, which had never been that comfortable, did not concern me. But the remains of my father-in-law did. Small, wooden items made by Reg Bradley, father-in-law from my first marriage. Little stools that he had made for my daughters when they were toddlers; a tile-topped low bench, which had served as a bedside table in the house we are leaving, and before that as a … what did we use it for? … in the house I lived in before, for twenty years, and where I raised my daughters.
Reg’s creations were square, sharp-cornered. Tights were often snagged, shins bruised. They were solid, well-made, and put together in his shed from timber bought for a song at auctions. They were popular amongst our friends, back in ’80s. They would say, ‘Would he make me one? I’ll pay him for it,’ and he’d make a coffee table, and only charge a fiver for it. Not much more than the cost of the wood, nails and glue that had gone to make it.
He made me a sewing box on legs for Christmas, one year. It had an insert, set in the top, with compartments lined in green baize. Win, my mother-in-law, added in a box of pins, a magnet for collecting pins, should they be spilled, a tape measure, and other sewing essentials.
Our flat, when the girls were tiny, and later our house, when they had grown a little, was filled with Reg’s woodwork. Reg did not live to see us in that house, in which he would have spent visits hammer in hand, workbench set up in the back yard. But he died of a heart attack (his second) in the time between us finding the house and moving into it.
When my first husband and I separated, we were each left with Reg Bradley coffee tables, tile-topped. The one that remained in the house where I stayed, with my girls, had bottle-green tiles on top with a mushroom motif, and was known as ‘the mushroom table’. Long after our daughters had outgrown the little stools, they were used as plant-stands, or to place coffee cups on, next to the armchair. One of them had ingenious, crossover legs, which allowed the stool to be collapsed flat; often when a child was sitting on it.
We are now in an in-between place, my second husband and I. We have nearly sold the house we have lived in for more than eight years, and have not quite bought another. In a strange symmetry, my husband has had a heart attack in this in-between space, as Reg did twenty-nine years ago. Though my husband has survived.
Time to let go of Reg. No reason to keep his remains. Many items have gone over the years: my sewing-box-on-legs; my daughter’s wooden Tardis with a torch inside that shone a light through the plastic dome in the top; the mushroom table (offered to my ex-husband, who had quite enough of Reg’s tables already). The dark-stained bathroom cabinet, later painted white, which was left in the house I once shared with Reg’s son and his granddaughters.
I did catch a glance, in the rearview mirror, of the stool with the collapsing legs, before my husband took it, and Reg’s other remains, to the relevant skip. I knew it was time to let them go. Hoping that someone might pick them up, those little stools and that tile-topped bench, and take them home.

Coercive control: how could this happen to us?

I was talking to my husband this morning, about an old boyfriend. The memories were happy, funny, and from a very long time ago. It brought me back to a time when I could not easily do that – share such memories, such thoughts – with a previous partner, without being accused of … mental unfaithfulness, I suppose you could call it.

I am feeling brave today. There have been times I have thought about writing a blog post such as this, and have shied away through fear. The last time I mentioned this man, not naming him or identifying him in any way, I was contacted by his present wife, threatening ‘libel, defamation of character’. She tried to comment on my post (comments are moderated by me) and sent me a Facebook private message. It mentioned that she had also read my Tweets. I have changed my surname since I knew him, and it has been more than 10 years since our short relationship ended, and yet he was following my blog.

The brief details are, and it helps to write this in the third person, a lonely woman, a single parent, goes on a dating website. She is about to remove her profile, fed up of the cattle market aspect of it all. Just before she does so, a message arrives from a man. They exchange messages for an evening, until she says she is off to bed. The next morning, the man has left several more messages, and wants to know where she went to, why she didn’t stay up to talk online with him. He wants to meet quickly. She doesn’t want to just yet, but agrees to it. They exchange emails, talk on the phone, and text constantly, until they meet for the first time.

She goes away on a pre-arranged holiday, to stay with a friend. He calls her on the friend’s landline, texts her all the time, and he persuades her to cut her holiday short. He drives to collect her from the friend’s house. His attention is constant. She likes the attention, at first.

Within a few weeks, they plan for him to move in to her house, and he does so, a couple of months after meeting. On the very first night, there is an argument because she makes a remark about how different the house looks. He has persuaded her to get rid of a lot of her furniture, so that he can move his in. Some of this happens when his ‘man and van’ arrives, and he has brought his sofa and says that she can get rid of hers, that the van will take it away.

He gets angry when she does not reply quickly to his texts. Gets angry quite a lot, in fact. She is confused by the loving, then the anger. His anger is not physical; he just talks and talks in a slightly raised voice. He is a good arguer, and she is left feeling that she has indeed done something wrong. That he is right. Like the time that she goes out, for two or three hours, with a couple of female friends, and is met by anger about her being late (it is 9.30 p.m. when she gets home). He throws questions at her, like, ‘How many lovers do you have?’ He accuses her of having a sexual relationship with a male friend.

She is in love; her friends have all noticed how happy she is, how different. She thinks she is in love. She has not had time or space to think for herself since this man came into her life.

A few months later, having planned a wedding to this man, she says that she wants to put the date back. There are good reasons for this, and what is the rush, in any case? He is furious, says he is leaving, that he has been brought there under false pretences. Look at all the things he has given up for her.

She is confused. She begs him to stay. He withdraws his love and attention, his constant contact with her, and she can think for herself again. She then realises that she wants him to leave. In a few weeks, he does so, taking his furniture, his washing machine, his TV. She hides in the bedroom as the van loads, emptying the house. He leaves his key. He leaves without saying goodbye. He refuses to tell her where he is moving to. He asks her to forward his mail to his place of work.

A few weeks later, she emails him about a big bill that has arrived, covering the time he was living with her. He refuses to pay anything towards it. He writes, ‘You are the most selfish woman I have ever met.’

He crops up again, some two years later. He sends her a letter, apologising. He says that he realised that they would not make good marriage partners, early on, and should have said so. He also says sorry for leaving her in a bad financial situation when he left, and that he could have made this right. He is writing this letter to ‘make amends’, as a recovering alcoholic. There is no return address, no contact details of any kind. She is thrown into a panic by this letter. She does not know what to do with it. She sets it in the sink, lights a match, and burns it.

This woman has friends and family who have been through similar experiences. Some with physical violence. One family member describes it as, ‘Like leaving a cult,’ when she left her abusive marriage. Another friend uses a pseudonym on social media, as her ex-boyfriend is monitoring her online presence.

We don’t always talk about it, those of us who have experienced what is now termed as Coercive Control, what is now recognised as a crime. There is a chance we will not be believed. We often appear to be in happy and loving relationships. We are intelligent people, known for standing up for ourselves. How could this happen to us?

 

 

Now there are more than Fifty Ways to Leave

We’ve all had break-ups. There’s the ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ scenario; there is often blame and recriminations of the other party, sometimes self-blame, whereby we examine what we have done wrong. There is usually some discussion, argument, sorting out of stuff – who owns the CDs, who gets custody of children and pets, a splitting of finances.

But what about friendships? In these days of social media, cut-offs can be swift and devastating. How easy it is to ‘unfriend’, to ‘block’ without discussion, leaving things unsaid, things unsorted.

When I think of friends I’ve left behind, they fall into different camps. We have moved apart physically, geographically, changed jobs, changed schools, just don’t get the chance to hang out anymore. I had my children when I was young, and lost many friends who were getting started on their careers whilst I was negotiating nappies. Natural progressions, my former mental health nurse called it when I mourned people I was losing at a time of great change, when chronic illness came into my life. I used to find it harder to let go than I do now.

There are friendships that end in a row. In hindsight, there were things wrong with those friendships from the start. I’ve examined why those people and I became involved. Was it that circumstances pushed us together when we had little in common? Were those things we had in common harmful?

Some friendships end with confusion. A friend I had been close to for many years suddenly starved me of contact. My emails, phone calls and texts all went unanswered. There was no incident before this, no indication of what was to come. Six or so years after she broke contact, I remain baffled as to what I might have done. It was painful for a long time, then I became angry. It was cruel to treat a friend that way. I deserved an explanation.

I am an explainer. I broke up with a very long term friend once. He had been around for so long, I accepted how things were between us, until new friends said, ‘Why do you let him treat you that way?’ I’d shrugged off some very unacceptable behaviour in the past, but when I came to look at your relationship, I actually didn’t like having him around. So I wrote to him and effectively ‘broke-up’ with him. He was hurt and didn’t see what he had done wrong, but there was no other way to do it.

Recently, I ‘unfriended’ someone on Facebook. Someone I have been fond of, but their comments on my threads were so much in opposition to my own thinking I couldn’t tolerate them anymore. Attempts at discussion went nowhere. It helps that I rarely see this person in real life; I know it will be awkward when I do.

I have been ‘unfriended’ twice in recent weeks, each time without discussion, though I can guess at the reasons. Both ‘unfriends’ are people I know very well, in whom I have confided in real life, and they have confided in me. These are acts of hurt and anger, which feel irreparable. In days gone by, they might have slammed doors or slammed down phones, or perhaps not spoken of their hurts. They might have kept away for a while; we would have made it up. But there is something final about wondering where your friend has gone, the friend that always ‘Liked’ or commented on your Facebook posts, only to discover that you have been ‘unfriended’, even blocked.

I can psychologise here. Perhaps these people grew up in atmospheres where it was not safe to discuss things openly. Perhaps there is a family history of cutting people off. Indeed, this is the case in my own family – aunts not spoken to for twenty years, people ignored in the street. It’s a strategy I have used, a learned strategy. Self-protection was an issue in some instances; in others, a lack of self-awareness as to what I was doing. It’s never to late to say sorry, I have found, and some of my previously cut off relationships have been restored, years after a break. True friends forgive.

Paul Simon wrote ‘There are fifty ways to leave your lover’. With social media and texts, there are even more. Separation and divorce involve a painful division of possessions, shared space, shared bodies. Friendship break-ups could, perhaps, go through the same process. It would help with the grief, allow people to eventually pass in the street, to think that was someone I was once close to, to wave and move on.

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